The internet has rewired Islam. The web is now at the core of all Muslim communities and performs a central role in Islamic expression. It is being used to reinterpret Islam; and Muslims themselves are being transformed.
The "i" in iMuslims, says Gary Bunt in this fascinating study, is not simply the internet. It also represents repacking of information on Islam, new pathways of interactivity and interconnection among Muslims, and an innovative online universe. A plethora of travellers on the religious path - scholars, students, activists, mystics – are developing new affinities that go far beyond traditional boundaries. Cyber Islam is challenging and mutating a conventional understanding of Muslim identity.
But not everything is new. This "Cyber Islamic Environment" has strong historic resonance. The new networks are not unlike traditional networks during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, when religious knowledge evolved as an open-source system. Just like Wikipedia, experts and ordinary people collaborated to develop a consensus on Islamic knowledge.
For example, the scholarship that developed around the collection of sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, hadith, was a collaborative effort. Scholars travelled far and wide, making connections with networks around centres of knowledge, both to collect and transmit versions of hadith. The criteria for evaluating hadith were also a product of collaborative efforts. This "open-source Islamic scholarship", Bunt writes, "was subjected to limitations and restrictions over time". It has now been rediscovered by an internet-savvy generation.
Even the terms employed to describe online activities invoke traditional connections. The Arabic term for a blogger is mudawin, defined as "to record... set down, put down in writing". It evokes the image of traditional Muslim chroniclers of eye-witness history.
The conventional ways of seeking religious guidance through questions and answers, as well as the madrassa, where young Muslims would normally go for religious education, are both available online. Not surprisingly, some Muslims now explain their religious affiliation by identifying with a specific website, rather than a mosque or religious sect.
The strongest and most authoritative Islamic voice in cyberspace, Bunt says, is the Qur'an. Online translations and commentaries provide unrestricted access. Most religious institutions, such as Egypt's al-Azhar and Iran's Qom, have a strong web presence with designated sheikhs and ayatollahs responding across the net to petitioners.
The loudest voice belongs to the jihadis. Networks like al-Qa'ida use the net with cunning and panache, both for logistic and publicity purposes, utilising free web space, encryption and anonymising tools to manipulate agendas, public opinion and promote their worldview. Bunt provides examples of jihadi sites, where trendy jargon blends with fiery polemic based on obscure references to medieval scholars.
But for every jihadi there are thousands of reformers. The net has made basic sources, such as the Qur'an, the life of the Prophet Muhammad and classic texts on law and history, available to everyone. Young Muslims use these sources to create fresh dialogues, present new interpretations and thus transform the Islamic knowledge economy.
Groups like Indonesia's Liberal Islam Network have used the internet to alter traditional outlooks and introduce new ways of thinking. Reformist blogs in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Malay and Bengali play a major part in shaping opinion, challenging state media, and are frequently used as an instrument of resistance – as we saw recently in Iran.
iMuslims is an excellent guide to the emergence of "specific forms of online Islam". Along the way, Bunt explores some very interesting questions. Can humanity's relationship with God take on a digital interface? One thing is clear: cyberspace is transforming both Islamic beliefs and Muslim practices.
What is really new, as Bunt shows so powerfully, is the contribution of concerned and thinking Muslims, with no background in traditional education. This opening of Islamic knowledge to ordinary believers is a good development. "Open source" provided Islam with its strength in history; it will play a major part in rescuing Muslim societies from the current impasse.
Ziauddin Sardar's 'Balti Britain' is out in paperback from Granta
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