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Muslims and the New Media: Historical and Contemporary Debates (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 5, Issue 4, Autumn 2012
pp. 487-490 | 10.1353/isl.2012.0065

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Larsson's work on Muslims and the New Media is a much welcomed and needed piece of research on religious approaches and perspectives on media usage. As the title indicates, he focuses on Islam and Muslim societies; and he addresses how, through their fatwas, the ulema reflect on and confront innovation in both information and communication technologies. The research - luckily - approaches the concept of 'new media' in a diachronic manner by historically contextualising how various forms of media have entered the Islamic ummah; in this way, the author invites us to repeatedly challenge and re-profile the same idea, including the attention that 'new media' has been enjoying following the so-called 2009 Twitter Revolution and the 2011 Arab Spring.

In each chapter, Larsson consistently explores how the ulema have reacted to innovations in media. He discusses the printing press (Chapter 1), photography (Chapter 2), cinema (Chapter 3), the radio and the television (Chapter 4), the telephone (Chapter 5) and, finally, the Internet (Chapter 6). The remaining seventh and last chapter is about media and the Qur'an. Although this latter chapter provides for a clearly arranged space to sum up how the researched media challenged appreciation and understanding of the Holy Book, it nevertheless could have equally been used to introduce his research as a whole: in fact, it would have been possible for the author to use the Qur'an as an entry case study because he centres his study of the relation between media and Muslims on the way the ulema made sense of their theological sources. The introduction succeeds at framing the references, while the conclusion succinctly wraps up the previously debated questions; in the same way, the final chart points out the problems and the possibilities that have been articulated throughout the chapters. Finally, the references and the index are consistently arranged and precise.

Larsson's choice to very carefully define his space of analysis is effective in providing readers with a clearly defined work of research. Chapters 1 to 5 are historically and theologically well set, and his analysis through juxtaposition of the answers of the reformist and traditionalist sides is clear. His chosen historical approach is well-framed and particularly functional in understanding how, regardless of the specificities of time and space, innovation has confronted the establishment. The author defines the terms for a very clearly arranged analysis that represents a valid introduction to media theory for scholars of Islamic studies; in addition, he offers a sound introduction to Islamic issues for researchers in media studies. In his 'Conclusions', Larsson finally suggests that this debate is not uniquely Islamic, as it would be erroneous to 'draw the impression that Muslims are different and that their reactions are distinct from those of other religious groups'; in fact, 'the debates that occur among the 'ulama' can easily be found among non-Muslim religious leaders too' (199).

The author rightly points out how the same dynamics of progressive and very conscious and negotiated acceptance of information and communication technologies has been a social constant throughout history, and how the same process would be true for any other religious group. It eventually appears that the perceived feeling of being under attack by new forms of information and communication technologies is largely shared amongst religious communities because of the unsettling and challenging dynamics technologies bring into established power structures, and their legal and normative codes of behaviour. This is why I agree with the author in his invitation to develop and refine the study of religion, media and cultures, particularly with reference to how religious communities make sense of new IT tools in their daily lives, and how these new ways of life empower them as well as renovate their understanding of religious texts.

The latter issue appears to be a rather relevant one as in fact 'new' new media - and by that I here refer to online media - actually brings up the same idea of community, an issue that has been already very effectively addressed by Olivier Roy through his idea of the deterritorialisation of Islam. Within such a framework, the extremely fast development of contemporary media as considered in conjunction with the very high rates of...

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