The digital age is crucial to reshaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema, and the reformers who now contest their authority, have cultivated constituencies of opinion through the mass media.
Yet while the disagreements of opinion formers help define the scope of public debate, Muslim publics exert considerable influence too. By asking questions they have the power to set the agenda, while, in preferring one religious authority over another, they naturally reflect the existence of a competitive market for religious ideas. Religious debate is now primarily conducted through the mass media as everyone understands its power to reach millions rather than through the more traditional face-to-face method. This drive for mass access has created a global religious public sphere into which all scholarly and non-scholarly disagreements get projected.
The nature of the mass media has changed for good. Whereas it used to be hierarchical, elitist, linear and declarative, it is becoming individualised, demotic, non-linear, and interactive. In the age of print, television and to a lesser extent radio, there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to media exposure, but, in the digital age, samizdat multimedia has become the norm and not the exception. Anyone can now publish and project their views globally. They can claim to speak for Islam, issue a “fatwa”, proffer advice, and provide counselling or spiritual guidance. Religious leaders struggle too to project any measure of decorum or scholarly expertise in religious debate in the new media, for it is difficult to be both player and referee in the same game.
Rancorous dispute has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and redeployment. Electronic fatwas and sermons struggle to define a precise audience; they must ignore any original context of time and place to speak for “Islam” globally, for Muslims everywhere, in soundbite format. This loss of context, allied, to bricoloage culture, is injurious to intellectual expertise, proper deliberation and intra-religious pluralism.
The nightmare scenario is that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the virtual umma in which a billion-plus, atomized Muslims project their subjective musings, screaming inanities into the ether in a dialogue of the deaf. Sheikh Google’s umma would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive technique. All differences would become mere subjectivity, reducing everything to the will for recognition manifested as the narcissism of small differences.
Yet is this not a rather dismal prognosis, the bias of the conservative to the peril rather than the promise of the new digital age, predicting chaotic mediocrity rather than creative renewal? Charles Leadbeater in his new book We-Think argues that the better future of the internet lies with its emerging ability to harness mass creativity and innovation if it can garner responsible self-governance.
One success story Leadbeater cites is Wikipedia, a prime example of open-source creative collaboration. In 2007, Wikipedia had six million articles in hundreds of languages; its total cost was 1.5 million and it only had five paid employees. It has a small committed core of volunteers alongside hundreds and thousands of other members of the public. In March 2007, Wikipedia was the eleventh most popular website, the Encyclopedia Britannica, 4,449th. Wikipedia has 250 million words, Britannica, 44 million.
But what of accuracy? Is not Wikipedia the repository of conspiracy theorists, gossips and amateurs as well as experts? A study by Nature magazine surveyed forty two corresponding articles in both and found 162 factual errors in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica, so the difference is less than we might think. Yet Wikipedia, with greater resources of peer review, has been shown to correct itself more quickly. And it is – unlike Britannica – making the inheritance of human learning available to the world for free.
So rather than Sheikh Google, Wiki-Islam provides a better possible future for Islam online, amenable to its unchurched nature. Creative collaboration between scholars, experts, intellectuals and Muslim publics would allow for the social and intellectual process of ijma and ijtihad to become dynamic, relevant and infinitely refinable. The internet is no panacea: real-world conditions of authoritarianism in the Muslim world, the war on terror and intellectual conservatism may stymie unlocking the true potential of Wiki-Islam. But a crucial first step nonetheless to unlocking that potential is to recognize the collaborative creativity the digital age offers to the Muslim.
Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.
This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 43, April 2008.