Muslims Log On to a Cyber Congregation

Where the Faithful Surf in Their Quest to Balance Modernity and Islam

By Leela Jacinto

Oct. 15, 2004 —

From desert camps, hillsides, rooftops, mosques and minarets, the call for the evening prayer during the holy month of Ramadan has drawn Muslims across the world to worship for nearly 1,400 years.

As the first cries of the taraweeh -- or special Ramadan prayers -- are heard through a raised voice, a bullhorn, or nowadays a rigged-up amplifier, life in villages, towns, cities, and in some cases entire nations, comes to a standstill as the faithful heed the summons in communal displays of faith.

But if many Ramadan rituals have gone unchanged through the centuries, the times are catching up with the world's fastest-growing religion.

In the next few weeks, millions of Muslims will simply log on to their computers and with the click of a mouse, tune into a live or downloaded broadcast of the taraweeh prayers from the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Ramadan begins today in most Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, as well as Egypt and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority nation.

And as the faithful mark the start of Ramadan -- a time of prayer, fasting and reflection -- there is no dearth of issues confronting the Islamic world.

Under the U.S.-led global war on terror, many Muslims are being racially profiled and subjected to varying degrees of official and unofficial discrimination. Pundits across the world pontificate about the failure of democracy in Arab nations, even as conflicts in Muslim-dominated regions such as Iraq, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories continue to rile Islamic public opinion.

And in recent months, the Internet has borne testimony to some of the most disturbing acts carried out in the name of Islam. With sickening familiarity, tapes of hostage beheadings are being posted on the Internet, complete with statements by masked militants sprouting a convoluted vituperation of anti-U.S. threats and jihadist justifications.

For Salvation, Click Here

Like all the major world religions, Islam has taken to the Web on a massive scale. Acting as a virtual cyber pulpit, the Internet today is host to thousands of sites, chat rooms and e-mail lists catering to the faithful, spreading the word to the uninitiated, and providing an accessible forum of religious communication.

But while media attention has focused on jihadist content on the Internet, there has been scant international awareness of the Web as a means to address more mundane matters of faith in everyday life.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there has been much discourse about the "trouble with Islam," a problem some experts have attributed to the so-called "incompatibility of Islam and modernity."

Some scholars have pinned the problem on what they say is the decline in independent reasoning or interpretation -- known in Arabic as ijtihad -- around the 12th century.

But on the Internet today, a staggering number of Web sites deal with ijtihad-related matters, ranging from interpretations of sacred texts, to matters of sex, modesty, fashion, modern technology, and the proclamation of fatwas -- or the opinions of contemporary clerics.

Online fatwas usually take a Q&A format where a cleric or team of scholars provides guidance to questioners. Some of these are available as searchable databases on the major ijtihad sites.

On IslamiCity.com, a popular site that gets more than 2 million unique visitors per month, a recent search of the word "marriage" on its Q&A database revealed 307 questions. And the search word "sex" yielded 105 queries on marital sex, premarital sex, oral sex, anal sex, transsexuals, contraception, abortions and masturbation.

A Virtual Muslim World

The concepts of jihad and fatwas, according to Gary Bunt of the University of Wales, Lampeter, and author of the book "Islam in the Digital Age," are "two areas that have seen a most significant integration of electronic activity and religion."

While noting that it's virtually impossible to pinpoint the number of sites in what he calls "cyber Islamic environments," Bunt notes that since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a "dramatic increase in the number of people using the Internet as a tool to find out more about Islam."

Access to the Internet is rapidly growing in the Muslim world. According to the "Madar Research Journal," a Dubai-based market research publication, the number of Internet users in the Arab world is expected to reach nearly 25 million by the end of 2005, up from about 8 million in 2002.

This does not, of course, include an estimated 80 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims living outside the Arab world.

Content editors of some of the leading English-language sites say their largest audiences come from the industrialized parts of the world.

According to Dany Doueiri, chief content editor of California-based IslamiCity.com, which posts live feed of the taraweed prayers from Mecca, about 40 percent of their traffic comes from the United States, 15 percent from Europe and 10 percent from Canada. The remaining 35 percent, says Doueiri, hails from the rest of the world.

A 'Ruling' on Watching Soaps

Indeed, a number of online questions in the current cyber Islamic environment reflect a widespread anxiety over the "Islamic correctness" of seemingly prosaic aspects of modern life.

"What is the ruling regarding watching soap operas/serials which are transmitted on television?" asks an unnamed visitor in the forum section of Fatwa-Online.com, a well-developed Sunni-oriented site, reflecting the concerns of engaging with modernity that dog many practicing Muslims.

While Doueiri describes IslamiCity.com as a "diverse, mainstream Web site" that is a "non-political channel of information for the community," Omid Safi, an Islamic scholar at Colgate University in New York State, says the Internet has also provided a valuable forum for a number of moderate Muslim activists and academics.

"The Internet has allowed Muslim scholars, activists and academics to share a more liberal, tolerant view of Islam with a wider Muslim population," he says.

Safi himself is a regular contributor to MuslimWakeUp.com, a U.S.-based site that professes to "celebrate cultural and spiritual diversity, tolerance, and understanding."

The site includes articles and blogs dealing with the political issues confronting American Muslims during an election year, poetry, book reviews, as well as discussions about civil liberties, spirituality, gender issues and sexuality.

A recent column on the site's "sex and the umma" section, for instance (umma is the Arabic word for Muslim community) features a scathing description of an all-women bridal shower written by a lesbian Afghan-American writer.

Letting in Some Oxygen

But there are also inherent dangers in posting ideas of dissent within Islam that upset conservative Muslims or clergymen. Irshad Manji, the Canadian Muslim lesbian author of the popular book, "The Trouble With Islam," for instance, has received several death threats on her site, Muslim-Refusenik.com.

Opting to dispense with the round-the-clock security provided by the Toronto police, the 35-year-old author and TV personality is embarking on what could be her most risky project to date: posting a free Arabic translation of her controversial book online.

It was e-mails from young Arab Muslims urging her to post it online following her failure to secure an Arabic publisher that finally convinced her, says Manji.

A fervent supporter of the ijtihad tradition, Manji is keenly aware that the Internet has helped her book overcome state censorship in many Muslim-majority nations. "Whether it's [posting her book in] Arabic, Urdu or any other language, it all comes from young Muslims conversing with me via my Web site," says Manji. "Because of the Internet, these ideas not only see the light of day since it's a decentralized environment, but by giving young Muslims a chance to confide to a virtual stranger it's a way to let the oxygen in."