Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Internet fatwas as new religious authority?

by Salman Hameed

There are a lot of online fatwas sites, and there is also no shortage of offline fatwas as well. Of course, weird fatwas grab all all the attention: a fatwa banning Pokemon in Saudi Arabia,  adult breastfeeding as way around sex segregation, etc. But of course, there are far more fatwas that are not that news-worthy. The growth of online fatwas has also been driven by Muslim minorities in Europe and the US, where they have broader access to the internet, but not necessarily a local religious authority.

Here is an interesting 2007 paper by Vit Sisler on The Internet and the Construction of Islamic Knowledge in Europe, published in the Journal of Law and Technology. Here is the section on authority, and I find the last paragraph about the increasing influence of European Muftis in the larger Muslim world fascinating (but of course, there is competition from the traditional authorities gaining ground on the internet):
The Internet has highlighted the marginalized groups and minority opinions in contemporary Islam, especially in the beginning, when established traditional authorities were not present. Some scholars have noted that there are a disproportionately high number of Internet sites which can be described as Salafi, i.e. having clear inclinations to the salafiya movement.[20] Moreover, until recently the Internet was providing an effective space for dissenting opinions that had limited or no access to other forms of mass media (like in the cases of Iranian scholar Hussein Ali Montazeri or Egyptian and Saudi Arabian opposition movements).[21] In most cases the messages of the marginalized or dissenting groups have been presented as purely Islamic, with no reference to orthodox or majority opinion. 
Over time, the so-called traditional authorities have invaded cyberspace and struggled to regain the authority they have allegedly lost. For example, the Al-Azhar library is now online with a huge database of fatwas and other religious texts. Even in Iran clerics have been encouraged by the state to set up their own weblogs, and the religious militia is operating their own Islamic cybercaf├ęs with protected, i.e. filtered, content.[22] Rather than favoring minority discourses, the Internet has created a new media ecology in which various interpretive authorities, both minority and majority, compete for audiences. 
Another aspect connected to the question of authority could be described as the "privatization" and "individualization" of Islam. Again this is particularly evident among the younger generation of Muslims, who search the Internet for different views and opinions, discuss them in both in online and off-line environments, and then select those most fitting to their own views. The same selective approach is often applied towards the sacred texts - the holy Quran and Sunna. The reasons for this phenomenon are variegated, most frequently cited are the impact of secular education in Western societies and the disintegration of traditional social enforcement frameworks. Be this as it may, the vehicle contributing to this phenomenon is undeniably also the Internet. 
The last impact of the Internet on the construction of interpretative authority is manifested by the fact that more and more Muslims from Islamic countries are seeking answers via the Internet from the European-based muftis. The case of Islamonline is again significant - in its database of fatwas we can find thousands of inquiries allegedly submitted from African or Middle Eastern countries. This constitutes a unique and in our modern history quite new situation - the European muftis are, at least in some cases, becoming interpretative authority for the Islamic world.[23]
You can access the full article from the Digital Islam site (Vit is also the Editor-in-Chief of Digital Islam). Here is the abstract:
Muslim communities in Europe vary greatly in regards to their ethnic origin and geographical location as well as their religious and cultural backgrounds. From Muslims in the Balkans, settled in the area for centuries, to the first-generation immigrants of Asian or African Muslims in the Western Europe, these communities live in a legal and political framework where the Islamic law is not recognized as a legitimate source of law and thus is not applied by the state authorities. According to some scholars, the specific conditions in European Muslim communities contribute to a series of social and political changes, briefly referred to as the ‘privatization’ and ‘individualization’ of Islam. Given the distinctive character of the Islamic decision making process, a new paradigm has emerged in the construction of Islamic knowledge and interpretative authority. Within this new paradigm established ‘traditional’ authorities operate in coexistence with Internet based muftis, online fatwa databases and individual Islamic blogs. The Internet arguably holds the potential to reshape inequities in the distribution of information tied to other forms of mass media. This paper examines how, and if ever, the Internet Islamic sites after several years of operation change the process of decision making and construction of Islamic knowledge within European Muslim minorities.

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