BERLIN — 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.
Now a young German computer scientist has developed a smartphone app to help the pilgrims find their way and offer a guide to performing the rituals that are an essential part of the hajj.
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 in Stuttgart University 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.
Once they are in Mecca, the GPS navigation system comes into play. Pilgrims can quickly become disorientated in Mecca. A vast tent city set up for the visitors and a plethora of similar-looking hotels have led some people to go lost for up to three days, Dastageeri said, as they try to find their way back to their accommodation.
The app helps them not only find the exact pilgrimage sites but also how to get back to their tent or hotel room, and other meeting points.
He has set up a company and began marketing the apps in December. The hajj iPhone app costs 19.99 euros ($26), while the ones for the Umrah cost 9.99 euros ($13). They are available in Turkish, English, Arabic and German so far, and he plans to translate into other languages soon. He is also working on an Android version.
In December, Dastageeri travelled to Saudi Arabia as part of a business delegation with the finance minister of Baden-Württember state, and held talks with officials about how the app could be utilized in the organization of the hajj. He is also in talks with several potential investors.
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."