And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favor on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace, ye became brethren... — from Qur’an 3:103
“You know what I don’t ‘get’?” my Palestinian friend asked one day over coffee in her sunny bustan, a garden with fruit trees, grape vines, herbs, two rabbits, and some chickens. “I look at your houses, and can’t believe you live with people you don’t know. Look,” she said lifting her chin toward the neighboring buildings, two- and three-story houses of some expanse. “Every one of the buildings in this village is inhabited by members of an extended family.”
Indeed: The foundation of Muslim society is the family. And the family is a microcosm of the Muslim 'ummah -- a faith-based, multi-ethnic, communal “nation” founded on submission to the will of Allah, and Muhammad’s sunnah (teachings).
Although the 'ummah is spiritually united, Muslims themselves are dispersed. According to a 2009 Pew Forum report, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims live in almost every country; moreover, some one-fifth of them live in countries where Islam is not the dominant religion. This trend seems to be on the rise, according to more recent Pew data.
Islam also has a high growth rate -- 6.4 percent annually by one estimate -- due in part to conversion. Although conversion rates are difficult to pin down, one 2000 estimate cited a rate of over 135,000 converts annually in the US alone.
Thus, the Muslim 'ummah is growing but increasingly atomized: Countless Muslims are isolated from extended family, and hence from the umbilical connection to the 'ummah.
It is this, in part, which has led to the incredible flowering of Islam on the Web, with the Internet serving as a proxy for the 'ummah. Despite Islam’s intrinsic distrust of innovation, the innovation of the Internet is being used to promulgate and strengthen Islam, as shown by the legions of Websites dedicated to all aspects of life as a Muslim.
One comprehensive Islamic site that fulfills the modeling task of the family and gives the visitor a sense of the Muslim 'ummah is IslamOnline, which covers fatwas (Islamic legal rulings), interpersonal relations (with its “cyber-counselor” section), religious observance, and relevant current events. As of late November 2010, Alexa Internet Inc. rated IslamOnline the 10,444th most-visited Muslim Website -- impressive, given the millions of sites extant. Similarly comprehensive is IslamiCity, which sports a banner indicating who “took shahada" -- that is, converted to Islam -- when and where.
But the majority of sites catering to Muslims deal with discrete issues, from learning how to pray to learning to tie the hijab. In fact, the Internet fulfills a particularly important function of the 'ummah for Western converts, especially those isolated from other Muslims or contending with rejection -- from their families, their surroundings, or the Muslim 'ummah itself, which may not be as welcoming as Islam dictates it must be.
Although conversion to Islam is simple and can even be done online, the struggles it may bring can be daunting. The remedy? A dedicated Website, stories of inspiration, or the blog of someone who’s been there, done that, and kept the faith.
Both the recent convert and the native-born Muslim can find modest clothing on the Web, or detailed instructions for performing intricate mandated rituals like the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. Religious education is offered
for those who prefer a cyber-teacher to the mosque; so is discourse reconciling modern technology with Qur’anic teaching. The Internet’s unique mix of lexical, audio, and visual components also makes it the ideal place to learn the precise, highly ritualized chanting of the Qur’an
known as tajweed.
I explain this to my Palestinian friend, waxing on about the proliferation of Islam on the Internet and the numerous resources available to anyone who takes either a passing, or a profound, interest in her religion. “Ach,” she sighs. “The best place for this Muslimah is still her bustan.”
— Marsha Weinstein is a writer, editor, translator, photographer, and social worker who divides her time between Connecticut and Israel.