What will the people say? Will they approve of it? Will they laugh at it? It seems that such concerns influence our actions –especially our public conduct– more than anything else. Social pressure is a powerful force. It works by appealing to our desire not to be insulted, ridiculed, or criticized. In a righteous society it could also be a force for good, as some people will avoid a bad name more than they would a bad action. But in the real world out there it mostly turns into an evil force, pressuring people into doing things they know are wrong or keeping them from doing what they know are right. The question of right and wrong is changed into a question of acceptable and unacceptable to this evil force.
In some cases we recognize it easily. Nearly every parent in the West today seems to be concerned about peer pressure, especially on the teenagers. There is hardly a sin that attracts teenagers — drugs, violence, lewdness, fornication, gangs — that does not have peer pressure as its main or major cause. Countless lives have been turned upside down or totally destroyed by it. But is the teen peer pressure an anomaly in an otherwise healthy society? Obviously not. It attracts our attention because of the scale of destruction it causes but the general trend is not different in other segments of the society.
In many cases the same Muslim parents who are genuinely worried about the teen peer pressure, themselves seem to be giving in to the pressures for conformance. Some trade their names for meaningless but more “acceptable” constructions. Some will participate, say, in the office Christmas party, so that they are not discovered. Some admit to being Muslim but an “open- minded” one. (“Actually Islam is a very progressive religion. It allows us to do everything that the society asks us to do. Too bad most Muslims are so ignorant about their own religion.”)
The phenomenon is not limited to the Western world either. Unfortunately today most Muslim countries at many times seem to be putting their weight on the side of wrong. There, un-Islamic traditions, innovations (bidaat), and outright evils flourish under social pressures. The most visible symbols of an Islamic life are generally also the favourite targets of this pressure. Thus we see that in many Muslim countries even such a simple act as growing beard (or observing hijab for women) are treated as crimes punishable by public ridicule! (Of course in a country like Egypt, the same act calls for investigation, on pain of torture, by secret agencies. But that is an altogether different story). To go beyond that and challenge any of the established un-Islamic practices qualifies one to be labeled as a fanatic!
Actually there is nothing new in all of this. This psychological warfare is as old as the struggle between good and evil! The Qur’an tells us that all the Prophets were insulted and ridiculed by the very people they were trying to save from the eternal punishment. They were called liars and sorcerers; they were ridiculed for being “too pious”; they were laughed at for being “crazy.”
The story of Prophet Noah is so telling here. His final act of building the ark was considered proof-positive by his people of him being out of his mind. Building a ship in an area nearly a thousand miles away from the sea! What could be crazier than that! The Qur’an mentions: “And he was building the Ark and every time that the chieftains of his people passed by him, they threw ridicule at him. He said:
“If you ridicule us now, we in our turn, can look down on you with ridicule likewise’.”