Online in Cairo, With News, Views and 'Fatwa Corner'

CAIRO, Oct. 28 — Inside a run-down building in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood, a hybrid group of eager young dot-commers and idealistic religious messengers produces one of the Islamic world's leading Web sites,

"We all consider this an act of jihad, how to liberate people's minds from ignorance," said Ahmed Muhammad Sa'ad, using "jihad" in its sense of spiritual struggle. Mr. Sa'ad is a recent religious school graduate and a prize-winning reciter of the Koran who helps channel readers' requests for religious rulings, or fatwas, to Islamic legal scholars around the world.

Islam Online says it wants to present a positive view of the faith to non-Muslims, to strengthen unity in the Muslim world and to uphold principles of justice, freedom and human rights. Scholars of the region say they see the Web site as a leading example of efforts by moderate Muslims to push for the Islamization of societies by nonviolent means.

"There's a desire to make it a one-stop shop," said John L. Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. "But obviously no single Web site can do that for anything, let alone the Islamic world."

The Web site also has an English version, aimed at Muslims living outside the Arab world. Professor Esposito points out that only about a quarter of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims speak Arabic, and that for the rest, English is an increasingly common second language.

The site is ambitious in content. Along with news articles, there are in-depth discussions of Islamic issues, political analyses, discussion groups, advice pages and a "fatwa corner," where readers can ask questions or look up past edicts from religious scholars. That is where Mr. Sa'ad works.

The promulgation of fatwas by call-in shows and Web sites has spread in recent years. Islam Online provides private responses for personal issues, and public ones for questions of general interest. One recent day, the Arabic site advised a questioner that killing women and children in war was forbidden unless they were warriors; that a woman could appear unveiled before her son-in-law; that abortions of deformed fetuses were wrong if the condition was one that could be lived with.

The site's news section reflects the point of view of most media in the Arab world, emphasizing the suffering of Palestinians, criticism of Israeli policies and opposition to the United States' policy on Iraq. The commentary section is generally mild in tone. The site appears to steer clear of touchy doctrinal issues, like traditions that separate Shiites from Sunnis.

During a reporter's recent visit to the offices here, young employees sat at work over computer keyboards behind a series of closed doors. About 100 people, mostly Egyptians, with a sprinkling of others from across the Arab world, work here; most of the women on hand wore head scarves.

In the newsroom, Eman Ahmed, 24, a graduate of Cairo University in her first job, was rewriting a correspondent's account of the Bahraini elections. "I am doing good things for Muslims and Islam," she said. In the fatwa room, a group of graduates of the prestigious Islamic university Al Azhar, including Mr. Sa'ad, dealt with requests for religious rulings. Later, work stopped throughout the offices for evening prayers.

Mutiullah Tayeb, the Web coordinator, said Islam Online was receiving about 250,000 page views a day, which he said made it the leading Islamic site. "We have to have mutual understanding, conversation," he said, "and not allow other people just to describe Islam on behalf of Muslims."

The Web site began operating three years ago in Doha, Qatar, where its technical and corporate offices are located. Qatar's leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has made efforts to create a more open, liberal atmosphere. Another prominent result of that openness is Al Jazeera television, which has broadcast messages by Osama bin Laden and his confederates, and has drawn criticism from governments across the Arab world for its outspoken ways. The Qatari royal family, which finances Al Jazeera, is a major supporter of the Web site, according to its deputy editor, Hossam el-Din el-Sayed.

Islam Online and Al Jazeera are both feeling the influence of an Egyptian-born cleric, Sheik Yusuf Abdulla al-Qarawadi. In addition to acting as the Web site's spiritual guide and chairman of its board, he has gained prominence through a regular call-in show on Al Jazeera, in which he expounds on theological topics and answers questions about Islamic practices and principles.

He has given mixed signals on the subject of women, saying that nothing in the Koran forbids their voting or driving but that a woman's main role is as a mother.

Sheik Qarawadi, who has a history of anti-American views, condemned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a "heinous crime," saying on the Web site that the killing of innocents is a "grave sin" under Islam. But the sheik also condemned Egypt's leading Muslim scholar for rejecting terrorist attacks that killed Israeli civilians. The perpetrators were fighting colonizers, he said, and in Israel all men and women are "soldiers."

But Mr. Sayed, the site's deputy editor, said that Islam Online was by no means a mouthpiece for the sheik. He, like others interviewed at the site's offices, emphasized that it was a vehicle for a broad range of mainstream Islamic views.

"I have this idea about sharing the principles and concepts of Islam with humanity," he said. "We are defending justice, not only Muslims."