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Young Muslims head to the Web for advice

A young Muslim from the United States earnestly asks, “I have been wanting to get a tattoo of the crescent moon and star, then found out it is against Islam to get a tattoo. But what if the tattoo is religious?”

“Is it permissible for a Muslim to play in the NHL?” asks another from Canada.

And from South Africa, this question: “Is it permissible for a Muslim to sell cigarettes, tobacco or such related products?”

The answers to these queries, according to Imam Mufti Ebrahim Desai, are, "No," “No" and “It is makrooh,” meaning yes, but it is frowned upon. Desai is an imam at a madrasa in Compertown, South Africa. His answers were not given in a face-to-face meeting outside of his mosque or in his office. Rather, they were offered on his popular Web site, Ask the Imam.

Increasingly, young Muslims are finding answers to their religious questions online. For inquiries that might not be directly answered by the Quran, Muslims turn to imams for advice, much like Catholics would turn to a priest. Over the past 10 years, dozens of Internet imams have emerged.

“Islamists were the earliest adopters of the Internet,” said Dr. Deborah Wheeler, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. “Even in 1997 in Kuwait, I found imams using the Internet to convert people to Islam and to reach out to fellow Muslims with knowledge and advice.”

Wheeler has studied the use of the Internet worldwide, and has written essays on Muslim cyberpractices. She says the advice sites began popping up in the late 1990s.

And for many, the anonymity of the Web makes it easier to ask questions online than at the local mosque.

“I think it's very positive, especially for our youth," said Muhammed Abdul Aleem, the CEO of Islamicity.com, which features an imam advice forum. "There are so many issues coming up, as Muslims living in the West, that they may not want to ask their parents or local imam. They feel more comfortable asking online.”

Aleem and several friends started their site in 1995. They decided it would be a place for all Muslims, both Sunnis and Shiites. In 1996, they decided to add the advice column.

“When we entered (the online world) at an early stage, some people had reservations,” said Dr. Dani Doueiri, a co-founder of the site and an Islamic scholar at California State University at San Bernardino. “Some thought the Internet was the work of the devil, and was just for pornography and gambling.”

Some people are uncomfortable with sites posting answers to very private questions, particularly those that are sexual in nature, Doueiri said.

But Doueiri, who answered more than 50,000 questions for the site, says that because these issues are dealt with in the Quran, he sees no problem with positing answers online.

“If God made it public, why make it unpublic?” he said.

The answers given by the sites are sometimes met with criticism for being too conservative or too liberal. But in the end, Doueiri said, the criticism is equal on all sides. “We accommodate to all opinions,” he said.

Aleem and his partners decided that the imams would not issue fatwas, which are legal Islamic edicts. But other sites, like Desai’s Ask the Imam, do give out fatwa.

Some have criticized Desai and others for issuing fatwas online. Many see these Web sites as trampling on the old system of how knowledge is passed on within the community.

Wheeler says the Web has disrupted centuries of tradition. The faith has always relied on a chain of transmission of Islamic knowledge and authority. In the past, there were entire books that tried to determine unreliable sources or transmitters of knowledge, Wheeler said. Today, that authority is much more fragmented.

“The Internet interrupts this whole process,” she said. “I remember when I lectured in Damascus at the American Cultural Center in 1997, the question people were most worried about is how they could determine the validity and reliability of knowledge transmitted over the Web.”

Aleem decided that the imam advice section of Islamicity.com would only give opinions, not fatwa.

“We wanted to give all sides a voice,” Aleem said. “On a particular issue there can be contradictory views among different imams.”

He says 90 percent of the questions posted on the site are general questions related to work, marriage and family. He says that because the site has been up for a decade, many questions have already been answered in earlier postings. But Aleem says about 10 percent of the questions bring up fresh ideas, or deal with specific life situations.

Depending on the nature of the questions, the imam will post the question and answer online, he says. However, if the information is sensitive, the imam will reply directly by e-mail.

Islamicity now has two Islamic scholars answering questions: one in California and one in India. The site started with just one imam, but the number of daily questions has ballooned over the last decade. Aleem said that the imams were chosen in part to connect with Muslims who do not live in an Islamic country.

“We wanted the imam to understand Muslims in a minority perspective,” he said. “Most of our questions come from Muslims in the West.”

While people still go to the local imam for questions, Aleem says the online imams provide answers to questions that people otherwise wouldn’t ask.

“It has become essential,” Aleem said. “I can go to the local imam and ask him a question, but if it is sensitive, I may not ask him.”

Doueiri says the site is also helpful to those Muslims living in remote areas or towns where there is no local mosque. He said he had received questions from Muslims living in small towns of fewer than 200 people.

“It’s hard to find a local mosque in rural Arizona,” he said.

E-mail: pnc2103@columbia.edu