Munif Zia, math teacher, inventor of Islamic iPrayer
SHEFFIELD, England — The Magna Science Adventure Centre, on the outskirts of this born-again industrial age boomtown, is a vision of a possible future for northern England. A century-old former steelworks, it is a massive battleship of a building in a landscape of low-slung skiffs. While once it made the metal forged into cutlery by nearby shops crowded with child laborers, today it aims to get children excited about science and engineering — keys to the ongoing transformation of Steel City into a technology hub of Silicon Britain.
Munif Zia, an inventor playing a small but telling part in that transformation, believes the role of technology in changing a community could be not just economic but religious. As Sheffield’s South Asian community settles into its third generation and approaches 10 percent of the total population, Muslim culture and the U.K. mainstream are becoming ever more entwined. The city’s tech dreams and its once foreign but now deeply rooted traditions were bound to combine in unexpected ways.
In a cavernous space at the heart of the complex, which doubles as an event venue for hire, Zia walks through a room once hot and glowing with liquid steel but now filled with smoke-machine haze and a laser light show. Seated on the floor in front of a white Mercedes and Rolls-Royce available for rent, a Sufi qawwali band competes with Bollywood rhythms from a bridal fashion show drawing a crowd at the far end of the hall. At the foot of the temporary runway, young women in designer headscarves lean in close to pose for selfies.
“What you see here is the confusion of British Muslim culture,” Zia says. A trim, clean-shaven man in a knit cap and a leather jacket, he is both the director of mathematics at a secondary school and the developer of a device he calls the Islamic iPrayer, which shows that Islam is as open to innovation as Sheffield itself.
The Magna Centre was consciously designed to be an avatar of the region’s economic reimagination, which extends into the city center, where vacant lots and abandoned silverplate shops have been transfigured, with the help of a massive influx of funding from the European Union, into the Sheffield Technology Parks and a Cultural Industries Quarter. Yet the event Zia is there to see — Sheffield’s first Asian wedding fair — reflects developments more homegrown and inevitable.
Many of the young adults in attendance were once his pupils. As he wanders among the wedding-service merchants’ stalls, teenagers shyly seek him out, shake his hand, call him “sir.”
To him, they are in danger of becoming a lost generation: young Muslims drawn to be at once worldly and traditional, yet having only a limited understanding of what their tradition entails. When, two years ago, he noticed that the majority of his Muslim students, even the girls in headscarves, did not know how to perform salat (the five daily prayers), he quickly discovered the distractions that had stolen their attention.
“Xboxes, PlayStations, social media,” Zia says. “These kids have grown up surrounded by technology.”
When the afternoon entertainment takes the stage — first a Punjabi-rapping boy band, then a Muslim-Sikh Michael Jackson tribute act — the hijabi girls shriek the way Sheffield bobby-soxers 50 years ago might have for the Beatles, then cover their faces with the draping edges of their veils. One looks demurely away but keeps the camera eye of her Android trained onstage, careful not to miss a swagger or a step.