“Mainstreaming” Islam in the Digital Age by Pr. Dale F. Eickelman


[This paper was presented at CILE 6th Annual International Conference which was held in Doha, Qatar on March 17, 2018]




The most profound long-term transformations in the Muslim world today occur through the actions of middle-class professionals and religious intellectuals “taking charge” of their faith, organizing people and popularizing ideas, and persuading large and diverse audiences, rather than leave Islam’s public expression exclusively to religious scholars. The increasing challenge of rapid-paced new media innovations in the digital age can advance positive values but also create paralyzing doubt.

The middle-class professionals who make movements work and also challenge established authority have the talents of the modern and postmodern bricoleur, to invoke the term made famous by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Bricoleurs are able to combine seemingly disparate ideas and practices in order to make something new—even if some maintain that they are sustaining the old. They are able to rethink religion outside traditional boundaries, master rapid technological shifts, organize movements and affinity groups, work behind the scenes, and recognize the institutional challenges of persuading diverse audiences, allowing publicity and outreach to trump secrecy.

Some historical examples, many developed in the pre-digital age, suggest how the skills of “mainstreaming” attracts new audiences and transforms existing ones. The distinguished Indian jurist, Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1928) was a pioneer in presenting the Prophet Muhammad to an English-speaking audience. His Life and Teachings of Mohammed (1873) might in retrospect be seen as infusing the life and person of the Prophet with prevailing Victorian values, but his biography of Muhammad and corollary writings remained influential for decades.[1] More recent examples include Sayyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933). With an undergraduate degree in physics from MIT and a doctorate from Harvard in the history of science, Nasr left Iran at the time of the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution. His writings on Islam since then have focused on Sufism as the key to understanding the role of religion and faith in modern life.[2] Somewhat parallel are some recent writings of Tariq Ramadan. His Quest for Meaning (2010), for example, explains that at the core of all religious traditions is an aspiration for believers to find their “inner balance.” [3] Were one to read Quest  without reference to Ramadan’s name, it would be challenging to identify the text as belonging to a specific religious tradition. “Mainstreaming” can also engage large numbers of supporters and advocates to translate into different languages, elaborate in scholarly and popular contexts, and disseminate ideas in different media, including the printed text, television, and YouTube. A primary example is Yusuf al-Qaradawi.[4]

The advocates of mainstreaming can be criticized for vagueness and a lack of specificity in favor of affirming individual empowerment, and the opponents of mainstreaming can be tenacious. This process of “mainstreaming,” not unique to the Muslim world, includes tolerance (or at least awareness) for other faiths and also accommodation to alternative Muslim religious ideas and practices.

“Mainstreaming” results in presenting Islam as an integral and acceptable part of civic life. Participation in “mainstreaming,” best thought of more as a process than as a specific outcome, requires the development of concrete skills and aptitudes, the importance of which varies according to context. The outcome of mainstreaming—increased levels of civility and tolerance or its very opposite—is far from certain.

More certain is that the mix of how people communicate and perceive the common good (al-maslaha al-‘amma) has been significantly transformed. How innovative ideas and practices take hold and change societies vary significantly over time and place. Understanding how the digital age shapes ideas and practices is to look to major transformations in the past in order to discern how earlier “big” ideas took hold.


Al-‘urwa al-wuthqa: Seventh-Century Arabia and Beyond

To the “ties that bind,” the multiple and layered bonds of loyalty and obligation that range from parents and kin, spouses, town and tribe, and the wider community of believers in seventh century Arabia—the Qur’an (2: 256, 31: 22) added the “firmest tie” (al-‘urwa al-wuthqa). This tie linked individual believers to God. At least in principle, this firmest link preceded, but did not replace, other ties. In practice, it can be argued that a key issue throughout Muslim history from the seventh century to the present has been to communicate how this “firmest tie” relates to other aspects of social identity, responsibility, trust, and “belonging” to a social group or community of believers.

Al-‘urwa al-wuthqa in the seventh century, with its emphasis on equality and personal responsibility among believers, was “remarkably modern . . . in the high degree of commitment, involvement, and participation expected from the rank-and-file members of the community.”[5]

Yet to the original audiences in seventh century Arabia, the “firmest tie” did not always appear more immediate and compelling than tribal and kin loyalties. Upon Muhammad’s death in 632, the period of the so-called ridda, or apostasy, many tribes considered themselves released from submission to Islam. In other words, the ties of trust and loyalty negotiated by the early Islamic community were incompletely realized. Al-Tabari (839-923) records a hadith in which a member of the Bani Rabi‘a meets with Musaylima bin Habib, the “lying” prophet, also from the Bani Rabi‘a. The visitor asks Musaylima, “Who comes to you?” and Musaylima answers, “al-Rahman.” “In light or in shadows?” “In shadows,” replies Musaylima. The visitor then says, “I testify that you are a liar and that Muhammad is telling the truth. But a liar of the Rabi‘a is better for us than a true prophet of the Mudar [Muhammad’s tribal group].[6]

Of course, the conditions in which the “firmest tie” was realized and actually took precedence over other ties of obligation and responsibility has been a core question throughout Muslim history and identity. Since the nineteenth century, for example, nationalists have claimed that the ties to nation must have a more compelling hold than alternate obligations and loyalties, and they have often secured public allegiance, or at least apparent acquiescence, to such claims.

It is reasonable to assume that first news of the “firmest tie” spread by word of mouth, with reliable information and the nineteenth-century equivalent of “fake news” often hard to untangle. To make a leap of many centuries and a different context, in the summer of 1789 in the French countryside, rumors spread about “vengeful aristocrats bent on the destruction of peasants’ property. It was not true. The Great Fear, as it is now known, tipped France into revolution with a flurry of fact-free gossip and rumor.”[7] Today, of course, rumors fly much faster, since word of mouth is buttressed by an array of digital and electronic media, making the search for reliable accounts significantly more difficult.


Sharing Ideas, Emotions, and Practices in the Digital Age

If we look at the most profound changes in how ideas get communicated, there are three major drivers, to use the language of political science, that have influenced how ideas move through society and across geographical and linguistic boundaries. The first is the greater ease of travel. Travel can be for the hajj as well as visits to regional shrines, for commerce or labor migration, or from the necessity of war, or regional conflict. Both pilgrimage and migration have profound effects on the religious imagination. As the late Zafar Ishaq Ansari observed over two decades ago, the boundaries between the West and “the rest” are no longer exclusively territorial.[8]

Second is mass higher education, which has meant the spread of literacy to large numbers of people, women and men, throughout the world.[9] I vividly recall traveling in small towns and villages throughout the Arab world in the 1960s. In ‘Afich, a small town in Iraq’s Diwaniya province in 1968, men gathered in a coffee shop most afternoons where a literate tribal leader read aloud the newspaper that arrived each afternoon from Baghdad. I saw similar scenes in upper Egypt the same year. In Morocco’s Amazigh (Berber) highlands in 1968, someone literate in Arabic or French often translated aloud local newspapers in those languages into Tamazigh for their neighbors.

Before widespread literacy in small towns and rural areas in some regions, even the Arabic spoken word failed to reach many Arabs conversant only in their regional dialect. In Morocco in the late 1960s, the main mid-day newscast was read only in formal Arabic, which half a century ago many people could not follow. When traveling in Morocco’s countryside in this earlier period, I often was asked to translate from “radio” Arabic to the Moroccan dialect. Now, of course, I’m out of that job because formal Arabic is widely understood. In any case, the media-savvy Moroccan government also broadcasts many programs in colloquial Arabic and in the various tamazight dialects to reach large numbers of its citizens. Equally important, the mastery of formal Arabic allows more people to talk back in public space than was possible in an earlier era.

Third, the new communications media have become increasingly interactive. By the 1990s, the proliferation of video cassettes and subsequently DVDs, combined with satellite broadcasting, loosened the hold of state broadcasters over the imagination of large numbers of people. Before Internet and mobile communications were widely available, the proliferation of photocopiers and fax machines allowed competing messages to be readily communicated independently of authorized channels and distributed among networks of like-minded people. Cellphones, and especially smartphones, combined with the wide array of means of communicating via the Internet, make censorship less effective than it was in earlier eras.  


The Digital Age and the Public Sphere

In the 1970s, the humble audiocassette—easy to duplicate, conceal, and smuggle—facilitated the rise of new and dissident voices beyond the written, printed, and photocopied word. Since the advent in the 1990s of the internet age, communication has become even easier, and over the last 15 years platforms such as Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), and Whatsapp (2009) have further facilitated the fragmentation of religious and political authority.

Religious innovation does not advance through technological change alone. One needs people adept in seizing the opportunity that technical innovation offers and the ability to work with others in new and not fully predictable ways to “mainstream” religious innovation.

“Mainstreaming” involves four major skills. First are intellectuals who “take charge” of developing ideas and use them to persuade large audiences, especially in states where organized non-governmental movements are strongly discouraged.

The second set of skills is the overt, public organizing of people and communicating effectively. States, including both open and totalitarian ones, depend on middle class professionals, just as successful religious and civic movements as different as those in Indonesia and Morocco, to “sell” the ideas and practices of certain ways of putting faith to work in society.

A third related skill is working quietly behind the scenes to further an interest or cause where weak forms of civic empowerment are linked to strong forms of structure, such as in some countries, where major state-sponsored initiatives are underway to use the “Islamic studies” curriculum of primary and secondary schools to create a template for inculcating values of critical thinking, gender parity, and religious tolerance. Likewise, the February 2004 revision of Moroccan family law, the mudawwana, to enhance the rights of women, was in preparation for years but enacted only in the wake of major terrorist attacks on Casablanca in May 2003. The May attacks empowered the monarchy to undertake a bold major religious and civic reform without significant opposition. The same skills of working behind the scenes can also be used surreptitiously to discredit alternate views and distort opposing messages.

A final skill is that of publicity trumping secrecy. Publicity can overcome the suspicion of groups and ideas, and in this way contributes significantly to “normalizing” them. It also encourages the “objectification” of religious ideas and practices, in which ideas that previously were primarily implicit become implicit, assuming a particular shape. One result is that certain questions come to be foregrounded in the consciousness of large numbers of believers, such as What is my religion? Why is it important to my life? And How do my beliefs guide my conduct? Objectification does not mean seeing religion as a uniform or monolithic entity, although it is precisely that for some thinkers.

These explicit and “objective” questions are distinctly modern ones, even as some legitimate their practices by asserting a return to authentic established traditions. In exploring these questions, it is easier to focus on how certain religious beliefs and practices have been objectified in the consciousness of many people. This issue is easier to address than why, but it has also been more neglected.  

The digital age has profoundly affected the meaning and context of the public sphere and religious belief and practice with it. Just as writing and print created often unanticipated new forms of community and transformed authority and social boundaries, so has the digital age. Increasingly open and accessible forms of communication make contests over the authoritative use of the symbolic language of Islam, as with other religious beliefs and practices, increasingly global and open. The struggle over people’s imaginations now involves both a heightened competition and contest over both the interpretation of symbols, and a struggle over the control of the institutions, formal and informal, that produce and sustain them.

In the 1970s, the humble audiocassette—easy to duplicate, conceal, and smuggle—facilitated the rise of new and dissident voices beyond the written, printed, and photocopied word. Since the advent in the 1990s of the Internet, the ideas, images, and practices of alternative social and political worlds enter domestic space, even bedrooms through cable television, DVDs, and Internet, creating new understandings of locality and distinction that make social space more fluid.[10] In the Arabic-speaking world, rapidly rising levels of literacy and familiarity with an educated Arabic, formerly restricted to religious or secular elites, enable large numbers of people to communicate with wider audiences  in the common language of the Arabic of the classroom and the media, rather than in local dialects that are not understood beyond one’s own region.

For example, an al-Qa‘ida recruitment videotape that circulated throughout the Arab world and South Asia around May 2001 invoked the classical image of the hijra, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 to escape possible death at the hands of unbelievers and to found an Islamic community. This historical reference, known to all Muslims, is essential to understanding a scene showing Osama bin Laden and his followers on horseback in Afghanistan, implying that they are engaged in a contemporary hijra. The audio is delivered in the Arabic of newscasts and television commentary, and not in dialect, together with subtitles in English in some versions.[11] The audio, together with the “zippers,” lines of text that stream underneath the pictures, would not have been possible prior to the spread of mass education and the new digitized mass media, which greatly amplified the numbers of people able to follow the video’s narrative.

The expanding digital media and the multiplication of satellite channels has expanded the possibilities for linking religious ideas and practices to society and social issues, invoking a wide mix of reason and emotion. At one end of a wide spectrum are extremist videos. At the other end are the debates concerning religious ideas and practices on al-Jazeera, which caught the attention of the entire Arab world. For the first time on this satellite channel, one could watch, for example, a debate between Yusuf al-Qaradawi and secularist Sadek al-Azm, in which al-Azm could explain, over vigorous denials by al-Qaradawi, what secularism meant to a wide audience. Initially broadcast on May 27, 1997, copies were readily available in Damascus, Kuwait, Cairo, Rabat and elsewhere throughout the Arab world.[12]

Jon Anderson and I analyzed the rapid changes in media in the Muslim world through 2003,[13] just before platforms such as Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), and Whatsapp (2009) appeared. These platforms further facilitated the fragmentation of religious and political authority. In the Arabic-speaking world, rapidly rising levels of literacy and familiarity with an educated Arabic, formerly restricted to an elite, enable large numbers of people to respond to those in authority in the common language of the Arabic of the classroom and the media rather than in local dialects that are not understood beyond one’s own region. The “common language” can be a breezy transregional colloquial rather than the correct if limited language of television and radio newscasts.

A major change that has occurred over the last decade is the increasing awareness of how words and images can be adulterated, and how messages and images can be manipulated for maximum effect—for advertising, political, religious, or other purposes.[14] The cutting of phrases has been a well-known technique, today much easier than in the era of reel-to-reel tape recordings, when such editing was accomplished through physical splicing. Now such editing or altering of what Manuel Castells has called “real virtuality” is often discernable only to trained specialists.[15] The “network society” enables transregional ideas to be scaled down and applied to a multitude of local societies, and understood in ways never originally intended. The term algorithm has now entered the general vocabulary, suggesting how messages and images can now be crafted to reach individuals in ways not imagined by propagandists, preachers, religious movements, advertisers, or others in earlier eras.



Advancing levels of education, greater ease of travel, and the rise of new communications media have contributed to the emergence of a public sphere in which large numbers of people, and not just an educated, political, and economic elite, are getting a say in political and religious issues. The result has been challenges to authoritarianism, the fragmentation of religious and political authority, and increasingly open discussions of issues related to the “common good.” The ideas and practices of “dark Internet,” the “deep state,” and “hidden” agendas may sometimes be illusory, but not necessarily. Emergence into the digital age, once could be seen as incrementally positive; most people now would see current opportunities and trends as   uneven and often contradictory.

 The mainstreaming of Islamic ideas and practices contributes to an increasingly “public Islam”[16] in which religious scholars, self-ascribed religious authorities, secular intellectuals, Sufi orders, mothers, students, workers, engineers, and many others contribute to civic debate and public life. In this “public” capacity, “Islam” makes a difference in configuring the politics and social life in large parts of the globe, and not just among self-ascribed religious authorities. At the same time, the advent of the second, post-Facebook digital age offers many reasons for caution in understanding how religious ideas and practices, like those in other fields, develop, take hold, and can be distorted.



Dale F. Eickelman

He is Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations Emeritus at Dartmouth College, USA. His publications include Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center (1976; Arabic, 1989), Muslim Travelers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination (co-edited with James Piscatori, 1990), Public Islam and the Common Good (co-edited with Armando Salvatore, 2002), Muslim Politics (co-authored with James Piscatori, new ed., 2003), The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach, 4th ed. (2002), New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (co-edited with Jon Anderson, 2nd ed., 2003), Knowledge and Power in Morocco (1985, Arabic 2009), and Higher Education Investment in the Arab States of the Gulf: Strategies for Excellence and Diversity (co-edited with Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf (2017), and 120 articles and book chapters. A former President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), and of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Professor Eickelman currently serves as senior advisor to Kuwait’s first private liberal arts university, the American University of Kuwait. In 2009, he was named a Carnegie Scholar for a two-year period, and in 2011 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association.


Watch the panel "Religious Discourse and the Public Sphere: Dynamics and Influences" including Pr. Dale F. Eickelman's lecture: 




[1] Syed Ameer Ali, A Critical Examination of the Life and Teachings of Mohammed (London: Williams and Norgate, 1873). The book was reprinted and revised several times in Ameer Ali’s lifetime, often with changes in title. It remains in print.

[2] Sayyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (New York: HarperOne, 2007. Noted Shi‘a scholar Andrew Newman (personal communication, 24 July 2018) notes the strong resonance between theosophy, with its assumptions that there is an underlying meaning underneath surface realities, a belief that transcends many religious traditions.

[3] Tariq Ramadan, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Penguin, 2012 [orig. 2010].

[4] See Bettina Graf and Jakob Skovgaard-Peterson, Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi (London: Hurst, 2009).

[5] Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 150-51.

[6] Abu Ja`far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839-923), Ta’rikh, ed. Muhammad Abu Fadil Ibrahim (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1964), p. 1937

[7] “Falsehood Flies,” The Economist, 10 March 2018, 80.

[8] See Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination, ed. Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990; Zafar Ishaq Ansari, Comments Made at the International Symposium, “The Islamic World and Global Co-operation: Preparing for the 21st Century.” Kuala Lumpur, April 26, 1997.

[9] Dale F. Eickelman, “Mass Higher Education and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary Arab Societies,” American Ethnologist 19, no. 4 (November 1992), 1-13.

[10] Christiane Brosius and Melissa Bucher, “Introduction: Image Journeys,” in Image Journeys: Audio-Visual Media and Cultural Change in India, ed. Christiane Brosius and Melissa Bucher

[11] Excerpts of the video was available through 2007 via the Columbia University Center for International Affairs website (www.ciaonet.org/cbr/cbr00/video/excerpts/). It is not currently available. 

[12] The debate aired as one of the early presentations of Faisal al-Kassem’s “The Opposite Direction” (al-ittijah al-mu‘akis). AL-Kassem recollects the impact of the program at the time (https://www.aljazeera.com/archive/2006/11/200849162526819525.html). Also see John F. Burns, “Arab TV Gets a New Slant: Newscasts without Censorship,” New York Times, 4 July 1999, p. 1.

[13] Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson, New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

[14] Boris Thiolay, “Quand le djihad infiltre Internet,” L’Express, 25 July 2018, 25-33.Thiolay writes only of extremist use of the Internet, although his argument applies equally to all forms of Internet-mediated digital communication. 

[15] See Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, 2nd edition (London: Polity, 2015), and Hany Farid, “Recruiting Terrorists: We’re Losing the Fight Against Online Extremism—Here’s Why (http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/399962-recruiting-terrorists-were-losing-the-fight-against-online).

[16] Public Islam and the Common Good, ed. Armando Salvatore and Dale F. Eickelman (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

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Submitted by Shireen Obaidullah on Wed, 09/19/2018 - 16:12


Dr. Ramadan is the soul author of the Quest for Meaning, irrespective of the specific religious tradition it "belongs to". Mainstreaming means to go with the flow with your soul & complete being without going out of the deep state, nor sacraficing oneself for it, by for example having to take in "medicine" for it. Digging in the personal past to be represented in society and worshipping photographs is not the way to know someone. Standardising someone with "treatment" by "medicine" to belong to the "mainstream" is not the way either to know a person.

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