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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

"E-jihad! Slash, swipe, and stick it to code made by those who are not of the faith of Islam, those who don't support the Palestinian cause!" That is the battle cry for some online Muslims who raise their digital sword whilst battling in cyberspace.

Okay, so maybe it's not as dramatic as it sounds, maybe not all Muslims are charging like a digital light brigade across the Internet. There are, after all, many more facets to the Cyber Islamic Environment, a sizeable number of which are not about war waging activities. In Islam in the Digital Age: E-jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments, Gary R. Bunt explores many of these religious online expressions, showing how Muslims are incorporating the Internet [1] as a modern tool, one that can help them submit to the will of Allah.

Bunt has made great headway here for both religious and Internet studies by exploring and cataloguing Muslim presence online. This is the second book of Bunt’s that delves into the world of Allah in cyberspace. According to Bunt, it is an attempt to go deeper into some of the issues first touched upon in his earlier work from 2000 titled Virtually Islamic: Computer-mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments.

Bunt is adept at showing how the Internet has become a networking tool for Muslims and Islamic organizations, a strategy for getting around censorship, and a means of extending an audience for several Imams. Hence, Islam in the Digital Age does indeed provide some answers to one of the questions posed by the Series Editors of Critical Studies in Islam (of which Bunt's book is a part of), that is: How are Muslims rethinking and reformulating Islam and shaping and reshaping the global agendas and discourses? Yet, as Bunt acknowledges, his work only begins to reveal the depth of Islam in cyberspace.

The major concepts that guide Bunt's research are e-jihads and online fatwas. Bunt states that these are the "two areas that have seen a most significant integration of electronic activity with religion" (3). Both of these concepts are developed from the offline notion of jihad.

In Chapter Two, "'The Digital Sword'? and Defining 'E-Jihad,'" Bunt provides an excellent explanation and explication of jihad. He defines the term as the "'striving' to attain an Islamic objective" (28). There are two aspects to jihad: greater and lesser. Greater jihad concerns the "spiritual and religious striving on a path towards -- and/or in the name of -- God" (27). It is a peaceful quest for inner perfection, says Bunt, modeled after the actions and conduct of the Prophet Mohammed. In cyberspace, much of the knowledge about and guidance for greater jihad can be gleaned from online fatwas -- those "'authoritative' statements or declarations" (129) which are issued by imams and ayatollah. On the other end of the spectrum stands the lesser jihad, which is the more publicized, Western take on Islam. Lesser jihad is "'holy war,' military action sanctioned (purportedly or otherwise) in the name of God" (27). When lesser jihad enters cyberspace, Bunt calls it e-jihad. In its most aggressive form, e-jihad is "a digital sword striking in a number of different ways at a broad selection of targets" (26). This includes such actions as hacking, cracking, and service disruption in the name of Islam. Milder forms of e-jihad include activism and campaigning.

The analysis in Islam in the Digital Age is most clear when discussing and presenting examples of greater jihad when manifest in cyberspace. This is what Bunt calls online fatwas. Chapters 7-10 examine how offline opinions or edicts from Islamic authorities (i.e. conventional fatwas) transform when channeled through a website to become online fatwas. At issue is how new media problematizes Muslim decision-making, and the legitimacy of authority. Bunt provides numerous websites from Sunni majority and minority contexts and several instances of Shi'a and Sufi presence on the web. This includes: Islam Q & A (www.islam-qa.com), Fatwa Online (www.fatwa-online.com), Ask-Imam.com (www.islam.tc/ask-imam), The Fiqh Council of North America (www.fiqhcouncil.org), Shiachat.com (www.shiachat.com), Ali Khamene'i (naqshbandi.org), and Zahuri Sufi Web Site (www.zahuri.dircon.co.uk). [2]

Combined, these sites serve several purposes, such as to teach Islamic doctrine and/or Arabic; to answer direct questions about issues including marriage, worship, women’s issues, and Internet use; and, to help solve soul and personal problems. Here is a sampling of posts from a section of Islam-Online (www.islamonline.net):
  • "Want to marry a Muslim brother but his family won't let me as I am a white revert."

  • "Dad was into drugs and I never knew him, but his death has left me in pain."

  • "Pregnant and stressed out over husband visiting pornographic sites on the Internet."

  • "Homosexual tendencies are hurting me and my marriage, are there Muslim counselors?"

  • "Slept with a woman for the first time, and now I am so sad and depressed."
And here is a reply to a question posted on the Pakistan Link website (www.pakistanlink.com):
    "Q: I am writing you regarding a situation at our mosque. Recently the executive committee decided to stop women from attending the mosque.

    What I want to know is, what does the Shari'ah say about this? As far as I know Islam treats both men and women equally.

    A: The Prophet -- peace be upon him -- very clearly told men not to exclude women from the mosques . . . In America especially women go everywhere. They are in the markets, in malls, in restaurants, in offices. It is ironic that some men allow them to go to all the places of temptation but they want to stop them from coming to the places where they can pray to their Lord and learn about their faith. Please ask your executive committee to change this un-Islamic decision."
Examples such as these (from pp. 149-150, and then p. 175), followed by Bunt's analysis, are some of the best offerings from Islam in the Digital Age. They provide a deeper look into the discourse being constructed by Muslims in cyberspace. They show us the obvious: Muslims, like others, are complex people: They stress over sex and issues of sexuality, they too have "family problems," and they too have noticed pornography on the web. Bunt shows how Islamic authority is being accessed in cyberspace and how in some cases offline authorities are being usurped by virtual imams.

The more confrontational or riling findings in Islam in the Digital Age are presented in Chapters 2-6, in which Bunt discusses e-jihad, Islamic hacking, and the post-911 Cyber Islamic Environment. Within these chapters lie many of the stereotypes, prejudices, and fears of Western policymakers. Bunt discusses how cyber entities such as the Muslim Hackers Club (MHC), the Pakistani Hackerz, and Doctor Nuker are hacking away from a Muslim perspective. MHC members have purportedly been involved in "pro-Palestinian activities of 'cyber-war'" (39). Doktor Nuker "compromised the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) website, and obtained its e-mailing list of 3,500 names, together with another list containing about 700 credit card account details of AIPAC donors, which were published online" (50). And GFORCE "succeeded in hacking US government agencies, military and other targets via Taiwan-based platforms" (53).

At issue, though, is whether or not actions by these groups as well as the others mentioned by Bunt can be categorized as purely Islamic-centered e-jihadi. In some instances, the evidence does suggest an aggressive Islamic e-jihad. And many online entities freely declare that they are performing a militaristic jihad via the Internet. But in other cases, it is difficult to untangle religious-based motives from politically-based motives, from personal recognition-based motives. This makes the concept of e-jihad more problematic, a point that Bunt concedes.

What is more readily apparent from Bunt's research concerning lesser jihad is that offline groups are using websites to inform about and promote militancy. Jihad Online (www.jihad-online.net, but now offline) posted 'memorial pages' for suicide bombers and covered a "'martyrdom operation' that killed over 20 Israelis on a bus" (98). This type of extension from offline to cyberspace is notable and well-documented in the book. The fact that many of these websites are transient and/or temporal makes Bunt's work even more valuable.

Overall, Islam in the Digital Age is filled with many, many powerful and interesting avenues that beckon others to explore further. Bunt has provided a progressive step forward for the field. A general weakness of the book, though, is how those avenues are presented, i.e. the book's structure. By discussing the lesser jihad material upfront, the reader might be swayed towards Western prejudices about Islam and militancy. Granted, hacking, cracking, and digital swords are enticing concepts; nevertheless, when presented first, they feed the more negative perceptions of Islam; and only after persevering through the first half of the book does the reader see that aggression and militancy is only a small portion of the Cyber Islamic Environment. This is a minor note, but worthy of attention given that Islam in the Digital Age was written partly "to defuse the alarmist tendencies and realistically posit a rational analysis and discussion that does not incorporate fear of the Internet or fear of Islam" (3).

Possibly the strongest feature of Bunt's research is that it points to a discursive arena that probably does not exist anywhere else but on the Internet. Where else can one see/witness the multiple effects of new media and globalization on Islam? Where else do so many threads of Islamic experience intersect, combining pro-Palestinian political thought, with greater and lesser jihad, with a multi-layered visual culture (as opposed to a more traditional calligraphic visual culture), with the post-9-11 social psyche, with Muslim societies in Bangladesh, Chechnya, Kashmir, England, Pakistan, Bosnia, the United States, and Saudi Arabia? What Bunt proves is that cyberspace is, to be sure, a viable global arena for Muslims, one in which they can promote and practice their faith.

[1] Although Bunt uses the term Internet throughout the book, his data is pulled from websites. He does address this distinction, of the Web being a subset of the Internet, but tends to use the term "Internet" more often. This review follows Bunt's use of terminology.

[2] On a stylistic note, it is particularly irksome that URLs for the prominent websites mentioned in the book are not provided side-by-side with the website's name. In many instances, the reader will have to dig through the footnotes to discern the exact web-location of the Islamic site mentioned.

Robert Tynes:
Robert Tynes is an adjunct faculty member at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His research focuses on West African cyberculture, conflict, and political systems.  <rtynes@u.washington.edu>

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