A fascinating article appeared over the weekend in the Indian Express, covering the use of the Internet and other IT in the second-largest Islamic seminary in the world. Darul Uloom Deoband is a Sunni institution in Uttar Pradesh, and started its computer department in 1996: now, it's getting stuck into the Internet and all its cultural implications.
In particular, the article covers the work of four seminary employees who run www.darulifta-deoband.org - an online question and answer site where anyone can ask questions in English and Urdu on pressing matters of religious observation.
And while it's perhaps best to leave most of these without comment (although I agree strongly with the idea that neckties are thoroughly haram and the epitome of Western corruption), it is irresistable to consider some of the less predictable of the seminary's observations on information technology.
Take that webcam. While representative images are thoroughly discouraged - one opinion said that all photographs should be burned - webcams are fine as the moving pictures are not permanent copies. Islam may be missing out: two key aspects of the human use of IT, avatars and icons, are named after concepts from Hindu scripture and Orthodox Christianity.
Another opinion is that computers are 'born Muslim', because they only understand 0 and 1, and a Muslim knows there is no god (0) but Allah (1) (Which if nothing else, shows that Islamic clerics can rise to the level of theological bon mot dispensed by their Christian brethren from pulplits every Sunday).
And how about that tricky area - deciding the limits of personal responsibility versus enforced control? In a world where Australia seems to want to prevent anyone from seeing anything that could offend someone, the seminary's approach shows great faith in theological engineering getting the better of standard IT:
"Muhammadullah also has an account on Facebook (he has no female friends) and runs a blog. Are any of the websites blocked, like Youtube or Orkut? “No, not a single website is blocked, not even the pornographic ones,” says the head of the internet and computer department, Maulana Abdussalam Qasmi. “We only discourage our staff and students to surf immoral content. They have been mentally conditioned not to go near such websites. When we have blocked their minds against them, why block websites?” he says."
It would be an interesting project to compare the seminary's interpretation of IT's wholesomeness and proper deployment with similar efforts from those other great powerhouses of religious rule and salvation through legislation, the orthodox Jewish traditions and the Roman Catholic church. From People of the Book to People of the iPad - it may only be a matter of time.