The Digital Revolution and the New Reformation

Article excerpt

Doctrine and Gender in Islam

Any major university in the United States may have more computer literate individuals than several states of the Nigerian Federation. This disparity between computer-skilled and computer-challenged highlights the depth of the digital divide. Literacy as a source of empowerment has shifted from the print to the computer medium. There is the lingering danger that cyberspace will solidify the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

However, this gap cannot merely be reduced to economic difference and financial access to Internet technology. Certainly, what appear to be cultural reasons for the digital divide are often due to differences in economic opportunity. But while it is difficult to distinguish whether economic or cultural factors are more salient in explaining the digital divide, the different levels of interaction between religious traditions and technological changes raise several crucial questions: how will a computer revolution shape the changes within religious doctrine, and how do religious traditions affect people's ability to adapt to such a revolution?

Examining how technology has affected doctrine and gender in Islam will illuminate a key example of the interplay between technology and religion. By exploring the effect of the Internet on the internal logic of Islam, as well as the enlarged global influence Islam must play when digital barriers are broken, we hope to highlight the possibilities for a dual reformation.

Information to Reformation

The impact of the first industrial revolution on western Christianity undoubtedly led to the momentous movement of the Christian Reformation. Will the impact of the new revolution of information lead to a comparable Islamic Reformation? In the 20th century Westerners have debated whether the Protestant Reformation was the mother of capitalism in Europe or whether the Christian Reformation was itself a child of earlier phases of the capitalist revolution. Max Weber's book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism advances the view that the Protestant Reformation was the mother of capitalism rather than a child of economic change. Other thinkers, however, have identified pre-Reformation technological inventions as part of the preparation for both the birth of Protestantism and modern-day capitalism.

Francis Robinson, professor of history at the University of London, has placed the printing press at the center of the Protestant movement and within the Catholic counter-offensive. He writes, "Print lay at the heart of that great challenge to religious authority, the Protestant Reformation; Lutheranism was the child of the printed book. Print lay at the heart of the Catholic counter-offensive, whether it meant harnessing the press for the work of Jesuits and the office of Propaganda, or controlling the press through the machinery of the Papal Index and the Papal Imprimatur." The question here is whether the Internet and cyberspace and the third industrial revolution will do to Islam what the first industrial revolution did for Christianity.

In some respects the Christian Reformation was a return to the biblical roots of Christianity. Likewise, the information revolution may help Islam realize some of its earliest aims more effectively. The first casualty of the information revolution, however, may be national sovereignty, which will shrink in the wake of the Internet and cyberspace. The printed word played a major role in the construction of nation-hood and in reinforcing national consciousness. Computer communication, on the other hand, is contributing to the breakdown of nationhood and may play a role in the construction of trans-ethnic communities.

While the first industrial revolution of capitalist production and the Christian reformation became allied to the new forces of nationalism in the Western world, the third industrial revolution and any Islamic reformation will be increasingly hostile to the insularity of the state. …