Virtually Islamic

Researching Islam, Muslims and the Internet

INSTRUCTOR GUIDANCE

There are a number of subject areas discussed in Hashtag Islam that could be utilised by lecturers and instructors at different levels, from upper high school to undergraduate and postgraduate. Introductory courses relating to Islam and Muslims are taught at all of these levels, and I have had experience of delivering materials with diverse expectations and levels of granularity - for students embarking on specialisation in the study of Islam, and also for students taking an Islam option as part of a wider programme of study. I have provided some suggestions below, drawn from my 20+ years of experience in integrating online materials into class delivery in the UK. I have worked with students from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds in these areas, who have welcomed the opportunity to develop deeper understandings of Islam and Muslim expression through the study of online materials.

It is recommended that instructors ensure that students make copies of materials they intend to utilise in class or essays. This might usefully be in the form of online captures of pages or websites, which could be printed out or displayed in presentations. Students should also ensure that they make precise copies of URLs and record the dates of online materials visited. This helps in the development of good referencing techniques, but is also relevant given that sites and content can easily disappear from the internet.

There are numerous elements of cyber Islamic environments which can be safely explored, and my intention here is to provide some suggestions for student activity. One particularly rich area is in the area of studying religious symbols, ritual and practice - where viewing web materials can illustrate diverse practices and distinctions (for example, between and within Sunni Islam and Shi’ism). Some of these discussions can counter prevalent stereotypes about Islam and Muslims (which can also be found online). I will be introducing an introductory listing of Islamic Studies Pathways onto this website in due course, so please return for updates.

INTRODUCTORY CLASS

Pilgrimage: students could usefully gather materials from social media relating to the different forms of pilgrimage within Islam, ranging from the annual hajj to the Shi’a pilgrimage to Karbala. Within hajj, a wealth of material is presented through official and other channels (discussed in the chapter). This includes apps and guidance videos. These continue to demonstrate innovative and immersive approaches to discussion of and preparation for pilgrimage. There is also an increasing trend for participants to document their activities, either through social media and use of hashtags (for example on Instagram and Twitter), and also in video format. Hashtag Islam contains examples of these materials. I also capture links to related materials in my blog, including a tagged archive going back to 2003.

Prayer and Recitation: students could utilise Hashtag Islam to explore aspects of the Qur’an, in particular presentation of Qur’an recitation (displayed on YouTube). There are very personal examples of prayer emerging from online sources. Specific ideas associated with prayer and spirituality within Sufi contexts discussed in Hashtag Islam can also be usefully explored through online materials. For example, there are films of collective dhikr from diverse international contexts which can be introduced into a class for discussion. I have drawn on these when delivering lectures on Sufism. I have also presented different ideas about prayer and pilgrimage in Shi’a contexts through showing some of the online materials discussed in Hashtag Islam such as the Naqshbandi Sufi Order social media sites.

INTERMEDIATE CLASS

Religious Authority: assignments for students could be set around the exploration of the diverse Q&A sites Hashtag Islam features, and might draw on similar case study formats. There are numerous sites available in English language, but also in other languages (depending on class abilities). One suggestion is for pairs in a class to be given a topic to research, for discussing online approaches to ethical and religious issues. This could form part of a presentation or in-class lecture assignment. Typical themes that I have successfully employed in classes for lively seminars on: dress code and modesty; Islamic finance; medical ethics; marital relations; sexuality; interfaith dialogue. Activities could include specific searches for keywords and themes, and their editing into a collective document or presentation. It would help if students are able to contextualise the site(s) they use for the discussion - drawing on Hashtag Islam and other materials to do this. This provides students with the opportunity to develop analytical skills in relation to the interpretation of online materials. These themes could be focused on specific contexts - which is useful for instructors working in aspects of Area Studies. Instructors would be able to gauge such activities and tailor them to the abilities of a class and expectations for a module.

Religious Identity: a review could focus on a particular location (i.e. Muslim online activities in a city) or a theme. For example, a discussion on Islam, Muslims and the Internet in the United States could focus on issues specific to a location (online mosque pages, discussion groups, area specific online facilities). It could look at halal businesses online, and their representation in cyberspace: food production and fashion could be of particular interest to an intermediate class (I have experience of using the internet materials in discussions of both). There is also scope for exploring specific strands of Muslim understanding (with caveats): for example, ideas associated with the branches of Shi’ism or Sufism discussed in the book. This would also allow for the exploration of how forms of Islam are represented in the mainstream and the media, and give opportunities to develop counter-narratives and analysis in the face of the often negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims in some contexts.

ADVANCED CLASS

Internet Review: A typical exercise for an advanced class would be to review the role of the internet in the development of online Muslim identities. This could take the form of an essay or in-class presentation, in which a review of Hashtag Islam could form a useful element, alongside other titles relating to religion and Islam in cyberspace. It could draw on the endnotes for further appropriate reading. It might take a chronological and/or thematic approach, or determine how technology has impacted on religious expression and identity.

Blog: Another useful exercise would be for a class to write/publish a blog (either individually, in teams or collectively) over the course of a semester looking specifically at online issues relating to Islam. This can be useful for students in media studies as well as the multidisciplinary approaches to the study of Islam. The blog could be published internally (depending on the university’s policy regarding publications) for class use only. Instructor care would have to be taken in terms of the type of content and analysis presented beyond the confines of the class (i.e. in public blogs). Instructors may have access to online delivery systems such as Moodle or Blackboard, where in-class online publications can be generated. Critical questions could be introduced on the types of online sources available (from social media and websites) and who is publishing such content.

Militaristic Jihad: As with any study of the internet - and in particular in relation to aspects of the study of Islam and Muslims - care has to be taken by instructors in guiding students towards appropriate websites. It is not recommended that students look at aspects of militaristic jihad without proper guidance. As discussed in Hashtag Islam, visiting jihad oriented websites and social media, even inadvertently, could in some contexts lead to prosecution and/or concerns about radicalisation. A search for ‘jihad’ could be flagged by a server (for example in a university). Downloading manuals and other materials onto hard drives or memory sticks may raise issues of legality, and also be problematic if students chose to travel with these items on transportation systems where luggage is searched. Some materials may also be traumatic to view. Students should not engage in online dialogues with content providers in this area (!).

I recommend that only a fully trained instructor teach about these elements to a class through direct use of website materials. If an instructor is able to do this, then there are productive learning possibilities available in relation to the study of militaristic jihad. This can include how militaristic jihad is defined by different platforms, authorities and individuals - and how communities have sought to counter jihad narratives in different contexts. A useful discussion or assignment can be developed on the role of online media in different campaigns, comparing (for example) al-Qaeda’s use of the internet with that of the ‘Islamic State’. This can include reflect on differences in the internet (from early browsers through to social media). Regional variations and fictionalisation could also be usefully explored. Quoting from Hashtag Islam and other recognised publications can be useful in this subject area. Some academic and research websites discussed in Hashtag Islam have ‘safe’ copies of materials available, and instructors should be aware of institutional policies in terms of accessing and using these (which can differ from institution to institution).

Politics and Islam: With some similar caveats regarding materials, it can be a useful learning exercise to determine how specific political parties and groups have drawn on the internet to propagate their world views. This can be particularly relevant in Area Studies or Language Studies. It can be done in conjunction with exploring the impact of specific ideologues and ‘reformers’. Some parties make a wealth of materials available online in a variety of languages.

Final Year Dissertation: I have found that aspects of the study of Islam, Muslims and the Internet have proven rich areas for students in their final dissertations (at undergraduate and postgraduate levels). I have observed some rich and original work, produced with instructor guidance, that has satisfied benchmarking requirements for advanced study. Utilising Hashtag Islam could be useful in this regard.

CONCLUSION

I have provided a few basic ideas which may help instructors seeking to integrate study of Islam, Muslims and the Internet into their classes - whether for a single session, or over a wider and more focused programme of study. There are numerous opportunities for students to have rich learning opportunities in this area, and also to gather skills of critical thinking and appropriate internet research in the process. Ideas for further reading are located in Hashtag Islam. I would be interested to learn of how instructors utilise the book and welcome feedback, which will contribute to the scoping of future publication endeavours. Feel free to contact me via the virtuallyislamic.com website.

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