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.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In The Name of Allah most Gracious most Merciful
I joined Stack Overflow a bit over two years ago when I had some questions about some code that I was writing for the internship that I was involved in at the time. This was my very first introduction to StackExchange. At the time (and really, even now), I was certainly no expert in programming. I had just finished the second year of my undergraduate education and I was working with some technology that I had never used before. I had heard of Stack Overflow before, and even used it on occasion when Google brought me to a useful question/answer, but it was my first time participating.
The first time I ever asked an answerable question (my first question was actually being complicated by something that I did not realize at the time and did not include in the question), I got a great answer… and fast. How fast? The timestamp on the question says 16:08 and the timestamp on the answer says 16:12. So it took four minutes for someone to read and process my problem, figure out the solution, and type up an answer. Granted, this was not a particularly complicated problem, but it also was not completely trivial. And the answer consisted of two short but complete paragraphs: one with a diagnosis of the problem and one with a solution.
Why does Stack Overflow work so efficiently? It’s because the site is full of people who know all about programming. Sure the site has lots of casual programmers and computer science students, but it also as a very strong core of outright computer programming geniuses. They don’t make up the majority of the Stack Overflow users – or even 10% – but you only need a few of these people. Check out some of the answers from the people with 100k+ rep. There is no problem too difficult for them to tackle. The top 15-20 users with the most rep on Stack Overflow provide some huge percentage of the answers to the most difficult questions. Many of them hardly ever ask a question themselves, but when they do, it is always the type of question that cannot be answered by any ordinary programmer with a cursory Google search.
The people that I am talking about are the programming experts. The only reason Stack Overflow is able to survive and thrive is because of people like Jon Skeet and others who know programming like nobody else. They aren’t just the best programmers on Stack Overflow, they are among the best programmers in the world.
I hope by now you can see what I am getting at with respect to our Islam Stack Exchange site. We need a few Jon Skeets. We need people who can answer the difficult questions. Currently, 14% of questions on I.SE do not have an answer. This is not terrible, but it’s also not wonderful. And the problem is that often, the questions that do not get answered are the best questions. Lots of people can answer your basic halal/haram question, but you need a real expert to answer the actual difficult questions.
One problem that we have with recruiting experts is that we do not have the type of content that will attract them. If we want Islamic scholars to participate in our site, we need to challenge them. Give them difficult questions to answer. These are the types of questions that are asked by what I call second-tier participants. Second-tier participants haven’t published books about Islam. They may or may not be Imams or Sheikhs. What separates them from regular users is that they have undergone a rigorous Islamic education. Second-tier users might not be able to answer every question that comes their way, but they can answer a lot of them. And when they ask a question, it is a very good question.
When I look at the list of unanswered questions, I do not see any second-tier level questions. Two questions that I have asked appear among the top 20 unanswered questions and my Islamic education basically started 4 months ago when I joined this site. I should not be able to crack the top 20. I don’t know enough to ask a good enough question.
Once we have the users we need, good content will come in a self-perpetuating cycle. Good users produce good content, which attracts good users. In the mean time, we need to do something to start the cycle. We need more high quality posts. We need to stop asking halal/haram questions and start asking analysis questions. A website full of yes/no questions and answers is boring. If we are boring, then the people who can make it interesting won’t come. A really good site is full of “why” questions. These are the questions that invite an answer-er to go into detail. These are the questions that encourage answers that people will enjoy reading. And these are the questions that can pull I.SE up by the bootstraps to start a site full of good content.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In The Name of Allah most Gracious most Merciful
Islam Stackexchange is a site, where it’s community members contribute to build it. And there are a number of ways that people can help building Islam Stackexchange, and that is by:
- Asking great questions and giving great high quality answers
- Up-voting the good quality questions and answers, and down-voting the bad
- Promoting the site
- Contributing on the meta site
The most important way mentioned above, and the most important step one can make to help build Islam.SE, is by contributing and getting active on the meta. Currently our meta site is not that active, which is not so good. The meta site is a place connected to the main site where a user can ask questions about the site (Islam.SE).
Meta isn’t a random discussion area, it is for improving our community and site together.
Meta is the place where you can get what you think should change about the site out. The Meta site is the place where the rules and guidelines on how to use the main site (Islam.SE) are created. It is the place to ask questions like:
- Is this question on topic?
- Why was my question closed?
- Should this question be reopened?
The more active the meta site is, the faster and better our community and site is built. To access the meta site a user simply needs 5 reputation. Look around on meta and see if your question or request hasn’t been posted before. If you want to help build this site, then Meta is the first place to start.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of Allah most Gracious most Merciful
االسلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته
Alhamdulillah, we have gotten our blog set up. Once a month, a post will be published on this blog, each post may vary on subject. This blog deals with a wide range of topics, some posts may be on the site itself, while others may be on Da’wah and Islamic history, and other topics. If by reading a post from this blog, a question comes to mind, then we invite you to ask it here.
Any member of the community can contribute. If you have a suggestion for a post here, comment on the meta site.
We ask that you share the good/beneficial posts of our blog on with others, and not share that which is not so. For the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him said:
من دل على خير فله مثل أجر فاعله
Whoever guides someone to good/virtue will be rewarded equivalent to him who practices that good action
Narrated by Muslim and in another narration the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him said:
من دعا إلى ضلالة كان عليه من الإثم مثل آثام من تبعه
Whoever invites others to follow error, the sin, will be equivalent to that of the people who follow
Lastly, we thank those who set up for us this blog. We pray that this blog becomes a source of benefit and guidance, and not deviation and misguidance.
سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين