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Islam and Science ( 28 May 2019, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Digitalising Islam and Virtual Ummah: Globalising Local Discourses?

By Irshad Ahmed Bhat and Zahid Sultan Magray, New Age Islam

28 May 2019

It is perhaps here on the internet that some of the most interesting things are happening. It should be noted that global technology of western origin is turning into a vital tool for the conduct and propagation of new hybridised practices. These practices are formed by inserting the normative discourse of Islam into western discourse of information technology and is a classic example of “Globalising the local”.

What are the implications of the media revolution for those communities which inhabit global space, then? While, as Anderson once argued to the pioneering efforts of New World ' Creoles' in the formation of imagined communities, he now talks of the new ' creoles' of the information superhighway. But we should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that internet is suddenly going to transform Muslim understanding of politics radically. Anderson further pointed out that transnational theories, fixated on media and forms of alienated consciousness distinctive of late modernity, tend to overlook the social organisation into which new media are brought in a rush to the new in expression. Impressed by what simmel much earlier called ' cosmopolitanism’, we overlook measures of social organisation in pursuit of media effects.

To comprehend the processes by which community is created, we need also to understand the circumstances under which Muslimidentities become diasporic. How other aspects of identity influence the terms of religious discourse on internet? Such issues are often battled out on internet using methods of reasoning and Debate then in the traditional idioms of religious discourse.  Internet impacted the centre/ periphery relations in the Muslim world; country such as Malaysia considered to be on religious &geographical margins in terms of influence, has invested heavily in information & network technologies than the venerable institutions of Cairo, Medinaor Mashhad have.

Even the ayatollahs of Iran have jumped on to the information bandwagon.  For the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the West, internet is mainly a forum for the conduct of politics within Islam which is gaining ground in non western Muslim societies too. In the absence of sanctioned information from recognised institutions, Muslims are increasingly taking religion into their own hands, and internet provides them useful medium for getting information about Islam and about behaviour required of a good Muslim.

Internet has also served to reinforce and rectify the impact of print capitalism on traditional structures and forms of authority. Instead of having to go down to the mosque to elicit advice from local imam or mullah, Muslims can now receive ' authoritative ' religious pronouncements via the various email fatwa services.But due to the largely anonymous nature of the internet, one can also never be sure whether the authoritative advice received via these services is coming from a classically trained religious scholar or hydraulic engineer moonlighting as an amateur Alim.

This new media has opened up new spaces for religious contestation where traditional sources of authority could be challenged by a wider public. The fragmentation of traditional sources of authority is a key theme with regard to the nexus of Islam and Globalization.But on the other hand, internet created availability of Qur’an, several collections of prophetical sayings, Tafsirs, and other jurisprudential works, created a sort of new constituency for religious texts. This sort of ijtihad toolkit in the words zaiuddin Sardar in his book, “Media, culture and society” observed, would amount to a virtual Alim and would pose a further challenge to traditional religious scholarship authority.

Internet and communication networks have also improved the capabilities of Global terror outfits like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and similar others to plan and conduct operations leading to far more devastation. It particularly improved their capability in areas of proselyting, coordination, security, mobility and lethality;propagate their version of  theological arguments to legitimise Global jihad Ideologies.In the Muslim world Internetis serving as a double aged sword.

 However, as for internet in Gulf countries, distinction has to be made between the availability of internet access and their domain of usages. With strict censorship, ban in political activism, unquestioning obedience to political and religiousauthorities, a medium which by its very nature, is heavily resistant to any attempt to control , closed society, censorship or regulation makes the issue a quandary . It must be noted that access to information technology requires resources and permission to political liberty to explore such networks.

It has become apparent that the encounter between Islam and the globalised technologies of communication is as multifaceted as the religion itself. Globalization which is seen as a source of homogeneity can also be understood as a culturally heterogeneous force.What we need to understand is the extent to which the Globalization of information and communication networks can provide a new framework within which Muslims can re-imagine the Ummah.

Firstly, it should be recognisedwe are dealing with a Virtual community in a context in which indirect and distanciated relationships are sustained through computer–mediated communication. To invoke Gibson’s metaphor, participants in this kind of community are ' wrapped in media', such that one's corporeal existence becomes insignificantly de- emphasized. Community here is a product of communication, not the one in which one is born (ethnicity or nationality). It fosters social networks through which distanciated Muslims can organise and communicate. Communication networks provide spaces for critical dialogue. Debate about Islam and encounters with the Muslim order,allowing Muslim movements to locate and share resources and more particularly, opening forums in which Muslims can find solidarity, and support to the cause of ummah.

But the question is to what extent would original sense of ummah as a new social paradigm be recreated; that is a form of community where factional identity barrier are subservient to a religious whole.  What about politics within such medium? And who can administerthis virtual ummah?  How will traditional centres reproduce themselves in cyberspace? These are some key and paradoxical questions that lie at the heart of Globalization and Islam paradigm.

Irshad Ahmed Bhat & Zahid Sultan Magray are Kashmir valley-based students of Political science. They can be reached