A Dubai-based startup released UmrahSalam, a smartphone travel application set to become the guide for pilgrims going for Umrah all year long.
“It seemed like an obvious need because during last year’s hajj season there was an incredible wave of social media with pictures and tweets,” Ali Dabaja, founder and CEO of Dubai-based Hajjnet, told Al Arabiya English.
“One of our traditions is that when a friend or family comes back from Hajj or Umrah we go and congratulate them, and that person will tell their story… so we just wanted to allow people to share that experience with today’s technology,” he added.
The application aims at providing pilgrims with a common platform where they can share their experience and expert advice and “let them focus on the spirituality of the experience,” said Dabaja.
While it is quite helpful during the Umrah’s rituals and around the city of Mecca, being connected on social media may be distracting.
“The social side is obviously [optional] if you want to use it. Saving and sharing your experience is extremely important for the community,” said Dabaja.
Ali al-Hanaki, head of planning and development at the Ministry of Social Affairs in Saudi Arabia was not concerned with the exposure or distraction from smart phones or the relevant apps.
“This is a great service for pilgrims, it’s about time we put technology at the service of Islam,” he told Al Arabiya.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, all Muslims that are capable and can afford Hajj are required to travel to Mecca and perform the ritual that lasts for days during the Hajj season.
Unlike Hajj, the Umrah ritual is not a pillar of Islam. It can be carried out in conjunction with Hajj, or at any time of the year.
The app includes a number of features, such as ‘Guidance’ and ‘Progress’, which is a built it Tawaf [the act of circulating around the Ka’aba] counter, to keep track of one’s completed circulations, among other services.
“The Progress is a key feature which allows you to see the process of Umrah and where you’re at. If I could see what I’ve done and what I’m going to do next it would give me confidence and comfort and help me focus on what I’m doing now,” Dabaja explained.
One can also create his or her own list of Dua’a (invocation or supplication) as well as compile relevant Dua’as found on the app at different key stops during the Umrah process, all through the ‘Dua’a Prompter.’
Besides the ritual-related guidance, UmrahSalam provides pre-Umrah tips on what to pack, what to wear, etc. as well as other tips including taxi fares, where to get a haircut and what’s the most comfortable footwear.
“We wanted to let people focus on the spiritual aspect, you can simply use the app for confirmation to ensure that you are doing the right thing at the right time, and at the right place,” said Dabaja.
Other applications include ‘Multimedia & Expert Advice,’ the social functionality that allows you to upload pictures onto the app and share the experience with fellow pilgrims, as well as ‘Map & Location Support’, which allows a pilgrim to pin his or her hotel as well as other key places on the map.
The ‘Guidance’ feature and its associated functionalities do not require data, Ali emphasized that the majority of the app is in the Guidance.
“The ‘Mapping’ requires data, if you open the maps and want to see where you are, you want to see where your hotel is or other key locations, that will require data. The sharing and notes that you take, in order to push those onto the social networks that will require data, but everything else runs locally on the phone,” said Dabaja.
Almost every smart phone has its data package, and users can be connected whenever and wherever, however there was a purpose behind enabling a large part of the application to run locally on the phone.
Enabling many features in the app to run locally on the phone without requiring data or an internet connection was not an easy task, Ali said.
“That was a tremendous challenge, but we came to realize quite quickly that it was a necessity because although you have coverage everywhere, at the peak intervals there is so much demand on the network that we wouldn’t be of any use if we were dependent on data.”
Ignorance is Bliss
The irony lays in the fact that Dabaja has never personally been to Umrah, but he did take that to his advantage when he thought of app.
“I went to congratulate someone that came back from hajj and started to talk about his experience, including issues and obstacles he faced. I projected myself into that situation and what I would need, and it was clear that there was a lot that we could do with technology to support and alleviate these things,” he told Al Arabiya English.
The team started the conceptualization of the app three months prior to last year’s Hajj, a Beta version of the app was released, and there was a lot of information to be collected from testing the app and the received feedback.
“We tracked one of our team members when he was doing Hajj, when he did tawaf, we had a GPS image of exactly where he moved,” said Dabaja, speaking of the dedication of his team.
“We continue to refine it and add features. Our vision is for a lot more that what we’re doing right now,” Dabaja added.
Yet to come
The app is currently available in English, and the ‘Dua’a Prompter’ allows displays of Dua’a in Arabic, a translation in English, and a transliteration for non-Arabic speakers who would like to recite the Dua’a.
A correct pronunciation of each Dua’a is also available.
Dabaja confirmed that the team is working on introducing the Arabic app and another version of UmrahSalam for Android “as soon as possible.”
“The thing with being a startup and a small team is that our resources are pretty limited, we have to prioritize these things,” he told Al Arabiya.