Alexa, set my prayer times: How Muslims are digitising their rituals for Ramadan

Islam is a constant in the lives of tech-savvy devotees in a fast-paced world

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This Ramadan, Omar Taha's camera, microphone and smartphone aren't just being used to stay in touch with workmates.

They are also essential for reaching out to the congregation of the Al Emaan Islamic centre in south London, where physician Dr Taha, 33, manages and controls the finances as a principal trustee.

Every day, he uses his phone to stream the maghrib adhan, the sunset call to prayer, to tell Muslims across his neighbourhood in Bromley that they may break their fast.

He also reads the Quran and sets notifications for his five daily prayers from an app.

“The most important aspect to me as a Muslim is my praying five times a day. But I'm not quite attuned to working out what time the prayer comes in at each time of the day. So I have the prayer times set on my phone wherever I go,” Dr Taha said.

Video communications made a world of difference at the mosque during the pandemic lockdown and they continue to reach out to the community in 2022.

In the UK, mosques are banned from using external loudspeakers on noise pollution grounds, while in Muslim countries, the adhan is broadcast from mosques five times a day.

The first call happens at fajr, or dawn, and the last, known as isha, takes place at around bedtime.

Dr Omar Taha says his smart phone is the most important gadget for him. It’s his main window today into every virtual aspect of practicing Islam. Victoria Pertusa / The National

“A couple of years ago, when Covid hit, it was a blessing in disguise as it forced us on to online platforms,” Dr Taha said.

“And so, one of the initiatives that we thought would be helpful is to broadcast the adhan live at the time of iftar.”

He said young people were involved with the project, making it a useful tool of engagement with the community.

“We didn't have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram before. We thought we needed to connect with people from across the area, and we found that not everyone comes to the mosque.”

Modern worship

Smart products and technologies are already integrated into the lives of Muslims around the world.

They can use a mobile app to book permits for Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, and receive a reply in seconds.

They rely on one that has a high-precision compass for qiblah, the direction of the Kaaba in Makkah to which Muslims turn at prayers, and even perform tasbeeh, or repeated supplications to God, through a smart ring instead of the traditional prayer beads.

There is a bracelet that counts the number of times they glorify God and tracks heart rate, sleep and exercise.

They might even find love on dating apps dedicated to Muslims.

Technology has changed the nature of ritual worship in many ways for Khalid El Sayed, an Egyptian.

Mr El Sayed, 22, who has a degree in computer science and is pursuing another in game development, depends on a mobile app to recite the Quran, which makes his daily devotions accessible any time.

“I always have a small Quran in my bag, but I use mobile apps a lot and find the dark and light mode as very useful at night because such apps have the feature like e-readers,” he said.

Some apps are also connected to GPS and can find the nearest mosque, he said.

His home in Cairo is equipped with a Mac computer, a PlayStation 4 gaming console, and Alexa, the Amazon virtual assistant.

“Alexa can do anything no matter what. She’s always there for me to search this and that and it’s much quicker than me looking online,” Mr El Sayed said.

It reminds him of prayer times, plays him songs and music, provides recipes and wakes him up suhur, the meal Muslims have before they start their fast in the morning.

Muslims and their rituals are also represented in video games developed in response to negative images of them in western media and culture.

“The young can know about Islamic history and explore Islam through many games now, which are built around Muslim stories,” Mr El Sayed said.

“There are many companies that design and develop virtual reality games on Islamic themes, including Ramadan and Eid. For example, there’s a platform called Steam and it has a game called Holy Quran VR Experience and it’s fully immersive. You can experience Muslim rituals in VR mode.”

Ali Taha, a volunteer at Al Emaan mosque and Omar's brother, sets up a livestream for the sunset Adhan. During Ramadan 2022, raising the call to prayer at Iftar time rotates between children of the Muslim community. Victoria Pertusa / The National

Digitised rituals in Ramadan and Eid

Religion-related products are also something that online shopping has caught on to.

The fanous, the traditional lantern used to decorate streets and homes in the month of Ramadan, is sold now on e-stores such as Amazon.

Eidyah, one of the most important rituals for Muslim children celebrating Eid after Ramadan, has been also digitised. Some children as young as 13 prefer today to have their traditional cash gift on the first day of Eid by bank transfer and not in their hands.

Religious consumers may have interests other than just the best price or the best deal, which also means that the communication strategies should consider the religious mindset, according to Maryam Allami, an adviser on start-ups and entrepreneurship who is based in Baghdad

An understanding of the consumer behaviour of religious people is imperative.

“Religious e-commerce needs to appeal to consumers' faith and ethics and ensure that the products offered are in line with the beliefs of the target audience,” she told The National.

“When choosing a niche like the Muslim religious audience, you need to do your homework and understand the requirements to gain the approval of this group."

When choosing a niche like the Muslim religious audience, you need to do your homework and understand the different religious requirements to gain the approval of this group.
Maryam Allami, a Baghdad-based advisor on startups and entrepreneurship

Creating marketing campaigns that touch on their beliefs, such as promising to donate 10 per cent of profits to an orphanage, is important, she said.

“Or [that could include] special campaigns for religious holidays where products can be donated to charity or those in need, combining the Islamic principles with the marketing strategy would appeal more to religious people.”

Tech isn’t only for the secular

The relationship between artificial intelligence and spirituality was one of the topics discussed in several online seminars and podcasts with the participation of clerics from different faith backgrounds.

Muslim scholars reminded devotees that they can reconcile religion and a fast-paced world that is increasingly dependent on AI.

The bond between the observant Muslims and God remains constant even if it takes different forms, said Masoud Sabry, a researcher for the Islamic Jurisprudence Encyclopedia in Kuwait.

He said that there is a stubborn belief that religion and technology cannot be reconciled and that the tech industry is only for the secular, people with no religion and atheists.

Khaled El Sayed, who has a degree in computer science and is now pursuing another one in game development, mainly depends on a mobile app to recite the Qur’an. Photo: Khaled El Sayed

“There are two important factors in our religion. The goals, these are fixed, and the tools, these change with the times,” Dr Sabry said.

“Muslims in the past didn’t have loudspeakers to raise the adhan or set prayer times, for example, today they use smart watches. These new technologies have made life easier for Muslims.

“People used to read the Quran on wood and palm fronds. Today, they go through whole chapters and listen to their favourite reciters with just one click on their smartphones.”

There are, nevertheless, concerns that some religion-related traditions are dying as if they are being supplanted by artificial intelligence.

Mr El Sayed has a strong emotional attachment to tradition, especially during Ramadan.

“My Alexa is reliable, but I want to hear the misharati every Ramadan calling my name at 2 or 3am before starting my fast,” he said, referring to a man or woman who roams the street with a small tabla or drums and rouses residents for their meal before sunrise.

“There are aspects of Ramadan that can’t be replaced by tech. Ramadan won’t be Ramadan without the misharati, the Quran recitation on the radio before iftar and the cannon that is fired every day for 30 days to signal iftar time.”

Updated: April 14, 2022, 11:20 AM