Written by: Alia Raffia Ullah 2012-01-22 13:47:43
The Centre for Media, Religion and Culture held its first international conference at the University of Colorado from January 12th to 15th. The conference entitled ‘Digital Religion’ provided an opportunity and platform for scholars of media and religion, from a diverse range of religious traditions, to discuss and consider the implications of the production of religion through new media in a modern global society.
Discussions at the conference reviewed various topics in religious studies combined with new media, by examining blogs, religious websites, cell phone apps, virtual worlds and video games. A variety of religious traditions were examined; including Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam in the context of the digital and virtual world.
Participants addressed a diverse range of topics, centred around the various representations of religion in digital platforms. Subjects explored, included digital religious transnationalism, the emergence of networked religious communities, and relationships between offline and online forms of religious practices to name a few.
What is digital religion?
Ways of expressing religious identity has changed rapidly over the past decade as a result of the emergence of the online global community. Known as ‘networked religion’ this concept is used to understand how religion functions online; and is exemplified through a series of traits. Studying online religion provides insights into the common attributes of religion online and helps to develop an understanding of current trends in religious practice in a network-based society.
Digital religion encompasses numerous examples including religious online dating and matrimonial services, pilgrimage rituals, the invention of kosher phones, religious blogging, virtual worlds and religious avatars, religious video games and iphone applications like iTalk to God. What is remarkable about the recent development of digital religious culture is both the creative use of new technology, and the challenges these technologies pose for religious identity and spirituality, in a modern society. Individuals and religious institutions evidently appropriate and advocate the development of online religious spaces, thus altering the ways in which we experience religion.
The development of Digital religion has altered what we have traditionally considered the religious realm and provided new opportunities for religious expression through networking tools, the creation of global communities, online religious education and the production of accessible religious media. Over the past decade the online presence of Islam has rapidly developed with the creation of ‘cyber Islamic communities’ in diverse forms.
Islamic themes from the conference
Topics related to Islam and Muslims in digital new media were provocative and diverse. One of the papers presented examined the development of Muslim dating and matrimonial sites in the USA and how this has altered and changed more ‘traditional’ notions of courting amongst the Muslim community. Both the cultural and religious context of these websites were taken into consideration as they vary depending on where you live and how ‘Islamic’ you are.
Samira Rajabi from the University of Colorado presented a paper on the religious manifestations of a digital martyr. This provided an alternative perspective of what a martyr is and how we recognise martyrdom in a digital age.
Nuri Tinaz from Mamara University in Turkey examined the digital face of Turkish Islam. This highlighted various trends in new media used by the Turkish Muslim population and how this is affecting attitudes towards Islam. The rise of youth led online networks in Turkey was explored. Benina Gould from the University of California highlighted the topic of the participation of Muslim youth on the internet for both Islamic and non-Islamic issues. This bought about debates of the extent to which this will shape the ways in which the Muslim community experience Islam in the future. Babak Rahimi from the University of California presented a paper on the ways in which cyber social networking sites are changing Shia Islam.
Another topic explored included the sociability and community building in online Muslim communities, how they have shaped and continue to grow and possibilities for the future. Krista Riley from Concordia University looked at the notion of tweeting from Mecca and sharing sacred experiences.
The conference discourses relating to the digitisation of Islam provided useful insights into the future of practising religion in a global virtual world. As the possibilities for new media develop, the Muslim community will inevitably respond to growing trends, thus affecting the ways in which Islam is represented online.
According to Gary R. Bunt author of the highly proclaimed text about the digitalisation of Islam; iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam, the concept of Digital Islam has no single definition. He argues that it is a versatile term as it can mean different things to different people depending on their individual perspective. It could perhaps be explicitly online or religious in orientation with Islamic values at the core. Overall iMuslims examines the historic shifts taking place at a grassroots level in Muslim communities and the ways in which these changes are simultaneously happening online through blogs and social networks.
It is evident that Islam occupies a defined space online where various sites, blogs, youtube channels and social network opportunities are used to provide platforms for Muslims to engage, share ideas and express Islamic values.
Many Muslims are now looking towards the virtual world to access Islamic lifestyle tools, including banking facilities, travel agents specialising in Hajj, Umrah and Dawah tours as well as Shariah Law services. Especially in the West, Muslims are using the internet to find suitable life partners and access information such as prayer timetables. This has many advantages as Islam is becoming increasingly accessible in non-Muslim countries through online resources.
As well as using the virtual world to facilitate Islamic life-ways, Muslims are actively and increasingly adopting social networking tools as a means to congregate online. Through facebook, twitter and forums, Muslims across the globe are able to air views and raise awareness about relevant issues.
Despite the advantages of a growing cyber Muslim community, it has been suggested that Muslims may obtain incorrect or false information related to Islam. Due to the fact that there is limited surveillance and censorship in the virtual world it is possible to potentially attain inaccurate information. Like any form of media, the consumer must be aware of the sources, information posted online is obtained from.
Digital Religion is a growing concept which is rapidly expanding. As developments in new media occur, Muslims will inevitably respond thus increasing the presence of Islam online through various mediums including virtual video games, avatars, social networks, blogs, youtube channels and websites.
Although the digitisation of religion has its limits and flaws to a certain extent, overall Muslims are able to benefit from the growing cyber Islamic community. Whether through facilitating Islamic lifestyles, obtaining educative resources on Islam or congregating online, Muslims are actively engaging in the virtual world. This will inevitably increase with the future generation who are dependent on the internet.
From mp3 Qurans, to Islamic mobile phone apps, these products offer a number of investigative opportunities surrounding issues such as materiality. Although the digitisation of Islam has many positive benefits, it does carry implications. One is left to wonder the extent to which religion can occupy the virtual world without losing sight of its core values.