Contrary to popular perceptions of the community being averse to imbibing new skills, Muslims have quickly availed of modern technology, using the Internet to access information about their faith.
The most recent example is that of a Muslim bride, Sadaf Sarwar, 21, and her three sisters. Hailing from the UK, the siblings had read up on the Net about the concept of Islamic marriages and discovered that women, too, could sign as witnesses of a 'nikah' (wedding ceremony), despite it being an uncommon social practice. Thus Sadaf's sisters - Rahia, 19, Sana, 17, and Ana, 14 - were able to play a formal role in the 'nikah' of their sibling that took place in Bhopal, India, recently.
A growing number of Indian Muslims have turned to the Internet to seek answers and to clarify their doubts about several issues. With many muftis (clerics) seeming unapproachable - not unnaturally, youngsters shy away from questioning formidable clerics about issues related to sex and relationships - they have turned to the numerous websites that offer information in the comfort-zone of cyberspace.
Sample some of the queries being put forth on these websites: On askimam.com, a curious youngster has asked: "Is it permitted under Islam to work as a bouncer (doorman security) at a nightclub or casino?" Another query on islamhelpline.com, goes: "Would it be considered against sunnah ways if a newly married couple lit candles and had a candlelight dinner in their own house?"
Zeenat, 18, wanted to know if Islam gave sanction to love marriages. Unable to approach a cleric to seek such information, she logged on to islamhelpline.com.
Similarly, Zakir Khan, 29, took the help of a website when he wanted to know about a sex-related issue. He says, "Had I asked a mufti, he would have either not replied or asked me to leave. But the website made my task easy." Jawad Alam, who has a 17-year-old daughter, agrees it is probably easier to pose a question on the Internet. He realizes that for young women, in particular, seeking clarifications on sex from a cleric would be embarrassing and out of the question. He admits that he, too, would not like to address such topics, thereby explaining the growing popularity of such websites.
From the grave concerns of the heart to the lighter matter of grooming, youngsters are clicking away to find their answers. Sharia Iqbal, 30, reveals, "I sought the help of a website when I wanted to know whether Islam permits women to trim eyebrows. This website provided me with the answer. It was not possible for me to talk directly to a mufti on such a topic."
But, undoubtedly, the maximum numbers of questions are regarding the issue of terrorism. Youngsters are concerned about the way the media presents Islam and associates it with terrorism.
Clerics and scholars based in India, while pleased with the growing desire for Islamic understanding among the youth, have a word of caution. Qazi Abdul Latif Khan of Bhopal says, "The replies should be given in the light of the Holy Quran and the Shariah (Islamic law)," adding that it would be better if those replying were men of religious authority - preferably muftis and scholars. He also cautions youngsters against the anti-Islam propaganda uploaded on a number of websites. He advises those surfing the Internet to guard against portals that are intentionally falsifying Islam under the guise of proffering authentic information.
Naimur Rehman Siddiqui, a professor at the Academy of Islamic Research in the prestigious Islamic institution, Nadwatul Ulama (Lucknow), suggests that surfers enquire about the standing of the scholars associated with the website. He recommends URLs such as islamicity.com, islamhelpline.com and askimam.com. The Academy of Islamic Research had earlier compiled a list of Islamic websites; however, it has not been updated recently.
Among the spiritually conscious who want to understand their religion better, the website islamonline.com is popular. It now gets up to nearly a quarter of a million hits each month. The information and responses are provided by the Egypt- based Yusuf Al Qardawi. Similarly, islamhelpline.com has scholar Burhan - who is India-born - replying from the US. On askimam.com, Deobandi mufti Ebrahim Desai replies to Islamic questions from South Africa.
And just in case the medium of the English language poses a barrier, helpful operators at the neighborhood cyber caf' willingly help surf, log onto a website and even type out the query. But Mohammed Shakil, who owns a caf' in Bhopal, reveals that many of the youngsters are in the middle to upper income group and hardly ever need any assistance as they are net savvy.