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12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

www.virtuallyislamic.com

Reviewed by Amina Elbendary


Virtually Islamic: Computer-mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments,Gary Bunt, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000. pp.189

Information technology is growing fast, influencing all aspects of people's lives. The Internet has become a household term everywhere in the world. Yet how has this new technology influenced cultural and religious beliefs? How might it be expected to do so in the future? In his book Virtually Islamic Gary Bunt, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Wales, offers the first academic survey of the important new field of Islam on the Internet, surveying dozens of Web sites that deal with Islamic theology, politics, and organisations.

Bunt discusses the Internet not only as a technological innovation or tool, but also as a new medium or environment. It is, he says, a space in which global Muslim interaction can take place. However since Virtually Islamic is a pioneering work, and one that has thus had to chart its own territory, it contains emphases that will surprise some. Similarly, since Bunt comes to Islam from outside in his capacity as a non-Muslim Western academic, he is perhaps too willing to accept certain notionally "Islamic" Web sites at their own estimation, his book discussing sites that will strike some believers as being not particularly Islamic, or as even being heretical. Indeed, type the word "Islam" on any Internet search engine, and you will be flooded with Web sites, some of them carrying questionable content. Anyone wishing to learn more about Islam through the Internet will rapidly come up against the problem of how to judge the version of Islam they are being offered, each Web site tending to present its message as the original and true version of Islam in opposition to all others.

However the Internet has certainly opened up new avenues for Islamic discourse, and it has, as Bunt notes, at the same time created a new space for contestation. Bunt demonstrates how Islam-oriented groups that may be marginal in "real" space, or that may have been marginalised by official or mainstream Muslim discourse, have found in the "virtual" environment of the Internet a space in which they can propagate their ideas. This space, sharply contested though it is, is relatively open and cheap. Hence various Shi'a sects have been able to propagate their views online, and popular forms of religious expression that are not readily available elsewhere, such as Sufi music, have also found a home on the Web. Sects that might be considered heretical also have their sites.

One example of the kind of content found on the Web that might be difficult to publish in other media is that pertaining to homosexual or bisexual Muslim identities. Attempting to reconcile gay and Muslim identities is a highly controversial and sensitive topic for most Muslim schools of thought. Such diversity of views as is available on the Web, however, allows Muslims around the globe to come into contact with alternative interpretations of Islam. Furthermore, the interconnectivity and intertextual nature of the Internet -- especially through its use of hyperlinks -- allows the surfer to navigate from one site to another and from one end of the religious spectrum to the other. Thus the author surveys the numerous translations, recitations and exegeses of the Holy Qur'an that are available online. These, he says, allow a Muslim easily to compare the various translations and interpretations.

The Internet can also be used as a political tool. Various Islamic political groups and parties, both ruling and opposition, frequently use the Web to further their agendas. Bunt surveys Web sites from various Muslim countries in this regard, looking for example at the use made of the Web in Malaysia. Here the government of President Mahathir Mohamed promoted the use of the Internet as a way of propagating Islam, the official sites of government departments being used to define what was Islamic and what was not by including lists of "deviationist teachings." However, just as the Internet has offered space for the government to set forth its views in Malaysia, so too has it offered space for the opposition. Bunt studies the use made of the Internet during the trial of the former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, Ibrahim's supporters using the Web for networking both inside and outside the country.

The Islamic resistance movements Hamas and Hizbullah, as well as the Afghan ruling party the Taliban, have also used the Web to promote their political perspectives. In Sudan, however, use of the Internet has been curbed by social and cultural restrictions, it being seen as Westernising and potentially corrupting. Several Muslim and Arab states now exercise various degrees of censorship over the Web, attempting to block what they deem to be anti-Islamic material on it and even censoring certain uses of e-mail. Thus while the Internet has provided new avenues for expression, it has also provided interventionist states with a reason to intervene.

In fact, as Bunt points out, the Internet has led above all to a calling into question of certain traditional authorities. The nature of this new medium has meant that groups that exercised traditional authority within Muslim discourse, notably the ulama and various state officials, are now facing new rivals. Many unofficial and underground organisations that have been prevented from openly propagating their ideas in Muslim countries have access to the Internet. Similarly, many private individuals who are not traditionally educated in fiqh have set up their own Web sites. This has meant that individuals who may be anonymous or have dubious credentials have assumed positions of authority on the Web, either by giving sermons or by providing Internet-based religious advice or fatwas (judgments). These people are rarely the khatibs and faqihs who are acknowledged within their own communities as having the right to give religious opinions. Similarly, their sermons and advice, which is at times closer to counselling than it is to genuine religious opinion, take on a would-be universal, decontextualised aspect.

It remains to be seen what real influence the Internet will have on Islamic discourse, with even Bunt, who is an enthusiast, questioning the present existence of a global electronic umma, or Muslim community. However as part of his research Bunt has set up a website to his book -- www.virtuallyislamic.com -- which contains hyperlinks to all the Internet sites referred to. One interesting question he raises, but does not explore, is whether the Internet is acting to reproduce a primarily textual form of Islam, or whether it is constructing new forms of religious expression online. In his first chapter, he notes that more sites deal with the sources of Islam (the Qur'an and the Sunna) and their interpretations than deal with contemporary Islamic philosophy or expression.

Like many works that have to map out their terrain as they go, Bunt's book is beset by limitations. While he has identified the main Web sites concerned, together with their agendas, the author has stopped short of analysing in depth the implications of the questions he raises. Will the Internet really create a new form of internationalised Islam? Will it really make a difference in Islamic culture when most Muslims live in the developing world and may not have access to the Internet? Nevertheless Gary Bunt's Virtually Islamic is a pioneering work in Islamic studies, the first serious work on Islam and the Internet.

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