Ramadan apps: worship goes hi-tech

From signposting Mecca to broadcasting the call to prayer, technology is playing an ever-increasing role in the Islamic month of fasting

This week, clerics and astronomers peered into the night sky as they have done every year for more than 1,400 years.

The tried and tested method of detecting the new moon, which signifies the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

But even that ancient ritual has been subject to the introduction of technology, which is subtly shaping the way Muslims mark the month of fasting.

The fundamental aspects of Ramadan have not, of course, changed. From Wednesday, the planet's one and a half billion Muslims will rise before dawn to feast on a suhoor meal, then fast from sunrise until sunset before ending their abstinence with a family meal and prayers.

The month, marked by the Islamic lunar calendar, is a time for reflection, devotion, charity and humility.

But in a sign of the times, technology is playing an ever-growing role in the way Muslims worship, particularly during the holy month.

There is now a vast range of apps offering reminders of suhoor and iftar times around the globe, waking users with the adhan, or call to prayer, as well as showing the qibla direction so users can pray facing Mecca, wherever they are.

The latest apps are widely available on a range of devices. iTunes, for example, is offering a universal app with graphics using a highly accurate method used by the US navy to calculate sunrise and sunset times. It supports different time zones and is available for the iPhone and iPad.

BlackBerry apps include readings of 40 hadiths, a qibla compass and a downloadable Quran, while Nokia similarly offers the Quran, the call to prayer at appropriate times and a qibla finder.

There are apps pointing worshippers in the direction of the nearest mosque and halal restaurant and giving healthy eating advice to help them manage the month sensibly.

Meanwhile, live, richly animated wallpapers featuring mosques gleaming against twinkling night skies and educational games to play on phones and computers are, say worshippers, not simply a diversion made possible by the latest technology. They are constant reminders of the need to focus the mind and with a treasure trove of accurate and up-to-date information available at the press of a button, there is little excuse not to follow Ramadan guidelines to the letter.

Even the traditional method of spotting the appearance of a full moon has been subject to the evolution of technology. In 2006 the Fiqh Council of North America decided it would no longer rely on the naked eye, instead opting to use astronomical calculations to determine the start of Ramadan.

That decision was not popular with all Muslims and there are some who still resort to staring into the night sky or following the lead set by Saudi Arabia.

It remains to be seen whether the age-old debate about the true start of the holy month, which can differ between regions by a day or two, could one day be consigned to the past with improving technology offering accuracy and timing to within a millisecond.