Not far from the Red Sea town of Marsa Alam, the road turns left toward the maqam of Imam Abul Hasan al-Shadhili. For the next seventy miles, there are a handful of cars, and the only inhabitants are a few Nubian families, housed in small shacks dotted by the roadside. The landscape is sparse. There’s just a few scrubs, while in the distance mountains rise up. The road is good, and after an hour the maqam is visible. The town used to be nonexistent. Now, there are two thousand people living there, a school, some shops, and a beautiful new mosque built to the side of the maqam. It’s peaceful and quiet.
This sense of quiet begins ninety miles away on the road down to Imam Abul Hasan. There is no cell phone reception on that road or in the town where the maqam has been built. All notifications stop. Thumbs stop pressing a glass screen. Fingers no longer stroke that same piece of glass. Necks are no longer bent downwards. There is no pull to check the latest message. Calm and repose are both present. Those fingers that were just touching a phone now reach for a tasbih. Thoughts slow. The heart awakens. The tongue is busy with dhikr. For the next five hours, the only sounds and interruptions are from real people or the adhan calling people to prayer. All else has been put aside.
Not very long ago, the adhan, a letter, or human contact were the only interruption to a person’s day. Then came the telephone. C.S. Lewis would complain about being disturbed by his one phone call a week, but for most people the phone didn’t intrude. Then, cell phones appeared, followed by the smartphone. The number of notifications and interruptions exploded in a few short years. No longer was it just phone calls. It was text messages and group chats. Some poor souls have email or Slack on their phone, receiving even more notifications wherever they are. Others might have social media like Twitter or Facebook. Add to this, appointments via a calendar, or breaking news, and notifications come in all day long. There is never any silent calm.
India is no exception. There are over seven hundred million cell phone users in this country. Increasingly, the phones are used for messaging and for data rather than calls. The notifications never stop. Indian university students check their phones about 150 times a day. But this is just checking 150 times. Once the phone is unlocked, the number of messages and emails increases. Sixty-three percent use it for over four hours a day. Twenty-three percent of Indian students are on their phone more than eight hours a day. These figures are the best we have, yet the indications are it is not a problem limited to students. Hyderabadi psychiatrists complain of increasing numbers of patients with cell phone addiction. Most people have no real idea just how many notifications they are getting during the day.
The real question here is how many pings and alerts on your cell phone are you going to take? Business executives punish their bodies with work for thirty or so years, and then their body says “enough,” and it shuts down, often with a heart attack. Junk food addicts also punish their bodies for twenty or so years and their bodies say “enough” and they get very sick indeed. Now, we are starting to see a new trend. People who use technology by day and by night are starting to get sick from their overuse of cell phones and the general cacophony of ceaseless notifications. This sickness is not just affecting their mind, they are developing physical illnesses of the body as a result of keeping the suhba of these apps.
When you get a notification from your phone a little shot of dopamine is received in the brain. This neurotransmitter induces pleasure and happiness, creating immediate gratification. We often feel happy that someone wants to contact us, and the anticipation of further messages rouses more dopamine. The chemical exists to reward and motivate beneficial behaviors, such as procreating, eating, and exercise. In recent times it’s been hijacked by notifications on the small screen. Rewards that arrive at random, variable times, like notifications, generate more dopamine. When the information is small, like messaging or social media, such that it doesn’t fully satisfy, the dopamine system is powerfully stimulated. When there is anticipation, such as seeing three dots when someone is typing back to you, dopamine levels rise even higher. For the typical cell phone user this dopamine rush is being repeated hundreds of times a day. In the past, it might have happened just a few times a day, after eating, enjoying a social occasion, or intimate time with one’s spouse. There were no dopamine devices in our pockets.
This chemical does not act only on the brain. In 2017, an exhaustive review study was published showing that dopamine impacts the immune system—the very thing that wards off disease. Scientists knew that dopamine had a role in multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. They then discovered it is present in almost all tissues, where it affects blood pressure, kidney function, blood sugar levels, and body weight. It’s an interesting thought that too many notifications might be making you fat. But there was more: just about all human immune cells are impacted by dopamine.
The primary role of the immune system is to defend against invading pathogens. This protects us from viruses and infections. There is also something called the innate immune system, comprising various immune cells such as natural killer cells, macrophages, and dendritic cells. These all have a key role in noninfectious diseases like atherosclerosis, cancer, autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and gastrointestinal diseases. This innate immune system is as important as the protective immune system that counters external threats. Both are affected by dopamine.
When there is too much dopamine being produced or latching onto dopamine receptors the protective cells of the innate immune system are hugely weakened. Simply put, they do not protect us from disease.
Think about this for a moment. You’re using a device whose notifications induce more dopamine over the course of a day than any other activity in human history. This overload of dopamine then weakens your protective and innate immune system, which contributes to a wide range of diseases.
Unfortunately, it’s not just dopamine running amok. When you see or hear an alert, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This gives you a little shot of adrenaline for every interaction. It too acts on almost all the tissues in the body. This is especially the case for those messages that are not pleasurable, like work emails, angry texts, or breaking news. Because phone notifications are now so frequent, and come from multiple sources, many people’s adrenaline levels never return to baseline during the course of the day. This wreaks havoc on the body and mind, contributing to heart disease, depression, chronic fatigue, and sleep deprivation. A huge amount of evidence exists regarding the involvement of adrenaline in several disease conditions.
But we’re still not done.
Many notifications are also stressful, even if from friends and family. Stressful notifications give you a shot of cortisol. Cortisol is a useful hormone as small amounts limit inflammation. But too much cortisol from too many stressful interactions leads to increased inflammation. This can soon get out of control. Inflammation promotes hordes of diseases from cancer to heart disease to autoimmune disease. It’s now estimated that 60 percent of illnesses are influenced by stress.
The opposite of this racket of alerts, noise, and near constant interruption is silence. It is ironic that keeping periods of the day silent benefits the brain more than keeping up with the latest news or staring at the screen in the name of the false god of productivity. Around two hours of silence per day prompts cell development in the hippocampus to strengthen memory. The absence of any input has a more profound effect than overloading the brain with yet more information.
This need for silence was soon realized by smart Finnish advertisers. They were racking their brains to come up with an attractive reason to visit the country. The country is one of the happiest the world. It has the best education system in the world. The poor are helped. The sick treated. Life expectancy is high. None of these really resonated. One marketing expert pointed out Finland is an extraordinarily silent country. The country is blanketed with quiet lakes and forests. The cities are not busy metropolises. People walk and cycle. The capital alone has over seven hundred miles of cycle lanes and track. Finland was soon promoted as a place to experience silence with the slogan “Silence, please.” It proved to be a success. The reason being that silence is now a resource, just like energy or water, and one that is increasingly rare and sought after.
Although Hyderabad is a noisy, busy city, you don’t need to go to Finland, nor head out into the Deccan plain. Hyderabadis are blessed with places to visit. As many of you here will know, the maqam of Hazrat Shah Khamosh is here in Hyderabad. His name translates as the Saint of Silence. This Chisti saint would attend every prayer at the Makka Mosque. He would continually make dhikr. For twenty-five years of his life he remained silent, invoking Allah with every breath. His maqam is a place of silent repose. Spend time in these blessed places, making dhikr, the phone left behind, or in the car, unable to call out to you, just as it can’t at the maqam of Imam Abul Hasan. Your mind and body will feel better as well as your spirit.
There are some practical steps people can take. Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Digital Wellness on Android allow for notifications and apps to be restricted. Give yourself a break by shutting them down at a reasonable hour. Then take a long hard look at your phone. Do you really need all those apps throwing up notifications? Do you need email on your phone? There’s often no reason why the web browser can’t be deleted from the phone. Are three or four different messaging apps needed? Do you need to spend several hours a day messaging others with forwarding religious messages or videos that only bother the recipient? If you must, keep those apps that have utility like booking a taxi, a train, or a hotel. Or checking your bank account. These utility-type apps do not throw up constant notifications. No one ever got addicted to constantly booking train tickets on an app. They do not induce brain chemicals and hormones that contribute to illness.
Many people in the tariq are conscious about their health and diet. Yet as we have seen dopamine, adrenaline, and cortisol are heavily involved with the immune system, affecting almost every cell and tissue in the body, to promote innumerable diseases.
If you’re worried about your health, the answer might be in your pocket or handbag, not just on your plate. Traditional Chinese doctors know this. With a keen eye they observe their patients’ habits as they walk through the door. They note patients who wait slumped on chair, neck bent forward, eyes down, unaware of their surroundings, while they message, scroll, swipe, and stroke their phone. They too tell us that this self-destructive behavior is damaging the brain and the organs of the body to cause disease.
This Suhba we have emphasized presence in the prayer. Putting all else aside. We said to have utter love for Allah Most High at the beginning and the end of the prayer, such that everything in-between might be accepted. It’s more difficult to have such presence when life is full of notifications. The mind is full of previous messages and interruptions, or even anticipation of future notifications. The body and brain are coursing with destructive chemicals and hormones, even sometime after the last notification. They need to be limited and handled with extreme caution. Instead, letting Indian silence take their place.
Shaykh Nuh Keller