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Will an Islamic tech boom help teach young Muslims to pray?

Munif Zia saw in the UK a ‘generation who want to pray but don’t know how.’ Islamic iPrayer was his response

Munif Zia
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.    

Inspired by Grand Theft Auto

Despite recent reports of growing insularity, contemporary Islamic culture in the United Kingdom is anything but parochial. The teenagers especially are as engaged with the wider world as their non-Muslim peers, and they are similarly consumed with it. “The day after ‘Grand Theft Auto’ was released,” Zia says, “10 percent of the Muslim students in my classes were missing from school — they had stayed up all night playing.”

Could the same gadgets that lure adolescents from the old ways provide a model for the kind of tools that might inspire young Muslims not to leave tradition behind? Zia thinks so. To find out, he developed the Islamic iPrayer, an elegantly designed device intended to take the guesswork out of fulfilling a religious duty whose details may have been lost in the tumult of immigration and assimilation.   

“There’s a generation out there who want to pray but don’t know how to,” he says. “They’re embarrassed to go to the scholars of the mosque, who would say, ‘Look at your age, why don’t you know how?’ or to go to their parents, who often assume their children learned long ago.”

Zia and his business partner, childhood friend Norman Aslam, are themselves children of immigrants. They saw firsthand how the older generation’s focus on education and middle-class striving spelled the end of religious instruction as the primary focus of family life. Local mosques, meanwhile, have rarely had the resources to make children a priority.     

Islamic iPrayer
In the age of Xbox, Islamic iPrayer’s inventors hope to stave off a ‘lost generation’ of young Muslims with only a limited understanding of their traditions.

Operating as Islamic Innovations Ltd, Zia and Aslam created the simple, machine-woven prayer mat attached to a digital audio console programmed to play the prayer necessary for each of the five times a day when salat is required. Salat is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Along with declaring belief that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger, it is the religion’s only daily obligation — the one action undertaken by Muslims that defines them as such.

“Technology used in the wrong way corrupts,” Zia says. “Technology used in the right way can unlock your potential.”

Therein lies the sales pitch of the Islamic iPrayer to older Muslims who may feel at a loss to pass on ancient practices in an age so full of competing stimuli. Technology’s promise as a tool of religion also suggests the possibility that products like the iPrayer could recalibrate a tradition often thought to be out of step with the times: To turn to a device for instruction of salat is to ask if a machine can succeed where parents and imams have failed.

A wider prayer tech boom

Zia and Aslam are not the first to hope that technology might be used to teach people how to be better Muslims. Born only in the last 30 years or so, the Islamic prayer tech market that the two partners are entering is now a global industry. It runs the gamut from cheap children’s toys not so subtly trying to pass themselves off as Apple products to devices claiming official religious approval from the ministries of Islamic affairs of countries across the Muslim world. A leader in the latter market is the PenMan Corp. of South Korea, manufacturer of multilingual digital Qurans, including a model that looks something like an old-school iPod. PenMan makes six models servicing 12 languages, with major markets in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

According to Leor Halevi, a Vanderbilt University scholar who studies Islam, innovation and the fatwas where the two often meet, there has been a marked increase in patents related to religious observance in recent years. As he notes, “Material objects have been part and parcel of Muslim rites from the origins of Islam. But in the past few decades — since the late 1970s — Muslim engineers have developed a bunch of cool devices for orthopraxy’s sake.”

The current era of Islamic invention, Halevi explains, began with clocks and digital compasses used to point to the direction of Mecca for prayer, and now also includes an “interactive prayer machine” that he likes to call “the Muslim Xbox.”

“Religion, commerce and technology are becoming entangled here in a new and fascinating way,” Halevi says. “Not long ago a Turkish designer living in Britain came up with an artistic, futuristic prayer rug that lights up in fluorescent green when aimed correctly. But perhaps most intriguing about Islamic iPrayer is the sound dimension, the integration into a prayer mat of recorded recitations of the Quran. It seems ideally suited for trendy but pious world travelers.” 

Zia and Aslam also believe their device could travel the world. While local teenagers raised in a culturally Muslim milieu were their inspiration, they hope also to reach those not born into the faith. An estimated 100,000 converts are now living in the United Kingdom, and 23 percent of the roughly 2 million Muslims in the U.S. also came to Islam later in life. The makers of the iPrayer are betting that, like a city hoping to transform itself, new converts will look to technology as an essential part of lasting change.

Quran-reciting dolls

Bab-e-Islam storefront
The Bab-e-Islam storefront in Sheffield, England.
Peter Manseau

Far from the lights and noise of the Magna wedding fair, in a section of Sheffield that has not yet seen the benefits of economic revitalization, the Bab-e-Islam Islamic Books & Gift Centre is a family-run shop full of everything a devout Muslim might need. Over the past few years, it has taken on the appearance of a technology store.

On a recent Saturday, Aslam stopped by to check on the iPrayer’s sales. Good news: There was just one left in stock.

Bab-e-Islam offers a dozen varieties of prayer beads, but as the shopkeeper, Ahmir Hussain, notes, many more customers these days have taken to keeping track of their prayers with digital counters, worn on a finger like an oversize ring. Throughout the shop, other traditional items are likewise ceding ground to devices that take a pragmatic approach to religious instruction. A pen with a scanning tip will read aloud the sacred texts for you; a watch will chime five times a day for prayer and point you in the direction of Mecca. Of all these items, the iPrayer alone was invented and manufactured locally, which has made it particularly popular.

Yet the biggest seller by far is a plush doll, dressed in either a pink or purple hijab, that teaches children religious terms in Arabic — “as-salamu alaykum,” “inshallah,” “al-hamdu lillah” — with a squeeze of its hand.

“At the Eid,” Hussain says, “I can’t keep those on the shelves.”

While Zia and Aslam are offering something new to Muslim teenagers with their gadget-driven approach to the faith, for the next generation, it seems, the use of machines for prayer will be taken for granted. 

The implications of the DIY approach to Islam made possible by products like the iPrayer and Quran-reciting dolls remain to be seen. Yet the questions of who has the authority to teach, and what role technology might play in the distribution of knowledge, will be familiar to anyone aware of European religious history. Whatever piece of technology sparks it, the next reformation will likely be digitized.

Support for this story was provided by the Social Science Research Council through funding by the John Templeton Foundation.

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