What is in Store?
A review of internet offerings for the connected Muslim
Over the last five years the Internet has developed from a novelty to a necessity, at least in the Western world. The emergence of the Internet as a mixture of the ultimate reference and leisure tool is overtaking other appliances and facilities such as the television, the video store, the encyclopedia and the library. The Internet user has a wealth of knowledge never before accessible as effortlessly as it is now.
Muslims as consumers have traditionally been a tricky group.
When shopping for normal consumer products, such as televisions, western videos, Harry Potter books and songs, they are ready to purchase off the shelf and willing to pay premium prices.
However when it comes to buying Islamic goods, suddenly they become very price conscious and start looking for good deals - often pirated goods. Publishers of Islamic material be it books, audiotapes or video have found it hard because although their material is being distributed, they are not making the sales. This has largely been due to unscrupulous entrepreneurs who have taken the material and reproduced it for their own profit and distribution without acknowledging the rights of the author and publisher.
And so we have the predicament that these publications are sold with poor production quality casting a general shadow over all Islamic publications.
Compounding this has been the poor distribution structure of Islamic goods in Western countries. Quite often the shop fronts selling the material are transient in business one day only to have folded up a few years later. Service is poor (quite often they see themselves as doing a favour for the Muslim community rather than running a business).
Well how has this experience translated to the on-line world?
There were some encouraging signs in the early days of the Internet revolution in this regard with some of the traditional publishers turning to on-line sales. Of particular mention were Iqra International Educational Foundation (http://www.iqra.org/) and Sound Vision (http://www.soundvision.com/).
Iqra are well known for their educational books, specifically for their curriculum-based approach to their publications. On-line these offerings were expanded to include audio and video products. The organisation's background as an educational institution rather than just a bookstore, lend credibility to their offerings.
Sound Vision also figured prominently in the pre-Internet days as a provider of quality video productions and software. Sound Vision go beyond offering Islamic products, however. Other services include a Muslim directory where the user can search for organizations or mosques in various US cities, personal development guidance (basic templates a great idea that will hopefully be refined further), tips of eating healthy the halal way and articles that tackle the challenges of living Islamically in the west.
Sound Vision's strategy of adding value to their online shop is a clever way of attracting and retaining Internet traffic, a must-have to building a successful on-line presence. Sound Vision also builds upon this by allowing the user to subscribe to an informative newsletter that keeps them informed of new material and products available on the web site.
Another example of the Islamic bookstore is the Baltimore-based Islamic Book Store (http://islamicbookstore.com/). This link will redirect the user to a Yahoo!-powered store. What this means is that rather than develop their own software and site, they utilse the shop-in-a-box service - in this case from Yahoo!. This allows them to focus primarily on the business of procuring and selling books rather than the management of the web site. The site, although not flashy, is quick and comfortable. Most books are displayed with the cover and a short description. For example Words that Moved the World (http://store.yahoo.com/islamicbookstore-com/b5085.html).
Unfortunately no matter how good the web site the logistical part of the online store (i.e. inventory and distribution processes) still needs good old-fashioned business management skills. The author's experience in this area indicates that more work is required.
There are other stores, one that may suit one's particular needs better than the ones provided here. Try any worthwhile search engine or use the Yahoo! Directory as a starting point.
But of course there is more to Islam on the Internet than buying books.
During the very early days of the Internet there was what the author found to be the first comprehensive Islamic site: Islamicity (http://www.islamicity.org). Finding it wasn't hard, since the webmasters here had already taken some of the popular domain names (such as islam.org) and redirected it to their home page.
In the early days, accessing this site was slow as the webmasters had used all the flash available to them at the time in providing an attractive though at times cluttered site. Since then through the combination of higher bandwidth and more efficient web design, Islamicity is easier and faster to navigate and contains a wealth of information. It would have to be considered as the most professional Islamic site around - no doubt due to the experience gained since the mid nineties.
The site includes articles on current affairs, prayer times for all cities of the world, online radio programmes and the full text of the Quran in Arabic, transliterated English, English and about seven other languages in addition to an audio version, ayah by ayah.
Of particular interest is the Cyber Port (http://islamicity.com/Port/default.asp) - an organized directory of links to other Islamic sites all over the world, categorized by region, organizations, Muslim communities, on-line resources and student groups. It also allows others to suggest their own sites into the directories.
In short Islamicity is a great place to start the on-line Islamic journey.
Other good general purpose Islamic web sites include the www.Islam.com which incorporates general topics and news (and incorporates advertising) into its site. Its also has a media store.
Across the Atlantic and another veteran site is the Islamic Gateway (http://www.ummah.net/) which has also has had several redesigns to its website (unfortunately still not as good as Islamicity). Its long run has created a wealth of reference material in the site and its worldwide team is to be commended for getting such a project off the ground.
Then there are some sites that deal with particular corners of the Muslim community or certain needs.
First and foremost is the site for the Council on American Islamic Relations (http://www.cair-net.org/). The key goal for the organization is to combat discrimination in the United States against Muslims. It has successfully negotiated with corporations, government and the entertainment industry in providing better conditions and facilities for Muslim students and workers and breaking Muslim stereotypes in the media. The key success of this organization is that it has used the Internet and email to disseminate knowledge about these cases. Additionally it constantly monitors the mainstream media to highlight biased reporting.
They also follow up on misleading or defamatory web sites. CAIR has been particularly vocal in the aftermath of the WTC attacks on 11 September 2001.
There are many sites for non-Muslims who are looking at making Islam their way of life. In fact many of the sites above also feature sections for these potential converts. One in particular deals with it thoroughly: Converts to Islam (www.convertstoIslam.org) gives the newcomer basic information (and advice that the decision to embrace Islam should not be a hasty one) as well as offer an online tutorial of what Muslims believe in and how Islam is practiced.
The Muslim Traveller is another specialized site that serves Muslims traveling around the world. This a very well designed website which focuses on providing the devout Muslim the resources required in a foreign city or country. Included are prayer times, location of mosques and halal restaurants. It allows for users to submit their own findings into the database allowing others to benefit out of their experience.
For those with money to burn but want to invest it according to Islamic law, they can visit the many Islamic financial sites. One example is iHilal.com (www.iHilal.com) which offers investment products in Mutual funds as well as the stock market. The site also has educational information on Islamic investment strategies.
But the Internet isn't only for surfing. A key element (and perhaps the most used) is, of course, email. Well Muslims can also be informed and partake in discussions using just their email address.
First, if you don't already have an email address, get one. Yes, you can use a service provider or use Hotmail but if you want a free Web-based email address and stamp your faith on it you could just go to Muslims Online (www.muslimsonline.com) and sign-up.
Second, several of the sites already mentioned above allow you to use your newfound email address (or your old one!) and subscribe to their updates. Depending on the site function, you will soon be receiving news, product information or quotes from the Holy Quran directly into your in-box.
Third, at the Muslims Online site, have a look through the listserves on offer. Listserves are email addresses you can register on to. Once accepted you not only receive email sent to this email address, you can also send email back, which is in turn distributed, to all the subscribers of the listserve.
You can also create your own listserve here. At groups.yahoo.com, you can expand this listserve concept with a calendar and photo album to build a virtual community.
It's difficult to predict where the Internet will take us. However its benefits are huge. Muslims in the West have been striving to build communities. With the Internet these communities can be galvanized and experiences shared. Many of the borders have already come down. The author receives mail from all over the world every single day providing a glimpse of what is happening around the world in various Muslim communities.
The speed of written communication has improved many times over allowing for more interactive sharing of ideas and the opportunity for Muslims to organize and react much faster than before.
Muslims have now the opportunity to reach out to others, to combat the negative images forced upon those in the middle.
We have fallen behind in the use of the media and technology in the past. Let's not fall behind in utilizing this technology and the future it will bring, whatever it may be.
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