In a time where honor and honesty often take a back seat, fake personas craft a world-wide web of deception, producing narratives that suit their ambitions. The prevalence of communication tools has given rise to a culture where discerning between falsehood and truth requires a critical eye. Narcissistic media personalities, driven by the desire to be admired and appear more knowledgeable than they truly are, resort to all types of deceitful techniques. They cut and paste others' words, refusing to credit the original authors, thus committing a double sin in Islam — riyah or showing off and stealing. This act of intellectual theft, akin to lifting money or tangible goods, has become a common practice on social media and even within our Muslim community.
Among the ranks of self-proclaimed experts are individuals who claim authority on Islam and Muslims without possessing the requisite knowledge or even being followers of the faith. There are those who, while not Muslim themselves, boldly venture into writing books, publishing newsletters, and establishing organizations supposedly centered on Islam. Such figures attempt to tell our stories, appropriating our experiences, and capitalizing on the narratives of our pioneers and ancestors. However, their influence extends only as far as we permit.
Identifying these deceptive figures and distinguishing between truth and falsehood is a crucial step. Can you recognize a fake sheikh, sheikha, or "influencer"? Here is a tip: take snippets of their purportedly original writing, paste them into Google or search engine of choice, and conduct a quick search. You might be astonished to discover that these individuals merely copy others' work, shamelessly passing it off as their own. Some adept copycats may attempt to rephrase the content, but with a vigilant eye, their deceit can be exposed.
To counter their falsehood, we must reclaim our narrative to uphold justice, document our experiences, and preserve our history authentically. Since this world is inundated with easily accessible information – including false information – nurturing a generation of critical thinkers is imperative. It is important to guide Muslim youth in identifying and avoiding fake personas, especially in the realm of religious influencers and "sheikhs" on social media.
Here are some red flags to look for when evaluating and identifying fake personas. These individuals:
1. Lack good character.
Fake personas often exhibit poor character traits outside of their religious setting. Genuine scholars and influencers maintain consistency in their behavior, treating others with respect and kindness in all aspects of life. This is the case for both their followers and the people closest to them. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“Verily, the most complete of believers in faith are those with the best character and who are most kind to their families.”
2. Lack credentials.
Authentic religious figures typically have a solid educational background in Islamic studies and are conscious of Allah in their teaching – making sure they do not say or do something that goes against the pure essence of Islam. Fake influencers may lack credible qualifications or may even misrepresent their educational achievements just to stay relevant. Allah says in the Quran:
“Those who truly fear Allah among His servants are the scholars.”
(Surah Al-Fatir, 35:28)
3. Fail to provide evidence for their teachings.
Legitimate scholars always provide evidence from the Quran and Sunnah to support their teachings or religious opinions. Beware of influencers who make claims without proper references to the foundational texts of Islam. There is a quote attributed to Plato that is relevant: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools speak because they have to say something.”
4. Offer feel-good speech without substance.
Fake influencers may excel in motivational or inspirational speaking, but they often lack depth in their knowledge of Islamic teachings. Genuine scholars ground their speeches in the Quran and Sunnah rather than relying solely on emotional appeal. This is not to say that we cannot benefit from inspirational speakers, but always be aware that their speech may not necessarily be grounded in authentic knowledge. In other words, do not take them as your religious studies teacher or spiritual guide.
If an influencer posts quotes without crediting the original author, publishes articles that are not their own without citing the source, or takes credit for someone else’s ideas, it could be a sign of dishonesty. Legitimate scholars and Muslim believers acknowledge their sources and give credit to the wisdom of others. Our religion is grounded on the chain of narration. Why would we not also fact-check and hold individuals accountable for what we see and hear from them online?
6. Engage in excessive speech without substance.
Empty rhetoric and excessive talk without clear substance can be a red flag. Genuine scholars convey meaningful messages rooted in Islamic teachings, avoiding unnecessary verbosity. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was very concise in his speech. He once said:
“Do not speak much without mentioning Allah, for too much speech without mentioning Allah hardens the heart, and the hard-hearted are the furthest of all people from Allah Most High.” (At-Tirmidhi)
7. Lack humility and display attention-seeking behaviors.
True Islamic leaders and scholars are humble and do not promote themselves as the ultimate authority. Be wary of those who excessively self-promote and do not show reverence to both classical and contemporary scholars. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“Blessed is he who has humility without debasing himself, who lowers himself without humiliating himself, who spends wealth in charity and accumulates it without sinning, who is merciful to the lowly and downtrodden, and who accompanies the people of understanding and wisdom.”
8. Are abusive in many ways, shapes, or forms.
Legitimate religious figures prioritize the well-being and respect of their fellow Muslims. Fake personas may abuse their influence by exploiting followers emotionally, verbally, or even physically. These can also be present in varying degrees of spiritual abuse in which influencers, self-proclaimed scholars, or leaders use their power to inflict spiritual or psychological harm on their followers. (For more details on this challenge, see What Is An Ilm Crush and How to Avoid It?)
9. Especially appeal to the opposite sex.
Be cautious of influencers who excessively appeal to the opposite sex for attention. Genuine scholars maintain modesty and professionalism in their interactions, avoiding behaviors that may compromise their integrity. Is your favorite influencer or celebrity alim always talking to the opposite sex or are the majority of his/her followers from the opposite sex? That can be a red flag.
10. Engage in flirtatious behavior and unethical relationships.
Authentic scholars adhere to ethical principles, especially in matters of relationships. Beware of influencers known for flirtatious behavior, spouse-hopping, or engaging in morally questionable actions. Notice how they react to advances from the opposite sex. Be careful not to fall into any unlawful interactions with them yourself, and watch your children around them.
As we take heed of these red flags and think critically about what we see and hear, we must also remember not to be excessively suspicious, backbite, or slander anyone. Allah says in the Quran:
“O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is a sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.”
(Surah Al-Hujurat, 49:12)
Guiding Muslim youth to be discerning consumers of online content involves encouraging critical thinking, promoting knowledge of authentic Islamic teachings, and fostering a healthy skepticism toward influencers who may not have the best interests of their followers at heart. Healthy skepticism is key to avoiding injustice.
When evaluating the credibility of people who are unknown to me, I begin by seeking answers to a few basic questions. For example: Is this person offering an opinion, or can he/she back up their claims with valid science? Do they have educational credentials? Are there other scholars or religious leaders who support his/her beliefs and recommendations? Is this person controlled by some entity like an organization, board, or company? And finally, what do people have to say about the person?
Although social media influencers can also be true students of knowledge, it is important to know a person’s credentials before following them blindly. They should be someone who became famous for their sincerity and knowledge among the academics/religious scholars and their circles, not just among ordinary people. We have seen even in recent days how many famous YouTubers, TikTokers, and other creatives are capable of doing a lot of good to spread a positive message of Islam. But we should also be wary of unknowingly following people who are spreading misinformation and ignorance.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.