This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
I am highly interested in the interplay between Religions (beliefs and behaviors) and Technology (old and new). A few months ago I had a piece titled “Islam and Technology (ringtones and Facebook)” in which I discussed some new situations where mobile phone and internet technology were affecting Muslims’ lives, willingly or unwillingly. And two weeks ago I had piece I titled “Ramadan by CCD”, where I explained how the determination of the start of the holy month has been seriously affected by modern astronomy, its science and technologies (telescopes and CCD imaging techniques), which has created a stronger tug-of-war between the traditional ulemas and Muslim modernists.
With the emergence of instant-communication and personalized mobile technologies (Twitter, Facebook, iPhone apps, etc.), Islamic life has, this year more than ever, been given new transformative tools, for better or for worse…
Let’s begin with Twitter, which I have yet to digest as a concept, let alone use in my life. It has inspired someone with the idea of sending a chosen verse from the Qur’an each day to his/her network of friends. (This is not totally novel; the idea has been done for the Bible and the Torah, and even for Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’). On Facebook, some Muslims have been sending around everything from religious information and advice of all kind (“eat in moderation”, “spend less time watching youtube”) to recipes…
But the most striking and novel technological interfacing with Ramadan and Islam this year especially has been the suite of apps (applications) that have been developed for mobile phone, particularly for Apple’s iPhone but also for other brands and models (Nokia, etc.). Programs like iPray, iQuran, and ‘Find Mecca’ have been very popular: the first one produces calls for the five daily prayers for any location on earth; the second allows the user to read or listen to the Qur’an and even keep track of how many pages one has read or listened to and which specific parts have been studied; the third one is an electronic compass-like indicator that finds the direction of Mecca for prayer from anywhere.
But even such programs, though very popular, are simplistic in comparison with other ingenious apps that are available for download and usage (sometimes for free, but often for as little as 1 to 3 dollars, sometimes for more). Consider, for instance, programs that allow Muslims to find the nearest mosque in any city, especially useful when traveling to a new place, or a restaurant that serves halal (islamically prepared) food, or even the nearest Costco (large supermarket chain) that carries halal foods. Consider also apps that simulate the clicking sound of prayer beads or teach the correct pronunciation of Islamic words or phrases (for the recitation of the Qur’an or for performing the prayers, in Arabic).
The iPhone is not the only device for which such apps have been developed. Nokia has a Ramadan suite for its mobile phones that cover many needs that a Muslim may have, during Ramadan in particular (e.g. “Essentials of Ramadan”, “Ramadan Daily Dua/Supplication”, and “Ramadan Booster Pro”, which offers “tips and recommended good deeds to help organise your Ramadan”) or for his/her religious life, more generally (tons of books, video tutorials, etc.).
How are these apps, and this new high-tech transformation of Islamic life (at least for the savvy and the affluent) to be looked at and assessed?
There is no doubt that these programs are useful for many Muslims, especially in cities and countries where, for example, prayer times are not readily known and no calls for prayer are broadcast from mosques. And many Muslims have expressed their happiness at the availability of such apps. On the other hand, there are two fears that one can have from such a development. First, the subtle pressure on Muslims everywhere to be more devout or at least more observant of the rules (as one user said, “you now have no excuse”). I have no objection whatsoever to seeing some people use tools that help them willingly be more devout, but I am fearful of social and peer pressure. Secondly, and perhaps more dangerously, at least potentially, there is a creeping commercialization of the religious life of people (Muslims and others). Just as Christmas has long lost (for the most part) its religious spirit and significance and is now a huge selling and consuming event in the west, one may fear something similar for Ramadan, where Muslims will buy, buy, buy and exchange gifts on this holy and very spiritual occasion. There are already “Ramadan festivals” everywhere, where companies offer discounts on anything from cars to furniture and people are encouraged to buy, consume, and eat. And I won’t even describe the frenzy that takes place during Eid (at the end of Ramadan). As Prashant Gulati, a Dubai-based investor who focuses on technology and media, put it: “there is market for high-tech Islam”.