x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Is staying faithful to Islam compatible with Twitter?

Twitter and Facebook are an inescapable part of life for millions of Muslims, and rather than trying to denounce social networking opponents would be better off signing up to get their point of view across.

In 2011, social media was hailed as one of the catalysts of unprecedented change in the Middle East, bringing down entrenched political systems and uniting populations in a way that no one could have foreseen. In 2012, it seems that social media is being denounced in the Muslim world, and ire has been raised against this modern phenomenon.

Last week, the Saudi poet and journalist Hamza Kashgari sent out three tweets about the Prophet Mohammed on the occasion of his birth. His controversial words have provoked fury and even calls for him to stand trial for blasphemy, the outcome of which could be a death sentence. Kashgari fled to Malaysia, and has since been extradited to Saudi Arabia.

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa against Twitter, demanding that "real Muslims" avoid it, calling it a "platform for trading accusations and for promoting lies".

It seems somewhat ironic that a Facebook group was immediately formed to call for Kashgari's prosecution, with tens of thousands of people joining up.

And if you like your ironies, then you might like to know that just recently Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal invested US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) in Twitter.

The mufti is not the only one calling for "real Muslims" to abandon social media. In Pakistan, the CEO of a website called Millat Facebook has called on Muslims to delete their accounts on the "blasphemous" Facebook. Speaking at a conference last week on the subject of "Blasphemy by Facebook and Role of Muslim Youth in Social Media", he said Facebook had caused offence to millions of Muslims in 2010 by hosting a competition to draw the Holy Prophet.

Yet the greatest irony of all is that social media has opened up the opportunity for young Muslims to engage with their faith and their co-religionists in a manner that their parents could never have imagined. Where once the Ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) was a spiritual notion, with Muslim communities separated by distance, language and geography, social media has broken down barriers and allowed young Muslims to connect irrespective of where they are. It allows them to discuss what it means to be Muslim in a modern age, and to access a wide range of religious scholarship.

However much the establishment wants to legislate against new technology, the fact is that young people have already rushed ahead and embraced it. The technology itself is neutral. Its potential can be hugely positive. Some scholars have already seen its potential. Others have websites to pose religious questions. Some offer YouTube channels in which lectures imparting religious knowledge are available for all.

In addition, young people themselves are contributing to religiosity via social media. Aside from its role in last year's events, it has been used for innovative and positive purposes. For example, during Ramadan, people often "tweet the Quran". During Haj there are passionate Twitter feeds offering emotional and intimate accounts of what it is like to be present. Both give people around the world the opportunity to engage with important rituals and to share their experience with their co-religionists.

Social media has rapidly become deeply entrenched in our communal life. There is no going back. The establishment can engage with it, and use it as a means to reach out to young people. Or they can denounce it with grand gestures, and get left behind.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk