The Internet: Gimmick or Tool?
By Mohammed Waleed Kadous
Most people now have heard or seen something about the Internet. It is the next big thing, according to some sources; it will revolutionise our lives, make the world a peaceful place and push the world towards the elusive (and somewhat Western-driven) goal of the global village.
That's the theory anyway. Unfortunately, the reality is a little different. Increasingly, like most things in the West, what was once run by a small, co-operating community of people (in this case, computer geeks), has been turned into a giant economic opportunity, and become yet another province for unbridled Western commercialism (as you may guess, I look back to the days when you could do something on the 'Net other than be assaulted by numerous get-rich-quick schemes, as an old man looks upon his innocent, fun-filled childhood). Still, there is through the thick fog of marketing, much that the Internet can be used for.
So is the Internet the next over-hyped gizmo to be promoted by the media, or is there something that you can actually do with the Internet? What is the relationship between the Internet and Islam? Do they fit together, or are they opposed?
To really gain an understanding of these issues, we need to discuss the practicalities of the Internet. There are books that cover the Internet; and the Internet tends to be very self-centered, so there's much more information available than is discussed here. I'll try to keep out most of the jargon, but inevitably some will slip in.
What is the Internet....?
A network is just a set of connected computers so they can talk to each other. The Internet, as the name implies, is a set of connected networks. The result is about ten million computers that can communicate with one another. The beauty of this idea is that the computers don't need to be connected directly to each other; most of the time, information passes through 10 to 20 computers before it gets to its final destination.
Where did the Internet come from? It's about this time that the harp music comes on and things get a bit blurry around the edges. In the late 1960's, at the peak of the cold war, the US Department of Defence was worried that if a nuclear bomb hit the US, all communication would be lost. They therefore tried to build a distributed computer network that would still work if major parts of it were destroyed, called ARPANet. The key aspects of ARPANet was that it was tolerant of breakdowns, faults and so on, and that nobody ran it; there was no central machine. Pretty soon, the academics made ARPANet their own. They had no problems with the goodwill that was needed to support the Internet; some machines spent much more time passing other people's data around than their own.
Then in the late 1980's and 1990's, people began to see the power of the Internet. It began to grow very fast, and has since lost all semblance of being a military or academic network. Now, only about ten per cent of the traffic is academic.
How does it work, and how can I connect to the Internet?
You do not have to have a particular brand of computer to use the Internet. Just about any machine can use it; the Internet is designed to handle different machines; and even different types of connections, over phone lines all the way up to fibre optic cables. The key to understanding how it all fits together is to understand the idea of layers. This is shown in the diagram.
At the very bottom layer, you have the hardware which connects computers together. This includes things like modems (a device that connects you to another computer over a phone line), Ethernet cards (a device that connects you to other computers through a cable), and so on and the phone lines and cables they use. On top of that is a piece of software (a computer program), known as a driver, that tells the computer you are using how to talk to the hardware later. For example, typical drivers that talk to modems usually use something like SLIP or PPP. On top of the drivers, there is another program that provides a way for communicating over the Internet, known as TCP/IP. Then on top of the TCP/IP layer are the programs that actually use the TCP/IP to talk to other computers. We'll discuss these more in the next section.
To actually do anything useful with the Internet you need all four. So let's discuss how you go about getting each of these.
For the hardware layer, the most commonly used device is a modem. These allow computers to talk to one another over a phone line. They are available for most computers, including IBM-compatible PC's and Macintosh. Some of the better modems also allow you to send and receive faxes.
Prices on modems differ, ranging from $150 to $600; the main differences are on how fast the modems go, whether they support faxing and what software comes with them. The speed of a modem determines how fast data can go to and from your computer. The three common speeds are 14.4Kbaud, 28.8Kbaud and 33.6Kbaud. These numbers are essentially meaningless; but to put it in some framework, to transfer a reasonably large high-quality picture between two 14.4K modem might take one minute; where as between two 28.8K modem would only take thirty seconds. It's important to realise that if two modems of different speed are connected together, they talk to each other at the speed of the slowest one. The software that comes with them is increasingly Internet software; which we'll be discussing in the next few sections. But some of the software is also fax software.
For those with deep pockets, there are alternatives to modems which are faster, but far more expensive. These involve the connection of special digital communication connections; and they are expensive to run. These services are provided by Telstra for thousands of dollars a year and the service is called ISDN. ISDN can transfer information at between three and ten times as fast as modems can, depending on how much you want to pay.
To use the Internet to its fullest, you need special driver software for it so that the modems can send information to one another. These days, this usually comes included with the modem, or as part of the software that comes with the computer (known as an operating system, like Windows 95 or MacOS). For using the Internet with a modem, there are two common types of communication: SLIP and PPP. Follow the instructions that come with the computer as to how to use these.
But having SLIP or PPP is no use by itself; you need another modem that is already connected to the Internet so that you can use these. So what people have done is form companies that are connected to the Internet, and offer you connections to the Internet through their modems. These companies are called Internet Service Providers (ISPs). They charge between 20 a month and 50 a month for access to their modems, depending on how much you use them. Most ISPs offer you a choice of SLIP or PPP. PPP is the better one, although it is slightly slower. When you join an ISP they usually send you the software you can use to set up your computer for using the Internet, in addition to the software you get with your computer or modem.
Nowadays, this software comes with your computer. For instance, Windows 95 includes TCP/IP software. For older Windows machines, a program called Trumpet. For new Macintoshes, the computer comes with OpenTransport, which supports TCP/IP. For older Macintoshes, there is MacTCP, which is similar. In both cases, your ISP will usually provide the software.
So far, we have been talking about getting connected, but we have not done anything useful. For this, you need special software. Most of the time, this software will be provided by your ISP, although you may also wish to purchase it separately. We'll discuss some of the most common Internet applications.
One of the most commonly used services on the Internet is the World-Wide Web, sometimes known as WWW or, simply, the Web. The Web is like a giant book, if you like, with pictures, text and links. By selecting a link, you can go to another page in the book. The thing is, that not all the pages of the book live on the same computer. Some pages of the book are here in Australia, some are in the United States, some are in Europe, and others are in the Middle East. The other thing is that there is no order to the pages of the book. Each page is described by a Universal Resource Locator (or URL), which uniquely describes where the page is.
Increasingly, it is not just pictures or text any more. Increasingly, the Web pages are including sounds, animations, video and even complete "virtual worlds'', which you can explore.
You can also make your own Web page that describes you and your interests, but that's for another article.
To traverse or "surf'' the Web, you need a special piece of software, known as a Web browser. The most popular Web browser is Netscape. This is available for PCs and Macintoshes, which your ISP may provide you with. Another common Web browser is the Microsoft Internet Explorer, which is included with Windows 95.
This is another very popular service. E-mail is short for "electronic mail''. It's very similar to normal mail in concept, except that it is much, much faster. Every person on the Internet has an e- mail address. So, to send someone mail, you tell the computer which address you want to send it to, and then type in the message you want to send them.
It's usually very fast. It is not unusual for a message to the United states to take less than 20 minutes to arrive.
In addition, of course, people can send you mail, once you know what your address is. Another popular use for mail is for mailing lists. A mailing list is about a particular issue, which people on the mailing list are interested in. People then discuss the issue by sending mail to everyone on the list. For example, say you are interested in the topic of the media and Islam. There could be a mailing list for this. When someone sees something negative in the media about Islam, he tells the whole mailing list about it. That way, action can be taken to fix the problem.
There are many programs for handling mail. Netscape and Internet Explorer both have the capability to send and receive mail, albeit in a limited way. The most popular tool for mail is probably Eudora, which is available for both Macintoshes and PCs.
News is similar to mailing lists; there are forums (called Newsgroups) that discuss particular issues of interest. For example, there are Newsgroups for discussing Islam. It is different in that you actively select what you read, rather than it being thrown in your mailbox.
Netscape and Internet Explorer both support news, but there are other programs that allow you to read news. These include Nuntius for the Macintosh, and NewsWatcher for the PC.
FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol; in other words it's a way to get files from around the world onto your computer. This is a great way, for example, to get new software for your computer, or upgrade software that you already have. There are incredible amounts of software available on the Internet.
Netscape and Internet Explorer both support FTP. There are also a number of other programs for this purpose, such as WS-FTP for Windows and Fetch for the Macintosh.
Telnet is a tool that allows you to connect to other computers as if you were actually sitting at them. This is useful, for example, if you are trying to connect to a library in the Middle East to go through their catalog and see if they have your favourite book.
There are a number of Telnet applications. Neither Netscape nor Internet Explorer support telnet. It is becomingly increasingly rare. For the PC, examples of Telnet software include CRT and Ewan. For the Macintosh, there is also MacTelnet.
Internet Relay Chat (IRC).....
This is the Internet equivalent of a party, only with typing instead of talking; you join a particular channel, which is the equivalent of a room, and discuss things with the people in the room.
There are a number of IRC clients available. For Windows, there is mIRC, WS-IRC and Netscape Chat. For Macintoshes, there is Netscape chat and Homer.
There are many other programs which we do not have time for. These include:
These are text-based worlds where you can meet other people, fight monsters and so on.
Gopher was a predecessor to the Web, but is becoming increasingly rare.
You can also explore virtual worlds that others make available over the Internet.
Internet Phone, Cool Talk, CyberPhone and so on.....
These send audio signals over the Internet, usually between two people holding a conversation. However, because the Internet is a little slow, the quality and response times of these tools are limited.
CU-SeeMe, MBone, VideoPhone.....
This is like the above, but with video as well as audio. Again, you hit certain speed barriers of the Internet, which make the video transferred very jerky.
DigiCash, CyberCash, FirstVirtual.....
These applications allow you to have "virtual money'' that you can use to purchase goods on the Internet
Islamic Resources & Activities on the Internet
By Br. Abdullah Al-Wassiti
As stated before, the WWW combines the possibility of text, graphics, audio and video, which can be used to form a great resource for Muslims. Muslim organisations and individuals from all backgrounds and with different interests and areas of concentration have homepages or sites with information that can be accessed according to need. There are reference works, including the Holy Qur'an, most of the famous Hadith books translated into English. and Fatwas that are subject to database searches for a particular keyword or topic, as well as pictures, sound clips of speeches and Qur'an recitation, and video clips of Hajj available as well as many others. Special interest pages include those for new Muslims, non-Muslims, sisters, parents and others.
Not limited by physical bounds, users can access the latest news from Kuwait or Pakistan from online newspapers, see beautiful Masjids they might never visit, and hear Khutbas of scholars they might never hear.
A large number of Islamic books and articles is also available for free. These cover areas of belief (the Islamic Creed, the description of Paradise and Hell, Jinn, refutation of the believes of Qadianis and other deviated sects, etc.), Islamic jurisprudence (including prayer, fasting, purity, Hijab, Jihad, trading and economics etc.), guidelines on the Islamic morals and character, selected supplications, comparative religions studies and material for non-Muslims (including most of Sheikh Ahmed Deedat's books, pamphlets and books introducing Islam and promoting it), Islamic magazines (like Nida'ul Islam's), Islamic history, information about almost all Muslim countries, sites with news services on the Muslim world.
Software such as the entire translations of Qur'an, hadith collections, prayer time calculation tables, sound files of Azan and recitation and Arabic tutorials are all available for downloading through FTP. Programs are both shareware and freeware.
Another great advantage of the architecture of the WWW is the ability to 'link' to another page by clicking onto an icon or title. This often opens doors for interesting pages that might otherwise be hard to find. This link feature often works as a treasure map, following links to find new goodies. Most text and graphics are downloadable, which can then be used in an E-mail, UNIX or word processing document. Most audio and video applications require an additional 'plug-in' (a software program that will translate a file into the appropriate format).
Selected WWW sites
The amount of Islamic information you can get off the Web is amazing. What follows are very few of the hundreds and thousands of Islamic and other WWW sites you can make great use of:Newsgroups
< www.wam.umd.edu/~ibrahim/> The Islam Page. Your best starting point for anything relating to Islam. Great links and material.
< users.essex.ac.uk/users/rafiam/> University of Essex Islamic Society Web Page. Another page with a large amount of authenticated knowledge.
< www.mynet.net/~msanews/Launchpad/> MSANEWS LaunchPad: Your one-stop page of links to news and information on the Muslim world.
< www.shareware.com> , the best place to search for the latest freeware and shareware software, whether for the Internet, MAC, DOS Win3.11, or Win95.
Newsgroups, which number in the thousands, work as electronic bulletin boards where users can enter articles or 'posts' available for anybody to read. SOC.REL.ISLAM is the main Muslim Newsgroup, and is moderated to keep topic threads pertinent to Islamic issues. Announcements of upcoming conferences and talks, reviews of books and articles, debates of Fiqh issues and current events are all typical topics. In addition, FAQs (frequently asked questions) are available as downloadable files with articles and old posts relating to introductory aspects of Islam. Non-Muslims often contribute to the posts, especially when Muslims have been in the news, and come to ask questions or voice comments. This is a chance to give Da'wah and dissolve misconceptions and prejudices. The relative anonymity of the Internet allows those who might otherwise not approach Muslims the chance to interact and learn from Islam.
Unlike Newsgroups, in which a user visits a site to access posts, List Serv groups work through E- mail. Posts are sent to subscribed users' E-mail boxes as they come in.
There are various types of mailing lists; some are read-only lists (only the list's administrator can send E-mails to the subscribers), while others (most of them) are forums of discussions, where any subscriber can post articles, questions, replies, announcements etc.
There are a large number of Islamic and cultural lists available, depending on the interests and needs of the user. SISTERS-NET, MSA-NET, and MSA-NEWS are some examples of broad interest lists, and there are others like ISLAMSCI, which deals with Islamic issues, history and technology in science and medicine which are more specific.
List Servs are moderated by administrators who also run the housekeeping of the list, such as new subscriptions or temporary signoffs (during finals week or a vacation it is possible to temporarily postpone a subscription to avoid a full mailbox upon return). Most lists can be joined automatically on the spot by sending an E-mail to the List Serv and do not require a prior agreement from the list's administrator, but others require that the administrator personally takes care of the joining process, which is sometimes subject to a number of conditions and rules.
IRC / Chat rooms
IRC is the largest of several 'chat' services available, with thousands of users online to the service at any given time. The system is divided into many channels based on a particular topic, and the Islam channel "#Islam" can have anywhere from 2 to 20+ users online. Written in live time, users can read text as soon as it is typed and entered, thus giving a 'chat' atmosphere with many users participating in a conversation. Topics are not moderated, and change with the interests of the users online. Non-Muslims often visit and this is a wonderful time to offer Da'wah and to show somebody who might otherwise not have a chance to talk to Muslims the true character of a Muslim and the beauty of Islam. Users are from all over the world, and this is a good opportunity to learn from others whom we might never have the chance to meet, develop friendships to help realise our global Ummah, hear about current events in the Muslim world undiluted by media, and hear new perspectives from new people. Thanks to a few skilled programmers, an online Qur'an and Bukhari collections are available that can be called up to find a particular Ayah or Hadith, which can be important in discussions and debates.
Though users represent many countries and languages, English is the common language for public discussion. Since the channel is open to all who are interested in Islam, non-Muslims are made to feel welcome and are encouraged to voice any questions or comments. Channel Islam also has its own mailing list at: < islam@Mars.SPARCO.Com> .
ISNET is another chat service designed as a MUD (multi-user domain). Moderated by administrators, ISNET is meant to be open for Muslims only, and users must fill out a short electronic application that must be approved by an administrator before commands can be used (telnet to: isnet- 2.iscom.com 9010 to join). Once approved, users have access to a library, a sisters' room, a brothers' room, a Halaqa room, a post office where messages can be left for users who are not online, and a lobby. Each room also has a bulletin board where announcements, messages or suggestions can be left.
A Note of Caution......
Like so many other modern inventions, there is also a negative aspect to the Internet.
Although there is a rich source of literature on Islam which may otherwise be inaccessible, so there is also deviated and inauthentic material. You will come across Homepages which claim to represent the 'authentic' Islam, yet are written by people with no knowledge, or are intentionally misleading people. It becomes your responsibility to be able to locate those pages which are authentic, and be ready to critically assess each page.
When dealing with the Internet you will confront a new problem - that of viruses. A good anti-virus program will effectively deal with such viruses, but keep aware of the damage that could be done to your hard disk if you don't take precautions.
The IRC can be a great way to make new friends, and also an avenue for inadvertent unIslamic behaviour. Very often brothers and sisters carelessly converse without regard to Islamic injunctions on modesty or Laghw (useless talk). It is also notorious for wasting hours of a persons time, affecting prayers, work and study.
It is important for Muslims to be able to socialize and interact with other Muslims, and we learn from each other as we exchange our knowledge and experiences. Through building bonds via our electronic Ummah, we can develop our collective strengths with Allah's help.