In an earlier post here on Inside Islam, we discussed “Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds,” a documentary in the online world of Second Life. The term we used to describe the project — “digital Islam” — is actually a popular term. In fact, a research project under the same name follows similar developments more broadly. As the tagline for Digital Islam says, the site follows “research on the Middle East, Islam, and digital media.”
The Digital Islam site recently reviewed iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam, in which author Gary R. Bunt says the term cannot always be explicitly defined as the documentary about Islam on Second Life suggests. Instead, he tells us digital Islam has:
no single definition. It can mean many different things to different people, depending on their perspective. To some, the term may even be a misnomer or an inherent contradiction. It depends in part on how one defines Islam, and whether elements within that definition have a digital edge. Digital Islam may be explicitly online, in a website, blog, YouTube video, or — more recently — an entry in Twitter. It may be explicitly ‘religious’ in orientation, relating to specific practices and concepts associated with core Islamic values and precepts. However, the articulation of digital Islam may also relate to specific cultural and political causes, which may be implicitly ‘Islamic’ in orientation.
Bunt first defined another term — “cyber Islamic communities” — back in 2000. Since then he has been gathering information for this book. Another part of Bunt’s work is to archive and track online developments related to Islam. This includes blog communities and social forums about Islamic issues. On his own blog Virtually Islamic, he records such developments and says the “raw data” for the book can be found there.
Even though social media is sometimes termed as “new” media, Bunt argues in his interview about iMuslims that this terminology is not entirely correct for describing the shift in Islamic contexts. The changes in social norms and historic reforms are not new, but rather a return to pragmatism in the way that Islam is interpreted. The new aspect of these changes is the technology that Muslims are using and the fact that reforms are being discussed online. The actual changes happening on the grassroots level, however, turn out to be a return to classical Islamic concepts that can be traced back to Prophet Muhammad’s time.
In short, iMuslims looks at the historic shifts happening on a grassroots level in Muslim communities around the world and how those changes are happening even online through blogs and social networks. For more discussion about the book and to hear about the research involved in writing it from Bunt himself, read the interview posted on Digital Islam and let us know what you think here on Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates.
Update: May 5, 2009: Hussein Rashid passed along this set of related articles from Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. The ask various questions related to virtual life, spirituality, and religion on the Internet.