BEIRUT: A thousand years ago Muslims would look out at the night sky for the sliver of the moon that signaled the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Then, for the next 30 days, they would wait for the evening call to prayer to break their daily fast at sunset, the time at the end of a hard and reflective day of fasting, to share in food and company and remember those less fortunate.
Today, many are using technology to help them observe these same traditions.
“The notification on the side of my computer gives a countdown for iftar. It’s better than using my watch,” says Rami Al Oweini, a PhD student who uses the new computer application Ramadan+, which provides information on prayer times, spiritual messages and recipes.
Abdallah Absi, the Beirut-based web designer who launched Ramadan+ last week, says he wanted to make a user-friendly application that would gather different relevant websites into one place and could be easily accessible as a sidebar on a computer screen for people to use throughout the day as they work. So far, Absi’s application, which he has promoted on Facebook and Twitter, has just over 100 users.
As the world becomes more high-tech, so do religious events – including the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And every day it seems that new apps become available. Some of the more popular include: Ramadan 2011, Ramadan Pro, Ramadan Calendar, Ramadan Diet Plan, Ramadan Kit, Muslim Guide, Athkar, Qibla, Azan, Islamic Pocket Guide and iPray. These apps tell users when and in what direction to pray, when to break the fast, as well as providing trivia, recipes and Quranic verses. Others give information about charitable organizations where they can donate money, also known as zakat.
Religious apps have existed as long as apps themselves, but this year Ramadan apps also seem to be taking advantage of geo-location, giving users information about prayer and fasting times based on their current cities, as well as an being able to provide an internal compass, which gives the precise direction in which to pray toward Mecca, notes Lebanese American University media professor Ayman Itani.
Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia has a downloadable Ramadan calendar application, which allows users to access fasting tips, Islamic stories, and more. But much smaller players are also devising Ramadan apps that are starting to catch on – especially with many of the creators being observant Muslims themselves, already knowing the needs of the users.
Hazem Hariri, who spent last year’s Ramadan in the Netherlands, away from his Muslim friends and family, used the application Qibla to show him in which direction to pray. And when he was working late night shifts in Dubai, he used Azan, another application, to remind him of prayer times.
Back home in Lebanon, he says he doesn’t use any apps. In fact, he finds that in general technology can be detrimental to Ramadan, when people are supposed to be thinking about fasting and praying.
“During Ramadan, a lot of people I know are not doing what they should because of technology. They’re using PlayStation instead of praying,” Hariri says.
With all of the Ramadan apps now available, Wissam Karime, a mechanical engineer based in Tripoli, says he still hasn’t found one that suits him. He plans on developing one for next year that’s more user-friendly than the ones he’s seen, which he thinks are overcrowded.
“Everything would be in one place, and you wouldn’t have to scroll down.”
Still, he acknowledges that while apps might make it easier to remember prayer times, Quranic verses and other rituals of the holy month, nothing will ever be high-tech enough to make fasting easier.
In fact, he admits, “If you’re looking at the countdown [until the breaking of the fast] throughout the day, it might make it harder to fast – especially if you’re looking at it first thing in the morning.”