Muslim travellers no longer have to wonder where the nearest Halal restaurant is, or whether there’s a mosque in their vicinity – there's an app for that
It was a humble fish burger that started it all. Irfan Ahmad was travelling in Paris 20 years ago, when he found himself in need of a Halal-approved bite to eat. “During a bus tour, I spotted a McDonald's near the Arc de Triomphe. After the tour ended, I went there to have a fish burger,” he says.
“Unlike meat, which needs to be slaughtered in the proper Islamic way, fish was a safe bet. But I was there to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower. I hadn’t travelled to Paris to eat at McDonald’s!”
Ahmad decided to update his dog-eared Paris city guidebook to identify places he could eat and pray as a practising Muslim. The end result was Irhal, an app that contains more than 90 city guides in Arabic and English. It finds mosques and halal restaurants around the world, while at the same time offering traditional travel information on places to visit, shopping and hotels.
It also provides local prayer timings and determines the Qibla direction, a problem frequently encountered by Muslims on the move. But the best part is that once an Irhal city guide has been downloaded and installed, it can be accessed anytime along with an offline map for the destination, saving on endless roaming charges.
Websites are so yesterday. As a traveller, I need a city guide on my smartphone
“Irhal has been a labour of love. It needed a tremendous amount of passion and dedication. And resources,” Ahmad, Irhal’s CEO and editor-in-chief, tells Vision. “Winning the Dubai Startup Weekend award and more recently the Best Islamic Economy Startup Award from Dubai Silicon Oasis keeps the adrenaline flowing.”
Apps are becoming increasingly specialised to capture an oversaturated market, the Muslim-specific among them. You can now read the Quran on your phone in 30 different languages and 100 different translations, sending your favourite passages to a friend (Al-Quran), or analyse the root words of the verses (myQuran Lite). There is even a spiritual tracker, Qamar Deen, that tells you how well you've been praying or offering Sadaqah.
Children haven’t been left out either. A soon to be launched app plans to capture their wide imagination with 3D-modelled Quranic stories. Building on the success of Shade 7’s hand-assembled pop-up storybooks, the app will depict the finest details of the historical events. For example, in Surat Al Fil (Story of the Elephant), the user will be able to tap the elephant to make it kneel down or rotate it towards the direction of Yemen.
Parents can also record their own voice over the stories, a feature dedicated to those who work late hours and don’t get to share that special storytime with their children.
“The idea for the app is to keep it interactive,” remarks Hajera Memon, managing director of Shade 7. “I think it’s important in this digital era to have something in both dimensions and allow people to access and enjoy Quranic stories in the medium they feel comfortable with.”
For Ahmad, it was essential that Irhal help the Muslim tourist in Beijing or Sydney to easily discover the best tourist attractions of each city, as well as knowing where the closest Halal restaurant is located. “Fast forward to 2014, websites are so yesterday. As a traveller, I needed a city guide on my smartphone,” he asserts.
Irhal has already seen around 5,000 downloads and an “overwhelmingly positive” response. Since it fills the need for Arabic travel content –just like Irhal’s website, which got 1 million visitors in 2014 – the app has more than 70% usage on the Arabic section.
“We have plans for adding new cities and eventually catering to the $140 billion Islamic travel market by offering Halal travel packages and providing our content to airlines from the Muslim world, so that Irhal city guides can be seen on the Inflight Entertainment monitors on the back of every seat in an aircraft,” says Ahmad. Fasten your seat belts – the Irhal journey has just begun.”