by Michel Hoebink
The Internet offers Muslims the possibility to search themselves for religious knowledge in the source texts. In the long run, this will undermine the authority of the religious scholars, expects the German anthropologist Carmen Becker.
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Traditionally, knowlege about religious truth is conveyed by the religious scholars, who know Arabic and can find their way in the large body of source texts”, says Becker, who recently defended her doctorate thesis at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. “But on the Internet, a large part of these source texts are now available in English and other languages. This means that the believers can consult the texts themselves and become less dependent on the scholars.”
Becker researched the influence of the Internet on the faith of salafi Muslim youth in the Netherlands and Germany. Salafism — Becker prefers to use the Arabic term Salafiyya -, a puritan form of Islam that emphasizes literal application of the source texts, is very popular among young Muslims in Europe. The salafiyya are not what we generally would call ‘modern’. They want to return to the practice of the first generations of Muslims in the seventh century, whom they believe were still uncorrupted and pure. But from another viewpoint they are in fact very modern: They are enthusiastic participants in the Digital Age and very active on the Internet.
For the Salafiyya, says Becker, the Internet is more than just a place to exchange information. “They use the chatrooms as a religious space where they practice their religion together, just as in a mosque. In this space, conversions take place, religious advice is given and the community makes an effort to keep it pure. When someone appears saying things the others do not consider according to islam, this person is removed.”
On the Internet forums and chatrooms, the young Muslims also search for religious truth together, says the anthropologist. “They pose questions that arise in their daily lives, such as for instance: Can I work as a Muslim in a restaurant where alcohol is served? The participants then engage in a communal search as to what the Koran and Sunna say on this point, and what the various religious scholars have commented.” What is so special about the Internet, says Becker, is that this information is now not only available for everybody, but also that it can be found very easily with the search functions. That is what weakens the traditional authority of the scholars. “The scholars remain important, but they are questioned much more critically. The statement of one scholar is compared to those of other scholars. It is investigated which scholar bases himself best on the Koran and the Sunna, and which one uses the soundest Traditions.”
Democratisation is too big a word, thinks Becker. But her research clearly shows that the new technological environment of the Internet encourages Muslims to form their own judgement about the correct interpretation of the sources. Will this fundamentally change the religious practice of Muslims? Becker: “It is too early for a final conclusion. In thirty or fourty years from now we will know. But yes, I do think so.”
About the author
Michel Hoebink is a journalist for Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) Arabic Department, for which he writes on issues related to Islam. Most of his writings are in Arabic.
Translation by Michel Hoebink