Although most people have maintained the many customs and traditions associated with the holy month of Ramadan, there is no doubt that today’s technological revolution is seeking to bring about many changes to the daily details of the month.
New technology and religion go hand-in-hand for many Muslims. The way we used to worship and spend Ramadan days and nights has now taken a different path, such that we can now find online prayer times, ways of donating alms, methods of keeping up good relations with relatives, Ramadan greetings and even Ramadan decorations, iftar recipes and drama series all online.
Have you ever used an app to help you practise religious rituals? There is now a long list of mobile apps, all of them location-based, that provide users with accurate prayer times with options to get either a visual or an audio call to prayer. These apps feature the Quran in Arabic, with the phonetics included as well as translations and audio recitations. There are also apps providing lists of halal restaurants and mosques for Muslims abroad.
Another mobile app can remind you of azkar (prayer) times and includes typed and recorded audios which you can check and recite offline. On same apps, you can find ready-made prayers that you can read whenever you have your phone.
More and more people today are donating zakat or alms by SMS, online banking transfers and mobile cash services. You don’t need to ascertain who is eligible for your donations either, as others will do so on your behalf. This really facilitates the process of giving charity, and most of the time it delivers donations to places and people who are in real need of help, even if we may not know how to reach them. Donation campaigns on Facebook can also be very useful, and they can save a lot of time.
Then there is the online merchandising of Ramadan goods, another of the new faces of Ramadan. These goods are not only the traditional yameesh (nuts) or Ramadan lanterns (fanous). They also include Ramadan decorations like cushions, models of traditional bean-sellers with street carts, konafa sellers (a kind of oriental sweet), men with the traditional mesahrati drums to wake people up to begin the fast, and flags with khayameya (tent material) patterns, food trays, bread baskets, coasters, wall hangings and others.
A torrent of Ramadan abayas, traditional robes for women, and kaftans are overwhelming Facebook and Instagram sales accounts, allowing every woman to choose new outfits for Ramadan. Don’t forget that you can also invite your loved ones for iftar by electronic means, even without going to the trouble of preparing food. You can send your order in a Facebook message to a home-made food specialist and you are done.
Instead of the traditional phone calls we used to receive at the beginning of Ramadan to hear the best wishes of our relatives and friends, today the phone has largely stopped ringing to be replaced by Whatsapp alerts with electronic greetings broadcast to a long list of mobile contacts. Iftar can be a table traded on Instagram, and many people spend a lot of time reviewing and decorating their tables to show their participation.
The same thing is true of Ramadan home decorations, with traditional khayameya patterns being uploaded onto Facebook and Instagram accounts in a silent competition between homemakers. Iftar and sohour sites have no end of recipe apps specially created for Ramadan that can provide a different menu every day.
It was not so long ago that people were bewailing the influence of television in Ramadan. But today many are looking back fondly on the days when all the family gathered together in front of the television to watch their favourite programmes. The trend now is to ask why you should watch drama series on TV when you can skip the hassle of tons of ads by following the episodes on Youtube and other apps.
The survey company Project Online has recently looked at trends in the use of social media in nine countries in the Middle East during Ramadan, including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to determine levels of participation and the times when people use these platforms.
Social media use in the Middle East increases by 30 per cent during Ramadan, the company found. This is not to mention the photographs that are taken at apparently every moment wherever people are, even at the mosque and engaging in prayers. Each photograph has its own hashtag, such as #taraweeh #sohor #Iftar #charity #azkar #khosho, and so on.
Technology has started to change people’s behaviour, to the extent that for some Ramadan has been losing its spiritual side to become something that is simply circulated and shared among individuals on Facebook or Instagram accounts. Others are worried that charitable works that in the past were done privately have been transformed by these sites into shows to announce people’s good deeds and faith.
Technology has been marketing the religious life, with the result that consumption, possession and purchasing have become emblems of Ramadan. In recent years, phenomena like “Ramadan festivals” and “Ramadan tents” have been used on social media to market activities and goods, with many individuals in turn exchanging photographs and videos.
There have been many changes in the traditional features of Ramadan as a result, making some at least regret changes that may conflict with customs and traditions that have been in place for years, eating away at spiritual and religious roots. The least that can be said is that as a result of such technological innovations, no one can be sure what form our religious rituals will take in the years or decades to come.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Welcome to e-Ramadan