Not too long ago, I was asked to prepare a retrospective on the site, to commemorate yet another year of existence. I figured, hey, what better way to celebrate our 560th day anniversary (which just happens to coincide with the end of the Gregorian calendar year, what a coincidence).
Of course, you can’t let that 560 fool you; that’s just when we entered beta, merely one of the many steps we’ve actually taken to get this site where it is. Rather than deal with only the last year, I feel a true retrospective would need to go back much further than that else I’d be doing a disservice to everyone.
How far back, you ask? How about September of 2009.
A site four years in the making
That’s right, four years ago. That’s when Jeff and Joel first released the Stack Exchange platform for public consumption, opening this unique form of Q&A to the wide wide world of…well…not-programmers.
I was walking the local trails while listening to the Stack Overflow podcast (as I do) when I heard them announce it. Now at this point I was well-familiar — and had been for a good decade, at least — with Islamic forums, blogs, and fatwa sites, and the problems they posed to anyone interested in a serious study of Islam. The idea — the very potential — of applying the Stack Overflow model (which I was also well-familiar with) to the practice of Islamic studies quite literally stopped me in my tracks.
I spent the rest of that afternoon working out the logistics of getting such a site running. Not only concerns with hosting and income — Stack Exchange 1.0 was not the free hosted service it is today — but also trying to predict, analyse and resolve issues that would inevitably come up when you throw different schools of Muslim together under one roof. But the biggest problem, the one that I just plain couldn’t figure out how to tackle, was the problem of actually building the community.
I knew the Stack Overflow model well enough to know that there was no way it would survive without a community, and anyone who knows me knows that “community building” is not on any list of my strengths. But I set my mind to tackling this problem as I had tried to tackle the rest.
Unfortunately, I kept hitting the same roadblock. No matter what scenario I built up in my mind, no matter what I had otherwise achieved with the site itself, no matter what tack I chose to attract new users to the site, I knew exactly what question would be coming, just as I knew that I would have exactly no answer for it:
“Where are the scholars?”
Where are the scholars, anyway?
To be fair, this is a reasonable question. Up until that point, Islamic Q&A was effectively dominated by fatwa sites run by professional scholars. The very idea that…well…anybody could be qualified to answer questions without years of dedicated study, questions many of which have been under continuous study and debate for over a thousand years, was preposterous.
After a while of struggling with this problem, I mostly just filed it away in the back of my head. It was definitely something I wanted to see happen, but I had neither the money, time nor social skills necessary to either get such a site running or build the necessary community of experts for it to thrive. I continued to revisit the idea, but I knew that what little Islamic community I knew, that I could actually reach, weren’t quite up to the task of getting a site like this off the ground.
Working together for a beta tomorrow
Fast forward to May of 2010. I obviously wasn’t unique in lacking that exact combination of money, time, skill and idea needed to make a successful SE1.0 site; the whole project ended up getting overhauled and relaunching as Stack Exchange 2.0, which introduced the Area 51 site development process that we’re all involved in right now. Within a matter of months, a Stack Exchange site on the topic of Islam was proposed.
Compared to some of the other proposed SE sites, Islam.SE got off to a rocky start. The overlap between “Muslims” and “programmers” (read: people who are familiar with Stack Overflow) wasn’t quite as large as with many other proposals, and there were a lot of early followers who didn’t really “get” how the Stack Exchange system worked. The middle ground between “forums” and “professional fatwa site” was also virtually non-existent, so there really was nothing for anyone to compare it to. And while it never really came out explicitly, it was obvious that a lot of these early users were still struggling with the same basic question I was worried about:
“Where are the scholars?”
A lot of the early discussions revolved around the issue of credibility: How can we be sure that the answers we receive are actually any good? Obviously, we can’t really trust just whatever we read on the internet, and unlike a professional fatwa site we couldn’t rely on any particular author to, quite frankly, know what he was even talking about.
This mindset, unfortunately, demonstrates the fundamental problem we’ve struggled with since the beginning. Since there really was no middle-ground between “forum” and “professional fatwa site” to build off of, attempts at site development tended to swing from one extreme to the other: we either acted as if every answer needed to be written by a scholar, or as if none of them were.
But the important thing was that we were developing the site. Mistakes were made, mistakes would be made, but slowly, awkwardly, we evolved from a vague tagline of “the Muslim community who have questions about Islam.” into a site that was actually worth building.
T minus three…two…one…
I still see a lot of those early names show up on the site today, but I also see a lot more that have apparently gone off to do other things. It took two years to finally get through those first two hurdles of Area 51: Fifteen months in the definition phase alone, and another nine months in commitment. And of the 222 users who committed to the proposal, only 143 actually joined the beta site when it was formed, and only 36 of those actually fulfilled their commitment.
I’m still not sure how much of that is just due to real life asserting its presence after so many years, and how much of that was because people just didn’t recognize the full scope of what they were committed to. Because that’s exactly what phase two of the Area 51 proposal process was: A commitment. This wasn’t just a link to click and a box to tick and boom we get a website. No, we were effectively forging a new path through the wilds of the Internet, and creating not only a new site, but a whole new type of site where there was nothing before. This was not something to be done half-heartedly, it needed people willing to commit to it and see it through.
And if the definition phase was “rocky”, that was nothing compared to what we needed to deal with when the beta site went live. Needless to say, fourteen hundred years of Islamic history has not been as peaceful as it probably should’ve been, and trying to bring everyone together under one roof, on an unproven site with an inexperienced community, resulted in more than a few fireworks.
It is only through the grace of God that we’re still around today after all that. There were times where I expected the Stack Exchange team to just shut down the site — and times when I was sore-tempted to recommend the same myself — rather than deal with the mess it was becoming.
The here. The now.
We have, however, managed to struggle through. We’re still nowhere near graduating, and God only knows how long that will take, but we are building into a more cohesive site. We’re slowly but steadily getting more and more users who are less interested in always being right, and more interested in learning something new. And when I see enough people putting aside their differences long enough to achieve this goal, this goal of learning, I know that the site has a future.
Because fundamentally, the Stack Exchange model is all about trust. Not in trusting everything you read on the Internet, rather it’s about trusting your fellow students, your fellow scholars, your fellow Muslims. If you can’t trust your own peers to know what is right and what is not, to know what is useful and what is not, to know what they can and cannot answer with their own authority, then the Stack Exchange model fails. Because regardless of whether we agree with each other, we do need to respect — to trust — each other.
Every day, even through the worst of the quarrelling and noise, I’m seeing sparks of the site I envisioned that warm Autumn day four years ago. They’re not yet large enough to fan into a full flame, but they’re there, and they’re getting larger, and I feel they only need time to explode into the full potential of what this site could be.
And then the next time someone asks “Where are the scholars?” we can honestly tell them that we are the scholars, that each and every one of us is on the path of scholarship. Sure, we’re not all studying to become ulama or fuqaha, but we’re all here to learn: the questions and answers are merely a means to that end. And sure, some of us will take longer to travel that path than others, and not all of us will even follow that path — or even want to follow that path — to the end. But some of us will want to, and God-willing some of us will succeed, and if this site helped even one person reach the end of that path then it was all worth it in the end.
Because we’re all here to learn together.