Digital Divide: Bypassing Traditional Ulama?

Eva F. Nisa (Victoria University of Wellington)

Abstract

Studies about the Internet have emphasised how applications and social media sources have effects on the way believers of diverse religious traditions, including Muslims, practice their religion. The increasing number of cyber-fatwas (legal opinions or Islamic rulings) or online fatwas issued by Muslims, ranging from the qualified well-known mufti (fatwa givers) to ordinary Muslims who merely feel obliged to share their Islamic knowledge, has become widespread. This has led to a shift in how Muslims receive religious knowledge. Vast arrays of fatwas from radical clerics and extremist groups encouraging acts of violence against perceived enemies have also flooded the internet and its platforms, particularly since the attacks of September 11. The terms Google Sheikh, Twitter Ulama (Muslim scholars) or Facebook Mufti have increasingly become popular. This has generated a number of questions regarding the place of ulama who are not web-savvy but have undertaken extensive traditional Islamic education and spent years studying Islam in the chief centres of Islamic learnings. Looking at such a phenomenon, this paper focuses on the status of ulama in today’s high-tech world and amidst the birth of a new category of religious authority whose popularity is achieved via the Internet. It examines how traditional ulama and modern intellectuals perceive the presence of these “cyber mufti”, including the “fatwa-wars” between followers of diverse Muslim groups. It also analyses the position of ulama and their congregants who are not part of the virtual religion. Furthermore, the paper explores how internet users see the presence of instant muftis or “wiki-oriented” Islam, to borrow Bunt’s term. In addition, the presence of virtual religious gatherings which enable the transfer of religious knowledge to occur in a virtual context has shaken the tradition of generating religious knowledge from traditional religious circles. This paper argues that ulama and Muslim congregants have become more divided as a result of this development in technology. The internet has also fragmented the traditional authority of ulama. However, the penetration of the internet, the phenomenon of online religion, and the presence of Google Sheikh, Twitter Ulama or Facebook Mufti, have not been able to replace the accountability and authority of traditional ulama.