Islam on the Internet: the Jinn and the objectification of Islam

Citation metadata

Date: Fall 2011
From: Journal of Religion and Popular Culture(Vol. 23, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Document Type: Report
Length: 6,671 words

Document controls

Main content

Abstract: 

This paper is an ontological investigation of discourses about the jinn, or spirits, on an Internet information portal site and a chat room. These Web discourses relate to what some anthropologists have termed the Great and Little Traditions of Islam, but with greater disparity than could ever be identified in "real world," Muslim-majority settings. Great and Little Web jinn discourses may best be understood as existing in dialectical tension with the ongoing process of the "objectification" of Islam in diaspora Islamic communities. Considered against ethnographic research on the jinn specifically and Islam more broadly, jinn stories on the Internet both reflect and may shape Islamic religious practice today.

Keywords: Islam, Internet, jinn

Full Text: 

The presence of Islam on the Internet, in what are sometimes termed "cyber-Islamic environments," (1) has captured the attention of many observers--governments looking for clues about Islamic terrorism and conspiracies, (2) believers searching online Qur'ans, and young people drawn to Muslim-only matchmaking services, (3) to name only a few. Anthropologists have also been intrigued by Islamic Web-based virtual communities, which, for some, have held the promise of creating new forums for Islamic thought and reconfiguring traditional sources of authority.

This paper is an ontological investigation of two distinct discourses of the jinn, or spirits, including (1) formal opinions from contemporary imams, or fatwas, on an information portal site and (2) "chat" about the jinn from a chat room. Web fatwas promote an understanding of the jinn that is relatively homogeneous and based on Islamic texts (e.g., Qur'an, Hadith); these Web fatwas consistently tend to ignore (and thus deny) the interpretations, history, and importance of the jinn as traditionally described and taught about in on-the-ground settings by local experts. In the virtual world's equivalent of coffee-house talk or kitchen gossip, "chat" about the jinn predictably lacks the specific textual references of the fatwas, but it is unfortunately also short on the detail that typically contextualizes any "real life" jinn story. Lacking any shared milieu of family, village, and local culture, as well as any other explicit contextual information, Internet chat about the jinn is often brief and stripped of the detail that, on the ground, makes it meaningful.

These Web discourses reflect what some anthropologists have termed the Great and Little Traditions of Islam, and they do so with more clarity than could ever actually be identified on the ground, in Muslim-majority settings. Internet Islamic discourses on the jinn further reflect and shape the recent changes in Islamic thought and practice now taking place in diasporic Islamic communities. Online teachings and stories about the jinn are in dialectical tension with the larger, global process of the "objectification" of Islam, (4) or the process by which Islam is being identified as an object that must be correctly and universally understood and practiced, rather than a way of life embedded in and shaped by local settings and interpretations.

In the pages that follow, I first briefly review studies of Islam on the Web, my methodology, and what ethnographic studies tell us about jinn. I then discuss the two Internet jinn discourses, the ways in which they reflect the Great and Little Traditions in Islam, and their relationship to the objectification of Islam in the Islamic diaspora.

Islam on the Web

It is useful to note that the Islamic presence on the Internet is not ahistorical. In 2001, Anderson identified three phases of Islam on the Internet. First, by the early 1980s, the Qur'an, Hadith, and other Muslim texts had appeared online. Discussions of these texts were initially dominated by individuals with a strong science background; they produced electronic discussion groups about Islam that mixed the languages of science and religion. The second phase, which responded to the first phase and to the growing availability of alternative channels of communication on the Internet, was marked by "officializing strategies and frequently radical activists." (5) Facilitated by the development of Web browsers in the early 1990s, this phase was marked by an intense interest in the publication of viewpoints, religious instruction, and interpretation. The third phase, according to Anderson, is marked by "moderation both in terms of a broader middle range of opinion coming on-line, and also a shift to discourse and connections to harmonizing religion and life." (6) It is the third phase that has been most studied by scholars interested in the presence of Islam on the Internet. The possibility that we have entered a fourth phase of Islam on the Internet should be considered; this phase may be marked by an increasing bifurcation of the "broader middle range" Anderson identified in the third phase.

Recent studies of Islam on the Internet have focused on online jihadi discourse, (7) Islamoriented activism, (8) and the changing nature of Islamic authority. (9) Larsson's study provides information on how Muslim organizations use the Internet to battle Islamophobia (10) as well as a study of a Swedish Muslim discussion group. (11) Bernal examined the social history of a Web site developed by Eritreans in the diaspora, against the backdrop of his lengthy ethnographic, on-the-ground experience in Eritrea and with Eritreans in the United States. (12) Increasingly, ethnographic studies of Islamic communities include a discussion of the impact of the Internet. (13) Beaulieu (14) focuses on how ethnography is both challenged and reinvented through its encounter with the Internet and provides a valuable bibliography of ethnographies examining the Internet. This paper complements previous studies by analyzing a specific example of Islamic discourse online--focusing on stories and teachings about the jinn--against a solid ethnographic background.

Methodology

I have chosen two sites, IslamOnline (www.islamonline.net) and Islamica (www.islamicaweb. com), for my discussion here. (15) IslamOnline and Islamica could be characterized respectively as "elite" and "popular" sites; elite sites represent "official" teachings of a religious system and present a transnational discourse, "in the sense that their disseminated information appears to be targeting the global audience." (16) IslamOnline has been noted for its importance in discussions of Islam on the Internet by two key commentators on Islam on the Internet. (17) Bunt describes IslamOnline in the following terms:

   Islam-Online is an example of a substantial fatwa resource,
   operating in a Muslim majority context, but reflecting the
   expertise from authorities and counsellors from a broad range of
   minority and majority contexts.... [Islam-Online is] registered in
   Doha, Qatar, and staffed by 100 people based in Cairo--including
   students and graduates from Al Azhar University. (18)

In my research on the Web, IslamOnline consistently appeared in the first five sites or pages of a Google search using the term "Islam." (19)

Islamica (Islamicaweb.com), on the other hand, is a chat room, listing 7,944 members (copyright 2000-2007), and is an example of a "popular" Web site. Popular Web sites "may incorporate elements that are not recognized by the elite; may present an amalgamated and/ or an acculturated form of a religious discourse; or may present a form of a religious discourse deriving from syncretistic processes." (20) The material I have quoted from Islamica was archived from 2002 and 2007 (see the transcript below) and is publicly available; I did not "join" the chat room as a member. I chose this material for its overall representativeness of chat about the jinn from among many chat sites.

Distinctive as they are from one another, these two Web sites allow us to see some of the Internet's religious diversity with respect to a specific topic. IslamOnline and Islamica reflect opposite ends of the spectrum of Internet sociology--publication and conversation (21) --and religious sites--elite and popular. Akin to writing and speaking, or playscript and transcript, IslamOnline and Islamica are asynchronous and synchronous sources of communication, respectively, and thus provide two central and diverse sources of formalized and informal information about jinn on the Internet.

I do not argue with absolute certainty that these two Web sites are the most important of the Islamic Web sites currently available. I have not done a survey of all Islamic Web sites, although I have chosen IslamOnline because of its prominence on the Web and because it is representative of many similar sites that I examined. (22) I also do not know first-hand specifics about the real people who visit and interact on these Web sites (but neither do those who create and maintain these sites). This means that the online jinn discourses are thus impossible to correlate with gender, urban/rural divides, levels of education, nationality, or even Islamic sects, as may often be done when working in real-world settings. Bunt, a leading analyst of IslamOnline, argues, "Any study of user communities would require a multivolume international study in order to examine the relationship between online output and offline behavior within diverse Islamic contexts." (23)

Although precise correlation of online output and offline behaviour is difficult, my Internet research is informed by my previous ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the West Bank (1995-1996) and Toronto (1998-1999). In Toronto, I examined immigrant Palestinian women's stories of the jinn, hoping to see how jinn stories and experiences change during the processes of immigration and resettlement. My findings from that research form a key backdrop for interpreting my research on jinn online. Looking at one specific example of Islamic belief and practice--jinn stories--online and in diasporic Islamic communities may in fact provide one way of addressing some of the difficulties inherent in similar research endeavours.

Stories of the Jinn

According to the Qur'an, jinn are creatures made of smokeless fire who can choose to appear to humans in a variety of disguises. (24) Stories of the jinn are found throughout the Muslim world and categorized by many scholars of religion as an expression of "popular" religion. The world of the jinn is believed by some Muslims to parallel that of the human world in terms of social and political organization (including kings, armies, genders, and generations, for example). Many Muslims believe that the jinn may possess, punish, trouble, or indeed even bring good fortune to humans. Other Muslims do not believe that the jinn interfere in human affairs and believing that they do play an active role in human life is the product of ignorance or backwardness. When studied by anthropologists, jinn stories have been understood as speaking to listeners about not only the jinn, but also about the narrator and his or her life circumstances. Products of both tradition and modernity, then, these stories often tell us of the jinns' unseen world as well as provide critical social and political commentary on contemporary life.

In addition to my research on the jinn in the West Bank, (25) other studies of the jinn have been done in Sudan, (26) Madagascar, (27) Morocco, (28) Ethiopia, (29) Egypt, (30) Saudi Arabia, (31) and Pakistan. (32) Studies of jinn in the Islamic diaspora are fewer, but include my work in Toronto, (33) as well as research by Dein among Bangladeshis in London. (34) Often associated with women, jinn stories commonly explain infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant mortality. The jinn may also be held responsible for illness and other kinds of misfortune. Jinn stories and teachings provide amazingly precise discourses on broad social and cultural trends as well as an individual's personal-, cultural-, and time-specific experiences.

In the West Bank in modern times, jinn possession episodes seem to increase in times of political and economic strife, such as during a military occupation, and decrease in times when there is less military activity, or when religious conservatism is on the rise. Jinn stories also tell us, at times with surprising specificity, about the peculiarities of life on the ground: the appearance of a Jewish jinnia (a female jinn) who wants to marry a Palestinian man she meets in an Israeli prison during my fieldwork in the West Bank was surely not simply a cosmological accident, just as the Canadian jinn who appeared in Sudan not long after Canadian anthropologist Janice Boddy's arrival (35) was not just a random incident. Such stories are rife with symbolism, laden with history, and deeply gendered.

IslamOnline

In the "Fatwa Bank" of IslamOnline, Abdul from the United States asks:

   As-Salamu 'alaykum. Is there any difference between the demons and
   the jinn? Please give me more information about the world of Jinn
   and tell me more about their hidden secrets? How can I find more
   information about them?

The response states:

Wa 'alaykum As-SalamuwaRahmatullahiwaBarakatuh.

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.c [sic]

All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.

Dear brother in Islam, we would like to thank you for the great confidence you place in us, and we implore Allah Almighty to help us serve His cause and render our work for His Sake.

Answering your questions, we'd like to cite for you the following fatwa issued by Sheikh M. S. Al-Munajjid, a prominent Saudi Muslim lecturer and author, who states: "Allah Almighty has created certain creatures, some of them are known to us and some of them are not.

In his capacity as Allah's vicegerent on earth, man is ordained by Allah to worship Him Alone without partners. Consequently, we should not get absorbed in stories about jinn,as it is not a form of worship.

The Qur'an and Sunnah indicate that jinn exist, and that there is a purpose for their existence in this life, which is to worship Allah Alone with no partner or associate. Allah Almighty says: "And I (Allah) created not the jinns and humans, except they should worship Me (Alone)." (Adh-Dhariyat 56)

Scholars are in disagreement over the difference between jinn and demons. Some of them say that the word jinn goes far to encompass the jinn as well as the demons. The word also includes believing and unbelieving jinn. Allah Almighty says, "And among us there are righteous folk and among us there are far from that. We are sects having different rules." (Al-Jinn: 11) "And there are among us some who have surrendered (to Allah) and there are among us some who are unjust. And whoso hath surrendered to Allah, such have taken the right path purposefully." (Al-Jinn 14)

However, the word demon or shaytan is used to refer to the unbelieving ones among the jinn. Allah Almighty says, "... and the devil was ever an ingrate to his Lord.?" (Al-Isra' 27)

The world of the jinn is an independent and separate world with its own distinct nature and features that are hidden from the world of humans. Jinns and humans have things in common, such as the ability to understand and choose between good and evil. The word jinn comes from the Arabic root meaning "hidden from sight." Allah Almighty says: "... Verily he (shaytan) and his soldiers from the jinn or his tribe see you from where you cannot see them ..." (Al-A'raf 27)

Allah has told us in His Book the essence from which the jinn were created. He says: "And the jinn, We created aforetime from the smokeless flame o fire." (Al-Hijr: 27) 'A'ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) says that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "The angels were created from light, the jinn were created from fire, and Adam was created from that which has been described to you." (Reported by Muslim)

The response continues, outlining the types of jinn; the relationship between the jinn and the sons of Adam; their [jinn] powers, the food and drink of the jinn, the dwelling places of the jinn, and protection from harm of the jinn.

In the "Question and Answer" section of IslamOnline, Elena from the United States asks:

Assalamualaikum respected scholars,

I was wondering if you could resolve my confusion on the jinn. According to the Qur'an, men and jinn were both created by Allah to worship Him. The Qur'an, in its turn, was revealed through Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Was Muhammad also the prophet for the jinn? If so, are there any evidences in the sunna about his interactions with the jinn? What should we, being humans, know about the nature of this other category of Allah's creation?

Thank-you very much

Wassalam

The reply states:

Thank you for your question.

Yes, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was sent to both humankind and the jinn. One of the Qur'anic chapters (72) is called surat al-Jinn, indicating that there is some importance to be given to the world of jinn. In that chapter, verses 1-15, it explains there, that the Qur'an was conveyed to the jinn and that some of them believed while others disbelieved. There are also many evidences in the sunnah, referring to the world of jinn and the Prophet's interaction with it.

What we humans should know, is what has been revealed to us through the Qur'an and the sunnah, which may be summed up in the following six points:

Jinns are created from fire (different from Angels who are created from light) and are normally invisible to humans. The fact that their origin was from elemental fire does not mean that they exist as fire, any more than humans being created from earth exist as clumps of earth.

Jinns have free will like humans (different from Angels who have no free will), as such some are disbelievers while others are believers (i.e. Muslims). Consequently, Satan (Iblees) was a jinn and not an angel.

Prophet Sulaymaan was given control over the jinn as his miracle. Thus, no human can claim control over the jinn for good or evil.

Jinns may interfere in our world through the agency of fortunetellers, magicians, mediums, spirit-possessions, etc. Consequently, supernatural events and experiences (visions) can be explained by their interference.

Seeking help from them is forbidden as it leads to shirk (associating partners with Allah).

Protection from them should be done according to sunnah, using Qur'anic recitations and not any forms of charms or amulets.

Further authentic information may be gotten from my books "IbnTaymeeyah's Essay on the Jinn" and "The Exorcist Tradition in Islam," as well as "The World of the Angels and the Jinn" by Umar al-Ashqar.

Mr. Lamaan Ball, editor of Ask About Islam, adds:

As you can see from Dr. Bilal Philips' answer, we should seek knowledge of the jinn only from the Qur'an and the Sunnah--and this was summarized well here. We should also not seek their help. So, in conclusion I feel it is worth mentioning that as Muslims we do not have benefits in seeking interactions with the jinn. Because of this, we should avoid concerning ourselves with this part of Allah's creation more than is necessary and should instead focus on dealing with the many pressing social, moral and political problems we need to deal with.

There are many more pages in both the Fatwa Bank--"Jinn possession: Between facts and illusions"; "May a human marry a jinni?" "Can jinn really possess people?"--as well as in the Question and Answer section of the site. All share the tone and characteristics of the pages I have cited above: the Fatwas and the Q&As contain numerous citations to Islamic authorities and texts and are relatively formal in tone. Note also that all reference to the experiences of particular individuals with the jinn and specific cultural practice is missing.

Other notable Islamic Web sites that discuss the jinn offer very similar well-written, rehearsed responses relying centrally on the same pool of written texts to carefully worded questions. Indeed, in many instances the responses themselves are repetitive. As Roy notes: "the Internet serves as a circulatory system of ideas that are reaffirmed by dint of repetition: the same set of references reappear again and again." (36) In addition to predictably citing the same Qur'anic verses and Hadith, many of the same sheikhs and their writings are cited on different sites (which is also indicative of the text's popularity (37)). For example, Sheikh AlMunajjid, "a prominent Saudi Muslim lecturer and author" (according to IslamOnline.net), whose work I quote above, is quite popular (38) (see Roy 2004: 241). His Fatwa, "The World of Jinn and Its Secrets," is on IslamOnline, Islamicity.com, and "Islam Q and A" (islam-qa. com); indeed, he answers all the questions on the "Islam Q and A" site. Islamawareness.net and IslamOnline both have Fethullah Gulen's article, "Angels and Jinn in This World," which can also, of course, be found on his own Web site en.fgulen.com. Harun Yahya, a well-known Turkish thinker and author, has his own Web site (harunyahya.com) containing his writings, and his article "Muhammad was also the prophet of the jinn" is also on IslamOnline.

Of course, many sites produce their answers to questions independently; here I am mindful of the methodological problems outlined above. Nonetheless, I am willing to argue that many of the well-established Islamic Web sites produce similar, standard responses to queries about the jinn because of the relatively elitist Islamic learning that takes place in madrasas and mosques, the "traditional" institutions of Islamic learning. Even traditional gender divisions are found here in this virtual space: men answer the questions based on texts written by other men. Not one site that I have examined has a woman claiming to answer, rather than ask, a question.

Islamica

Now consider this discussion of the jinn on Islamica in response to a query about people's knowledge of jinn stories (chat room "names" have been deleted):

   i have plently, but I dont want to bore u with them, most of them
   are usually bs. buti think i know some authentic ones.

   i have a friend who is 13, and mashaAllah her family is very
   Islamic. anyway, during Ramadan she woke up to someone mumbling her
   name, as she glanced up she saw a fleeting profile of a tall man.
   so she tried to rationalize and thought her abu was calling her for
   fajir. she got up to do wudu ... coming back from the bathroom she
   realized that it was 1 am and all her family was asleep. ehehhehe
   ok, it was scary when she told be during tarawee, intermission i
   mean, in the bathroom smoking i mean, doh!

   i have a friend whosinlaws husband is a sheik and well he can see
   jinns. i asked the sheiks wife if they held secret meeting at their
   house and if the jinns showed up in human form. She said no, they
   show up in their real form to ask for help sometimes. so i asked
   her to describe them, but she wouldnt go there. She said they may
   get angry.

   hahahahi never thought of that ... i guess the prospect of a jinn
   mad at u can be bad. hheheheehehe.

   please share, otherwise this will be a pointless thread if its not
   already heeeeheeeeewheres that showing teeth smiley:mrgreen:

   hahayamah gramps used to live in this huge house in india ... and
   their were theese jinns and theyd like tilt the cot over and he'll
   fall down ... it would get on his nerves ... hmm ... and this one
   time one of mah grams told me that some one came up to her sis
   saying that they needed help giving someone birth ... turned out it
   was a jinns child ... scaary ... mmm a few times my grams (wife of
   the one who lived in the big house) had convos with jinns ... its
   odd though ... never really seen one ... so its hard to belive

   Oooooooh this should be such a good thread. I gots me a buddy from
   Banghalor and believe me, they gots some stories. i'll try to ask
   him for a few.

   maybe y'all should tell these at the msg camp in texas over
   marshmellows.

   I think I've told this story before, but anyway, my mom's uncle was
   a Jinn controller (sounds like some job, doesn't it, like an
   air-traffic controller? oooohaaaah. ;)) He used to make them do
   whatever he wanted. Mostly though, he used to exorcise ppl who got
   possessed:possess: (mighty handy slimey) USING Qur'anic verses. So
   it wasn't a hocus pocus type of thing even though it may sound
   "iffy." I believe it only 50% myself. ;) And you know what they
   say? If the Jinns somehow free themselves out of their human
   master's control ... they KILL ya ... like it's a message: Don't
   mess wid da Jinns OR ELSE:nervous ... that's how my mom says the
   Jinn-controller uncle of hers died ... may he R.I.P. Amen.:)

More recently, the following was part of a discussion about jinn (39):

   I thought I had been hallucinating and hearing things, so I nearly
   pushed it all out of my mind and told myself there was no jinn, no
   smoke alarm ringing, no nothing, and that I was probably on crack.

   But when my mom asked me why the alarm rang, it means she heard it,
   and that if she heard it, then it probably did ring, and if it did
   ring, then it probably detected some smoke, and if it did detect
   smoke, then there was probably a fire or source of smoke somwhere,
   and it happened pretty much right around the time I thought there
   was some jinn sneaking around in the darkness of the first floor.

   Which means maybe there really was a jinn. And if there really was
   a jinn, then I probably wasn't hallucinating or hearing things or
   smoking crack.

   *shrug*

The stories of the jinn here are missing all the detail that contextualizes them on the ground, or in real life. But, at the very least we can see that people are chatting about the jinn and sharing experiences, highlighting the fact that jinn stories are still found in a variety of locations, although they are greatly impoverished in their diasporic, Internet contexts. When juxtaposed to IslamOnline, it is clear that the discourse is significantly different: the language changes to the colloquial; the personal, albeit highly abbreviated story is central; and the carefully worded, textually oriented tract is missing.

Great and Little Traditions

Some scholarly studies of Islamic thought and practice have cast them in terms of the Great Tradition versus the Little Tradition: the tenets of Islamic texts--the "Great Tradition"--are typically compared to local practices--the "Little Tradition." (40) Great Traditions are upheld by the literate elite, while Little Traditions are practiced by the illiterate masses. Some scholars have viewed jinn beliefs and stories as largely part of the Little Tradition, as they are typically related without significant textual elaboration but with great cultural elaboration and, to some, may seem to even stray from the realm of proper Islamic belief.

The Great and Little Tradition approach to Islamic beliefs and practices, however, has been widely critiqued. First, it is intrinsically associated with the embrace of a problematic set of dichotomies. As Tapper and Tapper (41) have eloquently argued, "Great is to Little as literate elite is to illiterate masses, urban is to rural, intellectual is to emotional, public to private, male to female, and so on." Many scholars have worked to demonstrate that these dualisms are largely false constructions, significant simplifications of cultural life. Further, a Great and Little Traditions approach to the study of Islam has failed to adequately grapple with their interrelationships, their internal diversity, and their unequal claims to power in Islamic societies. (42)

I have argued in my work that jinn stories in Palestinian village life are not usefully analyzed by employing a Great and Little Traditions approach. In the West Bank, jinn stories today are at the intersections of each of the dualisms outlined by the Tappers. Jinn stories are told and heard by illiterate women alongside literate ones. It is impossible to describe Artasis, the villagers with whom I lived and worked, as rural when they are a few kilometres away from Bethlehem and a few additional kilometres away from Jerusalem, and when many men commute into these cities daily for work. The division of intellectual and emotional is certainly called into question by the knowledge and approach of Islamic curers who "operate" using both texts and great emotional force. The association of publicly acceptable knowledge and privately held, unacceptable knowledge is untenable when an ongoing popular magazine sold at newsstands features a monthly serialized story of a jinnia. Jinn stories belong to and are told by both women and men, and it is simply incorrect to argue that jinn stories belong essentially to women.

Jon Anderson has asserted that the "media explosion"--including cassette tapes, satellite television, phones, faxes, and the Internet--in the Muslim world has allowed for the emergence of a "vast middle ground ... between elite, super-literate, authoritative discourse and mass, non-literate, 'folk' Islam." (43) Jinn stories in the West Bank are indeed found in magazines and books that are widely available on street corners across the Middle East. One of the most complex and fascinating stories of the jinn that I have worked to analyze was in part recorded on and circulated through a cassette tape by the possessed woman's brother. In one treatment session I witnessed, the sheikha (a female sheikh) took numerous phone calls on her cell phone from both overseas and local clients and offered her clients advice.

The range of jinn stories and teachings online, however, are more clearly reflective of a Great and Little Tradition divide than those found on the ground. IslamOnline is very much in line with the Great Traditions approach to Islam--literate, educated, and normative responses by teachers to queries from "students." Islamica, on the other hand, reflects a Little Traditions range of interests and experiences. IslamOnline is relatively empowered, even if only symbolically, when compared to Islamica's members' discussions. When looking for information on the Web about the jinn, for example, students will surely cite IslamOnline's fatwas over Islamica's chat. The aspects of social practice that have always moderated and complicated any simple notion of Great and Little Traditions in Islamic communities are missing from the Web. In social practice, unadulterated Great Traditions have rarely if ever existed. Social life made the division between the Great and the Little too messy to be realistic. The Great and Little Tradition divide is thus more powerfully inscribed by these Web sites than it ever was in "real" life.

The Objectification of Islam

Stories of the jinn on the Internet both reflect and shape what is now theorized as a product of the ongoing process of the "objectification of Islam" (44) or the creation of a "normative" Islam, (45) particularly in the Islamic diaspora. The process of objectification refers to ongoing attempts to define Islam as a specific immutable object to be correctly grasped, understood, and practiced, as opposed to an embedded way of life that is intrinsically understood to be Islamic. Most centrally, self-conscious efforts to define "Islam" try to separate Islam from cultural belief and practice, or what some have called Islam's Little Traditions. Of course, in many respects this is not a new effort:

   This is coherent with the centuries-old struggles of true
   fundamentalists (the Wahhabis, for instance) to delink Islam from
   ethnic cultures ... Fundamentalism is both a product and an agent
   of globalization, because it acknowledges without nostalgia the
   loss of pristine cultures, and sees as positive the opportunity to
   build a universal religious identity, delinked from any specific
   culture, including the Western one perceived as corrupt and
   decadent. (46)

However, the need to define Islam as distinctive from local cultures is particularly pressing in diasporic contexts. The need for broad-based Muslim community building, as well as the necessity of defining and representing Islam to a non-Muslim majority, both contribute to the attempt to create an Islam that is "pure" and, therefore, agreeable to all Muslims.

The process by which a "pure" Islam is created, however, comes at a considerable cost, or what Roy describes as "an impoverishment of its content." (47) Jinn stories and episodes are found relatively rarely in the Greater Toronto Area. As I asked about and listened for stories of the jinn in Toronto during my postdoctoral research, women reacted to my inquiries with mockery, denial, and even anger at my suggestion that they might believe in and practice such things. As Palestinian immigrant women are drawn into the wider Muslim community in Toronto and take classes to learn about Islam, they produce an increasingly self-conscious discourse on certain practices in the West Bank, including practices in which they may have once engaged. In light of an emphasis on normative Islamic practices on which all Muslims in Toronto may agree, stories of the jinn are recognized as symptomatic of (women's) local beliefs and customs and, as such, "un-Islamic."

The disappearance of jinn stories may entail foreclosing certain kinds of options for women which may not be adequately redressed through their embrace of normative Islamic practices and beliefs in Toronto. As social criticism which, almost no matter the content, does not entail repercussions for the speaker who is not to blame but rather the jinn, jinn stories allow for the expression of otherwise difficult--if not impossible--discussion of certain subjects. With the categorization of stories of the jinn as un-Islamic and a product of ignorance, this means of social commentary and communication is necessarily foregone.

The adherence to normative Islam and the consequent classification of some local practices as un-Islamic may also, albeit unwittingly, serve to reinforce prevailing social dichotomies in a Western context that carry an implicit evaluation of greater or lesser worth. Jinn stories and local village practices are placed in opposition to universal, learned Islamic belief; this implicitly suggests that the village exists in opposition to Western cities, and is thus backward/ ignorant rather than modern/informed.

Entering the multinational Muslim community in Toronto and engaging in a normative Islam is a complex process which entails both losses and gains. The jinn stories and teachings found on the Web and examined here tell us of this ongoing process and, indeed, may be shaping it. The polished, published prominence of IslamOnline and its exhortations to learn about jinn only from Islamic texts explicitly favour a "pure" Islamic approach and deny the relevance and, indeed, existence of extensive local traditions rich in a variety of insights. Web fatwas about the jinn circulate widely, are repetitious, and communicate a coherent message that corresponds with messages found in Muslims' daily lives. Chat about the jinn offers little alternative: it is inherently limited by its virtual existence. On the Web we cannot observe the ways in which jinn possession offers women an avenue to comment on, critique, and even protest a culturally over-determined self, as Boddy argues for the Sudanese case; or how jinn possession can function as a system of communication, particularly between spouses, as in Madagascar; or the ways in which jinn possession stories comment on the range of powerful forces at work in society--from patriarchy to occupation--and their possible collusion, as in the Palestinian case. Both online jinn discourses seem to collude to deny these possibilities by being text without context.

Islam, Media, and the Internet

Anderson argues that a "creolized discourse" emerges on the Internet:

   Islam on the Internet emerges as an intermediate realm of mixed
   content, mixed intellectual technique, and mixed persons who are
   not divided into the senders and receivers of mass (or of class)
   media but instead form a sort of community--commonly called
   "virtual." (48)

Online Islamic creolization has four characteristics: first, it is a mixed discourse, including electronic bulletin boards, e-mail lists, and Web pages; second, the central activity for participants is to "seek and forge links"; third, there is a mixture of intellectual technique (e.g., scientific values and modes of reasoning may be applied to religious issues, rather than traditional learning); and, fourth, the participants are primarily diasporic Muslims. (49)

There may well be an emergence of a "middle ground" of Islam on the Web. Yet, when one looks at specific points, such as stories and teachings about the jinn, it is also possible to find an Islam on the Internet that lacks a middle ground. In this case, an objectified, normative Islam takes precedence. Similarly, Mandaville sees in Internet Islam "novel fusions," the fragmentation of "traditional sources of authority," and "intermingling and dialogue between disparate interpretations of what it means to be 'Islamic.'" (50) Internet Islam is the "missing middle" (51) of Islamic thought and practice, according to Anderson, moderate in terms of its "middle range of opinion" and marked by a "shift to discourse and connections to harmonizing religion and life, particularly modern life." (52)

These analyses are clearly looking at Islam on the Internet as a whole and working to account for its variety. Such a conclusion may well depend on the topic and the site, but, at the very least, must be taken with some caution. Descriptions of Islam on the Internet must be nuanced. Just as we cannot and should not get away with describing "Muslims" as a homogeneous group, Internet Islam is too varied in its facets, its communities and cultures to fit easy generalizations. Such generalizations lead us away from considering issues of power, among other issues, on the Internet: Are we to assume that all forms of Web-based discourse are equally empowered because they are equally available to be accessed? IslamOnline and Islamica are not usefully lumped together under a single rubric of "Internet Islam"; they are definitively different discourses on religion that, at this moment, do not seem to significantly intersect in explicit ways: they do not share the same language, frames of reference, or kinds of content; they do not cross-reference one another, or reflect the other's influence in almost any way.

Recently, a friend of mine forwarded a YouTube link to me of a woman claiming to be possessed by a jinn. She screams and writhes about; she wears a hijab; what she says is mostly unintelligible. There is no identifying information about her, no context for her troubles. A quick search on YouTube for "jinn possession" turns up numerous hits on video clips featuring none other than Bilal Philips, whom I quote above from his work on IslamOnline. The jinn and the Internet are both part of virtual worlds that possess and intrigue us. If, however, it is still true that "spirits are intrinsically connected to the contexts in which they appear," (53) the jinn may soon appear to us far less.

doi: 10.3138/jrpc.23.3.358

Celia E. Rothenberg

McMaster University

Notes

(1.) Gary Bunt, Virtually Islamic: Computer-Mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000).

(2.) Omar El Akkad, "Mind Field: Terror Goes Digital. With Canadian Help," The Globe and Mail, 18 August 2007.

(3.) Mbaye Lo and Taimoor Aziz, "Muslim Marriage Goes Online: The Use of Internet Matchmaking by American Muslims," Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 21, no. 3 (2009).

(4.) Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

(5.) Jon W. Anderson, "Muslim Networks, Muslim Selves in Cyberspace: Islam in the Post-Modern Public Sphere" (paper presented at The Dynamism of Muslim Societies, Tokyo, 2001).

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, trans. Pascale Ghazaleh (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).

(8.) Jocelyne Cesari, When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

(9.) Bunt, Virtually Islamic; Gary Bunt, Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments (Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 2003); Gary R. Bunt, Imuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

(10.) Goran Larsson, "Cyber-Islamophobia? The Case of Wikiislam," Contemporary Islam 1 (2007).

(11.) Goran Larsson, "The Death of a Virtual Muslim Discussion Group," Online--Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 1, no. 1 (2005).

(12.) Victoria Bernal, "Eritrea on-Line: Diaspora, Cyberspace, and the Public Sphere," American Ethnologist 32, no. 4 (2005).

(13.) For example, Jonah Blank, Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi-Bohras (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

(14.) Anne Beaulieu, "Mediating Ethnography: Objectivity and the Making of Ethnographies of the Internet," Social Epistemology 18, no. 2-3 (2004).

(15.) The bulk of my online research was carried out in December 2005 and January 2006 with the assistance of my research assistant, Alex Brown.

(16.) Anastasia Karaflogka, E-Religion: A Critical Appraisal of Religious Discourse on the World Wide Web (London: Equinox, 2006), 164-65. It is important to note, however, that IslamOnline does not exactly fit all of Karaflogka's characteristics of elite sites.

(17.) Anderson, "Muslim Networks, Muslim Selves in Cyberspace; Bunt, Islam in the Digital Age; see also Kristin Zahra Sands, "Muslims, Identity and Multimodal Communication on the Internet," Contemporary Islam 4 (2010).

(18.) Bunt, Islam in the Digital Age, 147.

(19.) IslamOnline was consistently the second or third Google hit when searching "Islam" on 12/18/05; 12/19/05; 12/20/2005; 12/23/05; 12/26/05; 12/27/05; 12/28/05; 12/29/05; 12/31/05; 1/1/06; 1/2/06. Recently, after my online research was complete, more than 300 Egyptian employees of IslamOnline went on strike in March 2010 to protest moves by the Web site's senior management in Qatar to promote a hardline, conservative agenda via the site.

(20.) Karaflogka, E-Religion: A Critical Appraisal of Religious Discourse on the World Wide Web, 169.

(21.) Jon W. Anderson, " The Internet and Islam's New Interpreters," in New Media in the Muslim World, ed. Dale Eickelman and Jon Anderson (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), 51.

(22.) I also examined fatwas and teachings about the jinn found at harunyaha.com; islamawareness/net; missionislam.com; understanding-islam.com; islam-qa.com; islamicity.com; and islam101.com.

(23.) Bunt, Imuslims, 4.

(24.) See Naveeda Khan, "Of Children and Jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship During Uncertain Times," Cultural Anthropology 21, no. 2 (2006): 21-23, for a brief overview of jinn teachings in the Qur'an and Hadith.

(25.) Celia Rothenberg, Spirits of Palestine: Gender, Society and Stories of the Jinn (Maryland: Lexington Press, 2004).

(26.) Janice Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Amal Hassan Fadlalla, "Modest Women, Deceptive Jinn: Identity, Alterity, and Disease in Eastern Sudan," Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 12, no. 2 (2005).

(27.) Michael Lambek, Human Spirits: A Cultural Account of Trance in Mayotte (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

(28.) Vincent Crapanzano, Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Mohammed Maarouf, Jinn Eviction as a Discourse of Power: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Moroccan Magical Beliefs and Practices (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

(29.) Yael Kahana, "The Zar Spirits, a Category of Magic in the System of Mental Health Care in Ethiopia," International Journal of Social Psychiatry 31, no. 2 (1985).

(30.) Gerda Sengers, Women and Demons: Cult Healing in Islamic Egypt, International Studies in Sociology and Social Anthropology (Boston, MA: Brill, 2003).

(31.) T.A. Al-Habeeb, "Pilot Study of Faith Healers' Views on the Evil Eye, Jinn Possession, and Magic in Saudi Arabia," International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (2004); Eleanor Abdella Doumato, Getting God's Ear: Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

(32.) Khan, "Of Children and Jinn".

(33.) Camilla Gibb and Celia Rothenberg, "Believing Women: Harari and Palestinian Women at Home and in the Canadian Diaspora," Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 20, no. 2 (2000).

(34.) Simon Dein, Malcolm Alexander, and A. David Napier, "Jinn, Psychiatry and Contested Notions of Misfortune among East London Bangladeshis," Transcultural Psychiatry 45, no. 1 (2008).

(35.) Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits.

(36.) Roy, Globalized Islam, 239-40.

(37.) Ibid., 240.

(38.) Ibid., 241. Roy (240-41) discusses a number of oft-quoted sheikhs, including Sheikh al-Munajjid, whose work circulates widely on the Internet.

(39.) 9 December 2007; accessed 12 May 2010.

(40.) Nadia M. Abu-Zahra, " 'On the Modesty of Women in Arab Villages': A Reply," American Anthropologist 72, no. 5 (1970); Richard Antoun, "On the Modesty of Women in Arab Muslim Villages: A Study in the Accomodation of Traditions," American Anthropologist 70, no. 4 (1968); cf. Ellen Badone, "Introduction," in Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

(41.) N. Tapper and R. Tapper, " The Birth of the Prophet: Ritual and Gender in Turkish Islam," Man 22 (1987): 70.

(42.) Ronald Lukens-Bull, "Between Text and Practice: Considerations in the Anthropological Study of Islam," Marburg Journal of Religion 4, no. 2 (1999).

(43.) Jon Anderson, "New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere," ISIM Newsletter 2000, 39.

(44.) Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, ed, Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination (London: Routledge, 1990); Roy, Globalized Islam.

(45.) Barbara Metcalf, "Introduction: Sacred Words, Sanctioned Practice, New Communities," in Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe, ed. Barbara Metcalf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

(46.) Roy, Globalized Islam, 250.

(47.) Ibid., 25.

(48.) Anderson, "The Internet and Islam's New Interpreters," 48.

(49.) Jon W. Anderson, "Is the Internet Islam's 'Third Wave' or the 'End of Civilization'? Globalizing Politics and Religion in the Muslim World," United States Institute of Peace (1997): 3.

(50.) Peter Mandaville, "Digital Islam: Changing the Boundaries of Religious Knowledge?," ISIM Newsletter 2 (1999): 23.

(51.) Anderson, "Muslim Networks, Muslim Selves in Cyberspace," 2.

(52.) Ibid., 5.

(53.) Michael Lambek, "Afterword: Spirits and Their Histories," in Spirits in Culture, History and Mind, ed. J. Mageo and A. Howard (New York: Routledge, 1996), 243.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A292993199