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Saturday, March 03, 2007

DIGITILIZATION OF ISLAM

Globalization's Gift to the Muslim Ummah

One of the distinctive characteristics of globalization lies in the unprecedented advances in information and communication technologies, which have brought about what David Harvey aptly describes as "time-space compression". He points out that globalization involves the shrinking of space and the shortening of time. Some scholars speak of "deterritorialization" as an important consequence of globalization, suggesting that the notion of space has undergone a radical transformation. Manuel Castells in his The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (1998) shows how computer-driven telecommunications have intensified global interactions and created networks which bind together individuals located in different countries into virtual communities. What is emerging, he says, is a global network society. Phrases like online worlds, virtual communities, global cyberspaces and network society are frequently mentioned in the contemporary discourse. A highly significant feature of online networks is their openness and relative autonomy. Furthermore, the Internet is an amazingly interactive medium in that it has an in-built mechanism for immediate feedback.

Some commentators argue that the Internet is generating "social capital" in the form of networks, norms and social trust that facilitate cooperation and coordination among people who share common social concerns and commitment. There are more than 5000 transnational NGOs, most of whom coordinate their activities and programmes through the Internet. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has established intensive linkages, through the Internet, with non-governmental organizations working for the ban on landmines. By 1999 the ICBL became a coalition of more than 1300 NGOs which successfully persuaded and pressurized 89 countries to ratify the Landmine Treaty. It was awarded the Nobel Prize for its sustained efforts.

An eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the phrase glocalization to highlight the fact that globalization seems to reinforce not only global and transnational but also ethnic and local identities. This phenomenon is reflected in the increasing use of modern information and communication technologies by religious communities and organizations. Thus, in Thailand Buddhist monks are making increasing use of the Internet for disseminating their religious doctrines and traditions through more than 200 websites. In India, religious and spiritual satellite channels are rapidly increasing and drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers in the country as well as from amongst expatriate Indians.

Modern information and communication technologies are playing a highly important role in the revival of indigenous languages and cultures in Europe. There are more than 200 000 speakers of Breton language in France. Breton was nearly wiped out as a result of the repressive policies of successive French governments. In recent years, a remarkable revival of Breton language has taken place in France, especially in the Brittany province. In August 2000, TV Breizh began broadcasting as France's first regional channel.

The use of modern information and communication technologies for religio-political mobilization in the Islamic world on a wider scale was witnessed in Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1969. During the 1970s, many of the speeches and discourses of Ali Shariati, a highly educated and influential thinker and speaker, were recorded at Mashhad University and at Husayniyah Irshad in Tehran and circulated through audiocassettes. These recorded speeches were subsequently transcribed and published in book form. The cassettes as well as the books were clandestinely distributed through a wide network of mosques, seminaries, shrines, religious councils, community centres and colleges and universities. In the mid-1970s Imam Khomeini was exiled to Iraq and later to Paris. His recorded sermons and speeches from his Neaphle-le-Chateau headquarters near Paris were widely circulated across the length and breadth of Iran. His taped messages were transmitted through telephone lines to secret locations in Tehran where they were transferred onto cassettes for duplication and distribution. These cassettes played a highly significant role in arousing popular sentiments against the Shah. Their political impact was greatly enhanced when they were aired by Western news agencies, especially the BBC.



Computer technologies are being increasingly used for archiving and preserving Islamic texts as well as for disseminating Islamic materials. Islamic websites, which are rapidly multiplying, provide a wide range of information and materials, including an explication of the Holy Quran and selections from Hadith literature, informed opinion on the religious, social, economic, political and cultural affairs of the Muslim world, glimpses of Islamic heritage, and online fatwa.


During the Soviet era, audiocassettes of the speeches and sermons of religious leaders in Uzbekistan, which emphasized Islamic identity and Uzbek nationalism, became highly popular. The Naqshbandi Sufis established a wide network of mosques, madrasas and hospices (khanqahs) and extensively used audiocassettes for the dissemination of Islamic materials. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, audiocassettes of religious discourses and sermons were widely circulated in the country as well as among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. These recorded speeches and sermons created a great sense of Islamic solidarity and paved the way for the emergence of a powerful movement against the Soviet occupation.

Recordings of the speeches and discourses of prominent Muslim thinkers and leaders, such as Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, Mawlana Abul Ala Maududi and Dr. Asrar Ahmad, among others, are now available not only on audiocassettes but also over the Internet through the use of the latest audio streaming technology.

The preservation and transmission of the Holy Quran and the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (may God shower His blessings on him!) was ensured through an ingenious combination of memorization, oral transmission and writing. As soon as the verses of the Quran were revealed-they were revealed incrementally over a period of 23 years-they were memorized by the Prophet and were simultaneously committed to writing at his instance. These conjoined modes of transmission-memorization and writing-have continued uninterrupted during the past fourteen centuries of the Islamic era and are still in evidence across the Islamic world. Similarly, several Companions of the Prophet recorded and wrote down his sayings and instructions-which came to be known as Hadith-during his lifetime. This process of compilation of Hadith was marked by a distinctive methodology-known as Isnad-involving a critical scrutiny of the chain of narrators and their biographies with a focus on their reliability. The preoccupation with the compilation of Hadith within the framework of this methodology gave rise to a vast body of literature. The emphasis on the written word, which has been central to the Islamic tradition, resulted in a colossal and truly monumental literary output which has no parallel in the annals of early or medieval civilizations. An indication of this amazing preoccupation with writing is provided by the existence of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts on a variety of subjects in libraries and museums in Muslim countries as well as in India, Europe and North America. Manuscripts dealing with medical subjects alone, which have survived the vicissitudes of time, are estimated to number more than three million.

On the other hand, the tradition of memorizing the entire text of the Holy Quran continues uninterrupted not only across the Islamic world but also in India (which has the third largest Muslim population in the world), China and in diasporic Muslim communities in North America, Europe and Australasia. A few years ago, the entire population of a village near Cairo, Egypt, accomplished the remarkable feat of memorizing the Holy Quran.

In recent years, there has come about a world-wide resurgence of Islamic awakening and revival, which is conspicuous not only in Muslim countries but also among Muslim living in Western countries. This Islamic resurgence is reflected in the growing demand for Islamic literature, in the proliferation of religious movements and communitarian organizations, in the increasing involvement of Muslim youth and women in faith-based activities, and in the growing use of modern information and communication technologies for disseminating and exchanging Islamic materials as well as shred concerns.

Computer technologies are remarkably adept with both the textual and phoenetic modes of storage, retrieval and transmission. In recent years, varied computer technologies, including websites, CD-ROM, homepages and audio streaming technology, have been used for archiving, retrieval and dissemination of Islamic materials. The entire text of the Holy Quran (including the Arabic text and recitation by trained qaris), its translation in English and other European languages, brief commentaries on the Holy Quran and several collections of Hadith together with English translations are available on CD-ROM as well as on the Internet. A well-known software is Alim, made by ISL Software Corporation, Marylan, USA. It provides information on a wide range of subjects. The entire Arabic text of Imam Bukhari's celebrated collection of Hadith Al-Jami' al-Sahih as well as the well-known collection of Hadith by Imam Muslim are available on the website of Al-Islam (www.al-islam.com). An English translation of Bukhari (by Muhammad Muhsin Khan) and of Muslim (by Abdul Hamid Siddiqui) are available on the website of the Muslim Students Association of the University of South California (www.usc.edu/dept/MSA). These two sites also publish the Forty Hadith by Imam Nawawi in English. The multi-volume concordance and index of nine well-known collections of Hadith, prepared by the renowned Dutch Orientalist A. J. Wensinck, has been converted to electronic form. Several collections of Hadith in English translation are available on 22 websites and in French on 8 sites.

Islamic websites, which are rapidly multiplying, provide a wide range of information and materials, including an explication of the verses of the Holy Quran and selections from Hadith literature, informed opinion on the religious, social, economic, political and cultural affairs of the Muslim world, chat rooms, and online fatwa (solicited legal opinion or edict pertaining to specific issues and problems faced by Muslims in day-to-day life). IslamiCity (http://www.islam.org), based in the USA, is one of the important Islamic websites. In addition to providing fairly comprehensive information on the Quran and the Sunnah, the website offers online fatwa service, radio and television channels, chat rooms, Islamic screensavers and electronic greeting cards. IslamiCity has published more than 5000 fatawa on the Internet. Another important Islamic website is Huruf (http://www.huruf.com), which is jointly managed by Knowledge Management Systems (KnowSys) and ITLogic. Among other materials, it offers informed opinion and comments on contemporary issues related to the Muslim world. It also espouses inter-cultural and inter-civilizational dialogue. The website of As-Sunna Foundation of America (http://www.sunnah.org/msaec/.) provides information of a general nature on fundamental Islamic themes and sources.

Some websites are specifically devoted to providing fatawa (singular: fatwa) online. The distribution of fatawa on the Internet can be classified into two broad categories:(i) archiving as well as compilation of various fatawa which are already published in specialized books on the subject (ii) solicited fatawa in response to specific requests from surfers. The Saudi Arabian Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and fatawa, a government-regulated body, runs a website called fatawa-Online (http://www.fatwa.online.com). It received over 30,000 hits from surfers between October 1999 and December 2000. The As-Sunna Foundation of America (http://www.sunnah.org/fatwa/.) offers fatawa online. Another site is Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyya (http://www.haneen.com.eg/fatwa/fatwapage.html). Prominent institutions of Islamic learning, such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, offer online fatawa services. Online fatawa are available in English as well as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, Thai and other languages.

The task of providing authentic legal opinion in response to specific queries from surfers entails a great deal of competence and responsibility. Only a person who is well-versed in Islamic law, has a specialized knowledge of fatwa literature and has received training in issuing fatawa at a reputed institution of Islamic learning can perform this task. One peculiar problem with solicited fatawa on the Internet is that one cannot be sure whether the person who is providing the required information or opinion is a professionally trained and competent scholar or an amateur person with a smattering of Islamic law.



Modern computer technologies have great potential and prospects for the archiving, preservation, dissemination and exchange of Islamic texts and other materials, for forging Islamic identity, unity and solidarity, and for effectively responding to the challenges facing the Muslim ummah in the contemporary world.


Computer technologies are increasingly being used for archiving and preserving Islamic texts. At the Centre for Islamic Jurisprudence in Qom, Iran, several thousand texts, both Shii and Sunni, have been converted to electronic form. An Islamic organization based in Qatar has undertaken an ambitious project to preserve, by microfilming, unpublished manuscripts on Islamic subjects, which are found in large numbers in Muslim countries as well as in India.

Contemporary Islamic movements, especially those which have large, transnational followers, are making increasing use of modern information and communication technologies for providing information about their activities and programmes and for reinforcing connectivity and internal cohesion. The Naqshbandiya-Haqqaniya order of Sufism, with roots in Turkey, Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon, is one of the most prominent Sufi orders in Western Europe and North America. The teachings as well as activities and programmes of the order are disseminated to its followers located in different countries through books and pamphlets as well as over the Internet.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture was founded in 1988 and is registered in Geneva, Switzerland as a private, non-denominational, philanthropic foundation. One of the aims of the Trust is to increase cross-cultural understanding of Islamic architecture and the close linkage between culture and architecture in Islamic civilization. The Trust has commissioned a new project called ArchNet (www.archnet.org) at the School of Architecture and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. The main objective of Archnet is to provide extensive high-quality, globally accessible intellectual resources focused on topics of architecture, urban design, urban development (including restoration and conservation), housing landscape, and concerns related to the Islamic world. Archnet provides, on an accessible server, images, a searchable text library, bibliographical reference databases, online lectures, statistical information, papers and reviews. Currently there are over 8000 images and 1500 publications related to the historical as well as contemporary architecture of the Islamic world in the Digital Library.

The Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, founded in Leiden, the Netherlands in 1998, aims at promoting inter-disciplinary research on contemporary social and intellectual trends and movements in Muslim societies and communities. Its redesigned website (www.isim.nl) is a useful source of information on the contemporary Islamic world.

One of the significant features of our globalizing era is the existence of transnational communities or diasporas which maintain a vast network of culture and communication-greatly facilitated by the incredible advances in the means of transportation and in information and communication technologies-with their countries of origin. Telephone, satellite television and the Internet are playing a highly important role in connecting the diasporic communities to their roots and their homelands. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, more than 50% of the local Palestinian population were driven out of their homelands. More than four million refugees took shelter in the neighbouring countries as well as in Europe and North America. A whole generation was born and brought up in foreign lands, cut off from their homelands and their cultural roots. The members of this generation are now discovering, thanks to homepages on the Internet, their religious and cultural traditions as well as the villages from which their parents were forced to migrate. The commemoration of the martyrdom of young Palestinians killed by the Israeli forces now takes place on the Internet. Furthermore, families create their own websites to search for lost relatives. Messages, images and appeals related to shared concerns are downloaded from the Internet, forwarded and circulated, printed and pasted in mosques, on university and on café walls. Historical pictures of Palestinian villages and towns before the exile and those of the intifada are amongst the most downloaded and forwarded images. The growing use of computer technology is thus transforming the Palestinian refugees into a transnational virtual community and facilitating the reconstruction of their identity. Chat rooms, websites and mailing lists provide the infrastructure for this virtual community. The cybercafe provides an amiable atmosphere for the Palestinians to meet, exchange news and messages and to socialize. This process is reinforced through the Palestinian television channel and the Palestine Broadcast Corporation.

The Al-Jazeera, an independent 24-hour television channel with headquarters in Qatar, has greatly transformed public opinion in the Middle East. It is broadcasted via satellites and the Internet around the world. Al-Jazeera's on-the-spot telecast of the intifada and live shots of Israeli atrocities on the Palestinians are immediately spread on the Internet and distributed to a wide audience of Palestinians and other Arabs.

There is a sizeable Iranian diaspora in North Canada, USA and Europe. The Internet is playing a highly significant role in connecting the diasporic Iranian communities to each other and to their homeland. One of the prominent online Iranian magazines is www.iranian.com, with several sections and links. The news section, for example, has links to more than 150 online Iranian magazines and newspapers. Interestingly, Iran's online newspapers appear much before the printed editions are available on news stands in Tehran and other cities. In addition to magazines and newspapers, one can also access through the Internet Radio Payam (Tehran's local radio) as well as Radio Sada-e-Iran (a round-the-clock radio station located in Los Angeles). In Stockholm, Iranian local radio stations download programmes from the Internet and rebroadcast them for the local Iranian community.

The Nizari Ismailis are one of the small Shii sects living in more than 25 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and Australia. The members of the community, who are generally highly educated, use computer technologies, from websites and e-mail listservs to weblogs and IRCS, to access and exchange information, issues and concerns of common interest. The Internet thus serves as a means of strengthening community solidarity and identity.

Modern information and communication technologies are also increasingly being used for transnational ethnic and political mobilization. The Kurdish refugees in North America and Europe, for example, run their own television channel and extensively use the Internet for reinforcing community solidarity and for pushing their political agenda.

As the use of computers, the Internet and mobile phones among Muslims is rapidly increasing, these services are also being used for disseminating and exchanging information about such things as the dates of Islamic festivals according to the Islamic calendar and other issues of common concern. A couple of months ago, newspapers in several European countries republished highly offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (which were originally published by a Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005). This produced a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims across the world. (see "Sacrilegious Cartoons" in this edition of The IOS Minaret). Some Muslim countries recalled their envoys to Denmark and declared a ban on the import of Danish goods. Danish goods and commodities were boycotted on a wide scale across the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East. Messages to boycott Danish goods were extensively circulated and forwarded through mobile phones and the Internet.

Modern computer technologies have great potential and prospects in store for the dissemination and exchange of Islamic materials, for forging communitarian unity, for effectively responding to the challenges facing the Muslim ummah, and for reinforcing Islamic identity.

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