“By (the Token of) Time (through the ages),
Verily Man is in loss, except such as have Faith,
and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching
of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.”
(Qur’an, Chapter 103)
In the 103rd chapter of the Qur’an, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (Glorified and Exalted is He) gives us a blueprint for our lives: Have faith, do righteous deeds, and join together to teach people truth, patience and constancy. Our first priority then is to have this faith and to do good deeds as individuals, families and a collective community. Secondly, we need to teach others.
Everyday, people interact and learn from the internet. The world is now so wired that people sleep with their iPhones so that they don’t miss anything. (Yes admit it!) The statistics on how obsessed people are with things like Facebook are mind-boggling. The internet ‘cloud’ is now the living space of the world. Everyday, there are new and more sophisticated anti-Islamic websites, rants on Youtube and powerful bloggers that publish their latest Islamophobic tirades. Where are the Muslims?
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf once said, “Spend a little time on the Internet, and search for issues related to Islam, the way people who have little or no knowledge about Islam might do if they were curious about our religion. Try Google searches for terms like “jihad” or “women in Islam,” and see the top websites and links that appear. Compare some of the websites run by Muslims with the ones run by people attacking the Muslims, and note the difference.” Indeed, what we will find is that we still have a lot of work to do. Not just for non-Muslims but for Muslims as well. We need to do something to counter this disinformation about Islam.
“Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching;
and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious:
for thy Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance.”
My philosophy since the 90’s has not been that we need to convert people. That is not our job. Faith is something that is between a person and Allah (swt). Our job is to present the real, true, good Islam. It is up to people if they want to believe, understand, sympathize or hate. (There will always be people who won’t believe and we should accept that.) However, we should not accept when the Palin-Geller monsters of the world create a “terrorism-honor-killing-jeehad-shariah-izlam” and present that to the world as our faith. That is not fair, and it’s about time that each of us participates in taking back our own narrative. The Qur’an asks us to join together in this mutual teaching. We need to step up, participate, represent, and bring true Islam to the people.
You might ask at this point if one person/website/blog/video/tweet can make a difference. The way I look at it is, that if one person is affected positively by what you’ve created, it is well worth the effort. (It can even be beneficial to you.)
So the typical image of an Islamic website you might have is of an elderly scholarly Shaykh (with a big beard) posting long religious edicts! Or perhaps a programmer in big glasses typing feverishly away in complex programming languages. Yet, the websites of today are far more nuanced and don’t have to be in ‘traditional website’ form. Easy software, helpful guides and simple interfaces make everything accessible, even to those not technically inclined. You also do not have to be a scholar or “perfect” in religiosity to show different aspects and positive sides of Islam.
A few great examples of non-traditional ‘Islamic websites’ that have popped up recently:
- Muslim heroes/Muslims wearing things – blogs in response to Islamophobes showing the huge diversity of what Muslims are doing to serve the world and what Muslims actually look like and wear.
- iPhone Islamic apps – now you can do everything from finding a Halal restaurant in a new city to memorizing online with a Tajweed master.
- How-to-Hijab videos – Youtube videos showing girls how to pin their Hijabs.
- Twitter’s Hadith-a-day – tweets a reflective Hadith a day to thousands of followers.
- Muslim media & radio shows – broadcasting everything from Qur’an recitation to discussions on relevant topics for Muslims.
- Halal food blog – all about creating great Halal recipes, good substitute ingredients and traditional foods from the Muslim world.
- Muslim anime artists – creating anime and comics representing Muslims and their struggles.
- Flickr collections – showing Muslim architecture, art and life throughout the Muslim world through photos.
- Facebook fan pages – fan pages on such diverse topics as Salahuddin Ayyubi, Muslims & Science Fiction and Steampunk Shariah.
- Youtube Muslim skits & parodies – cartoons, skits and entertainment for all, by funny people and MSAs.
- Yahoo! comments – Muslims who comment on Islam related articles to counter all the hate. (Hey, we have to start somewhere!)
These are all just ordinary, individual Muslims using their talent to educate and spread Islam online. They’re not perfect and I’m sure their diverse opinions will differ, along with the way they went about things, but the point is they are regular, normal, struggling Muslims expressing their own faith, interests and daily lives to others.
So what about the rest of us? There are so many Muslims that have such great talents and skills. Each of us can contribute to this mutual teaching. So how do we get started in making something beneficial? And what are some steps in the process?
But oars alone can ne’er prevail to reach the distant coast;
The breath of Heaven must swell the sail, or all the toil is lost.
– William Cowper
Pre-Step 1: Purify your intention. Anything we do should be for Allah (swt), so it’s important to keep in mind our goals and original intentions.
Step 1: Find your niche. Do you have any special abilities or talents? Do you know how to program Islamic widgets, themes, apps, software? What are you interested in? Do you like politics? Art? Software? Poetry? History? Fashion? What kind of website do you want to create? Do you want to start a blog? Create some funny videos? Gather articles on a specific topic? Live stream local lectures and study circles? Start a forum for a certain hobby? Open a Yahoogroup for people similar to you or for your local community? Every Muslim can contribute in their own way, so think of the way you can best contribute, using your interests and skills.
Step 2: Do some research. See what’s out there in the areas you’re interested in. Who is the audience you are targeting? Muslims, non-Muslims – both or a specific group? Do you think your website will be useful to them? Does it add value to what is already out there? How is it different or needed? Analyze what works and what doesn’t. Seeing other things might spark some new ideas or help you find where you are most needed. If the idea is out there already, you could do something similar or a little different. If someone is already doing what you’re interested in, then you should join and strengthen them. You might even want to contribute something or help an established site out there already instead of starting something new.
Step 3: Get started. Create some content! You don’t have to buy your own domain and host your own site at this point, which can be expensive and technically complicated. You can use free services like WordPress, Blogspot, Tumblr, Youtube, Vimeo, Flickr, Deviantart, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Find things you can use for your site, write to publishers and authors for permission. Write articles, create videos, and start tweeting. Be smart, innovative, creative and fresh. There is so much potential for us out there with so many great ideas.
Step 4: Advertise and allow for feedback. Advertise in Google, post comments on other blogs, and list your site in Islam related search engines. Ask other website owners, friends and those who might be interested to take a look and give you suggestions. Tweak and change where needed. Keep your goal in mind and don’t mind negative criticism. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the response you wanted. The internet is a big place, but know that you have contributed positively, insha’Allah (God willing).
Step 5: Try to keep it up. This is actually the hardest step. There are so many outdated and orphaned Islamic sites out there. Or worse, good things that were completely deleted! Don’t destroy good work. Pass it on, delegate or encourage others to continue. Keep updating and posting, be current and in touch.
“The World is three days:
As for yesterday, it has vanished, along with all that was in it.
As for tomorrow, you may never see it.
As for today, it is yours, so work in it.”
- Hasan al-Basri
Some guidelines that can help keep your website da’wah (call to Islam) friendly:
- Keep sites small, simple, clear and organized. With more and more people accessing the web using their mobile and hand-held devices, a complex and maze-like site is near impossible to navigate. Include what the site is about, who it’s for, who’s behind it, what we can find and why. There’s no point to androgynous, nameless, anonymous Islamic sites. People crave a personal connection, so why not share who you are and what you’re about as a Muslim.
- Share, collaborate and work with others that have the same goals and interests. What’s better? Having 10 tiny sites with a few articles here and there on ‘Women in Islam’ or having one collaborative site by ten people on women in Islam? Obviously, synergy is better. Let’s strengthen and grow what we have already. Then, strive to expand your site, recruit contributors and moderators, and make your website a collective effort. We can also work with non-Muslims in our shared goals as well. It’s of interest to note that in Surah al-Asr, Allah (swt) mentioned universal principals that we all share. So a site on Hijab (head covering) can collaborate with those of other religions that talk about their covering traditions. A site on a Muslim soup kitchen should link with other charitable groups.
- Avoid controversial Islamic issues and Fatwas; let’s leave those to the real scholars. Some sites can easily degrade into fighting over five issues: Shia/Sunni, moonsighting, meat, music and Mawlid. It can get ugly. People also ask difficult complex Fiqh (understanding of Islamic laws) questions because they really need help. It’s easy to give them an answer, but we may not have the wisdom or knowledge to give them the best answer. For example, we could give them a very strict, difficult opinion we know of, while there is an easier and just as Islamic way out there. We’re also unable to know all the details and conditions of a person’s problems or follow up with them. Leave it to the professionals.
- Use wisdom and kindness when speaking to other Muslims and to non-Muslims. Follow the general Islamic guidelines of Adab (proper conduct relating to each other and with the opposite gender). It’s amazing what some people say online. I’m reminded of an old Dawud Wharnsby song, ‘We use so many words but have so little to relay/ as angels scribble down every letter that we say/ All the viral attachments sent and passionate insults we vent/ It’s easy to be arrogant behind user passwords we invent/ But on the day the scrolls are laid, with every word and deed displayed/ when we read our accounts, I know, for one, I’ll be afraid.’ People may think they’re anonymous, but guaranteed you are not. Remember that literally thousands of people are reading your words, including many many non-Muslims (and government agencies). We forget that words have a powerful effect even through a computer screen. Arguing with your Muslim brother/sister to such an extent where hate starts to bloom is just wrong. A Golden Rule: Never post when you’re angry. Wait a day or two, and then respond calmly.
- While ‘counter’ websites are needed, such as those dispelling myths, countering religious dogmas and refuting certain anti-Islamic sites, it’s better to create positive websites about Islam. We can talk all day about how X is wrong but it will not bring a person to Z. Any form of negativity also can keep people from learning more. Again, we’re not trying to forcibly convert anyone. We just want to show the truth about Islam and Muslims so people can understand it and us.
- Allow some room for interactivity, so you’re not just sticking static pages out there. Imagine a very long lecture without any Q&A at the end! You can enable comments or have some kind of guestbook or even have an email address available. Rather than sending a one way dissemination of knowledge, you end up with ‘relationships’ and ‘conversations’. This brings a website to life. Don’t mind the haters. Feel free to censor them and keep your comments moderated. (There are so many Islamic videos/sites with disgusting comments. There’s no need to have them there.)
- Stick mostly to English (or your main language) and explain concepts and words where possible. Too much of Arabic or a different language may cause people not to understand what you’re saying. It may even make Islam seem like a ‘foreign religion only for foreigners’. Even if your site is for Muslims only, not everyone knows complex Islamic terminology, Arabic or Arabic script. It’s very difficult to learn about Islam when you also have to learn Arabic and learn all about Arab and Desi (Indian and Pakistani) cultures! Also, keep things relatable to your audience. Using examples like going to the Souk is probably going to be foreign to westerners, just like ordering a pizza would be inexplicable to someone in Damascus.
- Balance design versus content, form versus function. There are many beautifully designed and technically advanced sites with little value content wise, and there are some sites that are so rich with information and resources but have no infrastructure. People don’t know how to access the information available or even that it’s there. Try to keep both in mind, as both are important.
- Attribute, get permission and follow internet protocols and copyrights. It’s not cool to steal. This is because people spend time and energy to create something, just like you, and they want it to be out there a certain way. Most authors/artists have no problem with sharing as long as you ask their permission. To recreate or copy someone’s entire site is redundant. Why not join others or contribute something new instead?
- Lastly, this may seem strange, but the most important concept for Islamic webmasters/app designers/admins to remember, is to be fair. Be fair to your users, to your ‘competitors’, to other Muslims, to non-Muslims and to the greater internet sphere. Be open-minded and just in how you present things, how you attribute things, and how you handle things. You might be the creator and administrator, but you’re more like a diplomat at the UN. Everyone has their rights and everything should be balanced. Give people your time and help. Respond to all those who email you, write to you and even criticize you. Stick to what you know and can do. There’s an Arabic proverb that says ‘one cannot give what they do not have’. If we are not educated in an Islamic topic we should not talk about it, if we do not know the politics of a region we should not enter into a debate over it. In the same way, whatever we create should be something we have knowledge of, and a love for.
“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”
I hope one day to find such diverse sites as a comprehensive commentary on all those ‘controversial verses’ in the Qur’an, academic and interesting responses to current Islamic issues in the media, a detailing of the Muslim response to 9/11, Muslim bloggers and tweeters with thousands of dedicated inter-faith followers, interactive live streaming of every Muslim-related event in North America, and of course, a site on how to make the perfect Ramadan cupcakes!
Jazakamullahu khairan. May Allah reward you all.
Jannah is the founder of Jannah.org, one of the first Islamic websites ever, and is also the founder and administrator of two discussion-board sites, themadina.com and halfmydeen.org. Jannah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.