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IslamOnline.net: Independent, interactive, popular

Issue 4, Winter 2008

Islam Online's Arabic homepage

Islam Online's Arabic homepage

This paper gives an overview of the history and operations of IslamOnline.net, one of the most-visited Arabic/ English Islamic web portals which issue fatwas.[1]  The body behind IslamOnline (IOL) is the Al-Balagh Cultural Society in Qatar, which was established in 1997 on the initiative of Qatari IT specialist Maryam Hasan al-Hajari and Dr. Hamid al-Ansari, a scholar at the Sharica Faculty of the University of Qatar. In its early stages the project was supported by the University of Qatar, especially by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the 1926-born, Azhar-educated Egyptian scholar and theorist of the Islamic Awakening movement who still chairs the Al-Balagh Society today.[2]  The headquarters and IT development of IOL are based in Doha, while most of the content is produced by more than 150 employees at the IOL offices in Cairo. IOL is mainly financed by donations and by selling its technical know-how to other Islamic institutions around the world.  In promotional material for the site, Yusuf al-Qaradawi defined the site’s mission this way: "This project is neither nationalistic nor one aiming at a grouping or a group of people; it is a project for the entire Islamic community. It is the jihad of our era."[3]

IOL’s main bilingual competitors are the Saudi-based IslamToday.net and the Qatar-based IslamWeb.net. These portals are associated with different contemporary schools of Islamic thought; IslamOnline declares its support for wasatiyya, the so-called Islamic centrism or Islamic mainstream.[4] IslamToday.net is part of the new awakening (sahwa) in Saudi Arabia, a moderate Salafi movement (a position that leans towards wasatiyya discourse) which follows the ideas of Salman al-cAwda, who is one of the most popular independent sheikhs in Saudi Arabia.  IslamWeb.net is the website of the Qatari Ministry for Religious Affairs. 

In spite of their ideological differences, these sites essentially offer similar services: detailed information about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, the two sources of Islamic law, Qur’an and Sunnah and articles on Islamic history. Some portals, for example IslamWeb.net, host databanks containing other historical texts. This sometimes involves digitizing old manuscripts, an expensive and time-consuming project that not all sites can afford. 

All of these portals offer users information on religious practice and its respective contemporary interpretation. This usually occurs through legal opinions (fatawa), an established genre of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Users can search online databases for previously issued fatwas by subject or the name of the issuing mufti, or use an online form to request a new fatwa tailored to their personal situation.  A key difference between IslamOnline and its competitors is that IslamOnline invites not only sharia experts to give advice, but also academics from fields including sociology, political science, psychology, medicine and economy, and sometimes even from literature or the arts. This is due to a belief among IOL founders that muftis cannot often give answers to questions which require special knowledge outside the framework of Islamic jurisprudence and theology.

The portal promotes the exchange of different views and debate among Muslims, but also between Muslims and non-Muslims.  IslamOnline employees moderate Discussion Forums (sahat al-hiwar in the Arabic section), refreshing them daily with topical subjects.  Interlinked journalistic essays on topics including Islamic normativity, family, youth, health, culture, economics or Muslims in Europe reflect the current debate over Muslim daily life in a wide spectrum reaching from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and Asia.

Beyond being a counseling service and discussion platform, IOL is also, in a way, an independent news agency, which is another aspect that distinguishes it from other Islamic portals. Each day, the IOL staff publishes a range of news stories on the site. In both the choice of the stories, which always have relevance to Islamic countries or Muslims, and the evaluation of global events, the presentation of the news on IOL differs from that of international news agencies, such as Reuters or the German DPA.  IOL news could be most closely compared to that of al-Jazeera and its website, although IOL aims to present a clearly Islamic spectrum of opinions on the news.[5]   

Missionaries and mission: Founding IslamOnline.net

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who moved from Egypt to Qatar in 1961 and set up the Sharica faculty at the University of Qatar and the Center for the Study of Sunnah and Sira, is correctly associated with establishing IslamOnline but mistakenly with running it. A glance into the portal's operational procedures and distribution of responsibilities reveals that his duties are largely honorary today.  IOL began as a project of IT specialist Maryam al-Hajari during her final year at university. She attended a course on zakat taught by Qaradawi at the Sharica faculty in 1996. Al-Hajari says it was then she was exposed to a meaning of zakat that ran deeper than the standard notion of paying a portion of one’s income: “How you suppose to dispose your knowledge. That was a new concept to me. Before I thought zakat was only for money. So, I thought, I have got a lot of knowledge, I was a top student, so, what am I going to do with it ....I thought about it a long time.“[6]

This new understanding pushed her off the commercial IT path and al-Hajari decided to use her computer skills for dacwa, the spreading of Islam: “Muslims all the time are thinking how to tell people about their religion. But I was thinking of other kinds of dacwa, like internal dacwa. We as Muslims, we need dacwa too.... We get lost. What is right, what is wrong. ... Even our shaykhs are separated from modern life. They wouldn’t know how to answer to special questions.“[7]  In 1996 the Internet was introduced in Qatar, leading to a proliferation of Islamic websites, many of which al-Hajari considered unappealing.   Al-Hajari’s vision for her own website to counteract the inferior sites coalesced around three goals: answering questions by other Muslims, improving the image of Islam and offering a platform for discussion that would acquaint users with different perspectives and views. Armed with these ideas, Maryam al-Hajari turned to her lecturer Hamid al-Ansari for help. 

After studying Islamic theology (usul al-din) in Saudi Arabia, the Qatari-born Hamid al-Ansari went to England in the early 1990s to work on his dissertation.  There, he joined the country's first Muslim-Arabic students' union, the MSS (Muslim Student Society in UK and Ireland). His task in the union was to deal with the image of Islam in the British media. Experiences with the British press, who in most cases would not print any comments from a Muslim viewpoint to counterbalance Western-flavored articles on Islam, caused him to start seeking alternative ways to express his opinions publicly. He established contacts with like-minded people and became interested in the electronic networking cultures that were then developing, especially within university circles. The growth of the internet in the 1990s offered him a solution to his problem: “Finally everybody can produce content, everybody can write, without control.“[8]

Al-Ansari and al-Hajari gained administrative approval and financial support for the project from then University of Qatar president Ibrahim al-Nucaymi.  Nucaymi hired Maryam al-Hajari as a university employee and declared IslamOnline a university project. Yusuf al-Qaradawi lent his star power by personally supporting and supervising the project. ”He adopted the project. So, we used his name, because he is a respected person in Qatar and all over the Muslim world,” said al-Ansari.[9]   Al-Qaradawi promoted IslamOnline in the media, especially in his frequent appearances on the weekly al-Jazeera program Sharia and Life, which is followed by some 35 million viewers around the world. When IslamOnline was first launched, the program's subject was "Islam on the Internet," and the new site was mentioned in the broadcast.[10]

Along with the aforementioned persons in Doha, many others got involved in the early stages of the IslamOnline project. The site began to take off, particularly after 9/11 when users from all over the world overwhelmed IslamOnline with questions. Hiba Ra’uf cIzzat, an Egyptian political sciences lecturer at Cairo University, often described as an Islamic feminist, is one of those who established the IOL office in Cairo. During a discussion she said that she had devoted no less than three years of intensive work to IOL alongside with her work at the university.[11]  Combining work at IOL with study or other jobs was a common theme with employees interviewed for this paper.

The structure of the IOL web portal

The IOL web portal consists of two parts, English and Arabic, which are produced independently of each other. Each of the featured topics or sections is managed by one or several editors, whose approach and convictions shape the sections and subpages of the site. An editorial board supervises content production. The pages in Arabic and English are not congruent, which is due to the fact that they are produced for different publics or users.  The pages in English mainly address Muslims in non-Muslim societies or non-Muslim users, while those in Arabic are aimed at Muslims in Muslim contexts.[12]  The site's structure changes and expands regularly, but one constant is that the Arabic and English sections are tailored to appeal to their respective audiences.  The chart below, reflecting the January 2007 site design, gives an idea of the differences in presentation between the Arabic and English sections of IslamOnline:

News content is divided in two different categories, Ahamm al-akhbar/ Top News and Mukhtarat IslamOnline/ Highlights. The selection of the news items can have an idiosyncratic focus, but generally concentrates on Muslim majority countries or Muslim communities around the world.  News from Palestine is heavily covered, although with more emphasis on the Arabic side.  During Ramadan, the site focuses on questions and comments on ritual practice, but also on events connected with the holy month. In Ramadan of 2007, the site followed an episode in the online interactive video game Second Life in which a group of Muslim players constructed a virtual Ramadan tent that was then attacked by other users.  The incident provoked animated discussions on IslamOnline about how to handle violence toward Muslims and Islamophobia.

The other subsections are structured in a similar manner, containing journalistic- and academic-style articles, discussion forums, special topics and an archive.  As a treatment of all sections is beyond the scope of this article, I would like to pick out one example. During Ramadan 2007 the English-language section Art & Culture contained features ranging from an interview on the Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, to an article about Ramadan observances in Sudan.  It also included links to a Ramadan Poetry Competition (an invitation to participate in this competition, the winner's poem was to be read by a poet and performer, brother Dash), and a feature called “A is for Allah” featuring Yusuf Islam, known as Cat Stevens during his pop singing career.  The Live Dialogues in this section dealt with two different subjects, “Poetry, A Vehicle for Peace?” with poet brother Dash as the guest, and “The Making of Hyab” with the guest being the Spanish filmmaker Xavi Sala, the director of the above film. Under Special Topics users could access three entries: Make your Ramadan Art (with instructions on how to make silhouettes), Malaysia: Progress and Diversity (an overview of Malaysia's politics, culture and economy featuring numerous articles and interviews on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the country's independence), and Muslim Cultures in Africa (a special site which tries to correct the perceived misconceptions about Islamic culture in Africa with a variety of material). 

The other sections of IOL follow a similar pattern, emphasizing a diversity of experiences for Muslims around the world.  All sections accompany text with multimedia: images, audio files of interviews, lectures, radio shows, and sermons, and video. Finally, IslamOnlie also provides electronic postcards or an atlas of the Islamic world or the site directory (Wasa’it mutacaddida/ Services).  

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[1] In the August 2005 worldwide ranking of Internet sites, IslamOnline occupied position 596 in terms of hits. This puts the site at roughly the same level as the news portal Aljazeera.net at position 275 or The New York Times website at spot 155. In the same month, IslamOnline ranked eighth among the top ten of the most-visited Arab-language websites worldwide.  According to Alexa Traffic Rank in September 2007 most hits came from Egypt (21.4%), followed by the Palestinian Territories (11%), the United Arab Emirates (10.3%), Saudi Arabia (8.9%), and Morocco (8.7%). The USA-based users made up 2.1% of the traffic volume and Germany and the UK 0.9% each.

[2] For Yusuf Qaradawi, see his three-part autobiography that covers his life up until 1977, Ibn al-qarya wa-l-kuttab. Malamih sira wa-masira, vol. 1-3, Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2002, 2004, 2006. In the secondary literature amongst others (in chronological order): cAmmara, Muhammad (1997): ad-Duktur Yusuf al-Qaradawi: al-madrasa al-fikriyya wa-l-mashruc al-fikri. Kairo: Nahdat Misr (Fi l-tanwir al-islami; 10); Salvatore, Armando (1997): Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity, Berkshire: Ihaca Press; Talima, cIsam (2000): al-Qaradawi faqihan. Kairo: Dar al-Tauzic wa-l-Nashr al-Islamiyya; Talima, cIsam (2001): Yusuf al-Qaradawi: faqih al-ducat wa-da’iyat al-fuqaha’. Beirut: al-Dar al-Shamiyya/Damaskus: Dar al-Qalam (cUlama’ wa-mufakkirun mucasirun; 15); Zaman, Muhammad Q. (2004): "The Ulama of Contemporary Islam and their Conception of the Common Good", in: Armando Salvatore, Dale Eickelman (eds.): Public Islam and the Common Good, Leiden: Brill, pp. 129-156; Wenzel-Teuber, Wendelin (2005): Islamische Ethik und moderne Gesellschaft im Islamismus von Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovac; Krämer, Gudrun (2006): "Drawing Boundaries: Yusuf al-Qaradawi on Apostasy", in: dies., Sabine Schmidtke (eds.): Religious  Authorities in Muslim Societies, Leiden: Brill, pp. 181-217; Zaman, Muhammad Q. (2006): "Consensus and Religious Authority in Modern Islam: the Discourse of the cUlama", in: Gudrun Krämer, Sabine Schmidtke, op. cit., pp. 153-180; Kassab, Akram (2007): al-Manhaj al-dacwi cinda l-Qaradawi: mawahibuhu wa-adawatuhu, was’iluhu wa-asalibuhu, simatuhu wa-atharuhu. Taqdim cAbd al-cAzim al-Dib, cAbd al-Salam al-Basyuni. al-Qahira: Maktabat Wahba.

[3] Brochure, printed on the occasion of the IOL's first anniversary and distributed during the Cairo book fair in 2000: Mashruc al-umma fi-l-qarn al-hadi wa-l-cashrin. IslamOnline. Uktubir 1999-uktubir 2000 (Project of the Islamic community in the 21 century. IslamOnline. October 1999-2000).

[4] Wasatiyya is a term supported not only by Yusuf al-Qaradawi but by many others, especially after 9/11. The term was coined by Qaradawi in as early as the 1970s. It refers to the maintenance of balance between old and new as well as among the different Islamic legal schools and doctrines (including the shica) based on the "umma justly balanced" concept in the Qur’an (2/143), see: Baker, Raymond W. (2003): Islam Without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists, Cambridge Mass., London: Harvard University Press; Baker, Raymond William (2005): "Building the World in a Global Age", in: Armando Salvatore, Mark Le Vine (eds.): Religion, Social Practice, and Contested Hegemonies. Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies, N.Y.: Palgrave, pp. 109-131; Gräf (forthcoming): “The Concept of wasatiyya in the Work of Yusuf al-Qaradawi”, in: Gräf/Skovgaard-Petersen: The Global Mufti.

[5] IslamWeb.net for instance copies the news stories directly from Aljazeera.net.

[6] Interview with Maryam al-Hajari, Doha, December 2005.

[7] Interview with Maryam al-Hajari, Doha, December 2005.

[8] Interview with Hamid al-Ansari, Doha, December 2005.

[9] Interview with Hamid al-Ansari, Doha, December 2005.

[10] Dawr al-intirnit ka-wasila li-l-dacwa (The role of the Internet for Islamic dacwa), topic of the program al-Sharia wa-l-hayat on Al Jazeera on 3 October 1999. At that time Qaradawi already was one of the very first scholars to have an own homepage, which was produced by the Qatari company iHorizon, see Gräf, Bettina (2007): “Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Cyberspace, in: Die Welt des Islams, 47 (2007) 3-4 (Special issue, ed. by Abdulkader Tayob).

[11] Discussion with Hiba Ra’uf cIzzat, Doha, July 2007.

[12] To compare the English and the Arabic sites of IOL would demand an article itself.

[13] Interview with Mutiullah Tayeb, Doha, November 2005. During my visit to Cairo in April 2007 I was told that the number of employees had risen to around 180.

[14] An office in Washington operated between 1999 and 2000, but had to be closed due to its high costs. Contact with the context of the site's users was apparently the reason for establishing it. Interview with Mutiullah Tayeb, Doha, November 2005.

[15] IOL is to move into new premises in Cairo on 6 October. The building was planned specifically for IOL and will accommodate the company's entire workforce.

[16] For the European Council for Fatwa and Research (www.e-cfr.org), see Caeiro, Alexandre (2008): “Transnational ‘Ulama, European Fatwas, and Islamic Authority: A Case Study of the European Council for Fatwa and Research”, in van Bruinessen, M. and Allievi, S. (eds): Production and Dissemination of Islamic Knowledge in Western Europe, London: Routledge.

[17] Cf. Amel Boubekeur, Cool and Competitive. Muslim Culture in the West, in: ISIM Review 16, Autumn 2005, 12f.

[18] Ibid., www.muslimgear.com.

[19] About MuslimGear, www.muslimgear.com/default.aspx (accessed March 15, 2007).

[21] A lot of things started around the same time in Qatar: the Qatar Foundation in 1995, al-Jazeera channel in 1996, IslamOnline in 1997. This certainly has to do with the political changes and the new emir Shaykh Hamid b. Khalifa Al Thani coming to power in 1995.

[22] Interview with Hamid al-Ansari, Doha, December 2005.

[23] Op.cit. 

[24] Interview with Muhammad al-Banna (BDU), Doha, December 2005.

[25] IOL, “Media Kit“,  http://www.IslamOnline/English/mediakit/index.shtml (accessed January 22, 2007) or “Iclan macana“, http://www.islamonline.net/Arabic/MediaKit/index.shtml (accessed January 22, 2007).

[26] Interview with the journalist and editor of the Arabic Tazkiyya section Hamam cAbd al-Macbud, Kairo, March 2007.

[27] Interview with Mutiullah Tayeb, Doha, November 2005.

[28] Interview with Maryam al-Hajari, Doha, December 2005.

[29] Mutiullah Tayeb describes these counseling formats as „adaptation of ifta“. Interview with Mutiullah Tayeb, Doha, 30 November 2005.

[30] Interview with Muhammad Ibrahim Zaydan (head of the Arabic Sharci department), Cairo, April 2007.

[31] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, al-Ijtihad al-mucasir bayna l-indibat wal-infirat (Contemporary ijtihad between discipline and neglect) (Beirut, Damaskus, Amman: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1998, second edition, first 1994), 50f.

[32] Ibid. 46f.

[33] Cf. a corresponding page at IOL: Istisharat al-hajj wa-l-cumra: http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?cid=1121779389930&pagename=IslamOnline-Arabic-Hajj_Umra/Page/HajjCounsellingA (accessed January 22, 2007).

[34] Brinkley Messick, while talking about the „modernity of (...) fatwas“ in the turn of the 20th century, calls this kind of classical features „hallmarks of the old generic form“ of fatwas, see Messick, B. (2005): “Madhhabs and Modernities”, in: Bearman, P. et al.: The Islamic School of Law. Evolution, Devolution, and Progress, Harvard University Press, p. 169.

[35]: The text translates as: “All advice published on IslamOnline’s expresses the opinions of the authors of these advices and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of those who are responsible for IOL.”

[36] See for the English section, IOL, “Fatwa Bank“,

http://www.islamonline.net/completesearch/english/CounsellorSearch.asp?hID=0 (accessed January 22, 2007), for the Arabic section, IOL, „Bank al-fatawa“,

http://www.islamonline.net/completesearch/arabic/CounsellorSearch.asp?hID=0 (accessed January 22, 2007). There are two women among the approx. 170 scholars in the English-language section.

[37] Cf. Masud, M. Khalid et al. (1996): Muftis, Fatwas, and Legal Interpretation, in: Masud, M. Khalid et al.: Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas, Harvard University Press, pp. 3-32.

[38] http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?cid=1195032322989&pagename=IslamOnline-English-Ask_Scholar%2FFatwaE%2FFatwaEAskTheScholar.

[39] http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=IslamOnline-Arabic-Ask_Scholar/FatwaA/FatwaA&cid=1122528618724.

[40] The fatwas which have recently been issued during the fatwa programs of satellite television stations are described either as Fatawa fada’iyya or by the expression Fatawa mubashira. Despite the existence of certain similarities, this is a different format (the mustafti can see and hear the mufti, and the mufti can hear the mustafti (and his dialect etc.).

[41] The choice of mufti in IslamOnline’s case is also another point of difference between its live fatwas and traditional ifta’. 

[42] IOL, Sharci, Fatawa mubashira, al-Arshif, http://www.islamonline.net/livefatwa/arabic/oldresult.asp; (accessed January 22, 2007).

[43] No. 3, January 13, 2000, no. 12, March 6, 2000, no. 28, August 8, 2000, no. 94, May 30, 2001 and no. 1406, January 18, 2007.

[44] Articles on this subject carry titles such as al-Fatawa al-mubashira fi wasa’il al-iclam (Live fatwas in the media) by Ali Qurah Daghi, http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=ArticleA_C&cid=1173087876178&pagename=Zone-Arabic-Shariah%2FSRALayout (accessed January 17, 2007) or al-Fiqh wa-l-faqih wa-l-dawla al-haditha (Islamic jurisprudence, the jurist and the modern state) by Motaz al-Khateeb, http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=ArticleA_C&cid=1183484227231&pagename=Zone-Arabic-Shariah%2FSRALayout, (accessed July 12, 2007) or Mufti al-fada’iyyat hal min dabit? (Are there (general) rules for satellite muftis?) by Salman al-Awda, http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=ArticleA_C&cid=1189064939859&pagename=Zone-Arabic-Shariah%2FSRALayout, (accessed September 15, 2007) or al-Fatawa wa-l-nawazil wa naqa’id al-islam al-siyasi (Fatwas, judical cases and the contradictions of political Islam) by Ridwan al-Sayyid, http://www.islamismscope.com/index.php?art/id:362 (accessed April 17, 2007).

[45] Interview with Mutiullah Tayeb, Doha, December 2005.

[46] IOL, “Violence: Causes and Alternatives,”

http://www.islamonline.net/English/In_Depth/ViolenceCausesAlternatives/index.shtml (accessed July 25, 2005).

[47] IOL, “Violence: Causes and Alternatives,”

http://www.islamonline.net/English/In_Depth/ViolenceCausesAlternatives/Articles/Editorial/2005/07/01.shtml; (accessed July 25, 2005). In contrast to this view, IslamOnline supports the position of Yusuf al-Qaradawi and others, who legitimizes Palestinian suicide attacks arguing that these are the weapons of the weak against a long-lasting, unequal and unjust war of aggression.

[48](IUMS was formerly called IAMS, International Association of Muslim Scholars).   On IUMS, see Gräf 2005. 

[49] IOL, “Bombing Innocent: IAMS’s Statement“

http://www.islamonline.net/English/In_Depth/ViolenceCausesAlternatives/Articles/topic08/2005/07/01.shtml (accessed July 25, 2005).

[50] IOL, “A Fatwa by Fiqh Council of North America,” http://www.islamonline.net/English/In_Depth/ViolenceCausesAlternatives/Articles/topic08/2005/08/01.shtml (accessed August 4, 2005).

[51] Qur’an Sura 5/32.  Yusuf cAli translation. 

[52] These organizations include the Fiqh Council of North America, the European Council for Fatwa and Research, the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and the Global Wasatiyya Center in Kuwait.