Islam dot com
During Ramadan, when Muslims around the world dedicate more time to matters of the spirit, the Internet triumphs over other sources of information for convenience and variety. Sermons, Qur'anic recitations, taraweeh (Ramadan-specific extra evening prayers during which long portions of the Qur'an are recited), prayers from Mecca, and the answer to any imaginable question about fasting are literally just a click away. Specific sites, such as Ramadan.co.uk, cater to the changes in the daily routine brought about by the holy month, offering timetables and views on Ramadan-related topics, as well as fatwas or religious edicts about fasting. They even provide printable colouring sheets to keep children occupied during iftar.
This sort of strong and varied online Islamic presence is nothing new. The first Islamic texts to appear on the web -- scanned translations of the Qur'an and hadith (Prophet Mohamed's teachings) -- were posted by Muslim students or professionals working in the high-tech precincts that spawned the Internet in the early 1980s. According to Jon Anderson, co-editor of New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, "they were motivated to use their skills to assure a place for Islam in the on-line medium, whose potential to reach a new public they understood. That is, they were laying claim for their religion... Their tools were command of the technology and the core texts."
These Muslim web pioneers were aided by the fact that, unlike previous technological advancements that produced television, for example, religious institutions have never frowned on or questioned the legitimacy of the IT world. Perhaps the main criticism levelled at the web concerns its double-edged power as an ocean of limitless information, its very nature rendering quality control impossible. Gary Bunt, lecturer of Islamic Studies at the University of Wales and author of Virtually Islamic: Computer Mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments, explains that search engines will list all Islam- related sites, including those of "'obscure' Muslim groups seeking to represent themselves as the definitive interpreters of the Qur'an, presenting their 'insights' in a manner and language that might alienate or challenge readers from other perspectives". For the inexperienced surfer, unaware of the personal responsibility involved in breaking the waves of cyberspace, such sites present a genuine risk -- they may well exert an undesirable influence, swaying opinion or distorting the greater picture of Islam.
But however misleading the information on such sites, the Internet remains virtually impossible to censor. "The emergence of the SuraLikeIt web pages in 1998, which contained fabricated 'verses' allegedly in the style of the Qur'an," says Bunt, brought the issue to the forefront, igniting a censorship debate in Egypt and North America. Even after the site's web service provider (AOL) bowed to pressure from Muslim groups, similar sites emerged elsewhere. This prompted a number of Muslim institutions, including Cairo's Al-Azhar (Islam's oldest seat of learning), "to establish their own web sites in order to provide an on-line response to sites they deemed 'un-Islamic'". Indeed, the issue of authority came hand in hand with the rapid spread of online Islam. Who should be allowed to speak in the name of Islam? ( see article below ) The Internet can only provide one answer: everybody. Considering Islam's freedom from hierarchy and the popularity of chat rooms and discussion boards, everybody becomes their own judge, according to Khaled Abou El-Fadl, a US-based professor of Islamic law, who adds that the Internet makes it more difficult for Muslims to decide who speaks with legitimate authority. "Legitimacy," he says, "comes with accountability -- and the Internet dilutes accountability."
Scholars argue that this is precisely the edge of online Islam. A medium such as the Internet, by providing equal access to all opinions -- be they with or against religion, fundamentalist or modernist, aimed at clarifying or distorting Islam -- in fact affords Islam the opportunity to defend itself.
With the Western media's post-9/11 focus -- conscious or unconscious -- on the more radical aspects of religion, "the Internet [becomes] an effective way to portray Islam as a religion in which diversity and debate are encouraged", says CEO of the mega web site Islamicity.com, Mohammed Aleem.
In fact, up to a quarter of those who use the Internet for news, information or research are surfing for religious and spiritual material. Abdul-Karim Bangura, researcher-in-residence at the Center for Global Peace and professor of Islamic Studies and International Relations, estimates that of those nearly 28 million people in the United States, for instance, "23 per cent [are] specifically searching for information about Islam".
Ghada Salem, business development officer at Islamonline.net told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "Islamonline used to register 24 million page views a year. After 9/11, the page views hit 150 million a year." Salem explained that Islamonline was aware of its potential role in bridging the communication gap between the West and Islam. "We added content, in English, explaining even the most basic tenets of the religion, and have, in the process, helped many understand the difference between ' jihad' [struggle] and ' irhab' [terror]," Salem said.
She is one of millions of Muslim women operating on the Internet, a medium that has virtually eliminated the gender gap that may have otherwise hindered them from access to comprehensive knowledge of their own religion. Ahmed Selim, senior editor of Egypt's largest portal, Masrawy.com, told the Weekly that the majority of users logging on to the site's chat rooms are female, ranging from 16 to 25 years of age, "who either ask religious questions and seek fatwas, or engage in da'wa (preaching) by posting hadith, studies, opinions and the like". At MuslimWomenStudies.com, Mona Abul-Fadl states that by allowing women to take Muslim studies courses online, the Internet becomes "the new madrassa " (Islamic school) open to all Muslims.
"I think that, for the first time, and for a lot of Muslim women, they can be equal partners in a discussion on anything," says Samer Hathout, co-founder of the Muslim Women's League in Los Angeles. Not only that: Muslim women run entire businesses online from home, fulfilling their sense of independent achievement without leaving the side of their children. Their online sale of Islamic art and calligraphy, as well as home items decorated in the Islamic style, has opened up an immense market for these otherwise culturally specific items.
All of which just goes to show that whether or not the Internet will profoundly change the Islamic world in the long run, cyberspace -- by its very nature -- will continue to catalyse an ongoing dialogue about being Muslim in the modern world.