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Since early in our creation, we have striven to become a pluralistic site with answers based on evidence rather than hearsay and conjecture. This would, in theory, set us apart from both the extant "Ask a Scholar" Q&A sites (which are typically not pluralistic) and the common Islamic forums (which are often full of links and/or conjecture).

In practice, while our page views — and user count — are going up daily (masha'allah), we still struggle to attract and/or retain the knowledgeable people we need to make this site really thrive. We have, quite frankly, plenty of people to ask questions, but relatively few people willing or able to answer them well.

As of this post, almost 12% of our total asked questions (not including those that have been closed or deleted) have no upvoted answers; across the whole site, we're still averaging fewer than two answers per question. And 90% of our users don't even have 200 reputation yet.

A Q&A site without answers is...well, I'm not sure what it is. But I doubt it's what we want.

Unless we want to severely refocus our scope to a less scholarly bent, which I doubt would be a good idea at this stage, we need to be drawing and retaining people with both the knowledge and the ability (not to mention the willingness) to actually answer questions. This isn't an issue of promotion (which has been brought up before), it's an issue of actually making the site attractive to the types of users we need, so they actually want to participate.

So how do we do this?

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There is a prevalent attitude on the site that all answers must contain valid references. In my opinion, this attitude is (ironically) one of the biggest factors hampering the site from actually achieving success.

Demanding references for an unreferenced answer — regardless of how correct it may be — is effectively the same as telling the answerer "Why should we believe anything you say?" Nobody really likes being told that.

If we want to attract users with the actual knowledge to answer questions, we need to be judging that knowledge as valuable in its own right, not by whether or not it's provable right out of the gate.


Quoting, or even citing, references is not an easy task; even highly-knowledgeable people are unlikely to know exact references off the top of their head. Digging up a reference often requires research, which takes time and effort. Neither of which is really conducive to a SE-style Q&A site:

  • Time: The longer a question goes unanswered, the longer the questioner is unsatisfied.
  • Effort: The more effort an answer requires, the less likely an answerer will bother answering it.

And quite frankly, this time and effort is unnecessary. We are building a Q&A site here, not a research site.

We are not, nor should we ever have been, a site that does research for users unwilling to do it for themselves. If someone wants to put the time and effort in, that's great (and God willing their reputation will reflect that), but we want to build a site where experts can share knowledge with their peers rather than be expected to do other people's grunt-work.

In the Stack Exchange model, one of the core criteria for a good question is that it shows research effort. There is never any reason that the entire weight of research needs to be upon the answerer, as that would just discourage answerers from actually answering questions. I have seen many cases of users (often in chat, occasionally in comments) giving fully detailed — and valid — answers to extant questions, but refraining from actually writing a proper answer just because they don't have the references available.

Not only does this result in the actual question siting there unanswered, but it results in knowledgeable people not getting any (reputation-based) recognition for the knowledge they actually have. This is the opposite of what we're going for here.

So long as we as a site assume that our target audience — questioners, voters and future readers alike — either lack any useful knowledge on their own or are unable to do their own research, it only stands to reason that that's the type of demographic we'll attract to the site.

And if we want to attract a demographic that is (usefully) knowledgeable in Islamic matters, we need to judge that knowledge directly rather than demanding everything be backed up by proof first.

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  • 2
    I've seen arguments elsewhere (Christianity SE, perhaps?) that posts should be referenceable: in other words, you don't necessarily have to provide a reference for everything, but you should say only things for which you could provide a reference if needed. Other sites (Parenting SE, for example) allow quite a bit of unreferenceable personal experience, but like it to be labelled as such. And Skeptics SE, of course, wants everything referenced, even the questions.
    – TRiG
    Apr 26 '13 at 12:08
  • 2
    It is a very good point. But on the other hand, it shouldn't be an insult to ask for a reference. I'm fairly well versed in Islam, and if I ask a question, it would be because of extreme skepticism on the common view. Some people may be beginners to Islam and simply want a common opinion. Some other questions may want simply a cultural view.. the view of Muslims on women may vary significantly from the view of Islam on women, but a good answer will require both even if one is uncited.
    – Muz
    May 8 '13 at 8:12
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    Perhaps we could use a "source-required" kind of tag for questions which demand a more watertight answer?
    – Muz
    May 8 '13 at 8:13
  • The first answer I provided was downvoted. The guy was kind enough to comment. ~~~ "Nothing wrong with your answer except that it needs references. Thus downvoted. Edit so I can reverse my vote." ~~~ This is blatantly absurd.
    – Carl Smith
    Jul 18 '13 at 7:58
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How do we attract scholars' attention?

1. Exploit search engines

StackExchange has fantastic search engine optimization, and we should be leveraging this to our advantage. How? We need specific question titles that people will search for. (See my advice.)

To illustrate, suppose you're a scholar and want to quickly find references to show that the hadith "Seek knowledge even as far as China" is fabricated. You go to Google and input hadith knowledge China:

Google results

We show up 5-th, which is not bad. Now if the question was instead titled "Hadith about knowledge", it probably wouldn't even be on the front page of Google hits, and the scholar would not realize it even exists.

To illustrate how important titles are, here are five questions from April 2014:

Obviously the content of the question plays an important role in whether or not someone wants to click on a Google result, but they're guaranteed not to click if it does not show up in Google.

2. Ask specific questions about scholarly papers

Scholars are going to Google their own names (ego Googling) and titles of their papers (and so are their students and collaborators). When they do so, imagine if they find that in their search results:

  1. there is a question on Islam.SE that refers to them by name (and hence shows up during ego Googling),

  2. that cites a paper they wrote, and

  3. the question asks a specific question about that paper.

If they're anything like me when people show interest in my publications, they'd be thrilled and only too happy to answer. This happens all the time on e.g. math.SE: if you ask a question about a specific paper, often the author of the paper(s) will respond (and the answer is invariably excellent).

I therefore encourage users to ask specific questions about scholarly papers, referencing the papers and the authors by name. The page Religious Studies Electronic Journals by Saundra Lipton contains a list of Islamic studies journals.

I wrote two questions to get the ball rolling:

3. Utilize Wikipedia

I don't think people realize this, but if a question receives a reliable answer, we can add it as a reference in Wikipedia. We do this at math.SE, e.g.: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20.

And, to give an example of how we can do it at Islam.SE: my question Where are the seven levels of the nafs in Sufism mentioned in the Qur'an? received reliable answers, and I added it as a reference here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_psychology

Of course, we should only add references to high-quality, reliable content.

Wikipedia not only allows you to create, revise, and edit articles, but it wants you to do it...be bold! (Wikipedia: Tutorial)

How do we get scholars to begin participating?

By the looks of things, there's many fatawa-issuing scholars who are uncomfortable with the idea of having their rulings critiqued/criticised (and particularly by non-Muslims). We simply cannot accommodate them; StackExchange doesn't work like that.

For other scholars, once we have their attention, we need to get them to think:

  1. "I can write an answer [or a better answer] to this question".

  2. "It will be worth my time writing an answer to this question". Thus, we need to give scholars the impression that:

    1. they are contributing to a professional site, which we can do by making the place look well-maintained, and improving the signal-to-noise ratio;

    2. their contributions will be valued here, meaning they can look around the site and see (a) activity, (b) people's contributions being appreciated (i.e., upvoted, not just "not downvoted"); and

    3. their reputation will not be smeared by participating on this site, meaning that the site needs to indicate that they will not be personally attacked nor drawn into arguments.

Given that we have 359K unique global visits in the last 30 days alone (see Quantcast), I'm confident there are scholars coming to Islam.SE and choosing not to participate (or participating, and subsequently being chased off).

How do we get scholars to stay?

In the site's current state, I doubt a scholar will want to stay for longer than a post or two.

A participant's first post is most probably the worst post they will make. Consequently, currently a scholar will probably immediately encounter the following:

  • Nobody will recognize their expertise.
  • Nobody will welcome them, nor make any effort to help them become familiar with the site. Nobody will calmly explain how to improve/correct the "teething problems" in their posts.
  • People will respond to their posts by making snarky comments. They may be personally criticized in the comments, and their name will be tarnished.
  • They may be drawn into a frivolous argument, wasting their time. They've probably learned the hard way to be pro-active in avoiding arguments.
  • Their first posts won't be appreciated through upvoting. These posts may even be downvoted or deleted without comment.

To use myself as an example, I participated on math.SE for selfish reasons: (a) it improved my real-world reputation (e.g., I was hoping that when a potential employer Googled my name, they would find many well-written answers), (b) it was good experience answering student questions in preparation for lecturing, and (c) in one case, I published one of my answers to a math.SE question (here), so consequently I wrote in a peer-reviewed published paper:

An anonymous user of math.stackexchange.com asked for a formula for [foo]. In fact, this was the original motivation for the author to study this problem.

You can probably expect an Islamic scholar to have a similar what's in it for me attitude.

How can we fix this? We need to reverse this site's attitude: it wreaks of negativity. E.g. the top three up-voted meta posts are essentially "don't be a [four letter word for penis]". There's "punishment" and "one-upmanship", when we need "collaboration" and "positive reinforcement".

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