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Islamic Studies Islam and the Internet
by
Göran Larsson

Introduction

The development of the global system of interconnected computer networks that we generally call the Internet has revolutionized the world of communications and transformed the society, economy, and private lives of billions of individuals. Even though the Internet still remains largely a Western phenomenon that depends on its users’ financial situation (for example, that they can afford to have a computer with a modem), language (most communication is still in English), and technological skills, the Internet and related technologies (especially cell phones) have rapidly spread to all parts of the world. Internet cafés that provide their customers with access to the Internet are a common future and a meeting place for an expanding number of users all over the world. People who do not have access to the Internet are also indirectly affected by the rise of the “network society,” to use a term coined by the sociologist Manuel Castells. With the development of Web 2.0, which among many things facilitates information sharing and places the user in a more influential position as a producer of information, the Internet has become more interactive, and its users can communicate to a greater extent with a growing number of users all over the world by taking part in online discussions or by setting up their own web pages or blogs (e.g., Facebook, Twitter). On the one hand, Web 2.0 has been presented as an opportunity and as supporting democracy and critical discussions in the third world, but on the other hand, it is evident that the technology also is a problem for those in power, since it can be used to question authority and the established order of society. Censure and conflicts over media use are still common topics in, for example, the Middle East and other countries located in the so-called third world, and even though a growing number of religious authorities have started to use the Internet and satellite television to promote their ideas, the new media are still viewed as a double-edged sword that can provide sorrow as well as prosperity. For example, it has become more difficult for political regimes to control public media, and thus alternative views on politics, religion, and so-called alternative lifestyles (for example, sexuality) have become more difficult for those in power to control and block out. However, if the users stick to the sites supported, promoted, and suggested by the religious and political elite, the Internet can be a tool that upholds the prevailing system.

General Overviews

Turning now to the study of Islam and the Internet, it is clear that individuals and groups that emphasized their “Muslimness” were among the earliest users of the new media. According to studies by Jon W. Anderson in Eickelman and Anderson 2003, this has to do with the fact that Muslim guest students in the United States had enrolled in technological programs at universities that were to become leading departments in the development and promotion of the Internet. As Bunt 2009 and Roy 2004 have documented, Muslims from a large variety of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and political backgrounds are using the Internet for discussing Islam and Muslim affairs and for apologetic or polemical reasons. A growing number of Muslim scholars (ulama) as well as established Islamic institutions (for example, the Sunni Muslim Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt) have also started to use the Internet and satellite television to promote their interpretations of Islam (for example, Skovgaard-Petersen 2004, which deals with the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s use of new media). It has also become more important to reach out to Muslims in the West, that is, individuals of Muslim cultural background who live in Europe or the United States. The transnational dimension has also been highlighted in several studies, such as Mandaville 2001, that directly or indirectly discuss Islam, Muslims, and the Internet. As noted in the Introduction, the Internet provides new opportunities to explore and find alternative interpretations of Islam or to ask questions about Islam (for example, to ask for a fatwa), but it is also clear that this possibility can be perceived as a problem by religious authorities and political leaders, since the Internet is an arena for a large number of different groups ranging in interests from sexual orientations to various political and ideological tendencies. The tension and complexity of the new media are highlighted in Eickelman and Anderson 2003, Brückner and Pink 2009, and Larsson 2006, which deal with Islam, the Internet, and the new media in local, global, and transnational contexts. It is also evident that a growing number of Muslim preachers (for example, the popular Egyptian lay preacher Amr Khaled) are using the Internet to promote their specific interpretations of Islam.

  • Brückner, Matthias, and Johanna Pink. Von Chatraum bis Cyberjihad: Muslimische Internetnutzung in lokaler und globaler Perspektive. Würzburg, Germany: Ergon Verlag, 2009.

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    This book covers both the social and the political functions of the Internet in the Middle East and the use of the Internet by German-speaking Muslims.

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  • Bunt, Gary R. iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam. London: Hurst, 2009.

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    This is an informative and detailed description and overview that provides information about how various Muslim groups are using the Internet and how the development of the new information and communication technologies has influenced and affected the discussion of Islam and Muslims in contemporary society.

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  • Eickelman, Dale F., and Jon W. Anderson, eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

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    This is an excellent volume that deals with a large number of aspects of the Internet and the new media in the wider Muslim world. The chapters include examples from the Middle East to Indonesia, and the editors bring in new theoretical discussions by applying the theories of the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas about the public sphere.

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  • Larsson, Göran, ed. Religious Communities on the Internet: Proceedings from a Conference. Uppsala: Swedish Science, 2006.

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    This conference volume includes, among other things, both empirical papers describing how Muslim groups use the Internet and theoretical papers that discuss the differences between online and offline communities.

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  • Mandaville, Peter G. Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203453155Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This books deals with how Muslims are influenced by the new information and communication technologies, globalization processes, migration, and transnationalism.

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  • Roy, Olivier. Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. London: Hurst, 2004.

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    This book explores how globalization processes, migration, and the new information and communication technologies have affected the Muslim community (especially in the West, where Muslim live as minorities). According to Roy, it is obvious that these processes have delocalized Islam and made room for interpretations arguing that it is necessary to free Islam from cultural traits and return to a so-called pure form of Islam.

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  • Skovgaard-Petersen, Jakob. “The Global Mufti.” In Globalization and the Muslim World: Culture, Religion, and Modernity. Edited by Birgit Schäbler and Leif Stenberg, 153–165. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

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    This chapter deals with the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his use of the latest information and communication technologies (that is, the Internet and satellite television).

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Bibliographies, Journals, and Online Resources

Since the number of web pages, blogs, and discussion groups is rapidly changing and impossible to cover entirely, it is very difficult to produce accurate bibliographies on Islam and the Internet that are up to date, and most overviews are consequently posted and uploaded on the Internet. Individual scholars and institutions have also started online networks, such as Virtually Islamic by Gary Bunt of the Department of Theology, Religious Studies, and Islamic Studies, University of Wales, Lampeter, UK; and Digital Islam by Vit Sisler at Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic. In these forums they share their most recent findings and the latest publications that relate to the study of Islam and the new information and communication technologies. A number of online journals are also devoted to religion (including Islam) and the new media, and it is generally difficult to make a sharp distinction between research that focuses on the Internet and other social media (for example, blogs, Facebook, Twitter) and satellite television. NMIT Working Papers, Middle East Media Research Institute, Cyber Orient, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet, Arab Media and Society Journal, and the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication are all examples of scholarly publications that publish research of relevance to the study of Islam and the Internet. The database Index Islamicus can also be used to search and find articles, books, and reviews on topics that relate to Islam and the Internet and are published in other forums and academic journals that are not specifically focused on this topic.

Text Collections

As demonstrated in other contributions for Oxford Bibliographies Online—for example, in Andrew Rippin’s article on “Theology”—a growing number of “Islamic texts” are being uploaded and stored electronically on the Internet. Besides normative and dogmatic texts, such as the Qurʾan, Hadith collections, or sira books, the Internet is an archive for an ever-expanding number of books and texts that have been written, translated, produced, copied (legally or illegally), and interpreted (commented on) by Muslims and non-Muslims. For example, by using common search engines, such as Google or Google Books, it is possible to identify a large number of texts that deal with various Islamic topics. Many Muslim sites provide the ability to download a large number of classical and modern books that deal with Islamic theology and essential texts in both Western languages and Arabic (see, for example, Al-Muhaddith). The Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California provides, for example, an online searchable database at Sunna and Hadith. An important resource for the study of the Qurʾan and its interpretation is found on the homepage of al-Tafsir. The Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation has started the Sunna Project, a commercial site that is set up with the aim to promote the study of the Hadith. Among many things, they have started an Internet webpage with online access to texts and studies of the Hadith. Both the Hadith and the Prophet Muhammad and the al-Islam projects provide the reader with access to original texts in Arabic and in translation that deal with the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslim Groups

Even though the majority of websites are focused on Sunni Muslims (see, for example Al-Azhar, Darul Uloolom Deoband, the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and the Islamic Foundation cited under Text Collections), it is clear that a large number of other Muslim groups are present on the Internet too. It seems as if the new media have made it easier for a numerically smaller group, perhaps centered on a specific leader or organization, to start a website, discussion list, or blog that has the authority to speak for a certain interpretation or a specific group of Muslims. For example, the Ahmadiyya community (see Al Islam), the Nation of Islam, and the Nation of Gods and Earths (also known as the Five Percenters) have their own official web pages that provide information about their communities, publications, official statements, and speeches. Although these groups are viewed as heretics or sects by both Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims, they are examples and illustrations of how Islam can be interpreted and understood among minority groups (especially in the West but also in the Indian subcontinent and in other places when it comes to the Ahmadiyya community). Browsing the Internet, it is also important to remember that Sunni and Shiʿa Muslim groups are also divided into subgroups, and it would not be possible to set up one official website acceptable to all Sunni or all Shiʿa Muslims. That said, it is still possible to find a number of important Sunni and Shiʿa hubs on the Internet. The website ShiaSearch provides information about Shiʿa Muslim websites and blogs. Several influential Shiʿa groups have their own websites (for example, Hizbullah: The Party of God and Ahl ul-Bayt Islamic Mission).

Special-Interest Sites

Because of its low cost, high degree of anonymity, less control, and low fear of state censure, the Internet has become an important arena for special-interest groups. Ethnic, religious, political, and sexual minority groups have therefore made extensive use of the Internet. From an academic point of view this is an understudied area, and there is great need for more detailed in-depth studies of special-interest sites on the Internet. Besides a need to document the growing output, we need more information about how and why individuals take part in these sites. The subsections in this section contain more information about special-interest sites on Sexuality and Music.

Sexuality

Since Islam and sexuality (including concerns of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals) is a very sensitive topic for many Muslims, the Internet has developed into an important, useful, and “safe” tool for establishing networks and groups to support sexual minorities who live in countries and regions dominated by Islamic traditions. See, for example, Al-Jannah and Al-Fatiha but also local-interest groups (for example, Salaam Canada) or Internet discussion groups, such as MuslimGayMen. The Internet is also used as a forum for developing alternative interpretations of Islam that make it possible to be Muslim and openly homosexual and for questioning prevailing gender norms. This development of course also meets with harsh criticism, and a number of Muslim forums and sites are also focused on the “problem” of homosexuality. Examples of how Muslims use the Internet for discussing and mobilizing support for homosexuals are found in this section. Baune 2005, Harcourt 1999, and Wheeler 2006 provide academic studies of Islam, gender norms, and the Internet.

  • Baune, Irene. “Youth in Morocco: How Does the Use of the Internet Shape the Daily Life of the Youth and What Are Its Repercussions?” In Youth and Youth Culture in the Contemporary Middle East. Edited by Jørgen Bæk Simonsen, 128–139. Århus, Denmark: Århus University Press, 2005.

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    This chapter focuses on how youth in Morocco use Internet cafés as places for flirtation and the Internet for challenging established gender norms.

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  • Al-Fatiha.

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    This is one of the oldest and best-organized websites for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Muslims. According to the information on the website, the site “is dedicated to Muslims of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and questioning or exploring their sexual orientation and/or gender identity (LGBTIQQ), and their families, friends and allies.”

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  • Harcourt, Wendy, ed. Women@internet: Creating New Cultures in Cyberspace. London: Zed, 1999.

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    This edited volume focuses on women, empowerment, and the Internet. Even though it is not mainly focused on the Middle East, it contains important sections on Iran and the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

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  • Al-Jannah.

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    Al-Jannah is a community support for LGBT Muslims, and the site provides both member pages and an open web forum.

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  • MuslimGayMen.

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    The aim of this forum is to promote and support Muslim men who are gay and wish to maintain their faith. According to the site: “The aim of this group is to promote knowledge, brotherhood, and a positive self-image among Muslim gay men throughout the world. It promotes seeking a healthy balance between our identities as Muslims and our identities as gay men.”

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  • Salaam Canada.

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    This is a local online Muslim queer community that works to support Muslims, predominantly in Canada, who are gay and believing Muslims.

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  • Wheeler, Deborah L. The Internet in the Middle East: Global Expectations and Local Imaginations in Kuwait. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

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    This book provides insight into how various Muslims (especially Muslim women) in Kuwait use the Internet and what the new media mean to women, youth, and Islamists in the Gulf region.

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Music

Even though the great majority of Muslim scholars (ulama) have distanced themselves from music, singing, and dancing, various forms of music have always existed in regions dominated by Islamic traditions from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Some instruments (like the hand drum, called daf in Arabic) have been accepted by some groups, and local musical expressions, for example, the khawali music, which is immensely popular in India and Pakistan, illustrate that music has always existed in the Muslim world. Various forms of religious song, especially the nasheed that is described as an Islamic song sung a cappella, are also accepted by a large number of Muslim groups. With the development of the Internet and the growing popularity of the worldmusic genre in the West, local forms of music influenced by Islamic traditions have reached a new audience. Both Muslims and non-Muslims consume music that can be downloaded or listened to on the Internet. Besides general online music services, such as Spotify, it is also possible to find a large number of special-interest sites that are devoted to music. For example, the website Muhajabah contains a large number of references to nasheed music, and Muslimrap promotes rap music and musicians influenced by Islam. Individual musicians, such as Sami Yusuf and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), and academics like Mark LeVine (LeVine 2008) and Muhammad Michael Knight (Taqwacore) have their own websites to promote their products and ideas about Islam and music.

Radicalism and Political Violence

Even prior to September 11, 2001, the Internet was an important arena for Islamic groups that wanted to promote their theology, political visions, and sometime violent aims. As shown in Halldén 2006, the Internet is also an important arena for attracting and recruiting new participants in global and local jihadi movements around the world. There is little academic research on how Muslims actually use the Internet to spread radical interpretations of Islam and how this information is perceived and used by “ordinary” Muslims who use the Internet. Even though Gary Bunt and others touch upon this topic, they are not specifically focused on the connections among Islamic radicalism, political violence, and the Internet. Halldén 2007 is an important exception to this, and the author’s study of jihad-oriented Salafism on the Internet is of great importance for the academic study of political Islam (for local examples, see Becker 2009). If we turn to online sources, the website Jihadica is an important resource providing information about research and journalistic reportage and media coverage of Islamic radicalism and new media.

Online Fatawa

With the development of information and communication technologies, such as the printing press, radio, television, and most recently the Internet, the conditions for the issuing of Islamic opinions (fatwas, Arabic fatawa) have changed. Prior to the development of the above technologies, believers had to turn to a mufti and ask a question face-to-face to obtain an answer or a nonbinding recommendation for how to behave or think in order to comply with Islamic law. With the rise of information and communication technologies, these services have changed, and it is more common to search the Internet for answers or to visit a so-called fatwa service that provides online answers. As compared to the former offline traditions that were based on personal ties and deep trust, the new online fatwa services focus on a much larger audience, and consequently it has become more difficult to formulate answers that fit the unique individual who raises a question. While some academic studies (see General Overviews) argue that this development will contribute to the democratization or pluralization of the public sphere, it is evident that a large number of Muslims are concerned that the information and communication technologies will only lead to the relativization of religious authority and the growing privatization of Islamic theology; this development is discussed in Bunt 2003 and Gräf and Skovgaard-Petersen 2009. Most academic studies of fatwa services on the Internet have highlighted their growing diversity and have mapped existing sites, but few studies have focused on how Muslims actually use and follow the advice given by the so-called online muftis. One of the most popular fatwa sites is the Egyptian-Qatari web portal IslamOnline, which contains a large number of Islamic answers (fatwas) in both Arabic and English. While influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ask Imam is rooted in Deoband traditions. SunniPath contains mainly opinions that come close to the Hanafi and Shafi’i law traditions. The homepages of the European Council for Fatwa and Research and the Indian homepage of the Deoband movement (Darul Uloolom Deoband) also contain fatwas (see Muslim Groups).

  • Ask Imam.

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    Ask Imam is a South African–based Internet site that issues fatwas in English. The site is run by the mufti Ebrahim Deasi, who is trained according to Deoband traditions (an Islamic reform movement that was started in India in the 1860s to uphold and protect Islam from the influence of Western colonialism).

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    • Bunt, Gary R. Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments. London: Pluto, 2003.

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      This book deals partly with giving online fatwas and the impact of the new information and communication technologies on the issuing of Islamic legal advice (that is, fatwa services on the Internet).

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    • Gräf, Bettina, and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, eds. Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi. London: Hurst, 2009.

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      This book focuses on the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and some of its chapters are related to his use of the latest information and communication technologies.

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    • Islam Online.

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      This is one of the most popular Sunni Muslim sites on the Internet. It contains news and reportage and a large number of Islamic answers in both Arabic and English. The site has offices in Cairo, Egypt, and Doha, Qatar, and the site has mainly been influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the interpretation of the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

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    • SunniPath: The Online Islamic Academy.

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      SunniPath is presented as an online academy that offers online distance courses in classical Islamic theology, but the site contains also a large number of Islamic answers and advice on Islamic theology and law.

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    Social Media and Blogs

    The importance of social media, such as Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and Twitter, but also online computer games, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, is growing rapidly on a global scale. Social media are powerful tools for communication, dialogue, and social networking that can also be used for fun or for political activities (for example, to build up opposition or to question or comment on social affairs). For example, important online Islamic social networks, such as Muxlim, provide links, articles, and online groups on almost any topic that might interest an individual who wants to live according to Islam. However, few studies have focused on how individuals with a Muslim cultural background use social media. Nevertheless it is evident that the new media are used for commenting on current affairs in the world. Following the publication of the Muhammad cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and the online release of the anti-Muslim movie Fitna by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in 2008, media such as YouTube, LiveLeak, and other video-sharing sites and discussion forums could be used for purposes of mobilization or to criticize Islam and Muslims, but the social media could also be used for defending Islam and Muslim points of views. Larsson 2007 illustrates, for example, how the online portal WikiIslam functions as a tool or a hub for criticizing Islam and Muslims. The importance of the new information and communication technologies in spreading anti-Muslim and Islamophobic opinions is, however, an understudied topic in the academic study of Islam and the Internet. Like other religious groups, Muslims have also created cyber mosques and “Muslim avatars” in digital environments, such as Second Life (Fouts 2010), and according to Kalinock 2006, it is also possible to undertake online rites and Muslim tours (to visit sacred sites for Muslims, such as Mecca). Even though this development is very interesting, we generally have little information about the individuals who take part in or visit these cyber milieus, and we seldom know why they do so. The growing use of new media also raises methodological questions (see Varisco 2010 for a detailed discussion about the problem of doing cyber ethnography).

    Online Computer Games

    It is clear that Islam and Muslims have been portrayed as enemies in numerous online computer games, as shown in Höglund 2008 and Sisler 2008. As Vit Sisler and others have demonstrated, it is also clear that Muslims have started to produce computer games that take place in so-called Muslim milieus or play out Muslim historical episodes (for example, classical battles in the history of Islam; see Sisler 2009a and Sisler 2009b). These studies suggest that it is also very hard to establish a firm link between online and offline milieus, that is, how online activities inform offline activities or vice versa.

    LAST MODIFIED: 06/29/2011

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0116

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