x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Searching the internet the halal way

An Iranian-Kuwaiti living in the Netherlands sets out to create a religious safe zone for Muslims in cyberspace.

Reza Sardeha, the man behind ImHalal.com, says
Reza Sardeha, the man behind ImHalal.com, says "his search engine was not intended to be a political censor".

Most people know that the internet, which is populated not only by websites that offer information, inspiration and wonder, but also thousands that serve up hefty doses of bawdy content, can be a minefield. This can be especially tricky for Muslims, for whom such sites are haram, or forbidden. With this in mind, an Iranian-Kuwaiti student living in the Netherlands has launched a search engine aimed specifically at ensuring that Muslims do not stumble across such sites.

Unlike Google or other search engines, ImHalal.com will fetch only web pages considered halal, or permitted under Islamic law. Websites not shown directly are given a "haram" ranking, going up to three stars for the most offensive. "First of all, we have blocked all sexually explicit content," said its creator, Reza Sardeha. "We are also in talks with imams to determine what might be considered haram and therefore be blocked."

He stressed that his search engine was not intended to be a political censor, with only extremist websites, such as those of far-right or Nazi groups being blocked. "Our goal is to create a safe environment for Muslims to search the worldwide web, but we have absolutely no intention of being a dictatorial search engine," he said. "So people can freely get informed about other religions if they want."

Mr Sardeha, 20, was born in Iran and has lived in the Netherlands since he was five. He described himself as a practising Muslim but did not wish to disclose whether he was Shiite or Sunni because he wanted his search engine to appeal to all Muslims. He would not reveal how much was spent to develop ImHalal.com other than to say "it wasn't cheap, and the project has really depleted my personal funds", money he said he had saved from previous internet ventures.

The search engine is still in its infancy and will eventually need outside investment to grow. He is considering taking a six-month break from his international business management studies to lead the project, which took seven months to develop with three other people. Mr Sardeha came up with idea for the search engine after friends complained that other sites regularly returned explicit content, noting that switching off parental and other filtering controls was easy.

He does not expect ImHalal.com to compete with global giants such as Google, but rather serve as a niche provider, although he hopes Muslims around the world will make it their home page. Users of the search engine are encouraged to press the feedback button to propose changes or suggest filtering keywords. Eventually, the site will include "Islamic widgets" providing content such as prayer times and a different quote from the Quran each day.

Mr Sardeha expects the service to be most popular with Muslims in the Middle East, where there is a more "moderate to conservative mindset". Market research conducted in the run-up to the launch had matched these expectations. The website currently accepts keywords entered in English, Arabic, Farsi, Russian and Turkish. A number of other languages, including several countries' forms of English, are works in progress.

An official at the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment's fatwa hotline said Mr Sardeha's idea was a good one, "as long as he is seeking God's path by this action". But he cautioned that Mr Sardeha should seek scholarly input and greater transparency with his users. "There is no problem with it. The important thing, though, is that he seek guidance from a renowned scholar and tell his users the source of the results," he said.

Mohammed Amer, 22, an Egyptian engineer in the UAE, said the service was useful for "fresh" internet users. "It might be good for people who are scared of using the internet and seeing something bad. It will not prevent someone from looking for bad things, but it will alert you if something is haram." sdevi@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Kareem Shaheen