DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 10, 2008 -- For the world community of Muslims, known as the "umma," this might be the dawning of the "e-umma."
This week Muxlim.com, an Islam-focused Web portal based in Finland, launched what it calls the world's first virtual Muslim world.
The application, Muxlim Pal, allows users to create avatars or alter egos that interact with other players while following a proper Muslim lifestyle. Users can design their online pal to wear a "hijab" (or head scarf) and choose to pray in their custom-designed room.
"We're giving users an extra channel to express themselves. You have a virtual friend and you can develop that virtual friend," Mohamed El-Fatatry, Muxlim's founder and CEO, told ABC News a day after the application's launch.
Through Muxlim Pal users can have their online persona shop, play sports, go to concerts and socialize around the virtual town. As the pal prays or engages in other religious activities its spirituality meter rises. Elements deemed un-Islamic, like drugs and sexual references, are banned from the virtual world.
Muxlim's basic portal launched in 2006 and calls itself the world's largest Muslim online community, with 1.5 million visitors per month across 190 countries.
Most users are based in the United States and Europe -- less than 15 percent are from the Middle East, said El-Fatatry -- though the application has the potential to bridge a broad swath of Muslim lifestyles.
"One of the benefits of the Internet in the Muslim world, which is a generally closed society, is this ability to interact and connect in a way that isn't improper," said Mahdis Keshavarz of the MAKE Agency, a public relations firm focused on the Middle East.
"It means that people in more secular societies are in contact with the more traditional?planting new ideas in places where that exposure hasn't traditionally existed," she said.
Muxlim Pal has a huge potential user base in the young Middle East, where an estimated 65 percent of the population is younger than 24 years old. Other portals like Mecca.com, likened to an Islamic Facebook, are geared toward the same demographic.
"We're much more connected," Mohamed Kadry, 23, said of fellow Muslims in his generation.
Kadry, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Dubai, says technology also bridges the gender divide.
"There are a lot of social boundaries we have in our religion. ? You can't just speak to someone of the opposite sex as easily as you can in the West, and technology lets us connect in ways that are still modest and acceptable."
Muxlim's success to date and its hopes for Muxlim Pal rest on what a recent study called the "new age Muslim," whose lifestyle is both religious and modern.
Research published by advertising firm JWT found that the highest percentage of new age Muslims live in the United Arab Emirates. From Muxlim.com to the malls of Dubai, that joins moderate Muslim values and global consumer culture.
"We often try to describe an Islamic or a Muslim consumer as Westernized or not Westernized, which is totally stupid," said Roy Haddad, the chairman of JWT MENA told the National newspaper.
"Yes, we want to be modern. But we are not Western."