A car pulls over to the rest area on the interstate highway, a bearded man comes out and places his compass on the lush green grass. In a few seconds, he has determined the direction of qibla; it is 25 degrees east of the true north. He spreads his prayer rug and performs two raka salatul qasr. After the prayer, he raises his hands for supplication and a few minutes later his car is back on the road. This man’s name is Dr Jafar Kamal. He is one of thousands of young Muslim professionals living in North America. Born and raised in the vast prairie region of western Canada, Dr Kamal is a second-generation Muslim whose parents migrated to Canada from Lebanon half a century ago.
Dr Kamal and his generation represent a brand new facet of Islam. Until recently, Islam was only perceived as a religion somewhere out there; but not anymore. Within two decades, Islam has become the fastest-growing religion in the west. This rapid expansion of Islam in a territory traditionally held by non-Muslims has brought a number of new challenges and opportunities for Muslim communities.
The future of Islam and Muslims in the west rests upon the responses to these challenges and opportunities. The situation has changed so rapidly that now it seems too simplistic to talk about Islam and the west, for within the vast realm of the western world, there are scenarios of Islam and Muslims which are unique to their local environment: Islam and Muslims in a small Austrian city are faced with specific issues not found in metropolitan Toronto. Nevertheless, there are broad areas which are common to a whole range of localities in the west.
The first of these commonalities is the fact that nowhere in the world are Islam and Muslims going through such a rapid and dramatic transformation as in the west. This rapid transformation is evident in the way Islam is being practised in the west. All across North America and in much of Europe, one finds renovated school and church buildings which house mosques and Islamic centers. Thousands of local Islamic organizations are running community centers and millions of Muslims are faced with unique circumstances which require ijtihad.
Some of the basic issues have already been resolved. What do you do when you live north of the 48th parallel? How do you fast in a place where the sun never sets? How do you pray the evening and fajr prayers when there is no real evening or dawn? These are most obvious issues which have been amicably settled.
But Muslims in the west are faced with numerous other issues for which there seems to be no immediate solution. Apart from the fact that they are constantly struggling to recover the true face of Islam, which has been tarnished by centuries of misunderstandings, willful distortions and hatred, they have to carve out a unique path for their future generations. There are efforts to establish Islamic schools. New translations are being made of the classics of Islamic civilization and new tafaseer are being written.
The challenges facing Muslims in this new era require ijtihad of the same order as was practised during the first rapid expansion of Islam to the far corners of the world. At that time, millions of new Muslims had joined the religion, literally in hosts as the Qur’an had prophesied: “When God’s help comes, and victory, and thou seest people enter God’s religion in hosts, extol thy Sustainer’s limitless glory and praise Him and seek His forgiveness; for, behold, He is ever an acceptor of repentance.” (Surah an-Nasr).
At that time, religious scholars, intellectuals, scientists and thinkers had risen to the challenge, and within half a century of the establishment of the first Islamic state in Madinah, Islamic civilization was already witnessing its first real golden age. New issues were tackled on the basis of models and paradigms which were left behind by the Prophet of Islam.
An excellent example of innovative methods used at that time can be found in the rapid transformation of the Arabic language which saw the use of diacritics for the script. This facilitated the learning process for millions of non-Arabs who had joined Allah’s deen. At the same time, there arose numerous schools of learning where Islam’s legal system was consolidated. Scientists set out to determine the direction of qibla for various regions. Times of prayer were calculated, new lunar and solar calendars were worked out to facilitate determination of beginning and end of fasting, and a host of other new issues were rapidly tackled by the fuqaha and scholars.
The present situation in the west has several similarities to that first rapid expansion, though it has its own unique features which cannot be found in any other period of Islamic history. As in that era, Muslims have quickly worked out the essentials. In addition, full advantage has been taken of technology to launch a brand new domain for Islam and Muslims.
Islam in cyberspace is indeed a unique development in the history of faith and its adherents. All across North America, young Muslim students on campuses have developed numerous websites from where one can find exact direction of the qibla and times of prayer for any location. The full Arabic text of the Qur’an is available in several different forms and calligraphic styles. Almost all major translations are also easily available.
A thousand year ago, Imam Bukhari travelled all over the Muslim world to collect and authenticate the sayings of the Prophet. Today, hundreds of young Muslims have used their talents to recreate this body of knowledge in cyberspace. All collections of ahadith are now available in electronic form. This cyber activity has opened several new paths for Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
Last May, an ‘Islamic Internet Conference’ was held in Santa Clara, California, where a series of new areas were brought to light. One of the major areas of concern was the authenticity of information. Since anyone with a good modem and access to the Internet can put up a website in the name of Islam, there is risk of misrepresentation. There have been cases of fabricated verses of the Qur’an and hadith put on the Internet. This has been recognized as a serious challenge and Muslims are trying to develop a system of certification and authentication of the data, especially for the translation of the Qur’an and ahadith before these are put on the Internet.
But these challenges are secondary to the potential which the Internet has unleashed. Regardless of these obstacles, Islam and Muslims are experiencing a real growth after five centuries of stagnation. All over the world, new challenges are being tackled in innovative ways. There are some 100 million web pages on the Internet created by millions of people around the world. The Internet is fast becoming a tool to bring Muslim scholars together. Never before in the history of Islam and Muslims has there been such a platform available to the community in its myriad forms.
This new tool has, moreover, brought an international dimension to local politics. Indeed, political battles will now be won and lost in cyberspace as much as on the ground.
[Dr Muzaffar Iqbal is a researcher based in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada.]
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999