Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Islam on the Internet: The Jinn and the Objectification of Islam

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Islam on the Internet: The Jinn and the Objectification of Islam

Article excerpt

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. …

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