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Every able Muslim is required to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia — known as the hajj — at least once in their life.
But the journey to Mecca can be an overwhelming experience. Over a million people from around the world descend on the Islamic holy sites during the hajj period, and they have to both perform complicated rituals and find their way around heaving crowds in often stifling heat.
Habiburrahman Dastageeri first had the idea when he went to Mecca with his family in 2006 to perform the Umrah, another, less complicated pilgrimage that can be done at any time of year.
“I realized that it was not as easy as I had imagined,” he said. “Of course my family and I had prepared, but when I was there, I saw that there was a lot that we just couldn’t have known.”
The 32-year-old, who was born in Mainz after his parents immigrated to Germany from Afghanistan, was studying computer science at the University of Applied Sciences Stuttgart at the time. “I thought it would be interesting if I could have had a navigation device that could also be a religious guide.”
He soon embarked on a Masters program. For his project, he decided to develop a prototype GPS system for the hajj.
It took over two years to develop the “Amir” app, named for the Arabic word for guide.
The hajj rituals vary according to gender, so there is one app for men and one for women. The user can then choose exactly which of the different variations of the hajj he or she is doing.
“The first big challenge for a pilgrim is to know what, when and where the rituals have to be performed” Dastageeri told GlobalPost. “These are not part of everyday life for most people. They would not have practiced them before at home.”
The step-by-step guide helps them prepare, with a check list and interactive tutorials on how to perform the rituals.
The project took longer than Dastageeri expected because he had not only had to develop the technology, but also make sure that the app complied with Islamic thought. To do so, he consulted with Australia-based scholar Abu Muneer Ismail Davids, who has written numerous books on the hajj. “It was really important that there would be neither religious nor technological mistakes,” Dastageeri said.
For Dastageeri, the chance to combine his tech skills and his religious beliefs was the main attraction in developing the app.
“As a computer scientist, you learn to find solutions to known problems, and the hajj has existed for 1,400 years. With these new possibilities we can now significantly simplify the hajj, and also help many people. That was my motivation from the start.”