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Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments

Author: Gary R. Bunt
Publisher: London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2003
Review Published: May 2005

 REVIEW 1: Alan Sondheim
 REVIEW 2: Robert Tynes

Gary Bunt's Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments is a book of innumerable subtexts -- summaries of work already done, analyses of the Net in general and Net communities in particular, presentations of difficult issues in Islamic studies, analyses of online ("cyber") Islamic resources, and a terrific resource for further work. The author writes from the viewpoint of an outsider, a researcher whose subject to some extent escapes him -- the number of Islamic online sites is growing rapidly; the users of such sites are most often anonymous; the sites are often online for only a short period of time; many sites may be below the radar (unknown, "private") of any researcher; sites may be in languages unknown to the researcher; and so forth. The outsider position is clear throughout the book; one feels a sense of peering into a complex web of fascinating worlds and debates, always from and within an "Other." Because issues of jihad, e-jihad, hacking, and 9-11 are discussed, there is a sense of urgency and wariness in carrying out the research: the Other is beyond research, almost literally beyond the Pale. Islam in the Digital Age is a complex work, with several interesting elements.

First, there are wide-ranging descriptions of sites from a number of communities -- Sunni, Shi'a, even Druze -- that offer fatwas and other information on everything from suicide and credit cards to questions of religious belief and ideology. Examples are given throughout the book. Many of the sites are multi-media, and include spoken word and music, images of pilgrimage, even videos and flash pieces. Some of them have extensive question and answer sections, as well as chats; in fact, the overall impression one gets is that of both community and communality -- the sites are for and of believers positioned according to particular tenets within Islam as a whole. Many sites reference and link to each other; there is, for example, a Jihad Webring, and almost all sites have extensive lists of other online resources.

The book attempts to make sense of all of this material through various classifications. The sites themselves range across and through the classifications, just as the Net itself is impossible to categorize. Bunt avoids rigidity here, which is to our benefit; there are no hard and fast categories. The chapter titles indicate his approach:
  1. Introduction
  2. 'The Digital Sword'? and Defining 'E-Jihad'
  3. Hactivism, Hacking and Cracking in the Name of Islam
  4. Cyber Islamic Reactions to 9-11: Mujahideen in Cyberspace
  5. Cyber Islamic Reactions to 9-11: The 'Inter'fada' and Global E-Jihad
  6. Cyber Islamic Reactions to 9-11: Jihad for Peace
  7. Islamic Decision-Making and Advice Online
  8. Sunni Religious Authority on the Internet I: Muslim Majority Contexts
  9. Sunni Religious Authority on the Internet II: Muslim Minority
  10. The Online Mujtahid: Islamic Diversity and Authority Online
  11. Islam in the Digital Age
Clearly "Majority" and "Minority" are roughly demographically positioned at best, and what constitutes fatwa in relation to advice can be difficult to understand. Bunt is very much aware of this. The bias of the book, though to a lesser extent than it appears from the chapter headings, is towards analyses of online jihad and 9-11; both tend towards the topical, the immediacy of news events. The book was written at most two years after 9-11, and there are many references to Bin Laden and the Taliban, but these don't obscure the greater horizon of the work -- Islam online, Cyber Islam.

Cyber Islam is itself problematic; it involves representations of religion, religious states, religious judgments, and religious community, in an arena in which virtuality is paramount. Is the Qur'an online the same as the book itself? Are images of hajj, for example, permissible, given the injunctions concerning pictorial representation? What are the human manifestations of Allah in cyberspace?

What is jihad? What is e-jihad? Bunt makes an important distinction between two types of jihad -- one which is internal, one external -- one dealing with the Other, and one dealing with oneself: "If the 'spiritual striving' aspects of jihad can be located within online fatwas, then the more militaristic or combative aspects as expressed online can be located in what can be labeled 'e-jihad' and hacking/cracking" (34). I think that Bunt emphasizes the former, which is all to the good, given the Islamic stereotypes propagated in other non-Islamic media; the book presents, above all, the richness of Islamic thought and culture in general.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the numbers of sites, cultures, decrees, and communities that really characterize Islam online. Fortunately, Bunt responds brilliantly to this. For the book works best, I think, as a handbook: the extensive netography of internet sites is invaluable, as is the more traditional bibliography with additional URLs. I found myself guided by Bunt's site descriptions: I'd go to the URL, and then veer to create my own path of linked sites. The book is augmented by a very useful companion site called VirtuallyIslamic.com. In other words, VirtuallyIslamic.com extends and returns the book itself to cyberspace; it keeps the work current and relevant.

A second element of Islam in the Digital Age is Bunt's treatment of Otherness as previously mentioned. As with any monotheism based on a corpus of approved texts and their inerrancy, there is almost always the presence of a theological Absolute. For example, in order to comprehend Kabbalah, one must read the Zohar, and read it in a particular fashion. The same is true for Islam; writing from the outside can only result in a partial reading (or reading from the outside can only result in a partial writing); a devout Muslim would have very a different take on the subject matter. The split is great and unknowable. For example, even given the debates described in Bunt's work, I have no idea what the habits and habitus of the Net would be for a follower of, say, Ayatullah Khamene'i. Bunt himself writes of the difficulty of interviewing practitioners and readers of different websites who often depend on anonymity and who most likely would find a non-Islamic researcher to be an intrusion. There are what one might consider "guard qualifiers" throughout the book -- statements on the limitations of the research, the need for further research, and perhaps the impossibility of further research in certain directions.

In other words, from the (various ideologies of the) Absolute, what are the values and uses of the Other? From within, what of the without? These divisions are fundamental, as writers from Mary Douglas (1970) to Kristeva (1982) have pointed out, and it seems to me (a "guard" qualifier itself) that they represent an impossibility or aporia in relation to Islam and Cyber Islamic research. Because of this, Islam in the Digital Age itself is a call for experience -- for experiencing the websites, for reading beyond and through the book, for an understanding that borders, and must border, on empathy.

A third element is the style of Bunt's work, which dramatically changes from academically-driven prose to exciting description. I found parts of the book somewhat dry and wordy -- those dealing with the notion of cyberspace, with information on hacking and the variety of sites encountered, with definitions of all sorts, with speculations on Net community in general, and so forth. This material is drawn out and occasionally repetitive. It may be that I'm either not sufficiently academic, and/or too familiar with the Net and Net issues in general; in any case, I have difficulties with this element. On the other hand, Bunt seems to "get going" when he describes the sites themselves; it's as if the very texture of the book changes. Because of the vastness of the subject, it doesn't seem as if there's an overarching thesis that is elucidated, only areas of research loosely defined and calls for further analyses.

This is a good thing. Certainly Bunt makes the case that online Islam responded to 9-11 pro-actively and thoughtfully, from a variety of viewpoints. His presentation of jihad reminded me of a combination of religious drives and the Freudian id -- there is a huge area for research here. To the extent that Islam is externally stereotyped as warlike and faceless, as well as technologically primitive, Islam in the Digital Age provides an absolutely necessary corrective. To the extent that jihad is considered primarily murderous, the book describes a phenomenology of jihad that intelligently contradicts this.

The best element of all in the work is the presentation and analysis of material from a great number of sites. This ranges from fatwa through exhortations. For example, a page on the Neda al-Quds site states:
    We want this website to be a bond joining us together and eliminating many of the damages inflicted by our enemy, at the head of which is disuniting us as a nation. We want this website to be a book or an encyclopedia from and for our nation, to the whole world. We want this website to be a website for freedom of our people and friends. (99)
Bunt goes on to say:
    The effectiveness of this mission statement is open to question. However, given the resources that have been integrated into the site, it is clear that it is seen as part of an overall strategy of dissemination, primarily for Arabic-speaking supporters, of the "Islamic jihad" message. At the time of writing, the site also contained a substantial amount of online dialogue between supporters in the chatroom, the majority from "anonymous" Hotmail addresses; it would be interesting to determine whether this dialogue is from a dedicated core of users or from a broad range of users. The anonymity of the e-mail accounts, and the unlikelihood that users would respond to questions from researchers, leave this an open question at present. (99)
Although this is indicative of the aporia described above, there are passages that speak volumes. For example, from the Fatwa-Online website, Bunt gives a selection of topics found in the New Muslims section:
  1. 'Circumcision is obligatory so long as it does not create an aversion to Islaam.'
  2. 'Changing one's name after embracing Islaam.'
  3. 'When a disbeliever accepts Islaam during the daytime in Ramadhaan.'
  4. 'The ruling concerning the salaah of one whose clothes are polluted by pork, lard, etc.'
  5. 'Does a new Muslim have to separate form his wife?'
  6. 'A non-Muslim touching a translation of the Qur'aan.'
  7. 'The uncleanliness of a disbeliever is of an abstract nature.'
and so forth.

For example, Bunt quotes a question "'I am living in Jordan in a place where most of the residents are Christian brothers. We eat and drink together. Is my salaah [prayer] invalid? Is my living among them impermissible?'" (144).

Bunt continues: "The response condemns the notion of 'Christian brothers': "There can be no brotherhood between a believer and a disbeliever ever, rather it is mandatory for a believer not to take a disbeliever as a walee [friend]" (144-145).

Bunt goes on to analyze other fatwas from the site, as well as the site itself.

Such material is found throughout Islam in the Digital Age. I think (now perhaps I'm sounding like a high-school book-report) this book should be read by just about anyone who is online, and concerned with contemporary social, political, or religious issues. I found myself constantly coming up against my own ignorance -- not only of online Islam, but of Islam in general. The more I read this book, and other books, the more I recognize my own ignorance in an area of vital importance -- not only because of 9-11 and the ongoing mess in the "Middle East" -- but also because of the very richness of an enormous group of cultures and histories that have remained unknown for far too long for many of the non-Islams in the "West." I recommend this book, and of course, along with it the Qur'an itself, as well as the many commentaries available on subjects ranging from the Companions of Mohammed to jinns. Cyberspace itself (my "real" home) is increasingly replete with unknown territories, divisions, and boundaries, all fluid, just as online time and space are fluid. The mix is inexhaustible.

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Penguin, 1970.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia, 1982.

Alan Sondheim:
Alan Sondheim's books include the anthology Being on Line: Net Subjectivity (Lusitania, 1996), Disorders of the Real (Station Hill, 1988), .echo (alt-X digital arts, 2001), Vel (Blazevox, 2004-5), Sophia (Writers Forum, 2004) and The Wayward (Salt, 2004), as well as numerous other chapbooks, ebooks, and articles. Sondheim has long been associated with the Trace online writing community, and was second virtual-writer-in-residence. His video and filmwork have been widely shown. Sondheim co-moderates several email lists, including Cybermind, Cyberculture and Wryting. Since 1/94, he has been working on an "Internet Text," a continuous meditation on philosophy, psychology, language, body, and virtuality.  <sondheim@panix.com>

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