Rumee Ahmed’s Sharia Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law uses the language of hacking in two ways: as a narrative hook and as a metaphor. Ahmed writes, “Hacking means working within an existing system to bring about the desired change. In order to do this, you first need to learn the system’s language; then you can use its existing code to create something different and new. This is a process that reflects a deep religious commitment.” Ahmed’s project is avowedly utopian, and it seems to me it would miss the point to argue against it because of that. This is a user’s guide, and as such its first task is to make the case that the job at hand can indeed be done. “Your voice is also your right,” he tells Muslim readers, “your voice will help us get one step closer to having Islamic law reflect the beliefs of the Muslim community and serve as a forward-looking force for good in this world.” Ahmed situates hacking as faithful work for the Muslim, and also as deeply anchored in Islamic jurisprudential traditions. Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is a technology, and the fuqaha (jurisprudents) are programmers, making the law “code” in more senses than one. If the code is a language, anyone who learns it can use it; if the code runs the machine, anyone who writes it can change the machine.
Ahmed’s exploration of hacking Islamic law does not ignore the complex factors that contribute to the success or failure of the hack: “a good hack will change the law in its entirety using only the language of Islamic law”; “when a good hack is made and historical circumstances make it advantageous, the hack changes prevailing conceptions of Islamic law in lasting and abiding ways.” In the last chapter of Sharia Compliant, Ahmed explores a number of differently situated hacking collectives—NGOs in Muslim-majority countries, umbrella and educational organizations in Muslim-minority contexts, and online communities—“to see where most hacking actually gets done.” It is an important point that the majority of the work done to interpret, adapt, and refit Islamic law to the contours of contemporary Muslim life is being done not in state bodies or courts, but in non-state and often informal arenas around the world. “Online communities provide space for fiqh-minded Muslims to try out hacks that would never fly in the mosque today but that might be called on one day to support new visions of sharia using Islamic legal language,” he writes.
Until 2010, if you had a question about the application of Islamic jurisprudence in everyday life and access to the internet, IslamOnline.net likely had several answers for you in multiple languages.1Jessica Beyer and Iza Hussin, “Making Authority Online: Muslim Fatwa Sites after the Arab Spring,” paper presented to the American Political Science Association 2012. Visitors to IslamOnline.net could read fatwa through the “Living Shari’ah” section, either through the heading marked “Ask the Scholar,” or through the “Fatwa Bank.” The array of options and information was dizzying, and the immediate impression given by almost every page of the site was of a multiplicity of topics, covering an enormous range of issues, with each page pointing in dozens of directions. If you wanted to seek a juristic opinion of your own, you could submit a question and specify the authority of your choice from a dropdown menu featuring more than a hundred choices, from the official jurisprudential centers of Egypt or Saudi Arabia, to the Islamic Council of North America, to individuals living in the United Kingdom or India. The whole effect of the site’s arrangement was of myriad resources for the Muslim—the online, English-speaking, fatwa-seeking Muslim—to gather independently, in order to equip him/herself for life in a complex world. The domain was among the two hundred most visited sites from Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, and Kuwait. Twenty-four percent of its audience logged on from Egypt, 17 percent from Saudi Arabia, 4 percent from the United States, 2 percent from Sudan, India, and the United Kingdom, and 0.5 percent from France and Turkey.2Internet traffic figures from Alexa.com.
In 2010, the site’s managing board, supported by the Qatari government, shut down the site despite the Cairo staff’s protests. They removed staff access to the site, fired its staff, and took down its content. When it came back online, IslamOnline.net had become a simpler affair: a less sophisticated interface, limited and infrequently updated news and informational content, and no options for individuals to interact directly with those affiliated with the site or with each other outside of a rarely used commenting feature on news stories. Additionally, the site’s popular fatwa section had disappeared. The previous staff and management of IslamOnline.net protested vigorously and started up a new site, OnIslam.net, taking much of their fatwa content with them. But the popularity of the site never recovered and as of 2015, internet chat boards were asking whether it too had been taken down.3Beyer and I have argued (2012) that sites such as IslamOnline.net presented a range of spaces at varied, and changeable, degrees of separation from centralized sources of Islamic authority, making available new repertoires for Muslims to make meaning, debate Islamic norms, and articulate identity. IslamOnline.net today offers only Arabic content and no interactive fatwa, instead publishing a range of opinions under various subheadings. OnIslam.net is available as a domain name.4Last accessed 23.3.2017.
Figuring out the code and using it, therefore, does not in and of itself make for systemic change. What else might users need to know in order to hack the system? Instead of taking Ahmed’s use of the term “hacking” as a metaphor, what if we considered it as an analytic pathway for the study of Islamic law, and, secondly, as a new direction for teaching Islamic legal studies? Many years ago, by the standards of internet research, I taught courses at UMass Amherst and the University of Chicago called “Islam Online” aimed at getting students to consider three perspectives. First, that at the heart of “traditional” Islamic law there lies a commitment to experimentation and change. Second, that the development of new material technologies is not inherently liberative, but is often diversifying. And third, that the particular era of technological change and big data in which we find ourselves needs to be met with new critical questions about the ways in which power and language operate. Students with no previous exposure to Islamic law found, to their immense surprise, exactly the things Ahmed tells us: That what seems like the majority of Muslims are preoccupied with pretty mundane questions, that they are quite comfortable with patching, hacking, and reinterpreting texts for new problems, and that there is lively disagreement in every corner of the Muslim world on pretty much everything.
However, as they looked deeper, they also found recurring texts and themes, among them that the internet is neither a democratic nor a liberative space, and that it can often be impossible to tell the difference between a fiqh-minded Muslim, a representative of a state fatwa institution, a raving amateur, and a troll. They found the language in which you access the internet matters, that local networks of teaching, learning, and authorization matter online as well, and that phones and laptops mediate the consumption of knowledge differently and at different prices. In later years, they found that states were catching up to individuals and institutes in the production of authoritative content, and were increasingly invested in the policing, surveillance, and manipulation of online “fiqh-minded” material. Yes, online spaces make it possible for people, often young women and others less likely to find room in physical institutions of Islamic law, to ask questions, seek community, and gain expertise in matters of Islamic law, but it is neither obvious nor simple to translate these into systemic change at any scale. Yet, online, and in physical institutions of law, it is often the kinds of information available, the language used to articulate and adjudicate dispute, the consistent calibration of certainty and doubt, that construct, mystify, and maintain authority. And sometimes, the state steps in, pulls the plug, and wipes the servers clean.
Ahmed might argue Islamic law is not one machine; Sharia Compliant makes clear that there are multiple points of entry and that it is the cumulative and often delayed effect of hacks that matter. As we consider ways to extend the invitation he makes to the individual Muslim reader, two companion volumes come to mind that might emphasize the repetitive, mutually reinforcing, and aggregate character of laws and authorities. The first is Brinkley Messick’s Sharia Scripts (Columbia, 2018), which paves the way for thinking about sharia’s functions in connected rooms of reading, learning, adjudication, and contestation. The second is Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression (NYU, 2018), which provides another way of thinking about code: as language that already carries predispositions toward power, and through which our search for knowledge and connection is mediated. Both these texts suggest, in more and less oblique ways, that the language and science of law depends upon feedback loops between producers and consumers, and that these loops run in complex circuits behind and between market, state, school, court, and home.
Anyone who has searched for Islam, sharia, Islamic law, Muslim women, or Quran on the internet knows the first results are driven not by utility or accuracy, but by a complicated tangle of these circuits playing out at both the local and global scale. Anyone who has read a student paper, or worse yet, a court case or news article based on these results, can immediately tell. Perhaps it is finally time to build a syllabus for a new generation of hackers to face these challenges, users with fluency not just in codes of Islamic law, but in the pathways and nodal points through which we increasingly make sense of them.