Islamic Emoticons and Religious Authority: Emerging Practices, Shifting Paradigms

Andrea L. Stanton, University of Denver


This article considers the use of emoticons on transnational, English-language Islamic website forums as a case study to examine the shifts in Sunni religious authority, which have accelerated and deepened in the era of computation and new media. It shows the ways in which ordinary Muslims on conservative web forums invoke, deploy, and respond to different kinds of authority, from jurists to site administrators. It focuses first on particular websites’ endorsement of certain emoticons as Islamic (a smiley face with a hijab, e.g.), and then turns to forum users’ debates about emoticon usage. These debates range from questioning the acceptability of figural emoticons to the appropriateness of ‘secular’ emoticons on self-identified Islamic websites. It finds that while users often cite or request fatawa on emoticon usage when disputing with others, they are equally likely to post what they consider relevant hadith, appeal to common sense, or appeal to site administrators. This ground-up approach to engaging with the issue of emoticons gives nuance to what some scholars have termed the “crisis of authority” in Sunni Islam, and suggests that ordinary Muslims find authority in a diverse, sometimes contentious spectrum of locations. Far from being irrelevant to scholarship on contemporary Islam, emoticons are an important locus for understanding how pious Muslims have negotiated interactions in online spaces.