In November, the app Muslim Pro was uncovered for selling data and location of its Muslim users to third-party vendors, including the U.S. military. The app which helped Muslims practice and strengthen their faith was downloaded by millions of Muslims worldwide, many of whom felt betrayed and scared upon learning the scandal.
The Muslim Pro scandal has disrupted more than the prayer, it has added to the growing distrust of big tech and data mining companies. For Muslims, it has heightened fears over surveillance and being targeted.
The tech company has denied that it has sold data to the military. Still, many Muslims around the globe have since deleted the platform from their phones.
Sagal Ali—a program manager at United Health Group and a Black Somali-American Muslim woman in Minneapolis, MN—was one among the users that stepped away.
When Ali learned of Muslim Pro’s selling of data to third parties on Twitter, it devastated her. How could the app that brought her closer to her faith in her early 20s, also jeopardize her safety?
“This is an app I use for prayer reminders, for inspiration, or I want to listen to the Quran,” she said. “It’s a one-stop-shop for Muslims. It has all the resources and tools you need. To realize that my information is being used and also provided to a third-party vendor to surveil Muslims and activity, where they are at and what they’re doing. That broke my heart.”
Promptly, she deleted the application from her phone and called family and friends to talk about the scandal and process her feelings.
“I felt betrayed. In shock. I also realized how far institutions will go to normalize islamophobia. It made clear that Muslims are still persecuted for practicing their faith. Even if it’s not direct, the tactics they’re using, it was really scary. I didn’t feel safe anymore.”
Muslim Pro was a refuge on days when being a Black, visibly Muslim women was exceptionally hard
Ali’s spiritual journey didn’t take off until her late teens and early 20s. Coincidentally, during that time is when she began to understand the multiple identities she possessed—Black, Muslim and female—and how all three of them often made her a threat in the U.S.
Her parents did their best to shelter her from the harsh realities faced by Muslims, but when she attended Augsburg University and started her career their protective veil wore off.
“I didn’t know about the true nature of my identity, until I experienced micro-aggression for the color of my skin, or because I’m a woman, or because I’m a Muslim wearing a Hijab. I didn’t internalize the threat of my identify to the spaces I was a part of till post-college.”
These thoughts consumed her well into her profession, where it took her many years to find another Black peer, let alone another Muslim or Black Muslim colleague. Micro-aggression after micro-aggression, she made it a purpose to seek out safe spaces.
“The last four years of my life, I’ve been fostering spaces for Muslim Black women and I’ve dedicated the last four years of my 20s to what safety means. How do I cultivate it? If I can’t find it, I will create it for myself,” she said.
As Ali dedicated herself to finding safe spaces, Muslim Pro became a refuge for her. The app was like a flashlight, a utility tool guiding her spiritual journey and understanding.
“Four years ago, I was very lost and needed direction and I was too shamed to speak about where I was in my journey,” said Ali. “The Muslim Pro app gave me peace of mind to go on my faith journey with an app that seemed private and reliable. I didn’t need to bug anyone. All I need was one stop shop.”
The app was her go-to platform to escape the dangerous spaces she encountered on a daily basis. It reminded her of prayer times, it sent her daily messages to center herself and a multitude of features to stay spiritually engaged.
In the absence of Muslim Pro, finding safe space outside the mosque during a global pandemic has proved daunting.
“With Muslim Pro, I’ve lost trust many things this year. I’ve lost trust in leadership; I’ve lost trust in some communities and how they show up,” said Ali.
“This year has been amplifying distress that already exists. I’m trying to see how I can regain that trust. There are good people and things in this world. I don’t want my way of saving myself from harm stopping me from enjoying them, especially with apps.”
Losing the app felt like losing a close personal friend, the sort that comforted you on the long, dreary days, and helped you to grow as a person.
“Starting over is scary and terrifying. The good thing is my desire to be closer to God outweighs my fears about what I’m scared of happening, like my info being shared again,” she said.
“If I don’t pray, my relationship with God will be stifled, if I don’t have a routine, my faith will suffer.”
To be a stout student and worshipper of any faith, you need discipline and routine. Living alone during a global pandemic, Muslim Pro held Ali accountable to Islam. Now, she needed to fill the gaping hole that emerged in its vacancy.
Ali searched Twitter and made calls to friends and family to see what alternatives were out there, until she found a good fit.
“I’ve been using Athan for about three weeks now,” she said. “I’ve had some small issues with it, like when it’s time to pray, the call to prayer doesn’t go off on my phone. Even when I put volume up … Reminders are huge for prayer. I have to block off things to make sure to fit this in.”
Since using the Athan app, she’s regained her confidence and balance, “God’s presence is amplified in all aspects in my life. It’s one of the reasons I’m trying to make this work.”
To the young Muslims, who, like her have been feeling empty and lost without Muslim Pro, Ali wants them to understand that companies can sell your information and even your soul, if they could, for profit, and that one’s faith comes from within and not an app.
“Some people don’t need an app to remind themselves of prayer. My grandmother, for example, knows the times by looking at the sun,” Ali added.
“If you are the Muslim and need to rely on an app, it’s okay to get a new app. It’s not your app, it’s your desire to be closer to God. Your heart is still in the right place. God will know you’re doing you best, so don’t be discouraged.”
Now, more than ever, Ali believes that Muslims, especially Black Muslims, must fact check everything.
“[Muslim Pro] taught me that I need to be very critical about what I’m using and what kind of content I’m consuming,” she said.
“You gotta take the L, but don’t let this disrupt your journey. God is here. God never left. God is still here.”