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Students create app to connect Muslim community

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For some Muslim students at Ohio State, it’s all about three things: location, location, location. And since October, whether it was prayer, a mosque or a halal meal, Pillar has been the answer.

Pillar, an app designed by OSU students and alumni to connect Muslim students, has been used in more than 30 countries, said Bilal Bajwa, the co-founder and CEO for the app, and a fifth-year in biology.

Pillar connects practicing Muslims by tracking down the closest mosque or group prayer sessions. It also offers features like a “nearby list” of restaurants that serve halal cuisine and a log of the user’s prayer patterns.

The app can tell users the five times of day to pray based on their location, while also including a compass to point them toward Mecca. It will even tell them Mecca’s coordinates (21.4167°N, 39.8167°E), according to a compass feature on the app. But the app’s purpose isn’t limited to Middle Eastern geography.

Pillar helps coordinate communal prayer, a practice that is encouraged for practicing Muslims. The app’s website explains why with an excerpt from the Hadith, a record of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which states “prayer in congregation is 27 times more rewarding than prayer performed individually.”

Although group prayer is important for practicing Muslims, the app’s co-founder and chief networking officer, Mushtaq Dualeh, said it could be hard for students to coordinate on a campus.

“At the Union, we have access to the interfaith prayer spaces, but if we’re at other locations across campus, we often have to find a quiet and empty corner to pray in,” said Dualeh, a fourth-year in public health.

Pillar’s creators are hoping the app motivates Muslim students who don’t want to pray alone in public to keep practicing, Bajwa said.

“It’s weird for some of the people new to the campus community,” Bajwa said. “I think sometimes they feel a little awkward because it can be a little awkward, but it helps a lot if you’re praying with a group. By making group prayers more convenient and regular, we hope that the app will encourage both communal and individualistic spiritual growth. ”

In some ways, the app is an extension of the on-campus Muslim community that already looks out for each other, Dualeh said. He described a “secret spot” behind the movable book stacks in the 18th Avenue Library basement where there are prayer rugs and even copies of the Quran that students read.

“For part of the prayer, you have to go down and your forehead touches the ground, so if there’s not a prayer rug, people will at the very least use paper towels for the front, and if someone prayed there before you, they’ll leave them there,” Bajwa said. “So you’ll see that and you’re like, ‘Oh, someone else prayed here.’”

Bajwa said the idea for the app came from his experiences as a Muslim student.

“The idea came to me when I was studying at Prior (Hall) library,” he said. When his phone alerted him that it was time to pray, he realized he was alone. Bajwa said he went to text a friend and thought, “Why isn’t there an app that already tells me who’s around and who wants to pray?”

And that’s exactly what he set out to create.

Bajwa recruited Daniel Marchese, a friend of his and a fourth-year in computer science and engineering, as the chief technical officer for the app. The two started to assemble their team and after a meeting in the RPAC in fall 2013, Pillar was born under the name WePray.

The name WePray tied the stylization trend of the iPod and iPhone to the community aspect of the app, Bajwa said.

The name stood until Dualeh came up with the app’s current name.

“There are five pillars in Islam,” Dualeh said. “(The name) had so many different meanings and the pillar represents a support system for the community.”

Dualeh highlighted Pillar in her TEDx talk at OSU earlier this year. In her talk, “The Beauty of Connectivity,” Dualeh shared how her religious and cultural background pushed her to connect with the world around her.

She said this same religious and cultural background inspired her to help create the Pillar app. But the creators want to connect more than just the Muslim community, Bajwa said.

“If you see someone praying or someone who’s done praying and you’re curious and want to learn more, then just ask them,” Bajwa said. Although he admitted that it might be awkward, he stressed the importance of cutting out the middleman when learning about another culture.

“It’s not the same as actually interacting,” he said. “Like, why not cut out the third person and go to the person and talk to them?”

Pillar is available on both iOS and Android.

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