Gary R. Bunt is a twenty-year pioneer in the study of cyber-Islamic environments (CIEs). In his new book, Bunt explores the diverse and surprising ways digital technology is shaping how Muslims across vast territories relate to religious authorities in fulfilling spiritual, mystical, and legalistic agendas. From social networks to websites, essential elements of religious practices and authority now have representation online. Muslims, embracing the immediacy and general accessibility of the internet, are increasingly turning to cyberspace for advice and answers to important religious questions. Online environments often challenge traditional models of authority, however. One result is the rise of digitally literate religious scholars and authorities whose influence and impact go beyond traditional boundaries of imams, mullahs, and shaikhs.
Bunt shows how online rhetoric and social media are being used to articulate religious faith by many different kinds of Muslim organizations and individuals, from Muslim comedians and women's rights advocates to jihad-oriented groups, such as the "Islamic State" and al-Qaeda, which now clearly rely on strategic digital media policies to augment and justify their authority and draw recruits. This book makes clear that understanding CIEs is crucial for the holistic interpretation of authority in contemporary Islam.
In this incisive investigation, Bunt (iMuslims) situates ISIS's use of social media within a broader context of "Cyber Islamic Environments" and highlights how social media is reshaping Islam worldwide. When Jihadi John, a British citizen who defected to ISIS and carried out beheadings on camera, went viral in 2014 and 2015, Bunt writes, there was a furor of media activity surrounding the technological prowess of the Islamic State and its ability to spread terror around the world via tweets, YouTube videos, and online chat rooms. Homing in on this point of transition, Bunt adroitly illustrates how approaches to religious authority, interpretation, power, and communication have changed over the last two decades. These broader observations are constructed through in-depth studies of al-Qaeda's burgeoning "e-jihad" movement, online Muslim dating networks, celebrity ayatollahs on Twitter, and "snapwas" fatwas, or religious rulings, delivered via SnapChat. Broad in scope, Bunt's survey moves at a fast pace and covers a lot of ground as it introduces the reader to the vast variety of digital expressions within global Islam. For this reason, it lacks some nuance, context, and critical analysis. Nevertheless, by investigating how Muslim communities are utilizing (and being transformed by) the ongoing worldwide digital revolution, this work proves to be an important addition to literature on contemporary Islam.