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NMIT Working Papers present preliminary formulations of new data and thinking from ongoing social science research on the economic, cultural, policy and social implications of new media, communication and information technologies in the contemporary Middle East.

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Muslim Networks, Muslim Selves in Cyberspace: Islam in the Post-Modern Public Sphere

Jon W. Anderson, Catholic University of America
Prepared for a panel on Public and Private Spheres in Muslim Societies Today: Gender and New Media, Conference of the Japan Islamic Area Studies Project on "The Dynamism of Muslim Societies," Tokyo, October 5-8, 2001.

Abstract: This paper examines how Muslim presences have emerged on the Internet and the role of religion - specifically, Islam - in this sphere. The paper looks beyond demographic expansion to its more social characteristics. Three stages or phases of this emergence may be identified: much as technological adepts were followed by officializing strategies, those in turn have been overtaken and surpassed in using the Internet by activist but distinctly moderate Islam, for which the Internet seems peculiarly congenial. This suggests a more complex dynamic than expanding the public sphere by the addition of new voices and new media, or relocating boundaries between the public and the private. Instead, the emerging public sphere is being shaped by a dialectic of network and identity processes advanced by information technologies like the Internet that feature the capacities of moderate professional sectors, which both produce and consume Islam on the Internet.



The Internet and its associated technologies have played various and changing roles in the emerging public sphere of contemporary Islam. It has been companion, arena, tool that shapes as well as channels expression, fosters identities in a globalizing world, providing both opportunities and alternatives for networking among Muslims and of Muslims with others. It has expanded participation and the public sphere of contemporary Islam (Anderson 1999, Bunt 2000), with new interpreters and new thinking that is not itself new or unique: Islam has always articulated and been articulated through networks fashioned by master-pupil relations among the learned, in Sufi networks, among those seeking, studying, and worshiping together, and travelers of various sorts. Here, I want to focus on some gross features of how the social dynamics of the Internet and its evolution intersect and affect the social dynamics of Muslim public spheres.

For convenience, I arrange this discussion around three phases of these interrelations to highlight their intersecting social dynamics:

  • technological adepts first brought their interests as Muslims and core texts of Islam on-line when the Internet was still primarily a scientific and research medium
  • activists and official voices followed as the Internet began to move into wider public realms with technological innovations beginning with the World Wide Web
  • spokespersons and audiences neither so activist nor so establishment bring broader explorations more characteristic of a bourgeois public sphere that is organized by the practices of a widening and increasingly professional middle class and, correlatively, "moderate" in expression and interests that extend beyond institutional boundary-maintenance

In this discussion I wish to make a few key points. The first is that Muslims bringing Islam on-line have throughout utilized the highest publicly available technology and so been at the forefront of developing its uses, if not developing the underlying technology itself. The second point is that what emerges on-line is a creolized discourse. I prefer this term to the more current talk of "hybridization," because it preserves the primary reference to language, and hence to communication, over the vague biological metaphor of mixing. The process and its registers matter sociologically. Creoles are not just mixtures; they form a continuum of "intermediate languages" between otherwise separate discourse communities and link language to social realization in performance. My third point is that Islam on the Internet is performative, not merely paradigmatic but a pragmatic engagement of witness and of connection, and that these connections grow uniquely in this medium. They include ways that Muslims connect their lives with Islam and extend those connections beyond the parameters of previous networks for a wider range of persons, including women. The last, and overall, point I wish to make is that these voices, connections, identities and performances represent a "missing middle" between the Islam of intellectuals subject to textual analysis (of thought) and Islam of the folk or masses more likely to examined in terms of social forces. Let me try to connect these points briefly.


Technological Adepts

The Internet that is arguably the fastest-growing medium of communication in recent history was not, as sometimes claimed, invented for secure communications in the event of thermonuclear war. Instead, it was pieced together out of existing technologies by engineers for their own work and from the beginning embodied their collaborative work habits. It emerged from a world multi-user, interactive, networked, multi-media computing that had already overturned the regime of and centralized processing on mainframes tended by specialists and put computers in the laboratories of scientists and engineers. The Internet’s history is one of expanding this user-base by extending local networks to wide areas. It employed the newer regime of interactive computing, extending that first to distant machines, then to disparate systems, and almost immediately to their operators with the invention of electronic mail in the early 1970s. By the mid-1970s, the Internet Protocol enabled virtually infinite connection of networks and with that a growing base of users and uses they devised such as remote file archives and electronic discussion groups. It spread from scientific laboratories throughout universities, embodying their values on fast, flexible, and open communications between persons of like interests or focused on common projects of creating and adjudicating knowledge.

Almost from the beginning, users brought avocational as well as vocational interests and values on-line, creating information archives and particularly proliferating discussion groups on topics ranging from science fiction to hobbies, also politics, and notably religion. And these attracted others as the Internet public spread from engineers to scientists, to other researchers, throughout universities, and into the professional publics surrounding them. The social dynamics of the Internet may be summed up as voluntary associations, new users, new uses, leveraging expertise, and the emergence of a publication medium that was more interactional than mass media, but with potentially world-wide reach. In other words, the physical network followed and fostered social networks.

By the early 1980s Muslim texts began to appear on-line in the form of scanned translations of the Holy Quran and Hadith collections, placed there by students who were Muslim and studying or working in the high-tech precincts that spawned the Internet. By their testimony, they were motivated to use their skills to assure a place for Islam in the on-line medium, whose potential to reach a new public they understood. That is, they were laying claim for their religion, performing pious acts of witness, experimenting, and reaching out to each other in this medium. Their tools were command of the technology and the core texts that embody for Muslims the foundations of their religion.

Texts of the Holy Quran and Hadith of the Prophet came on-line detached from conventional interpretive apparatus, which was replaced by another "intellectual techniques" that came with the expansion of modern higher education and the rising numbers who receive it in Muslim countries (Eickelman 1992). The discussions that followed texts on-line were dominated by persons tracked early into engineering and science, many of whom often returned to religion after training in other techniques than the traditional text-focused disciplines of tafsir, fiqh, and ijtihad. Utilizing science-based training, they produced in electronic discussion groups a sort of creolized discourse of and about Islam that mixed styles of reasoning and terminology from the separate languages of science and religion in an "inter-language" that is not so much a combination as it is sociologically a link between two realms of discourse. Those fluent in different parts of the continuum could join and communicate, not in a new super community but through intermediate communities.

This sort of discourse is beyond the scope and frequently beneath the attention of those specifically learned in Islam, and is still frequently dismissed for lacking the "proper" skills and training of traditional hermeneutics. To some, it is even an affront, to others an indication of the need to regularize or bring the discourse back within official parameters, which is the characteristic of the second phase of Islam on-line.


Officializing strategies and activists

The second phase emerged partly in response to the first but also partly in response to the opportunities for forging alternative channels of communication and thus publics. It is marked by officializing strategies and frequently radical activists. For both, the Internet is less a medium of interactive communication than for publication of views, which analytically break down into two kinds of projects.

Activists were already developing perspectives that Gaffney (1995) called "jihadist," advanced as alternatives to ‘ulamid conventions but more engaged in political causes and life than the still-textualist emphases of tech-pioneers. They share with the pioneers the application of other skills to religious interpretation -- in this case political skills and experience that link activists with the world and constituencies in it. To one side, they press critique of the 'ulema' and on the other critique of society and politics, which the discourse of jihadists link as equally problematic, albeit in different ways. That is, the world of political Islam is likewise a continuum of intermediate discourses and identities.

After these who seized the opportunity in the new medium to press calls to action into an international space, and more hesitantly, came the institutional spokespersons and discourse of what may be termed Islamic establishments. In the US, for instance, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, which asserts special claims to protect Islam, placed on-line copies of its brochures. It was followed by daw’a organizations’ apologetics, the International Islamic University created by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and in time a multitude of national Muslim organizations, madrassa, and other vehicles through which a more established Islam of ‘ulema’ came on-line, explicitly to give "correct" information about and interpretations of Islam. Like activists, they were intensely focused on boundary-maintenance, but also systematically attended to practical concerns of Muslims, such as where to find mosques, halal butchers, schools in Western countries -- in other words, both ritual needs of Muslims and calls to action. They focused on how to compose a Muslim life both didactically and increasingly with information. Iranian projects at Qom and other seminary cities put even more extensive texts of religious instruction and interpretation on-line date in the 1990s. By 1999, Al-Azhar had come on-line, in both English and Arabic, both with web-pages like any university and as a source of authoritative religious guidance from the religious establishment.

This phase is importantly facilitated by technological development of the World Wide Web, the hypertext-linked and multi-media graphic user interface that finally opened the Internet to wider publics. The Web returns the Internet to the interactive character that denominated it initially, but with a much broader ease of use and a less "technical" face. Indeed, to most users and to virtually all new ones since 1990, the Internet is the World Wide Web. And this user-friendliness, of course, facilitates a broader range of networks, network processes, networking habits, producers, consumers, and identities in general.


Online advent of moderate Islam

If the first and second phases are characterized by assertion, moderation marks an emerging third phase. Moderation both in terms of a broader middle range of opinion coming on-line, and also a shift to discourse and connections to harmonizing religion and life, particularly modern life. After the technological adepts, jihadists, and ‘ulema’, a broad middle ground is drawing on the Internet’s widening base in the broader world of professionals that follow engineers and scientists on-line and have interests less in debating about Islam that in fitting Islam to the contours of modern life.

This growing middle class, particularly of professionals, in Muslim countries like their counterparts worldwide, have skills and inclinations to turn to the Internet for information and use it as a medium of communication. The Internet is part of their world. Demographically, their numbers may be small in the Muslim world, but their importance is as a growing middle between traditional extremes of elite and folk, and their habits increasingly denominate the public sphere with middle-class, middle-of-the-road values, interests, and professional styles. Many of them in Middle Eastern countries have transnational ties, and throughout the Muslim world they move between local and transnational spheres, link different domains, and thereby forge the intermediate public spheres between family and state.

The on-line world resonates with theirs, and in it have emerged a range of Islamic voices and media directed at them and patronized by them. Some hark back to the first phase, such as a fatwa site created by a young Muslim studying in a Catholic university in the United States who aims to speak from and to the experience of people like himself. Some continue the activist stance of the second phase, such as the Hezbollah website that features Shaykh Nasrullah, or the establishment Islam on sites produced by Iran’s madrassa and religious foundations in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and by Al-Azhar. But there are also others reflecting a broader and more diverse audience. Here, I would mention one of the more ambitious, and professional, IslamOnline, based in Qatar and with offices in many countries including the US and Europe.

IslamOnline is professionally produced and uses the latest web technology (for rapid interaction with databases, submitting responses) and in Arabic and English. Its technology is produced and maintained by the same group of companies that also moved Al-Jazeera Satellite Television online in Arabic. It is configured as a portal, in the latest fashion, providing a daily selection of international news about and of interest to Muslims and a range of advice from formal fatwas issued by ‘ulema’ in response to psychological counseling focused less on behavior than on psychology. There are other similar Islamic portals, but IslamOnline features perhaps the most famous Sunni preacher today, Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi.

Shaykh Yusuf is widely regarded as a moderate in the Middle East, where he has a following (not only on the Internet) among middle class professionals looking for an Islam that is orthodox, moderate in expression and views, and relates to their lives and issues of how to lead a Muslim life in a modern world. Shaykh Yusuf trained and taught at Al-Azhar, but adopts a more popular style, rational but direct, associated with what Malika Zeghal (1999) has called Azhar’s periphery of the classically-trained but positively engaged with the world and with middle-class concerns, styles and outlooks. Others of this tendency are also on IslamOnline, so, in the traditional fashion, a Muslim seeking guidance may choose his or her shaykh but through a shared on-line space.

In addition to formal fatwa, more informal counsel is also offered on IslamOnline for questions that may be phrased as social, rather than precisely religious issues, such as marriage counseling outside the limited interests of fiqh. In other words, every question does not have to be a religious question to be put to religious advisors; their counsel as Muslims may be sought also in registers similar to the advice columnists in newspapers.

And this dialogue is recorded and available, in Arabic and English, on-line for inspection by third parties, who get to see "what the Shayks say," as one put it to me recently in Jordan. He went on to draw a parallel to "sitting around the mosque" as ways to become acquainted with the views and style of a shaykh. In other words, the medium affords a continuum not only of formats from counseling to religious ruling but also a continuum of interaction from silent and self-directed seeker to actively engaging the shaykh. Moreover, they are accessible internationally, effectively creating a new public that itself combines traditional elements with modern technology.

This site, and others like it, also offers composed lessons, hadith interpretation, scripture and a range of other pronouncements, such as Shaykh Yusuf’s recent condemnation of the September 11attacks in the US as breaching prohibitions in the Quran against attacks on innocents and non-combatants, women, and children. But the innovation is interaction with the shaykhs, joining the interactivity of the first phase with the pronouncements that defined the second.

This attracts a significant number of women among the seekers represented and specifically addressed on IslamOnline, and women’s problems occupy a prominent place in the overall content, particularly problems posed in modern conditions. These problems include engagement and marriage where one or both are overseas for work, school, or other reasons; raising children and issues of consumer culture as well as with in-laws, which occupy women everywhere; living in non-Muslim societies and problems not just of comportment but also more "modern" registers of psychological compatibilities. The anonymity of the Internet, and its reach, are important for enhancing the ability to "browse" opinion-givers prior to interacting with them, as is -- as one woman put it to me -- the ability to get access to a shaykh without regard to physical as well as social distance.

However small or otherwise confined such constituencies might be in any one place, the Internet’s worldwide reach and social dynamics, from anonymity to its favoring the skills of professional middle classes, provide a way for those to assemble in a common public space with a new accent.


Concluding remarks

In sketching these phases broadly, I do not mean to imply that these characteristics are so categorical. What I do want to indicate, however, is the interaction of social dynamics rooted on the one hand in features of Islamic networks and identities and, on the other hand, in a socially organized technology.

The social organization and dynamics of the Internet are based on values on instantaneous, worldwide, open communication built into it by engineers, who initially made it in the image of their own work habits. It has grown by adding new uses and new users to accommodate a wider range of interests, which are shaped and selected by its dynamics and evolution into an increasingly public medium that is both informational and, crucially, structured for communication, which is to say for interaction. Unlike other interactive communications, such as the telephone, it is public and invites public behavior.

The social dynamics of the emerging public sphere of Islam intersect these Internet dynamics that foster creolized discourses and identities that in turn expand the space between elite and folk, esoteric and exoteric, linking text and tafsir, interpretation and interpreters in extended continuua, along which people can move and meet, rather than some vague mixing or merged "hybridization."

Finally, I would emphasize that this examination reveals a world more of performances than of paradigms. These performances are situated and densely contextualized, rather than abstracted religious discourse. The Internet, built to be interactive, affords opportunities for presentation and representation, but also for selection and, particularly in the third phase, opportunities for interaction beyond mere assertion. Within their limitations, these interactions are unconstrained by social and physical distance, and intimate for those who are increasingly denominating their identities and networks in those terms, and with it the public sphere of Islam today.



Anderson, Jon W. "The Internet and Islam’s New Interpreters." In New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, edited by Dale F. Eickelman & Jon W. Anderson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. pp. 41-56.

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

Eickelman, Dale F. "Mass Higher Education and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary Arab Societies," American Ethnologist 19(4): 643-54, 1992.

Gaffney, Patrick. The Prophet’s Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Malika Zeghal. "Religion and politics in Egypt: The Ulema of Al-Azhar, radical Islam, and the State (1952-94)," International Journal of Middle East Studies 31(4): 371-99, 1999.


Jon W. Anderson is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the Catholic University of America and co-editor, with Dale F. Eickelman, of New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

This paper is based on research supported by grants from the American Center of Oriental Research (Amman) and the U.S. Institute of Peace. For permission to cite this paper, email:


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