We live in an age where we are all ‘connected’. The phenomenon of the World Wide Web, manifested in Facebook, social networking sites, phone apps, and so forth seem to offer us endless and ever easier ways of keeping in constant touch with each other. In spite of this, many sociologists are finding our quality and quantity of conversation is actually poorer than a few years ago.
Why the paradox? Typing a smiley emoticon in a text message is certainly not the same as witnessing a real facial expression. Teens today are so engrossed in their online worlds, that they are simply not picking up the art of verbal conversation, which was a rite of passage even a mere decade ago. Even in workplaces, staff are less focused in meetings, reflexively checking phones and emails.
It is worth considering what the art of language represents, for we may be unwittingly degrading one of our most important qualities. Human beings are defined as “al-haywan al-natiq” meaning we are the ‘talking animal’. The word for ‘talking’ in Arabic shares the same root as the word for ‘logic’ given speech is intrinsically linked with intellect, and this ability to externalise our intellect by meaningful sounds is the key factor differentiating us from animals.
Speech, and its corollary, the written word, therefore are gifts bestowed upon us by our Creator. The mightiest of gifts, the Quran, whose wisdom and depth transcend the limits of human intellect, was transmitted orally. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was known for his eloquence and brevity of speech: the ability to say a few words strung in a manner that conveyed vast meaning.
Limiting the art of conversation to only its online forms is not only depriving us of the irreplaceable warmth and depth of a face-to-face conversation, but is also depriving us of the ability to contemplate and reflect.
As Muslims we believe we can draw closer to God through pondering on His signs, both His word and His creation. To be less able to recognise these signs is therefore calamitous. Indeed the Qur’an states: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people of intelligence” (Qur’an 3:190). Constantly being online makes it difficult to concentrate on anything, never mind contemplate.
Conversation is an art, and effective speech is a Prophetic trait to aspire towards. In today’s world, properly conversing with our loved ones, and reflecting on life is something which no longer happens automatically but which needs proactive planning and effort. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we put a stop to a subtle degradation of our humanity.
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