Fake news and fake hadith: Identifying and handling Coronavirus misinformation

Fake news and misinformation about Coronavirus has mushroomed in various forms: 

  • numerous conspiracy theories
  • concocted health advice
  • unofficial figures of the death toll and the number of infected people
  • controversial and conflicting video clips of religious speakers

These serve no other purpose except to create panic and anxiety. In the old days, one needed to look for a partner to gossip with. But now, with the advent of the internet and social media, you can easily do it alone from your own cell phone.

This is why it is crucial to remember Islamic guidance on identifying fake news, and how to avoid spreading it. 

Do not spread news without first verifying it

Verification of news has been given due importance by God Almighty and in Islamic law. Allah says the following in the Quran:

“O you who believe! If a person of bad character brings you any news, verify it, lest you should harm people in ignorance, and afterward you become regretful for what you have done”  (Quran 49:6).

The Quran says emphatically that we must verify reports and not rush to pass on news until we are sure that it is true, even if the news is good news. This is because if it becomes apparent that the one who passed it on is mistaken, s/he will lose credibility before the people, and anyone who bears a grudge towards him/her will use it against them.

 Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him

The Prophet, in a number of narrations, warned against those who spread misinformation. Some examples:

  1.  “It is enough for a man to be considered a liar for him to repeat everything that he hears” (Recorded by Muslim).
  2.  “It is enough sin for a man to speak of everything that he hears” (Al-Silsilah al-Saheehah).
  3. “Allah has forbidden you to disobey your mothers, to bury your daughters alive, to not pay the rights of others and to beg from others. And He dislikes gossip for you, asking too many questions, and wasting money” (Recorded by Bukhari). 

Our righteous predecessors were keen to establish proof, and they watched out for rumors. 

Umar ibn al Khattab said, “Beware of Fitnah (tribulations), for a word at the time of Fitnah could be as detrimental as the sword.” 

Spreading rumors is destructive for the Muslim community

In Islamic history, Muslims incurred colossal losses only because some individuals decided to spread rumors. Here are a few examples:

  1. When the Companions of the prophet took refuge in Abyssinia, they were safe. However, someone spread a rumor that the disbelievers of the Quraysh in Makkah had become Muslim. As a result, some of the Companions returned to Makkah, where they found that the report was not true. As a result, they were persecuted by the pagan Quraysh. All of that happened because of rumors. 
  2. During the defense of Madinah at Uhud, a rumor was spread that the Prophet had been killed. As a result, the Muslim faced chaos. Some fled to Madina, and others stopped defending.
  3. One of the most well-known incidents that shows the harm caused by rumors is known as the incident of Al-Ifk, in which Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, was falsely accused of immoral conduct. This caused great distress to her, the Prophet, and the entire Muslim community. She was later cleared of the charge by God Himself (Quran 24:11-20). All of that was because of rumors. 

So what is the proper Islamic way of dealing with news?

  1. Don’t rush to share. Do careful consideration before a decision.

    The Prophet said, “Deliberation is from Allah and haste is from the devil” (Tirmidhi).

  2. Verify the news 

    When the tribe of the Bani al-Mustaliq embraced Islam, the Prophet sent Walid to collect Zakat from them. When he arrived in their territory, he became fearful due to some reason, and without visiting the tribe. returned to Madinah and complained to the Prophet that they had refused to pay the Zakat and had even wanted to kill him.

    On hearing this, the Prophet became upset. According to some traditions he had dispatched a contingent to punish the tribe, and according to others, he was about to dispatch it. In any case, all agree that in the meantime, the chief of the Bani al-Mustaliq, Harith bin Dirar, arrived as the head of a deputation, and said, “By God, we did not at all see Walid; therefore, there could be no question of refusing to pay the Zakat and wanting to kill him. We are steadfast to the faith and have no intention to withhold the Zakat.”

Verifying here implies making an effort to find out the truth in the story to establish the credibility of the report.

Shaikh Hasan al-Basri said, “The believer reserves judgment until the matter is proven.” 

Research and Inquiry in Hadith Sciences

Our noble predecessors among researchers in Hadith sciences travelled extensively to verify Hadith. For example, Companions like Abu Ayyub Ansari traveled from Madina to Egypt, a distance of more than 800 miles, only to confirm one Hadith from another Companion, Uqbah bin Aamir, because he was the only one alive at that time who had heard that Hadith from the Prophet directly. 

The experts in Hadith sciences have worked very hard to introduce various methods to judging if a particular Hadith is authentic or not. Islamic discipline of Jarh walt t’aadeel and Rijaal alHadith were essentially introduced as tools to differentiate between an authentic narrations with an inauthentic one. 

Lessons for Muslims in the world of social media today 

Responsibility
Any reporter who shares, forwards, or copies a clip, video, or a post should be truthful and honest, keeping in mind that s/he is accountable before God for each of his/her actions. 

If s/he generated a piece of true and beneficial information, this will undoubtedly reward him or her here and at the day of judgment. Conversely, s/he will be a sinner in the sight of Allah and punishable for spreading lies or misinformation. A reporter should practice concentration, patience, passion, curiosity, critical thinking, dedication, and consciousness of Allah whilst creating a story for public use.

Don’t spread negativity, terror, and panic
This is the undeniable right of our society to enjoy peace and security. Anything disrupting societal peace should be removed immediately. Muslims must stop rumors from spreading, as the rumors affect peace and security, and promote fear. The Quran describes it as the policy of hypocrites to broadcast such rumors which generate frustration and Fitna among the people. Only share information which comes from the authentic source you are able to verify. So “forwarding as received” does not liberate you from your responsibility. 

In the Quran, Allah has condemned the hypocrites saying, “When they have any alarming news, they broadcast it” (Quran 4:83).

Stand for clarity
Islam enjoins upon us to avoid doubtful things so that we don’t do anything unlawful. We must fear Allah and speak words of appropriate justice (Quran 33:71).

The Prophet said, “Give up what is doubtful to you to that which is clear” (Tirmidhi). 


Do not spread immorality and vulgarity
Our religion strictly forbids us to stay away from anything that is immoral and evil. It is as sin to share or forward any material which is voluger, obscene, or indecent. If it is haram to do, it is haram to watch and haram to share.

Some suggestions to check the authenticity of forwarded posts:

  • Check before sharing
  • Take the extra time to examine the source of the content
  • Check that the site is reputable
  • If the forward mentions a news source, check the news source yourself. Use the search engine on their site or Google the headline. If you don’t get a hit, it is likely fake
  • If the forward contains wild or miraculous claims, it is very likely fake, so don’t forward it unless it contains a link to a legitimate news site
  • If a religious reference, ruling, or a set of Duas is given, then check the Imam or scholar’s Facebook page or website to see if they have posted it there
  • With religious references, you can get them verified by a knowledgeable Imam. Usually, Imams don’t respond quickly, but you can expect his reply in a few days, In the meantime, send him a friendly reminder about your question

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