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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 06   01-15 August 2014

Growing Use of Digital Technology in the Muslim World

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Modern information and communication technologies are the lifeline of globalisation. Computer-mediated telecommunications have created incredibly wide global networks of information and communication, which connect millions of people from around the world. Some commentators say that the increasing worldwide penetration and influence of modern information and communication technologies herald the emergence of a global network society. The use of the Internet, mobile phones and social media, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, YouTube, Foursquare and Pinterest, is increasing at an amazing speed around the world. Google has offices in 60 countries around the world and offers services in 130 languages. There are more than three billion mobile phone users around the world and another billion is likely to be added in the next few years. It is estimated that the number of mobile phones will touch 2.3 billion worldwide by the end of 2014. There are more than 2.8 billion Internet users today and that number is increasing by 250 million a year. In 2013, Asia had 1.3 billion Internet users, the largest proportion in any region worldwide. It is estimated that the number of Internet users worldwide will cross 3 billion by the end of 2014, two-thirds of them from developing countries. Ten hours of video are uploaded on YouTube every minute.

More than a third of South Korea’s population of 47 million regularly use the Internet, one of the highest ratios of Web access in the world. There are more than 20,000 Internet cafes in the country. Mobile phones are used by more than half of South Korea’s population. In China, more than 400 million people now regularly access the Internet via smartphones. India is the world’s fastest-growing market for mobile phones with more than 900 million subscribers, covering more than 65% of the population. There are 120 million users of the Internet in the country, the third largest Internet population globally. The number of Facebook users in India has crossed 100 million and the number is expected to reach 175 million by the end of 2015. India will then have more Facebook users than any other country, surpassing the US and Brazil. There has been an exponential and remarkable growth in mobile communications in Africa. Africa today is the fastest-growing and the second-largest mobile phone market with over 620 mobile phone users.

Mobile phones have opened up unprecedented opportunities for traders and farmers

The Internet, mobile phones and social media are being used across large parts of the world for a variety of purposes, including e-commerce, banking transactions, advertising, marketing and dissemination of religious beliefs. More than 18 million people in Kenya and Tanzania use mobile phones to do banking transactions. Mobile phones have opened up unprecedented opportunities for small and medium-size businesses. Thanks to mobile phones and text messages, farmers and traders in many countries get to know the current market prices in an instant. Global companies like Amazon and eBay make extensive use of computer-mediated technologies to boost their online sales. The global e-commerce market is worth $1.5 trillion. Amazon, the world’s leading e-commerce company, which was started in a garage about 20 years ago, has grown into a 100 billion global giant. International media and news agencies are increasingly using modern information and communication technologies. Almost all of the world’s prominent newspapers and news magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Telegraph, Time, Newsweek, The Economist, Le Monde and Spiegel, have online editions. Amazon launched the Kindle e-reader in 2007, which provides easy access to e-books.

Since the turn of the 21st century, electronic and digital media have emerged as the most influential means of information and communication and entertainment with an unprecedented global reach. Millions of people around the world, especially the younger generation, are hooked on electronic gadgets and digital media such as the Internet, tablet, mobile phones, smartphones, iPads, videos and television. An increasingly popular digital medium of communication is what has come to be known as social media or social networking sites. The term social media refers to the creation, sharing and exchange of information, messages, ideas and images and photographs through Internet-based technologies and networks. Social media include Internet forums, weblogs, microblogging, podcasts and sharing of pictures, music and videos. Currently the most popular social media are Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and YouTube. Facebook is an online social networking site founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004. The main features of Facebook include messaging, voice calls, video calling and the like button. It is available on many mobile devices and allows users to stay in touch with friends, relatives and colleagues regardless of where they are located in the world. Users of Facebook generally create their profiles with personal information, interests and current activities, photograph and contact. Facebook connects and unites people from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the world who share common tastes, interests and beliefs. One can seek the help of Facebook to search for friends, relatives or classmates with whom one has lost touch. It has more than 1.23 billion active users. Globally, 556 million people access Facebook everyday on their smartphones or tablet. Nearly all prominent global newspapers and magazines are now accessible on Facebook. WhatsApp is instant messaging service used by more than 400 million people globally every month. In an interesting case, Indian police sent out alerts on WhatApp in March 2014 to trace an 11-year-old missing boy. A man, who had received the alert, recognized the boy while travelling in a train and called the police. The boy was then brought back to his home.

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook

Twitter is an online social networking and microblogging service that enables the users to send and receive text messages. Twitter can be accessed through the website interface, SMS or mobile service app. It has more than 500 million registered users. In recent years Twitter has been extensively used as a quick and effective medium for sharing information and news and for organizing and mobilizing movements and protest marches. YouTube is today the world’s most popular video-sharing site. It is the second-largest search engine in the world after Google and has more than 800 million users.

Jawed Karim, a Bangladeshi-German
Internet entrepreneur,
co-founded YouTube in 2005

Digital Technology and the Muslim World

Modern information and communication technologies played a significant role in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Audio-cassettes of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons and discourses were smuggled over from his headquarters in Paris and widely circulated across the country. In recent years, recordings of the speeches and discourses of prominent and influential Muslim scholars and intellectuals such as Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati and Abul Al Mawdudi have been widely circulated across the Muslim world.

The use of modern information and communication technologies, especially mobile phones, the Internet and social networking sites is rapidly increasing across large parts of the Muslim world. The first Arab Social Media Report released in February 2011 says that the penetration of social networking sites is steadily on the rise in Arab countries, with the highest rate of growth was recorded among the youth between 15 and 29 years of age, a segment that makes up nearly one-third of the population in the Arab region. According to the report, the number of Facebook users in the Arab world increased by 78% in 2010 to 21.3 million, and that 75% of these belong to the younger generation. More than a third of the population in the Middle East now use the Internet, slightly higher than the world average.

Modern information and communication technologies, including satellite television, mobile phones, the Internet and social networking sites, played a highly important role in the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. Al-Jazeera television emerged as the most important and authentic source of information, including live coverage of day-to-day protests with images and videos, on the rapidly unfolding scenario in Tunisia and Egypt. Images of hundreds of thousands of people holding protests and demonstrations on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, Sana’a and Amman were beamed on Al-Jazeera TV, which were viewed by millions of households in the Middle East and around the world and which helped in mobilizing and coordinating protests.

Young demonstrators with their laptops at Tahrir Square in 2011 (Photo: AFP)

In Tunisia, an anchorman for Al-Jazeera made arrangements with Lotifi Hajji, a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist, to report from a secret location in the country. When the uprising began, Tunisians began sending him homemade videos showing and documenting incidents of police brutality. These eye-catching images were beamed by Al-Jazeera, which inflamed popular passions against the repressive and corrupt regime of Ben Ali and helped in mobilizing and coordinating large numbers of people in countrywide protests and demonstrations. Protesters in Bahrain uploaded images of violence and police brutality to websites such as YouTube and yFrog and then showed them on Facebook and Twitter.

Saudi Arabia has experienced one of the fastest rates of growth in the use of digital technology in the Middle East. This is reflected in the Internet penetration, which now covers nearly 50% of the population, the growing use of social media and the rapid growth in e-commerce. Saudi Arabia has more than 3 million active Twitter users and is ranked as the fastest-growing Twitter nation in the world, with 50 million tweets per month. In addition, there are 6 million Facebook users and 90 million people who regularly view YouTube. Since Saudi Arabia has little social life or scope for political discussions, Twitter is widely used for sharing views and opinions on social and political issues, such as government policies and women’s rights. Saudi Arabia has the second-largest e-commerce market in the Middle East after the UAE. In May 2014 a special website called Tawasul (communication) was launched on the orders of King Abdullah. Web users in the kingdom can now petition the king directly through this website. Every message on the website will be forwarded to the king. Saudi citizens can use the portal to lodge complaints against government departments or officials.

More than 70% of the adult population in Nigeria own a handset. In Egypt, the penetration of the smartphone covers about 26% of the population. In Afghanistan, there are 18 million mobile phones, covering almost 60% of the population. Internet penetration in Afghanistan is expected to cover almost 50% of the population by 2015. Residents of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta tweet more than those of any other city. A recent survey by Ipsos, a market research firm, found that some of the world’s highest rates of smartphone penetration are to be found in the rich Muslim countries. In the UAE, for example, the rate is 61%.

Residents of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta tweet more than those of any other city (Photo: Sam Bollier/Al Jazeera)

The use of digital technology is rapidly spreading in Muslim diasporas around the world. The descendants of Palestinian refugees born and raised in foreign countries can now find, thanks to homepages on the Internet, the villages of their parents and grandparents as well as their extended kin. Family members create their own sites to find lost relatives or to display their family history. Historical pictures from before 1948, those of 1948 and the 1967 exodus are among the most downloaded and forwarded images. Computer technology thus enables them to establish links with their religious and cultural traditions and facilitates the recovery and reconstruction of their identity.

Overseas Iranians living in North America, Europe and Australia access several online Iranian newspapers and magazines. A popular online magazine is www.iranian.com, created in Washington D. C. in 1995, which provides updates on news and features relating to Iran. It also provides links to more than 150 other online Iranian media, including 39 daily newspapers, 72 magazines, 31 radio stations and 8 TV channels. Persian newspapers published from Iran appear online several hours before they are available in print in Tehran and other cities. Through the Internet, one can listen to Radio Payam, Tehran’s local radio, as well as Radio Seda-e-Iran, a 24-hour Persian radio station located in Los Angeles. In Stockholm, local Iranian local radio stations download Persian programmes from the Internet and rebroadcast them for the local Iranian community. Interestingly, there is some collaboration between Radio Seda-e-Iran and the Persian section of Radio Israel. While Radio Israel broadcasts a selection of programmes of Radio Seda-e-Iran, the latter rebroadcasts the Persian programmes of Radio Israel in North America for the Jews of Iranian origin living there.

Al Jazeera, an independent television channel started in Qatar in 1996, has become enormously popular in the Arab world as well as in the Arab diaspora in North America, Latin America, Europe and Australia. The channel’s audience exceeds 40 million. Al Jazeera launched a 24-hour news channel in Arabic and English in 2006. It is the first English-language news channel to be based in the Middle East and has over 70 bureaus in six continents. Al Jazeera English is watched by more than 130 million people in over 100 countries. The channel’s principal broadcast centres are located at Doha, Washington, London and Kuala Lumpur. David Frost, a veteran English journalist, hosted the weekly programme Frost over the World on Al Jazeera TV from 2006 to 2012.

Al Jazeera is playing a highly important role in rectifying the anomalies in the coverage of Muslims by the Western media by providing a credible picture of the political and social scenario in the Muslim world. Through its innovative features and interactive format, Al Jazeera has created a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic public space. It provided a credible picture of the uprisings in the Arab world in 2011-2012 and played an important role in galvanizing public opinion. AlJazeera now competes with established global news channels like BBC, CNN International and CNBC. It has received a number of international awards in appreciation of its excellent reporting and coverage and its well-researched documentaries.

Digital Media in the Service of Islam

In the past few years the Internet has emerged as an important source of information on Islam and Muslims. The entire text of the Quran, including recitation and translations and commentaries into English, French and other languages, several collections of Hadith and Islamic law and legal edicts (fatawa) are now available online. An important aspect of the digitization of Islam is the preparation of CD-ROM discs containing 7,500 Hadith from the seven authoritative collections of Hadith, with translations of selected texts in ten languages. In 2000, more than 14,000 fatwas could be found on the Internet. The US-based IslamiCity has published more than 5000 fatwas on the Internet. A-Sunna Foundation of America runs a website http:///www.sunnah.org/fatwa on the subject. One can get a fatwa online from efatwa.com, askimam.com and other sites. Online fatwas are available in English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Malay, Urdu and Thai languages. Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University runs an “Islamic Hotline,” where users can call or email a question, which is answered within 48 hours.

Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi hosts a hugely popular Arabic programme Al-Shariah wal-hayat (Shariah and Life) on Al-Jazeera television, which is watched by tens of millions of viewers across the Arab world. He also runs a website called IslamOnline, which he founded in 1997, where he offers his opinions and fatawa on a variety of issues. Dr Al-Qaradawi has 269,741 followers on Facebook.

A significant aspect of the digitization of Islam is the use of smartphone apps for Islamic requirements and needs, such as proximity to a mosque and accessibility to halal food. Salah 3D is an iPhone app designed to guide how one should offer prayers. Another app called Quran Majeed includes the text and audio versions of the Quran. The app has been downloaded more than three million times. Another smartphone app called Ramadan Times announces the time to break the daily fast during the holy month. The app, created by a Pakistani company, sets the time for the beginning of the fast and for breaking it according to the location of the device. The Ramadan Daily Dua app, available for the iPhone and iPad, provide practical information during the fasting month. Nokia has devised an updated Ramadan application suite, which allows users to read the Quran, get prayer times and locate the nearest mosque. Islamic apps like iPray and iQuran offer a beeping reminder of prayer times and also indicate the direction of the Qibla from anywhere in the world. A number of Islamic apps for Android mobile and tablet PCs are available, including Quran Android, Al-Quran recitation and with English translation and authoritative collections of Hadith. Al-Khwarizmi is a trusted name in the development and marketing of Islamic apps.

The German television channel RTL2 flashes up a message at sunrise and sunset to indicate the start and end of the daily fast.

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