His e-mail flickering, his brain churning with 7th-century verses from the Koran, Muqtedar Khan--sporting a trim beard, Indian pajama bottoms and a Georgetown University T-shirt--hunches over his Falls Church computer at midnight.
Beneath a Chicago Bulls schedule and a picture of the Muslim holy city of Medina, Khan, 31, begins his favorite late-night activity: his life as an Internet alternative mufti.
Once Muslims seeking muftis--Islamic legal experts--would have had to travel from village to village to find wise and respected folk. The muftis--some of whom had no formal education, but committed the Koran to memory--would sit face to face with questioners issuing fatwas. These were legal opinions on questions that came up in everyday life: Was it permissible to use perfume tinged with alcohol? What kind of man was ideal for marriage?
The demand for a good fatwa continues. But to get one today, Muslims can just surf and click. Poof! A whole World Wide Web of cyber-fatwas appears, including those laid down by respected muftis from Egypt, some iconoclasts with no credentials at all and a few younger, hipper alternative muftis like Kahn with Islamic legal backgrounds but without official titles.
Khan won't formally label himself a mufti--in part because of the political baggage the phrase brings these days. Today, "grand muftis" in some Muslim governments issue controversial fatwas--like the well-known 1989 edict from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which in effect condemned author Salman Rushdie to death.
But Khan, a doctoral candidate at Georgetown, admits that he and others like him have added their voices to a traditional custom and made it a detached, e-mail, virtual highway of muftis and fatwas.
"The Internet has made everyone a mufti," says Khan. "In the past there was only the local mufti. The Internet has opened up a variety of opinion. It's the globalization of the mufti."
The Internet mufti is part of the endless stream of God on the Internet. From cyber-Seders to virtual confession rooms, religion is almost as big as sex on the Internet. (Type "God" into the Google search engine and, at last count, you get 14,994 hits, the exact number you get from keying in "sex.")
But like virtual monks and online meditation centers, Internet muftis are both lauded and loathed for unconventional methods and spins on their religion.
"Muqtedar is part of the new phenomena where people on the Internet--some may want to call them the New Muftis--give an opinion on Islamic legal issues," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. "The Internet allows for this absolute freedom and free play. The downside is any idiot can say anything. The upside is it allows for what Muqtedar winds up doing--adding another voice."
Khan is a tidy-looking man--he usually wears pressed khakis, polo shirts and white sneakers--who likes to giggle after saying very serious things.
He didn't plan to plunge into the world of Islamic advice, let alone advice on the Internet. He was born to a father who had an engineering degree and a grandfather who worked for Indian railways in the southern India city of Hyderabad. Khan thought he, too, would live in the mechanical, business side of the world. He studied engineering and computers and earned an MBA.
He toiled in corporate jobs in India, first as a management consultant and then in advertising. Six years ago, he came to the United States to study for his PhD in business management at Florida International University. He lasted one year.
"I realized I wasn't intellectually engaged," Khan says as he rushes out of the library on the leafy Georgetown campus. "Islam and Georgetown saved me."
Four years ago he arrived at Georgetown to study for his PhD in international relations and political theory. He plunged into the area's active Muslim life, writing articles for journals, speaking at conventions and surfing the Muslim sites on the Internet.
He soon became managing editor of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences and editor in chief of American Muslim Quarterly, two progressive academic journals for Muslims in America. Last year he was named one of the 40 most influential Muslims in America by Majalla, an Arab weekly newsmagazine in London.
"It's just one magazine's opinion," Khan says. "I'm sure there are other ones that would put me in the worst lists."
Khan bristles at government-appointed muftis, calling them "state-sponsored" ulema, an Arabic word meaning scholar.
"They are using conservative interpretations that are out of context," he says. "I offer something more modern, more in context, more of the philosophy behind Islam. That's the appeal of a guy like me."
Khan believes his more liberal voice highlights a historical tension between traditionalist Islamic theologians, who tend to furnish more conservative fatwas, and Islamic philosophers, who go for the more flexible rulings.
On a recent night in his living room, Khan's more liberal voice pops up in bits of several questions.
"Are homosexuals allowed in the mosque?"
"There is no room for gay-pride parades in the mosque," he says, thinking for a while and knowing that homosexuals are strictly forbidden, according to many muftis. "It is not a public square where you flaunt your dissent. But, I think in societies where Muslims live as minorities, Clinton's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is a perfectly Islamic solution."
Another sticky question: "Can couples who are engaged or have decided to marry have sex or some physical contact before they actually wed?"
"Sorry, I cannot give you the green signal to have irresponsible or casual sex," Khan answers. "But also remember that Allah is all-forgiving, especially to those who repent sincerely (this is in case you have already been naughty)."
Khan--who is married to a former Hindu who converted to Islam, with whom he has a 4-month-old son--isn't queasy about answering questions of a sexual nature. He is just surprised that he gets asked intimate questions so frequently.
While muftis and Islamic legal scholars have always answered highly personal questions--even about a spouse's lack of virility--the Internet has made people more willing to, as Khan says, "go there."
"I don't know who these people are and they don't send their name," Khan says quietly as he eats some charbroiled lamb kebab at an Afghani restaurant in Georgetown. "The Internet allows a lot more privacy. People ask questions more freely."
At the "Ask the Imam" site at IslamiCity--a California-based Web page (http://islamicity.com) that has 15 muftis and legal scholars answering questions--people also have been asking private questions anonymously.
"It has opened up such an alternative for people," said Dany Doueiri, vice president of the site, which receives about 50 questions a day and which has answered 9,000 questions since the service started about three years ago. "About 20 percent of our questions, people would normally be too shy to ask."
People seeking advice sometimes engage in "fatwa shopping" if they don't initially hear the answer they want, says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University who researched fatwas and muftis on the Internet. She is working on a forthcoming article called "Fatwas for the Perplexed: Muslim Colonization of Cyberspace."
This kind of fishing for the answer they want to hear--sex before marriage, anyone?--is what some scholars and members of the Muslim community find troublesome about looking for fatwas and muftis over the Internet.
"I personally find the cyber-fatwa ill-advised," says Yusuf DeLorenzo, who lives in Ashburn and is the former adviser on Islamic affairs to the president of Pakistan. "First you don't always know who the mufti on the Net is. In the old days, people knew the mufti as a member of the community and he was respected for more than a Web page."
He knows and respects Khan, but thinks fatwas or advice over the Internet about marriage problems or family issues can be out of context and too impersonal.
"In difficult questions you really need to be face to face," says DeLorenzo. "You need to look in their eyes and get a feel for the person and see what they are wearing and how they sit down."
Mark Kellner, author of "God on the Internet," worries that a faceless person on the Net may give bad advice.
"I could set up my mufti Web site today," Kellner says. "If people believe me, I could start saying, 'Go ahead, have a ham sandwich. Want a couple of cocktails? Oh, go ahead.' "
Khan acknowledges such criticism. But he sees himself as a younger, Muslim American voice, who won't lead people to Hell but might lead them to a realistic life in the United States.
It's a philosophy of fatwas that mirrors the swirl of old and new that is Khan's life. His favorite hobbies: cricket (he rose at 4:30 a.m. to watch a recent match) and watching "Seinfeld" ("my favorite Jew").
His typical day: Pray five times, watch C-SPAN and CNN, do research at Georgetown, eat a dinner of Indian or Italian food with his family and log on to the Internet in his modern alternative mufti role.
Recently he gave advice to a young convert to Islam whose Catholic parents didn't want her wearing the hajab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women.
"Should I disobey them to wear it?" she asked Khan.
"No, you don't have to wear it right now," Khan responded. "There are other ways to express your feelings as a Muslim. Be a good daughter, a good person in every other way, every other small issue. When they ask you about your change tell them it's because of Islam. All of a sudden their attitudes will change."
Khan's answer was very different from what some muftis would say.
"I dare to think on my own," says Khan. "And more and more people come to me."