Online clerics to the fore

Qom, Iran - Iranian clergyman Nematollah Daneshmand, webmaster for - the site of Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei - works on his laptop at his office in Qom, south of Teheran. Photo: AFP

Want to have breast implants but worried they may not be so pleasing to God? Wondering if the marketing campaign devised to boost your business is spiritually sound?

If you are a Shia looking for guidance, what you may find useful is your very own online ayatollah - a sort of electronic agony aunt with a broadband connection to God.

In Qom, Iran's spiritual nerve centre where religion is the biggest business, the clergy have been busy moving into the dotcom sector so as to stay with the times and keep Shia souls on the right track.

"We set up the site because different people are discussing Islam and many of these points of view are not specialised. Regrettably there is only a superficial understanding," explained Nematollah Daneshmand, webmaster for - the site of Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei.

Ayatollah Saneei - classed as a major moderate force leading something of a reformation - has one of the busiest Qom-based websites with around 2000 subscribers and tens of thousands of hits every month.

"Our site provides interpretations and points of view from a specialist, so people can log on and get the real Islam," said Mr Daneshmand, a turbaned 45-year-old.


Aside from being a PC programmer, he also holds the rank of hojatoleslam - just one notch below ayatollah in the Shia clerical heirarchy.

The concept of an information superhighway to heaven is a modern twist on how Shias interact with their personally chosen "source of emulation" - in other words a figure that a believer can choose to follow and look towards for ijtihad, or the process of figuring out from volumes of religious writings what is and isn't allowed.

Shias differ from the majority Sunnis, Mr Daneshmand explains, in that they "resort to a source of emulation who is alive, and who can provide answers as times and circumstances change".

A concrete example: according to the Holy Quran and the Hadith, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, the buying and selling of human blood is haram, or prohibited.

"But this was because in the ancient Arab times, some pagans would drink blood. But in modern times, with advances in medicine, there is a need for blood for treatment. Therefore the trade can be permitted," Mr Daneshmand explained.

The site features an online form, where the faithful can "ask anything, from specific technical questions about the faith, legal questions such as on inheritance, and social questions such as how a married couple can interact".

Such questions are then delivered to Grand Ayatollah Saanei, a colourful character in his late 70s.

Every afternoon he retires to his private library - the walls of which are lined with a selection of his 3000 "essential" theology books - in order to come up with the answers.

Mr Daneshmand prints out two emails from the ayatollah's inbox, bombarded with some 60 messages a day from across the Muslim world, Iranians living in Europe and North America, or just up the highway in the sprawling capital Tehran.

One email relates to the finer points of product marketing, and the other is on cosmetic surgery.

"In summary, his eminence has ruled that if a specialist says that breast implants and liposuction are not harmful to the patient, they are permitted," Daneshmand says with a grin.

The hub of Qom's internet boom is the Aalulbayt Information Centre, set up seven years ago and whose website acts as a hub for some 51 Shia "sources of emulation" - including Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and even Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Their main website is now available in 27 languages - including Chinese, Thai, Tamil, Swahili and Italian - and the centre employs some 100 staff who provide translation services, HTML and Flash coding, and technical support.

Estimates put the world's Shia population at around 160 million. Only a small percentage are online, but as the web spreads the clerics are eager to keep one step ahead.

Sayed Ibrahim Lajevardi, the cleric and electrical engineer who heads the centre, described Qom as now being home to "clerics specialised in the internet who cannot be matched anywhere else in Iran".

"Today the clergy is in line with the newest technology," he boasted. "Islam has always been a pioneer of civilisation."