Islam on the Internet
Part III: The Debate Over Online Muslim
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.
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
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.
the Los Angeles-area offices of Web site Islamcity.com, Moon
witnessed the conversion of a Tennessee woman named Travenda, who
was coached in how to say the Arabic words of the shadadah: There is
no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of God.
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
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."
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
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
"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."
Khaled Abou el Fadl, professor of Islamic Law at
"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."
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.
list of all Islam on the Internet resources.
to the Islam on the Internet intro page.