The San Jose Mercury News


Published: Saturday, January 11, 1997
Section: Religion & Ethics
Page: 1E

BY RICHARD SCHEININ Mercury News Religion and Ethics Writer

HATEM Bazian is surfing a Web site known as IslamiCity. He heads into a ''virtual mosque'' that houses a vast, digital Islamic library. Inside, Bazian finds the voluminous compilation of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings - the Hadith.

He clicks on ''Hadith,'' and then on the icon for a portion of the Hadith known as the ''Sahih Bukhari.'' This contains the most authoritative of the prophet's sayings, said to have been transmitted by Muhammad directly to his disciples, and then from the disciples to their students, down through the ages.

Now, more than 13 centuries later, Bazian can download Muhammad's teachings on weddings and funerals, prostration and prayer, obligatory charity, mortgages, hunting, Islamic dress, fasting, tricks, judgments, menstruation, medicine and divine will, which is known in Arabic as Al-Qadar.

Bazian, a doctoral student at the University of California-Berkeley, where he heads the Muslim Student Association, says ''everything imaginable'' about Islam is available on the Internet.

Certainly the Islamic canon, commentaries and contemporary scholastic essays are there. And certainly the digital apparatus to find answers to the most arcane theological questions are available.

But the Internet is also filled with a living dialogue about what it means to be Muslim in America. The holy month of Ramadan has just begun, and the 100 or so Islamic Web sites are filled with conversations that reflect the excitement and angst of being an American Muslim: Should a Muslim woman wear the traditional head covering, known as a ''hijab''? After all, the hijab is the most visible symbol of Muslims in America. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, rampant speculation about Islamic involvement led to harassment of Muslim women on the street.

''Is the hijab mandatory or not? Do Koranic verses mandate it? The Hadith? If hardship results from women wearing the hijab, is it better to be a practicing Muslim without the head covering? You find all of this discussed on the Net,'' Barzian says.

As Muslims settle in for a month of fasting and reflection on how to lead faithful, worthy lives - internalizing God's word while listening to nightly recitations of the holy Koran - the Internet allows Muslims to exchange information on faith and opinions on the thorniest cultural issues.

How can Islam be relevant in this country? How can Muslims maintain both Islamic faith and an American cultural identity? Earlier this century, Catholics came to the United States from Germany, Italy, Poland, France, the Balkans - later from Latin America and Asia - and slowly built a unique, American Catholic identity despite their disparate cultural backgrounds.

The approximately 5 million Muslims who live in the United States - 150,000 in the Bay Area - today find themselves in a similar situation. The South Bay Muslim community includes Bosnians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Turks, Afghanis, Somalians and Sudanese, as well as Pakistanis, Indians, Malaysians and small numbers of Chinese, Filipinos and Mexicans. Each group abides by Islam's universal tenets, but the religious practices are often embedded in a matrix of national customs. Will something newly American grow out of all this?

Cultural traditions forming?

''We've had the most amazing discussions on the Net, and one of the biggest debates you see is whether an American Muslim culture is forming,'' says Shahed Amanullah, a civil engineer for the city of San Francisco who manages two well-known Islamic Web sites. ''It's not going to be Indo-Pakistani, and it's not going to be Arab; it's going to be American. Are we going to have our own cultural traditions? Is that culture going to shape us? One of the big debates is: Are we going to Islamicize America, or is America going to Americanize us? All these little thoughts are popping up on the Net, and eventually they're going to coalesce into a meaningful description of what American Islam is all about.''

The Internet is uniting the geographically dispersed Muslim community: Islamic cultural centers from Mexico City to Santa Cruz operate Web sites. ''The Net is helping Muslims to break out of this kind of isolation we have,'' Amanullah says. He points to Internet publicity for a homeless assistance program in downtown San Jose in which Muslims now volunteer alongside Christians.

He also says the digital anonymity that the Internet offers has had a leveling influence on conversations among Muslims: ''Women are able to participate intellectually on an equal footing on the Internet,'' says Amanullah, who manages a Web site for the Muslim Women's League, a national organization. ''There's no sense of being intimidated. What I've noticed is that women I see in the community who seem really quiet, all of a sudden on the Internet, they're much more courageous and strong and outspoken.''

Ibrahim Hooper, of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, says the Internet is a medium through which Muslims can distribute information without it being ''filtered through other gatekeepers.'' The people who receive this information tend to be the young, middle-class users of PCs.

During the presidential elections, Islamic sites on the Internet heated up with conversations about races and policy issues - and a sense of discovery of how welfare reform and other social programs create a world that may or may not be consistent with Islamic conceptions of justice.

This youthful, Islamic discovery online of American civics fascinated Aminah Beverly McCloud, professor of Islamic studies at DePaul University in Chicago, who browsed the Net to stay on top of the discussions. She says Muslim students' concern about the ''lack of ethical conscience in American politics'' leads some to reject secular involvement. Others dive into the political process, hoping that it's possible ''not to let the soap rub off on you.''

Like many scholars who came of age in a non-digital world, McCloud is not a habitual user of the Internet. In fact, she finds it frustrating at times: ''You can sit there forever, hunting and browsing, clicking category by category, and then nothing comes up, and I say, 'You know, this is a lot of fun, but I've got housework to do.' ''

Beyond logistical problems, there is a division in the Muslim world over the Internet's ultimate place in the religion. Many traditionalists hold that Islamic knowledge has always been transmitted from teacher to student, across the centuries, with some living spiritual masters tracing their lineages directly back to Muhammad. As the Internet gains popularity, they say, it's held up by some Muslims as a sort of electronic teacher and mentor - a disturbing development to members of this camp.

Making it work for them

The great majority of Muslims familiar with the Internet believe that, like most any technological advance, it can be incorporated into Islamic life. In the Bay Area, where a high percentage of Muslim residents work in technology, this opinion is pronounced. Still, many complain that the Net is too often naively viewed as a source of authentic information, when it is really a repository for both reliable and unreliable material.

Increasingly, says UC-Berkeley's Bazian, inadequately schooled Muslims fail to understand the historical context of information found on the Web and make electronic pronouncements about their spiritual insights. The Internet thus becomes a source at times of bogus religious rulings: ''I call it dialing 1-800-fatwah,'' says Bazian, a fatwah being a ruling made by an imam, or spiritual leader.

This concern that the Internet offers an easy pulpit to non-scholars is compounded by the fact that the Net abounds with Web sites set up by ''proto-Islamic'' groups, including Lewis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, whose racial views are regarded as profoundly non-Islamic by most Muslims.

Finding misinterpretations

Many Muslim Internet users complain of using search engines to look up information about ''Islam,'' only to discover Web sites, designed by non-Muslims - usually evangelical Christians, that misconstrue Islamic teachings. ''A lot of the material is polemical in nature, attacking Islam, the God of Islam, not even acknowledging that it's the same, universal God of all,'' says Jamal Badawi, an Islamic scholar at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose 176 hours worth of television lectures on Islam are popular around the world - and heard on the Internet.

One place they can be heard - in ''real audio'' - is on the IslamiCity Web page. The virtual city has a virtual radio station (Radio Al-Islam) that plays, along with Badawi's lectures, an oration of the life of Muhammad by Yusef Islam, who used to be known as Cat Stevens. Moving through the site, Bazian clicks on a virtual ''port'' with links to Web sites in the United Kingdom, Australia and Africa. He locates an ''Ask the Imam'' page, where more than 500 questions to Muslim teachers are answered by the imams and posted for browsers. Bazian finds aerial views of Mecca; instructions for performing ablutions prior to prayer; more instructions for figuring out Ramadan prayer times in Trenton, N.J., or anywhere else.

He jumps to a British-based home page.

There's a ''New Response to the Atheist Manifesto'' as well as an editorial that excoriates the new radical Muslim government in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime, by banning women from schools and the workplace, is reinstating ''the pre-Islamic culture of ignorance that degraded the status of women.''

Not long ago, a Bay Area Muslim educator named Maha ElGenaidi stumbled on a Web site that said Islam denigrates women as ''toys'' and ''objects.'' Yet Muhammad said in the seventh century that women and men stand on equal footing before the law.

ElGenaidi, who works with Bay Area schools and law enforcement agencies as director of the Islamic Networks Group, an Islamic educational organization, was appalled, thinking about all the kids trolling the Net who would come across the Web site ''and think this is what Islam says about women.''

But as ElGenaidi has begun to seriously explore the Internet recently, she is mostly ''thrilled'' by what she's found.

''I could be sitting here in my office, communicating with a teacher in New Jersey,'' she says. ''I'm convinced this is going to be a great thing for bringing communities and people together . . . Muslims and non-Muslims. Because I believe in my heart that the negative images of Muslims that we're seeing in the media and Hollywood and textbooks are the result of ignorance; I don't believe in this idea that there's some evil conspiracy afoot in the world that's working against us. The Internet is going to help educate people about the truth.''


(box) Ibrahim Shafi's Islam Page -\ One of the earliest, and still one of the best, resource sites for general Islamic information, pictures and software.

(box) Dunya: CyberMuslim Information Collective - http://www.\
Dunya has been featured in WiReD magazine and's top 5 percent of all Web sites for its innovative approach to Islam on the Web.

(box) IslamiCity -\ Visit a virtual mosque, science and political centers, port and radio station.

(box) Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr -\ Information on the holy month.

(box) Latif's Islamic Resources -\ This site has religious texts, extensive links, bulletin boards, community listings. One of the earliest Islamic Web pages.

(box) Islamic Networks Group -\ A monthly calendar of events for the Bay Area Muslim community.

(box) American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism (AMILA) -\ The home page of a Bay Area organization dedicated to building an active American Muslim community with a strong commitment to spiritual enrichment, intellectual freedom and community service.

(box) Association of Islamic Charitable Projects - http://www.\
A compilation of Islamic charities working here and around the world.

(box) Haqqani SufiGate Web Site -\ ~informe/mateen/haqqani.html
The home page of one of America's largest Sufi (Islamic spiritual) organizations.

(box) Islamic Books -<
(box) AWAIR Home Page -\ awairproductinfo.html

(box) Sufi Center Bookstore -\ These three organizations offer Islamic literature for sale on the Net.

(box) MPACnet Activist Resource Center - http://www.mpac. org/\ Council on American-Islamic Relations - http://www.cair. com/\ American Muslim Council -\ The home pages of the three main Muslim sociopolitical organizations working to fight discrimination and promote an understanding of Islam and Muslims.

(box) About Al-Islam and Muslims -\ islamic/about/
Basic information about the religion.

Copyright 1997, The San Jose Mercury News. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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