I walk around with my nose buried in my phone more often than I’d care to admit. In many ways, I’m probably just your average smartphone user, letting it tell me when to take a turn, when to wake up, and when to take care of a Candy Crush emergency.
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But at times, you’ll also find me perplexed, calibrating the compass on my phone, using an app to try to find the direction for prayer. Daily prayers for Muslims involve facing the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, and when I’m in a new place, I figure out how to place my prayer mat by using Islamic compass apps. But I’m a bit of a worrier, so just to double-check accuracy, I use more than one such app, only to find sometimes that they point to different directions.
If I make an honest mistake and face the wrong way while praying, I hope for forgiveness. But can I claim not to know where to turn to if I have more technology in my phone than ever before? Questions like this demonstrate both the benefits and pitfalls of new technology, especially for those of us trying to use it to satisfy our spiritual and religious needs.
Islam is a religion full of tasks, including daily prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and recitation of the Quran in Arabic. Practicing Muslims try to do more than just follow the letter of the religious law, though. We go above and beyond by, for example, giving extra charity or engaging in the remembrance of Allah, such as by reciting one of the names of Allah (of which there are 99) over and over again like a mantra. Anything to earn extra gold stars in our quest for the ultimate prize at the end. With a religion as practice-heavy as Islam, it’s nice for those of us in the get-it-done crowd to have a way of tracking our spiritual paths.
App developers have not failed to notice the potential in religion-based apps. I have quite a few of these apps on my phone: a compass to find the direction of prayer; an app that saves recitation of the Quran by various famous reciters; a reminder app to alert me to the times of prayer, which also helps during Ramadan, because we break our fast at the time of the evening prayer. I can even read the Quran on my phone.
But these apps, intended to make the practice of Islam a seamless part of modern life, have created their own challenges. Scholars have had to weigh in to help people use the technology in a permissible way without infringing on any religious injunctions.
For example, there are rules that govern where the Quran, our divine revelation, can be placed and under what conditions it can be read. It must always be kept in an elevated position—I would never put the Quran at or below the level of my feet. Even if I’m sitting, it needs to be on a table higher than my seat. We can read the Quran from memory anywhere (except the bathroom), but in order to touch the Quran’s pages, the ritual ablution (called wudhu) must be done. This includes washing your face, arms, and feet and passing a wet hand over your head.
But what if your Quran is on an app? If my phone is off, and on the floor, is that OK? Or am I still violating the sanctity of divine scripture? Can I touch my phone without having performed the ritual ablution? Can I enter the bathroom with my phone?
After these questions first occurred to me, I consulted Google and found that many other Muslims had similar concerns. Learned scholars are facing countless questions about the permissibility of reading the Quran on your mobile phone. There are perhaps some more conservative views, but one interesting answer to the question of reading the Quran on a mobile device deals with the nature of the words on a phone screen as opposed to paper. The Quran on paper (referred to as a mus-haf) is sacred and can only be touched after wudhu. But a writer on the website Islam Question and Answer argues that the rules for reading the Quran on one’s phone are different because the nature of the letters are different:
They do not exist in the form in which they are read, rather they exist in the form of waves that form the letters when needed, so they appear in the screen then disappear when one moves to another verse. Based on this, it is permissible to touch the mobile phone or tape on which Qur’an is recorded, and it is permissible to read from it, even if one is not in a state of purity.
As with most answers to religious questions, the writer ends by reminding us, “and Allah knows best.”
There are other conundrums, too. I sometimes just listen to recitation by a famous Quran reciter, but this also comes with its own questions. When you are listening to the Quran, you must give it your full attention. Multitasking would defeat the purpose. This means that I have to exercise self-control and try not to check emails, WhatsApp, or Twitter while listening. My other issue with these Quran recitation apps is that for some reason they include photos of the reciters. Perhaps this is to make it easier in choosing your favorite reciter, because it’s probably easier to spot a face instead of a name. But my understanding is that images of faces are generally not permissible in Islam, except in necessary situations, like taking a passport photo. Showing the face of the reciter doesn’t quite seem to rise to the level of “necessary.” My solution: I leave my screen off while the recitation plays.
Turning to the internet for answers brings its own host of issues. I can Google almost any religious question and get a few (thousand) answers, but how is a layperson to judge the authenticity of the answers? I have to consider the trustworthiness of the website, the author’s credentials, and whether the person replying to the query practices the same branch of Islam that I do. Different schools of thought have different legal rulings, so Google is a mass of confusion. Asking a real-life person who I know to be a scholar is probably a safer bet in most cases. For something fairly straightforward—like using an app to help me memorize Arabic words with flashcards (to better understand the Quran)—using my smartphone seems like a no-brainer. In other cases, like checking the answers to religious questions on a website that I haven’t heard of before, I hesitate.
My smartphone offers many possibilities for enhancing my spiritual and religious life, which can ease my daily practice and help me fulfil my spiritual goals by reminding me to do good deeds. But I tread with caution, worried that there may be a new religious ruling that I’m not yet aware of. I am not yet sure whether, overall, my smartphone helps or hinders me in my religious practice, but I’d like to think that ancient religion and cutting-edge technology can speak to each other in ways that benefit both.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.