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Observing Ramadan, On Your Smartphone?


Switching gears now. We are about halfway through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. That's where observant Muslims abstain from food, drink and intimacy during daylight hours and take special care to pray and reflect on their spirituality. If you are currently observing Ramadan, you might sometimes forget that it's time to pray or eat until you hear this coming out of your pocket.


MARTIN: That's from the app Muslim Pro. The app is just one of many tools helping tech-savvy Muslims get through the month. There's also the hashtag #breakingfast that's trending on Twitter. Muslims around the world are using it to share about the meals that they're eating before sunrise or after sunset. We wanted to talk more about this, about how technology's helping people observe Ramadan in the 21st-century. So we've called our regular barbershop contributor Arsalan Iftikhar. He's founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Welcome back, Arsalan. Thanks so much for joining us.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Thanks, Michel. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: And Ramadan Mubarak.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So tell us about some of these apps. What do they do?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know what, Michel, first, I think it's really important for this story, you know, that I was able to crowd source through my nearly 40,000 Facebook and Twitter followers at TheMuslimGuy to see what apps and social media tools people are using around the world during this Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And this is really the first time, Michel, that I can remember that I've seen major technology companies really, truly embracing Ramadan for the nearly 7 million American-Muslims and 1 billion Muslims worldwide.

First and foremost, I have to give a shout out to Google. Google, for Ramadan, has created a new global landing page where people can watch TV programs from around the world, get inspiration on ways to cook their favorite dish and much more, including a live video feed from the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: I think, actually, - I think we actually have some audio of that. This is just what you said. It's a live feed from the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which is - here it is. We'll just play it. Here it is.


MARTIN: What are we hearing here? And why would this be important to someone?

IFTIKHAR: Well, Michel, what you're hearing there is the nightly prayer during Ramadan, which are called the Taraweeh prayers. And the reason that it's really important is that this is something that observant Muslims all around the world do on a nightly basis. But what's really important is that, this again, is at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is home to the Kaaba, which Muslims around the world pray to.

And I think it's really important actually for people who are non-Muslims, as well because, since traditionally the Kaaba in Mecca is only allowed for Muslims to visit in person, it allows people from different faiths and different backgrounds an insight to what goes on in the holy city when millions of Muslims from around the world congregate there every year.

MARTIN: I understand that social media activities are actually higher during the month of Ramadan. Is that so and why do you think that is?

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely, Michel, because, let's be honest, you know, when you can't eat or drink anything all day, there's no better way to count down the minutes until you can break your fast than by surfing the net. According to The Online Project, which is the Middle East's largest social media agency, their research showed that there was a 30 to 42 percent increase in Facebook usage during the month of Ramadan in Muslim-majority countries, and a 14 to 33 percent increase in Twitter usage during Ramadan in Muslim-majority nations, as well.

And what's really interesting to note is they found also that Muslim users of social media tend to be more, quote-unquote, positive rather than negative once they had opened their Ramadan fast because, let's be honest again, everyone is a little grumpy if we haven't eaten or drank anything all day.

MARTIN: So what are people tweeting about? Are they tweeting about how miserable they are? Or what are they doing?

IFTIKHAR: No, they're really, you know, they're tweeting and posting about everything. You know, what's really important is that since we Muslims break our Ramadan fast at different times around the world because of our respective time zones, you know, social media is really the way that we can keep in touch with our friends and family. So for example, many people are using the social media website Pinterest to post yummy Ramadan recipes for things like vegetable biryani, Moroccan lamb stew, or chicken tikka masala.

Muslim families also connect with each other by sharing recipes from websites like DesiCookbook.com, which offers, you know, South Asian food recipes and which also sees spikes in Web traffic during Ramadan, as well. And so, you know, whether you're looking for your local mosque, whether you're looking for prayer times, whether you're looking for what time your fast opens, you know, social media and the Internet are really, really great ways to connect with people in your local area and around the world.

MARTIN: Are people complaining? Are they complaining about how miserable they are? Or do they get - do they get - do they get any, like, support for talking about how miserable they are or are they more expected to keep that to themselves and, you know, focus on the positive or focus on the kind of loftier thoughts?

IFTIKHAR: Well, we try to, of course. But, you know, again, when you're abstaining from food and drink throughout the day for 30 days, you know, many times, you know, the focus of your attention is going to go on food again. And so, you know, there's a big, big emphasis on, you know, finding, you know, recipes and thinking about what you're going to eat with your family and friends that night.

You know, I remember, you know, growing up in Chicago here and not being able to find any Halal restaurants. Halal is the Muslim version of keeping kosher. And, you know, now we have grocery stores, like Whole Foods Markets, which now carry Saffron Road Halal entrees, you know, in their aisles. And so, you know, we're just learning about new things that companies are taking into account when it comes to Muslim consumers here in the United States and abroad, and it really is a very festive occasion for Muslims all around the world.

MARTIN: Are there any people who say that you should shun this technology during Ramadan as part of your fast? I mean, there are other - other religions...

IFTIKHAR: ...Yeah, my mom...

MARTIN: ...Do emphasize - oh, she does?


MARTIN: People say, well, you know, technology is one of the things that you should try to abstain from unless it's absolutely necessary, because there are people who feel it takes on an addictive quality. For example, during Lent, which is observed by Christians in the 40 days before Easter, there are those who don't go on technology fasts, unless they absolutely have to use it for their work. But in their personal lives, some people actually do social media fasts. So you're saying your mom thinks maybe you should abstain technology as something else?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I was saying that tongue-in-cheek. But, you know, you're absolutely right. You know, obviously the central, core concept of Ramadan is one of spiritual cleansing and atonement. And so, like you said, you know, you're not only abstaining from food and drink and other things, but it's also meant to serve as a spiritual time. So, for example, I haven't watched television, you know, in the last two weeks or so, and that's just something that, you know, I've traditionally not done during Ramadan.

Obviously, as you can see from all of my research here, I've not been able to stay away from social media. But, you know, these are things that, you know, many Muslims, at the personal level and at the family level, deal with on a daily basis. And, you know, just depending on your level of observance, you know, it can really be a good way to actually, you know, strengthen your spiritual foundation, as well.

MARTIN: Well, what were some of your favorite tweets at #breakingfast? Do you want to tell us?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, again, it's all about the food. You know, when you can't eat for 17 hours a day, you basically try to - it really is, for lack of a better term, food porn. And you have, you know, great dishes from around the world and you have people's recipes on, you know, how to make their favorite hummus or, you know, what they've done to, you know, their, you know, biryani or things like that. And, you know, a lot of times it is just about finding ways to better your own Ramadan experience.

So if you find a great recipe, if you find a great restaurant, if you find a great Mosque, you know, that might be having nightly prayers, you know, you connect with each other using the breakingfast hashtag. And it's really, really heartening to see a lot of companies, including Google, Nokia, Microsoft - really taking, you know, American-Muslim and global-Muslim consumers seriously, and making Ramadan just a little bit easier for all of us.

MARTIN: Arsalan Iftikhar is senior editor of The Islamic Monthly. He's founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, and of course a regular contributor to our barbershop roundtable. Arsalan, thank you.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you, Michel. Ramadan Mubarak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.