Protecting the Intellect from the Elusive Agitator

February 26, 2023

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

Protecting the Intellect from the Elusive Agitator

Democritus once said that the “purpose of law is to benefit men’s lives; it can do so when they, themselves, wish to be benefited; for those who obey, it indicates their virtue.”[1] Upon reflecting on the objectives of law, we recognize that they serve to protect aspects of human life that are crucial to a dignified existence. One such objective (maqid pl. maqāṣid) in Islamic Law aims to protect the intellect[2]. Traditionally, what this protection entails is the prohibition of intoxication. However, the debilitating effects of substance use are just one kind of threat to the intellect. There are others that are not explicitly accounted for in the traditional definitions of the maqāṣid. The continuous state of distraction throughout our waking hours by an onslaught of information also threatens our intellect’s wellbeing. While the self-improvement literature has been addressing this topic in recent years, the consequences of constant distraction on cultivating a rich inner life of reflection have received less attention. Prolonged moments of contemplation are not a luxury for the leisurely classes—they are central to making sense of one’s place and purpose in the world—exactly the environment that the maqṣid of the intellect set out to protect and help foster.

I will argue that in the spirit of protecting the intellect, we need to consider relentless distraction as a severe threat to the development of the intellect. Implementation, however, is no uncomplicated matter. The discussion highlights that while chemical intoxicants are physical and more easily regulated, distraction is not, making it much more elusive. It nonetheless behooves us to reevaluate whether the objective (maqṣid) of protecting the intellect is really designed to do what it set out to do. I will make a case that a state of increased distraction reduces the opportunity for deeper contemplation. If we saturate our environment with distraction, then it is no longer a question of individual responsibility, but of the collective. Hence, the reevaluation of the maqsid must also entail reviewing how successful the legal framework is in protecting the intellect. The difficulty is two-fold: the general reticence to regulate technology and regulating something as elusive as distraction.

We all have experienced distraction numerous times throughout the day. In a state of distraction, we struggle to order our thoughts to engage in deeper reflection. At times, distractions are a welcome respite from long moments of concentration and deep work. They constitute a part of human experience, although currently, it appears to be a frequent agitator of our attention. As a result, it has become an impediment to deep work and deliberation, but more importantly it interrupts the necessarily longer process of attaining insights and cultivating wisdom.

Most people intuitively value a deep life. Whatever the degree of commitment to cultivating it, we are moved to nurture the intellect as it sets us apart from the life of instinct. John Stuart Mill famously wrote:

Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of the beast’s pleasure; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and basic, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.[3]

Mill’s brilliant observation also has the virtue of being true. Reprimand a person for not being foolish enough, and you will be met with a look of confusion. Insult one’s intelligence and you provoke one’s ire. We appreciate a developed intellect for ourselves and admire it in others. Anything that might make it harder to develop the intellect, we ought to consider a threat. Distraction might not have posed such a threat to the intellect in the past as intoxicants always have, but today, we have a growing body of evidence and consensus that our communication devices have become a powerful source of distraction, unlike we have ever seen before[4].

In classical theory of Islamic Law, there are five objectives: the protection of the faith, life, property, lineage, and intellect. [5] For the latter, an intellect free of influence is not only necessary for ritual worship. The intellect, free of influence including distraction, is needed for the most important aspects of one’s life that require attention. The intellect according to most dictionaries, is the human faculty that allows one to reflect, understand, and reason. Recent work in maqāṣid theory tries to expand the scope of protection and development of the intellect by including the disseminating scientific thinking, traveling in search of knowledge, curbing herd mentality, and preventing brain drain.[6] While protecting the intellect by blocking the means that fragment attention and concentration—essential for contemplative endeavors—the maqṣid also enables human intellectual thriving by fostering an environment where this is possible.

To be sure, distraction has always existed, and yet it was not the target of maqāṣid theory. Today, however, its effects seem amplified. Research done on the subject tries to gauge how we are faring in the face of distraction and what is becoming clear is that we have much more of it. Our personal mobile devices allow us to connect with our loved ones, enable us to capture thoughts and ideas, and afford us conveniences that previous generations could only dream of. Regrettably, they have also been the gateway through which applications are developed in such a way as to capture the attention of its users for as long as possible. [7] There are always those who have resisted technology, suspecting it of nefarious effects on the body and mind. This position is not considered here. With the emergence of any new technology, laws need to be updated to protect society. We face one such moment in human history, where technology clings on to our attention, distracting us from availing ourselves of the opportunities to cultivate our intellect. Instead, many waste away precious hours on things of uncertain value.

Despite this, we are more likely to hear talk of personal responsibility and fewer attempts to tackle the relevant issue of regulating technology. [8] Taking responsibility for one’s fragmented attention means following advice in the self-help literature, which prescribes digital “detoxes,” or extols the virtues of digital minimalism and doses of daily meditation. In hyper-connected urban centers, and the built-in assumption that all its citizens have access to mobile devices, we face an uphill battle; and yet, Big Tech is finding new clever ways of making our technology more resistant to our attempts to regain control over our time. For example, eliminating the feature that allowed one to “get up to date” on a social media account and replacing it with an endless feed.

There is a disincentive for tech companies to allow us to do that, and it is precisely why we need institute safeguards: the aim of tech corporations producing this kind of technology is precisely to capture and hold our attention for as long as possible. A deep and meaningful life requires us to free our attention for deeper reflections on timeless conversations. So, while the responsibility rests on us on how we spend our time, we need institutional support to come to the aid of personal responsibility in regaining a balance of power with technologies and their producers endeavoring in the opposite direction. Such an approach is necessary, especially when the intentions of producers of these applications and technologies are hardly concealed. [9] By placing constraints on any monopolization of the attention economy and returning our cognitive environments to a state where one can exercise freer choice, we need to equip law with the criteria deduced from the objective of protecting the intellect.

Laws with the objective of protecting the intellect can help draw limits around a space in society where one is free to nourish one’s intellect. This rest of the mind is something we yearn for. In the Holy Qurʾan, God makes a statement on this kind of repose, followed by a rhetorical question: “those who believe and whose hearts are at peace in the remembrance of God. Are not hearts at peace in the remembrance of God?” [10]. Hearts attain peace in contemplation of the divine. In the chapter al-Rūm, verses 20–24, God recounts his signs: the tranquility one finds in the company of one’s mate, in the cosmos or in the diversity of languages and cultures, as well as in other natural phenomena such as lightning and rain that quenches the earth, bringing forth vegetation[11].

When we can retreat into moments of silence, we connect with our thoughts and become acquainted initially with our anxieties and what fuels them. It opens the way for our deeper questions and the quest for answers. A deep life also seeks to enrich itself with more meaningful relationships. The maqṣid does not guarantee this outcome, but it helps create an environment where the deep inner life can exist and thrive. Currently, by allowing the effects of technology on our attention to go unchecked, the cognitive environment we are fostering is one where distractions abound and a retreat to quieter corners of it becomes more difficult. One needs to only look around in a library, or in places of worship to see that even here—places intended to be for reflection, study, and contemplation—it is common to find people glued to their phones.

When distracted driving became a serious and very present danger, we moved swiftly to outlaw the use of personal devices while in the driver’s seat. Distracted driving diminishes one’s attention, delaying our reactions to the sudden signals of potential danger. Similarly, being frequently distracted does not pose physical danger, but remaining this way is to the detriment of a deep life. Strictly regulating the use of devices during driving helps reduce distraction, but it is no simple matter outside the context of driving.

Banning distracting technology is not only difficult to implement but also invasive. It would take policymakers time to grapple with this problem of implementing a framework for a less distracted society, not only on the roads, but in the workplace, schools, and in our communities. There will be resistance to such an attempt, decrying it as an assault to our liberties to spend our time as we choose. Such resistance is understandable, however, a closer look at the issue reveals that protesting is absurd. A regulatory framework would actually prevent something else (in this case powerful, clever technologies) from capturing our attention for as long as possible—not to dictate how one ought to freely put them to use. If the technology is employing mechanisms to undermine your will when you are using it, you are no longer completely free. The regulatory framework, in fact, is there to help you regain that freedom over your time. Plato warned us that “where the law is the subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state . . . is not far off.”[12] By not regulating technologies with the objective of protecting the intellect from excessive distraction, we are allowing another authority to dictate how much distraction can fill the public space.

However, arguing for state regulation remains controversial. An intermediate approach may involve awareness campaigns; technology producers carry on without further restrictions, but effectively informing people of the effects distraction on their lives, can allow users to dictate how technology is developed.

As time and attention are limited, the more time spent attending to what is dictated by our devices, the less time we are attending to questions of purpose. Compared to curated content of limited value and duration, the former contributes to a fuller life, including a place where the intellect is nurtured. What we do not want is the very disturbing conclusion of entire generations for whom sustained contemplation is something foreign. It would be a very dark point in our history if people are unable to work through great works, to grapple with sophisticated ideas, or to engage in insightful public discourse because they prefer the passive absorption of titillating, vapid ephemerality on their screens.

[1] Democritus, Fragment 249 (D-K) in Yeroulanos, Marinos. A Dictionary of Classic Greek Quotations, p. 190

[2] Auda, Jasser. Maqasid Al-Shari’ah: A Beginner’s Guide, p. 6

[3]John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Edited by A. Bailey, Broadvidew Press (2016), p. 33

[4] Research published from different angles. I include but three sources dealing with distraction in pedagogical settings and one resource on the effect of distraction on parenting. See (Al-Furaih and Al-Awidi 2021) in QUT Law Review, (Matthew 2012) in QUT Law Review (2012) 12(1), and (McDaniel 2019) in Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies (2019) 1(2)

[5] Auda, Jasser. Maqasid Al-Shari’ah: A Beginner’s Guide, p. 6

[6] Ibid., p. 6


[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nasr, Seyyed Hossein et. al., The Study Qur’an, HarperCollins, p. 616

[11] Ibid., p. 985

[12] Plato, Laws 715c


Published Date: February 26, 2023