Browse Topics

Services

Programs

Islam on the Internet
Part III: The Debate Over Online Muslim Ideology

Listen Listen to Duncan Moon's report.

March 30, 2002 -- The Internet has been a two-edged sword for Islam. It has helped the religion grow and has given millions of Muslims unfettered access to primary texts and new perspectives, nurturing a healthy online religious debate.

But the Web has also created confusion, stirring a volatile mix of competing opinions -- including serious divisions over who speaks for Islam.

Sermons on the Internet

From a sermon by Sheik Hamza Yusuf, heard on Jannah.com:

"The word 'technology' is from a Greek word -- and the word technae is the opposite of sizzus. And sizzus is everything in nature. And technae is everything man adds to nature.

"There is an interesting verse in the Koran -- 'Do you worship what you create with your hands? Allah has created you, and what you do and what you make. Allah is the creator of every toolmaker and every tool that (the toolmaker) creates.'"

click for more Listen to Hamza Yusuf's sermon on technology.

Online sermons run the gamut from extreme to progressive. Some speakers rally Muslims to take an active role in global politics, especially in the Middle East, while others focus on spirituality and individual consciousness.

Some exhort American Muslims to take an active role in Western culture, democracy and politics, while others advocate keeping a distance from what they view as American secularism.

click for more Listen to Salim Morgan, the imam of a small Islamic community in California, discuss Muslim participation in American politics.

In the final report in a three-part series on Islam on the Internet, NPR Religion Correspondent Duncan Moon discovers that in a religion where there is little institutional hierarchy -- no pope, bishops or priests -- the issue of authority is key.

One of the main tenets of Islam is that each individual Muslim has a direct relationship with God, and even converting to Islam is a simple process. Converts don't need a mosque or an Imam (a Muslim spiritual leader), and there is no baptism. All you need is two Muslims to witness the shahadah, a simple ceremony in which the convert professes devotion to Allah and his prophet Mohammed -- and it can even be done over the Internet, or by phone.

In the Los Angeles-area offices of Web site Islamcity.com, a Tennessee woman named Travenda is coached in how to say the Arabic words of the shadadah: There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of God.

For many, Islam's egalitarian simplicity is a strength -- one of the reasons why it is the world's fastest growing religion. But the lack of a clear hierarchy has always caused some friction over who speaks authoritatively for Islam and how such legitimacy is earned and validated. And the Internet has brought the issue to a head.

So-called "cyber muftis" -- Muslims who issue fatwahs, or Islamic legal opinions, over the Internet -- have generated an explosion of viewpoints. And that usually benefits the most charismatic and cogent speakers -- people like Sheik Hamza Yusuf, whose sermons on Jannah.com are among the most popular.

"Real people can be more irritating than virtual people. If we aren't forced into that experience, we'll never understand the diverse needs of our community and our society."

Dr. Ingrid Mattson of the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

Dr. Ingrid Mattson of the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations says the profusion of online sermons makes for stiff competition for local imams, who often lack comparable charisma and speaking skill.

"The Internet is a really rich resource for speeches for sermons by Muslim leaders -- and that raises the standard and makes the local leader look less impressive and sometimes less authoritative," Mattson tells Moon. "So that we might find that for any particular Muslim individual that they are less dependent on the orientation and outlook of their local community."

Mattson says without human interaction, the real strength of Islam is diminished. "Real people can be more irritating than virtual people," she says. "If we aren't forced into that experience, we'll never understand the diverse needs of our community and our society."

Dr. Khaled Abou el Fadl, who teaches Islamic Law at UCLA, says 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.

"There are thousands of cyber muftis out there... spewing out these fatwahs left and right. Someone that you've never seen... sort of gives you the law of God right there. Like a vending machine, you put in the quarter and the soda comes out."

Dr. Khaled Abou el Fadl, professor of Islamic Law at UCLA

"There are thousands of cyber muftis out there... spewing out these fatwahs left and right," he says. "Someone that you've never seen -- that you don't know, that is nothing but a name -- sort of gives you the law of God right there... like a vending machine, you put in the quarter and the soda comes out."

Dr. John Esposito, the founder of the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says Islam is going through a revolution of sorts, and the debate over cyber muftis needs some perspective.

"We forget, for example where Christianity and Judaism are today is the product of centuries of... intellectual revolution (and) physical revolution." That kind of change, he tells Moon, has been limited within the Islamic world. That means Islam's evolution will take place in an era of globalization and instant communication -- making change much more compressed and volatile, he says.

So while the Web will help bring a quicker resolution to many of the issues facing Islam -- including who speaks for it -- the process is also likely to take place under unprecedented pressure.

Links to Sites Heard on This Segment

Adrian College.

Jannah.com.

other resources Browse list of all Islam on the Internet resources.

back BACK to the Islam on the Internet intro page.



   
   
   
null