God? There's an App for That

In the early evening quiet of her apartment, the young woman took the neatly folded prayer mat from its place on the shelf alongside her English copy of the Quran and prepared herself to pray.

With the sun having just dipped below the horizon for evening, the slow, solemn call to prayer filled the room with the Arabic chant:

God is most great. God is most great.
God is most great. God is most great.

In Muslim communities and countries the world over, sounds like these echo over community loud speakers six times a day, signaling to the faithful that it's time to break from work or other routines to pray. But here in her bedroom, the call to prayer sounds not through a community loudspeaker, but through the small speaker on the young woman's iPhone.

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She is among millions of people who have downloaded apps available to ease the daily prayer rituals for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jews, among others. The apps provide users a way to access their religion in a multitude of ways through technology.

Meanwhile, the increasing use of technology itself presents concern for religious leaders.

The young woman, who asked that her name not be used, began practicing Islam late last August, during the final days of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Having grown up in an agnostic family in Los Angeles, she said it has been difficult learning the holy ropes.

Most Muslims are raised with family members to guide them through the customs, traditions or even how to pray, she said. She has had to make her own way with the help of Internet research (Islamicfinder.com), and she relies heavily on her iPhone apps for reference. Among her collection of apps is an Islamic dictionary, a digital copy of the Quran and another that helps her learn Arabic.

"This kept it always in my head that I had to go to prayer," she said, her iPhone in her palm.

Even when the call to prayer would sound when she couldn't participate, such as during a work meeting or some other time when she could not by praying, the reminder made her take pause, briefly centering herself, if only for the moment it took to shut off the alarm.

A search through the iTunes store yields hundreds of religion-related apps: access to religious texts or scriptures, daily meditations, daily messages of hope, dictionaries, references. The list goes on.

The uses for smartphones in a religious context go well beyond Islam.

"I've seen several different apps that are helping people to learn the [Tibetan] language, memorize prayers or be able to see the different images of the deities that are used in meditation visualizations," said Linas Vytuvis, vice president of the Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab Tibetan Buddhist Center in New York.

"Generally, you rely on your own mind through meditation, so the iPhone doesn't really come into play there, but there's actually a few really good meditation apps that act as meditation timers," he said.

The timers, he explained, could be set for varying increments: five minutes of meditation, followed by a one-minute break and so on.

Vytuvis said smartphone timers could be used to increase a person's meditative stamina, although he didn't know how useful they could be for serious Buddhists.

"There are some Lamas that can meditate for three or four days straight, but I would assume your battery would probably drop dead before your meditation session would be over," he said, laughing.

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