Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Islam on-line. Adapting to the digital age.

In the last issue of Three Monkeys, William Dalrymple spoke at length about the spread of a 'Wahhabi' version of Islam, financed by Saudi oil money. To what extent is that reflected in the Internet?

This is a very complex question, as it may be necessary to distinguish the theological roots of what is described as 'Wahhabism' from the historical developments in Saudi Arabia, and the contemporary manifestations of the term. Again, one has to define what is meant by a 'Wahhabi version of Islam'? To an extent, some of these issues are also reflected in discussions on the control of media broadcasters (such as satellite TV) in the Middle East. On the Internet, a number of sites have been influenced – directly or indirectly – by aspects of interpretation emerging from 'Wahhabi' contexts. Some sites don't necessarily come with clear indicators as to who is financing them, supporting them, or writing their content. Certainly, a number of sites present online translations of the meaning of the Qur'an – and commentaries – derived from sources that some might define as 'Wahhabi'-influenced in orientation. There are a number of sites emerging from Saudi Arabia providing ‘fatwas’ and authoritative opinions to regional and global audiences; Saudi agencies or foundations have funded some of these. 'Wahhabi'-influenced material has emerged in diverse online contexts, from a variety of cultural and linguistic sources. I could point to sites authored in Pakistan and Malaysia, for example, which contain materials that some might label 'Wahhabi', but their authors would simply describe as 'Islamic'. This also raises some important issues on how 'Islam' is propagated and 'marketed' globally, especially in non-Muslim contexts.

How big a problem is authority, in relation to Islamic web sites. So for example, who defines what is an Islamic website, and who defines the legitimacy of a website that has Islamic teaching on it?

Anyone with basic technical skills and access can create a web site or e-mail list. They may add Islamic symbols to it, such as calligraphic quotes from the Qur'an, photos of Mecca, or – in some cases – photos of 'spiritual leaders'. Some sites can present pages that suggest that they are 'authorities', even if they are not traditionally trained in Islamic sciences. This does not necessarily de-legitimise them, as the Internet reflects a wider debate that was a precursor to the expansion of the Internet – namely the nature of religious authority and who held the power to interpret Islamic sources. The Internet has exposed many people to interpretations of Islam that were not in the 'mainstream', or part of their own religious-cultural outlook. This may have been a 'problem' for conventional authorities, especially those who initially chose to ignore the Internet.

A number of sites stepped into the authority vacuum, some of which were backed by conventional scholars. A good example is that of Yusuf al-Qaradawi ( and the associated, whose organisation has inputted into the World Wide Web as part of a wider media strategy (that encompasses satellite TV broadcasts). Legitimacy really is in the eye of the beholder, and many perspectives, which reflect the diversity of Muslim expression, have appeared online. Some focus on micro-areas of authority, or specific communities: there are a number of Shia communities on the Indian sub-continent who present their versions of authority online, but these would not necessarily be described as 'legitimate' outside of their communities. There is evidence of intra-Muslim conflicts appearing online in relation to notions of legitimate authority.

How important has the Internet become for activism in Islam?

Many significant campaigns have appeared online, so for the web page providers, the Internet has become extremely significant, especially when they are restricted in accessing other channels for communication. Activism online takes many forms, which I explore in Islam in the Digital Age. This can range from gender issues being articulated online, through to militaristic 'jihadi' activities. They may fall under the general umbrella of Islamic activism, but clearly have different methodological approaches and outcomes. If, by Internet, we are incorporating e-mail, forums and chat rooms, then the mobilising effect of the Internet and its strategic application has been very significant for a broad range of campaigning issues. It's also cost-effective, and a natural medium for a computer-literate generation.

In your studies on activism, and e-jihad, you mention the Taliban's online presence. Isn't this a strange juxtaposition for a movement that banned televisions?

On a theoretical level, perhaps. Sites supporting the Taliban have been around for several years, and content continues to have a presence on the Internet (for example, see Whilst the infrastructure in Afghanistan inhibited acce

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