In Spite of Covid-19, Rituals Are Getting Easier

Saudi Arabia Speeds Up Digitalization of Religious Services Sector
Saudis and expats perform "Al Fajr" prayers at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, on October 18, 2020, for the first time after easing months-long COVID-19 restrictions. (Getty)

When it comes to digitalizing life, Saudi Arabia has come a long way. Just a touch of a button is enough to renew your driving license using a smart phone app, Absher. You have a relative based in Japan and they are short of cash at 3:00 am, you can transfer money in a blink of an eye. If you are into business, your commercial register can be ready just in 180 seconds.

Since the eruption of the pandemic a little more than a year ago, Saudi Arabia has witnessed what can be described metaphorically as a “digitalization revolution.” The need to keep people physically away from each other has motivated both the public, private and non-profit sectors to digitalize their services.

Religious and charitable sector services including Umrah, Hajj, Zakat calculation, alms giving, donations, and many more have been completely digitalized for the first time.

Let us explore the latest milestones on the religious sector digitalization in a country where religion, Islam, plays a huge role in the lives of individuals and families. Hosting the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Medina, the Kingdom welcomes millions of believers who come to fulfill their religious duties.  

ZAKAT HAS NEVER BEEN EASIER

What is Zakat?

Each and every sane adult Muslim, male or female, whose wealth reaches a certain limit (nisab) must pay a certain amount of money to the needy called “zakat” every lunar year. It is a way of wealth distribution. The calculation of the correct amount of zakat differs if you have cash, precious metals, real estate, stocks, or other properties.

Just a few weeks ago, the General Authority of Zakat, Tax and Customs launched its Zakati App. The experience of zakat has been transformed. The App enables users to calculate the amount whether it is cash, gold, etc. The user can pay their zakat using their debit or credit card.

But where does the zakat money go?

Not everyone knows families in need. That is why the government has taken the initiative to transfer the zakat funds to the charities and low-income people registered in the social security systems. This is to save the hassle of looking for underprivileged people. 

By the end of Ramadan 2021, the total amounts of zakat payments have almost reached USD 20 million.

RELEASING PRISONERS

Both the National Platform of Donations of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development known as “Tabarra’a” (Donate), and the Ehsan Platform of the Saudi Authority of Data and Artificial Intelligence have been launched recently to further help the digital transformation of charitable donations.

The two platforms have been designed to attract donors and those who want to pay their zakat by giving them more options.

Ehsan has partnered with local charities to raise funds for certain humanitarian projects like paying the electricity bills on behalf of underprivileged families and providing clothing for children in need. The donor can choose where their donation would go.

The same platform has partnered with “Furijat,” a service launched by the Ministry of Interior to help prisoner release by viewing specific prisoner data that includes payment details and amounts claimed. Furijat assists the release of those who are jailed because they failed to pay their debts to the bank. Saudi Arabia has released all prisoners jailed on financial grounds to avoid the outbreak of Covid-19. However, their legal status remains “prisoner” until all liabilities are paid or settled with creditors.

“I care for children and people with medical conditions. I believe they are the most fragile. I used Ehsan Platform and paid using my credit card. Aiding prisoners in financial disputes will help families re-unite and move forward with their lives,” a 44-year-old English teacher at a public school told Majalla

Instead of issuing weekly or monthly updates, the Tabarra’a platform has a real time counter that appears on screen. Donors can view the number of beneficiaries, donating opportunities and donating times. However, the amount of funds raised does not appear until more comprehensive reports are issued periodically.

ETAMARNA: DIGITAL UMRAH

Umrah is the minor pilgrimage for Muslims that can be fulfilled almost all year round. It usually takes between 45 minutes to 90 minutes to finish the Umrah journey to walk a turn around the Holy Ka’aba and travel back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa, following in the footsteps of Hagar, wife of Prophet Abraham and mother of Prophet Ismael, according to the Islamic belief.

Each destination of the journey has been fully digitalized. Due to restrictions on visitors’ numbers, each Umrah pilgrim must book their space on the Etamarna App. The health passport, Tawakalna App, must show the current Covid-19 vaccination status of one shot, a double shot or no shot but no infection, to be eligible to enter the Holy Masjid al-Haram. Tanaqal App (Move) is the only means to book an electric wheelchair for senior people or people with disabilities. The latter is a type of inclusion which is arranged for the Umrah experience.

“I booked my Umrah time on Etamarna, travelled by car with a transportation networking company (TNC) app, and finished my Umrah faster than in the pre-Covid-19 era. They are operating Makkah’s Holy Masjid al-Haram under limited capacity. This was impossible a few months ago!” said Khalid, an expat, who works as an auditor at a Saudi company.