At Muslim hackathon, techies build community and tools to access Islamic learning

Led by local groups Muslamic Makers and Deen Developers, around 50 young British Muslims joined a two-day hackathon in the city to help build the future of Islamic education.

LONDON (RNS) – Sohaib Saeed wouldn’t exactly call himself a tech person.

But the Scottish translator of Islamic texts has plenty of ideas for ways to put technology to work to benefit his community.

That’s why he drove close to 400 miles from Glasgow, Scotland, to be at last weekend’s hackathon at Makers Academy, a coding school in downtown London.

“My field is Islamic studies, so I’m not usually seen at hackathons,” said Saeed, head of research at the Bayyinah Institute, where he specializes in Quranic studies and exegesis. “But I came because I saw people interested in sincerely engaging with and advancing Islamic learning.”

Sohaib Saeed works Jan. 26, 2020, during the two-day Islamic Education in the 21st Century hackathon in London. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

The two-day Islamic Education in the 21st Century hackathon was led by Muslamic Makers and Deen Developers, two emerging London-based organizations hoping to connect Muslim technologists to put their skills to use for their community.

At this hackathon, participants hoped to create tools for their fellow British Muslims to close the gaps in access to traditional Islamic knowledge and learning.

“As working professionals we often fall into a routine: wake up, go to work, come back, relax, pray, sleep, do it all over again,” Ibrahim Javed, founder of Deen Developers and a software engineer at Deloitte, told the 50 participants. “But this event is a testament to the fact that if you put in a bit of time and utilize the skills you’ve gained, you can achieve something that can be of benefit for the ummah and the community.”

Among the apps being worked on at the hackathon were Khaldun, which encourages users to fall down the rabbit hole of Islamic history; To-Deed, which helps users track their behavior and compete with friends to develop better spiritual habits; IlmEvents, which curates local Islamic events; and Mosq, which connects users with local imams and Islamic scholars so they can ask private questions anonymously and can particularly serve women whose local mosques have no facilities for female worshippers.

At the hackathon, Saeed was part of a team working on an app called Quranoplex, which Saeed has been dreaming about developing for years.

Renderings of the Quranoplex app developed at the Islamic Education in the 21st Century hackathon in London. Image courtesy of Shabana Ahmed

He worked with a team of technologists — including specialists in app development, user experience design, machine learning and more — who brought his idea to life in the space of two days.

“The most common question I get asked all the time is, ‘What is the best Quran translation out there?’” he said. “Unfortunately there’s no answer to that question, because no one translation by itself can capture all the meanings of the Quran. So I advise people to find a few different ones and compare them.”

A better question, Saeed said, is how readers of English translations of the Quran can “find a guided approach to appreciating the diversity of meanings.”

His team’s answer was an app that allows users to explore different translations of the Quran in a streamlined, word-by-word approach. As users read a verse in its original Arabic, certain words and phrases will be underlined to indicate that translators have rendered them into English in multiple ways.

Users can then explore these varied translations, mixing and matching between existing translations for individual words to create a new, custom Quran translation.

Their prototype, built in two days, is not yet ready for release. But the demo Saeed’s team presented at the hackathon’s closing showcase is a far cry from the current best solution on offer: a handful of websites that display a verse’s different translations in clunky tables.

Attendees listen to showcase pitches Jan. 26, 2020, at the conclusion of the two-day Islamic Education in the 21st Century hackathon in London. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

His teammate Shabana Ahmed said contributing to the effort was both personally and professionally satisfying.

“This is the first hackathon I have attended where I could contribute to a challenge close to my own faith and associated with some of my own personal interests,” Ahmed, who has worked as a user experience designer for over a decade, said. “…We bonded fairly quickly on a common belief that our efforts may contribute to a higher value, and that is rewarding and motivating.”

For Arfah Farooq, co-founder of Muslamic Makers, that’s the goal.

“We wanted to bring Muslims working in tech together to support each other in a space that’s not tailored around booze, where there are prayer provisions and things like that,” Farooq told Religion News Service. “If there was an organization like this when I started out, if there was a space where I knew I didn’t have to hide my religion and my identity, where I learned that I could demand my rights, that would have changed everything.”

Farooq, who works for the Government Digital Service, launched Muslamic Makers nearly four years ago alongside designer-developer Murtaza Abidi as a way to get more Muslims involved in technology in London. She said the event can help cultivate “creative confidence” among their community, especially among Muslim women in tech.

Arfah Farooq, co-founder of Muslamic Makers, speaks to participants of the Islamic Education in the 21st Century hackathon in London on Jan. 26, 2020. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

“If you don’t see people like yourself reflected in the industry, it really limits your ambitions,” Farooq said, noting that role models are particularly lacking among Muslim women in tech. Like many Muslim women in the field, Farooq said, she fell into the industry by accident. Through Muslamic Makers, she aims to help develop a streamlined pipeline that Muslim women can follow to enter the industry.

Of the 120 applications last weekend’s hackathon received, about a quarter were from women, mostly working in creative professions. Farooq made sure that each of the five teams organizers arranged included at least two women.

When organizers held their first networking event in early 2016, 50 people attended. Now, the group has hosted more than 22 events around London, with more than 1,000 attendees total. Major tech companies in the area have provided facilities for the sessions. Keeping up with the demand for events is nearly impossible, she said, noting that the group hopes to expand to northern England and the United States.

Both groups say their immediate goal is to work with hackathon participants to ensure that the projects make their way back into the broader Muslim community. To help launch and maintain the apps in the long-term, Deen Developers plans to leverage its community of London programmers, offer internships to local high school students and set up a coding bootcamp for orphans in Pakistan. Trainees will maintain the projects created during the hackathon.

“We’ve got five projects, and my ambition is getting these projects to see the light of day,” Farooq said. “If even one single idea goes to market, that’s my marker that this hackathon has been a success.”