Courts around the world are increasingly seeing incriminating text messages and other personal electronic communications as evidence in malpractice and marital cases — no surprise, given the popularity and widespread (mis)use of messaging apps and social media platforms.
According to a recent survey, over 90 percent of divorce attorneys saw the increased use of digital messages being submitted as evidence, and the trend shows no signs of abating anytime soon. The New York Times calls such giveaway phone messages “digital lipstick on your collar.”
It’s no secret that text and phone messages are anything but “secret and confidential” — not in the temporal realm or in the spiritual.
“Are you not aware that Allah knows whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth? Never is there any whispering among three but He is their fourth; nor among five but He is their sixth; nor fewer nor more but He is with them wherever they may be. And then He will tell them on the Day of Judgement all that they have done. Surely Allah knows everything.”(Qur’an, 58:7)
Once a word is uttered or a text message is sent, there is no taking it back, the ‘undo’ or ‘delete for everyone’ option notwithstanding.
“Surely We have created man, and We know the promptings of his heart, and We are nearer to him than even his jugular vein. Moreover, there are two scribes, one each sitting on the right and the left, recording everything. He utters not a word, but there is a vigilant watcher at hand.” (Qur’an, 50: 16-18)
Lessons in accountability
Three practical tips
In recent years, leaked inappropriate private messages routinely have made tabloid headlines, leading to public humiliation and loss of face to both the receiver and sender. Most of us witness these transgressions and their aftermath but do not learn any lessons, except those on whom Allah has mercy.
The lessons we need to learn are not just those in covering one’s tracks with more sophisticated means and manoeuvres, but in accountability towards Allah for every word we speak or type.
“On a Day when their tongues, their hands and their feet will bear witness against them as to what they used to do.”(Qur’an, 24:24)
“That Day, We will seal over their mouths, and their hands will speak to Us, and their feet will testify about what they used to earn.”(Qur’an, 36: 65)
1. Check your intentions before you type
In Islam, virtual communication is subject to the same legislative rules as real life conversations, which is something we may not be aware of, or inadvertently overlook. The basic principle remains the same: communication between unrelated people of the opposite gender is limited to a genuine need (dharoorah) in a business-like exchange. Ask yourself: Is it necessary? Will these words bear witness for or against me?
One drawback of virtual communication is that messages can be interpreted in a completely different way than they were originally intended, so it’s a good idea to re-read messages before hitting send so that you do not send anything that can be misconstrued as inappropriate or inflammatory.
2. Save the smileys
Emojis are ubiquitous in text communication – but would we not pause for thought before inserting them into a message if that smiley face or random heart could land us in court or have legal consequences?
Courts around the world are being presented emojis as evidence of intent, and they are the subject of research in the field of forensic linguistics. While on its own the text in a message may not be a very strong piece of evidence, used in conjunction with accompanying smileys they constitute “purest speech.”
Forensic linguists can identify authors based on the language used in a document or statement or text message. The interpretation of emojis in courts of law is based on assessing surrounding facts and circumstances, including the nature and tone of other communication, the relationship between the communicating parties and factors such as multilingual settings and cultural context.
3. Learn the protocols
The admissibility of text messages in human courts of law is now a given, and most organisations educate employees on the protocols of virtual communication and online behaviour to avoid falling afoul of the law.
As Muslim consumers and users of digital means of communication, we need to educate ourselves of the same protocols for higher reasons, out of fear of disobeying Allah and falling afoul of His laws.
We have the guidelines of the Qur’aan, (If you fear Allah, then do not be soft in speech [to men], lest he in whose heart is disease should covet, but speak with appropriate speech 33:32) and the definition of sin as defined by the Prophet ﷺ, who said, “Piety is good manners, and sin is that which creates doubt and you do not like people to come to know of it.”” [Sahih Muslim, 32:6195]
The Companion Wabisah bin Ma’bad, may Allah be pleased with him, reported:
“I came to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and he said: “Have you come to ask about righteousness?”
I said:” Yes.”
He said: “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul and the heart feels tranquil, and wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and moves to and fro in the breast even though people again and again have given you their legal opinion [in its favor].” [Musnad Ahmad and Ad-Darimi]
O Allah, guide us to the best deeds and the best character, for no one guides to the best of them but You. Protect us from evil deeds and evil character, for no one protects from the evil of them but You. [Du’a from Sunan al-Nasā’ī, 896]