x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

App offers step-by-step advice for Haj and Umrah pilgrims

A Dubai-based company that's launching UmrahSalam says the iPhone app will be available in English and Arabic and could mean a safer and easier pilgrimage for all.

The chief executive of Hajjnet, Ali Dabaja, was also the developer for UmrahSalam, which, as well as being a guide for pilgrims, with pictures, will also allow them to feed in their own personal prayers. Antonie Robertson / The National
The chief executive of Hajjnet, Ali Dabaja, was also the developer for UmrahSalam, which, as well as being a guide for pilgrims, with pictures, will also allow them to feed in their own personal prayers. Antonie Robertson / The National

DUBAI // Millions of pilgrims can now access an interactive step-by-step guide to performing Umrah.

Launched by Hajjnet, a Dubai-based start-up, UmrahSalam walks users through the process to ensure a safer and easier pilgrimage.

“We wanted to address Haj and Umrah with technology,” said Ali Dabaja, the app’s founder.

“We did not start out thinking about an app but the further down the road we got, the more we started to refine the concept of what we were doing.

“It became obvious that the biggest need and confusion was that of someone who was actually doing it. It is a specific process.”

The team of five started by illustrating the process of Umrah and Haj, from the pilgrim’s rituals to his activities, such as searching for information online and getting in touch with tour operators.

“From beginning to end, it is really something that has not changed,” Mr Dabaja said. “So we wanted to use technology to make it more informed, clear and safer for pilgrims.”

Last year, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) estimated that 16 million travellers would perform Umrah by next year.

The app provides information to pilgrims, starting with the preparation for the trip.

“It tells you what you need to pack, for instance, your Ihram towels, sandals, sports drinks, energy bars, over-the-counter medication,” Mr Dabaja said. “For Haj it would be sunglasses, sun umbrellas, earplugs, phone adapters, chargers and Vaseline to put on your thighs for friction rash – things that are specific to this journey and that people tend to forget.”

The information is sourced from personal experiences. A team member who was sent to Mecca with a list of 300 educational shots came back with 1,500 pictures for the app’s library.

For Umrah, the app offers a feature for duas (prayers) and Tawaf, the circling of the Kaaba.

“It allows you to input all of your personal prayers that you want to make, maybe for your family or for yourself, and things that you want to pray for,” Mr Dabaja said. “Today, people usually write it on a piece of paper so we put it right in the toolbar.”

Key duas can be read in Arabic or using an English transliteration. Personal duas can be composed.

The team has tailored the app to ensure users focus on the pilgrimage more than the phone itself.

“Having a phone in a holy place is going to be a growing concern in the future,” said Mohammad Alshaseet, who worked on the app.

“Our app doesn’t really enter in that area because it assists the person rather than distracts them.

“Our Tawaf counter takes their mind off of how many times they went around the Kaaba because the phone takes care of it and they just focus on praying, knowing that the phone is taking care of it.”

Some Muslims agree that the app could be useful for first-timers, especially if implemented in different languages to represent major ethnic groups of pilgrims.

“Once you know what you’re doing, it’s quite simple in terms of where to go and how to do it,” said Abdulaziz Al Abdullah, a Saudi resident of Dubai who has performed Umrah between 50 and 100 times.

“So you won’t need an app in that case to guide you but rather help you recite because, otherwise, you would have to use small booklets that one usually buys on the way in to Mecca. Technology should assist but not guide as it would take away from the spiritual essence of the experience.”

The app is available for the iPhone in English, and in Arabic before the end of next month.

It is free for a limited period and there are plans to introduce Turkish, Indonesian and Malaysian-language versions.

Users can also share their pictures on Twitter and Facebook.

“Once we have a good working prototype, we will proliferate on to Android,” Mr Dabaja said. “We want to allow users to focus on their spirituality so we provide them functionalities that do that.”

The app can be found at www.hajjnet.com/umrah.

cmalek@thenational.ae