Islam on the Internet: the Jinn and the objectification of Islam.

Author:Rothenberg, Celia E.
Position:Report
 
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The presence of Islam on the Internet, in what are sometimes termed "cyber-Islamic environments," (1) has captured the attention of many observers--governments looking for clues about Islamic terrorism and conspiracies, (2) believers searching online Qur'ans, and young people drawn to Muslim-only matchmaking services, (3) to name only a few. Anthropologists have also been intrigued by Islamic Web-based virtual communities, which, for some, have held the promise of creating new forums for Islamic thought and reconfiguring traditional sources of authority.

This paper is an ontological investigation of two distinct discourses of the jinn, or spirits, including (1) formal opinions from contemporary imams, or fatwas, on an information portal site and (2) "chat" about the jinn from a chat room. Web fatwas promote an understanding of the jinn that is relatively homogeneous and based on Islamic texts (e.g., Qur'an, Hadith); these Web fatwas consistently tend to ignore (and thus deny) the interpretations, history, and importance of the jinn as traditionally described and taught about in on-the-ground settings by local experts. In the virtual world's equivalent of coffee-house talk or kitchen gossip, "chat" about the jinn predictably lacks the specific textual references of the fatwas, but it is unfortunately also short on the detail that typically contextualizes any "real life" jinn story. Lacking any shared milieu of family, village, and local culture, as well as any other explicit contextual information, Internet chat about the jinn is often brief and stripped of the detail that, on the ground, makes it meaningful.

These Web discourses reflect what some anthropologists have termed the Great and Little Traditions of Islam, and they do so with more clarity than could ever actually be identified on the ground, in Muslim-majority settings. Internet Islamic discourses on the jinn further reflect and shape the recent changes in Islamic thought and practice now taking place in diasporic Islamic communities. Online teachings and stories about the jinn are in dialectical tension with the larger, global process of the "objectification" of Islam, (4) or the process by which Islam is being identified as an object that must be correctly and universally understood and practiced, rather than a way of life embedded in and shaped by local settings and interpretations.

In the pages that follow, I first briefly review studies of Islam on the Web, my methodology, and what ethnographic studies tell us about jinn. I then discuss the two Internet jinn discourses, the ways in which they reflect the Great and Little Traditions in Islam, and their relationship to the objectification of Islam in the Islamic diaspora.

Islam on the Web

It is useful to note that the Islamic presence on the Internet is not ahistorical. In 2001, Anderson identified three phases of Islam on the Internet. First, by the early 1980s, the Qur'an, Hadith, and other Muslim texts had appeared online. Discussions of these texts were initially dominated by individuals with a strong science background; they produced electronic discussion groups about Islam that mixed the languages of science and religion. The second phase, which responded to the first phase and to the growing availability of alternative channels of communication on the Internet, was marked by "officializing strategies and frequently radical activists." (5) Facilitated by the development of Web browsers in the early 1990s, this phase was marked by an intense interest in the publication of viewpoints, religious instruction, and interpretation. The third phase, according to Anderson, is marked by "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." (6) It is the third phase that has been most studied by scholars interested in the presence of Islam on the Internet. The possibility that we have entered a fourth phase of Islam on the Internet should be considered; this phase may be marked by an increasing bifurcation of the "broader middle range" Anderson identified in the third phase.

Recent studies of Islam on the Internet have focused on online jihadi discourse, (7) Islamoriented activism, (8) and the changing nature of Islamic authority. (9) Larsson's study provides information on how Muslim organizations use the Internet to battle Islamophobia (10) as well as a study of a Swedish Muslim discussion group. (11) Bernal examined the social history of a Web site developed by Eritreans in the diaspora, against the backdrop of his lengthy ethnographic, on-the-ground experience in Eritrea and with Eritreans in the United States. (12) Increasingly, ethnographic studies of Islamic communities include a discussion of the impact of the Internet. (13) Beaulieu (14) focuses on how ethnography is both challenged and reinvented through its encounter with the Internet and provides a valuable bibliography of ethnographies examining the Internet. This paper complements previous studies by analyzing a specific example of Islamic discourse online--focusing on stories and teachings about the jinn--against a solid ethnographic background.

Methodology

I have chosen two sites, IslamOnline (www.islamonline.net) and Islamica (www.islamicaweb. com), for my discussion here. (15) IslamOnline and Islamica could be characterized respectively as "elite" and "popular" sites; elite sites represent "official" teachings of a religious system and present a transnational discourse, "in the sense that their disseminated information appears to be targeting the global audience." (16) IslamOnline has been noted for its importance in discussions of Islam on the Internet by two key commentators on Islam on the Internet. (17) Bunt describes IslamOnline in the following terms:

Islam-Online is an example of a substantial fatwa resource, operating in a Muslim majority context, but reflecting the expertise from authorities and counsellors from a broad range of minority and majority contexts.... [Islam-Online is] registered in Doha, Qatar, and staffed by 100 people based in Cairo--including students and graduates from Al Azhar University. (18) In my research on the Web, IslamOnline consistently appeared in the first five sites or pages of a Google search using the term "Islam." (19)

Islamica (Islamicaweb.com), on the other hand, is a chat room, listing 7,944 members (copyright 2000-2007), and is an example of a "popular" Web site. Popular Web sites "may incorporate elements that are not recognized by the elite; may present an amalgamated and/ or an acculturated form of a religious discourse; or may present a form of a religious discourse deriving from syncretistic processes." (20) The material I have quoted from Islamica was archived from 2002 and 2007 (see the transcript below) and is publicly available; I did not "join" the chat room as a member. I chose this material for its overall representativeness of chat about the jinn from among many chat sites.

Distinctive as they are from one another, these two Web sites allow us to see some of the Internet's religious diversity with respect to a specific topic. IslamOnline and Islamica reflect opposite ends of the spectrum of Internet sociology--publication and conversation (21) --and religious sites--elite and popular. Akin to writing and speaking, or playscript and transcript, IslamOnline and Islamica are asynchronous and synchronous sources of communication, respectively, and thus provide two central and diverse sources of formalized and informal information about jinn on the Internet.

I do not argue with absolute certainty that these two Web sites are the most important of the Islamic Web sites currently available. I have not done a survey of all Islamic Web sites, although I have chosen IslamOnline because of its prominence on the Web and because it is representative of many similar sites that I examined. (22) I also do not know first-hand specifics about the real people who visit and interact on these Web sites (but neither do those who create and maintain these sites). This means that the online jinn discourses are thus impossible to correlate with gender, urban/rural divides, levels of education, nationality, or even Islamic sects, as may often be done when working in real-world settings. Bunt, a leading analyst of IslamOnline, argues, "Any study of user communities would require a multivolume international study in order to examine the relationship between online output and offline behavior within diverse Islamic contexts." (23)

Although precise correlation of online output and offline behaviour is difficult, my Internet research is informed by my previous ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the West Bank (1995-1996) and Toronto (1998-1999). In Toronto, I examined immigrant Palestinian women's stories of the jinn, hoping to see how jinn stories and experiences change during the processes of immigration and resettlement. My findings from that research form a key backdrop for interpreting my research on jinn online. Looking at one specific example of Islamic belief and practice--jinn stories--online and in diasporic Islamic communities may in fact provide one way of addressing some of the difficulties inherent in similar research endeavours.

Stories of the Jinn

According to the Qur'an, jinn are creatures made of smokeless fire who can choose to appear to humans in a variety of disguises. (24) Stories of the jinn are found throughout the Muslim world and categorized by many scholars of religion as an expression of "popular" religion. The world of the jinn is believed by some Muslims to parallel that of the human world in terms of social and political organization (including kings, armies, genders, and generations, for example). Many...

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