It is increasingly popular amongst Muslim social media users to employ services that automatically post prayers on one’s behalf. In this article, we shall refer to such services as Islamic Prayer Apps. These apps vary in their business model and popularity, but share the same goal: to facilitate and automate worship. This does not mean that the apps replace the mandatory “5-times-aday” prayer rituals. While documented services simply send or post reminders for local prayer times (Wyche et al. 2008), the Islamic Prayer Apps seem to facilitate additional public supplication (
“dua”), which may be understood as a humble asking for an event to occur or a wish to be fulfilled.
Believers in Islam may phrase their own personal supplications, but there is also an array of examples in the Quran to choose from. Based on these examples, the apps enable the user to post automatically their supplications on social networking sites, like Twitter and Facebook. Du3a.org is a typical example: the site’s landing page (see Fig. 1) features some Quranic quotes and popular prayers, and a sidebar encourages visitors to share the site on different social networks, like Facebook and Pinterest, claiming that 26 million visitors have done so already. But the most salient feature is perhaps the button prompting visitors to subscribe to the service. Upon doing so, visitors are redirected to Twitter, where they are asked to authorize the application to use their account and post on their behalf. After a few hours, Du3a begins to post a > 140 character supplication from the user’s account every second hour, alongside a site URL (and until recently a “recycling” emoji).
Because Du3a.org includes the service’s URL in every tweet that is sent out from the user’s account, its traffic can be measured using Twitter’s Streaming application programming interface (API), which provides live access to up to 1% of Tweets on the global platform. By querying for the dur3a.org URL, we collected tweets posted over a 48-h period, in June 2018. During this time, 3.8 million tweets containing the URL were posted (See Fig. 2). It should be noted however, that Du3a at the time appeared to release one tweet per hour from the users’ accounts, a frequency which recently seems to have slowed down to one every second hour. About 50% of the users self-identify as located in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, suggesting that, at least in the case of Du3a, the phenomenon is predominantly Arabic (other countries represent approximately 1% each).
The number of 1.9 million tweets per day—coming just from Du3a, one of many Islamic Prayer Apps—demonstrates how much traffic can be generated through automation. To put the numbers in context (see Fig. 2), Bruns et al. (2013) collected 205,000 tweets on the Arab-Spring related hashtag #egypt on its busiest day, when President Hosni Mubarak resigned amidst intense public pressure. During the 2016 US election, when significant popular attention focused on the role of automated accounts, Bessi and Ferrara (2016) estimated an upper bound of 3.8 million tweets from automated accounts on political topics in the week leading up to voting day (an average of about 540 thousand tweets per day). In other words, according to our exploratory analysis, a single automated prayer app generated almost as many tweets in 2 days as accounts believed to be automated did in the whole week leading up to the US election. Yet, contrary to the US general election, Du3a continues its activity every day of the year. And insofar as we were able to ascertain, this activity has been going on for about 5 years. While exact numbers are difficult to determine, an analysis of Arabic Social Media (2014) estimated that, in 2014, 17.19 million tweets were sent daily from users in the entire Arab world, suggesting that automated prayer may be responsible for a substantial proportion of Twitter in Arabic speaking countries.6 Thus, at least in terms of sheer numbers, the expression of worship may rank among the most significant phenomena on Twitter overall.
Du3a.org, like most Islamic Prayer Apps, does not use hashtags which can “trend” and gain visibility, which is a possible reason why the phenomenon has largely remained unnoticed. To our knowledge, it was not until Matthew Rothenberg (2017), the founder of Emojitracker.com, noticed that the recycling emoji (at the time used by Du3a in every tweet)—attributed to the extensive use of the symbol in Muslim tweets—had become the third most popular on Twitter that the apps were first discussed outside the Muslim community.
Our exploration of the phenomenon indicates the presence of at least 10 sites with business models similar to Du3a’s. Some of the competitors offer more advanced options. For instance, Athantweets.com offers a premium version that, for 100 Saudi Riyals (roughly $27) a year, enables the user to choose specific (as opposed to randomly generated) supplications, and for the tweets to be synchronized to the user’s local prayer times. Tweets sent via this premium package also hide the Athantweets URL, making them virtually indistinguishable from any other tweets with Quranic content.
This casts light on an important characteristic of the phenomenon as a whole, the fact that a majority of the traffic appears to be organic; that is, derived from ordinary accounts of real people, as opposed to ‘bots’, understood as accounts with a fake identity set up purely for the purpose of disseminating content. A qualitative close-reading of a few dozen twitter accounts using Du3a shows that, whereas some of the accounts appeared to be created specifically to use these prayer services, most appeared to be ordinary users, who tweeted everyday messages, photos, and commentary interspersed with the automated messages. In other words, much of the traffic appears to be created by authentic accounts, operated by legitimate users, who creatively automate a facet of their online activity while also using the service as they would do ordinarily.