Space mosque? Holo calligraphy? Buraq travel in VR? Muslims in the metaverse is a concept award-winning designer and entrepreneur, Peter Gould is exploring.
Islam Imagined Digital Communities
He has worked on a variety of digital and creative projects — including collaborating with Google Glass and building apps for Muslim kids. His interest in virtual reality began as a student at University of Technology Sydney. As a Muslim, he is always keen to bring together Islamic traditions and emerging digital technology. His studio has offices in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai.
We talked to Peter all things digital, innovating Islamic design for the future and imagining new possibilities.
Your spiritual and creative journey are closely linked, what led you to developing a career in design?
I’d always had an interest and curiosity around design and technology from a young age, and was fascinated by creating digital artwork on early computers. I loved the potential of that space, and eventually started to freelance as a graphic designer while I was in high school. I remember a friend asking me to design a poster for AUD20, which would have been a whole day’s work at McDonalds at the time, so that was really the first time I thought that design is really what I want to be doing professionally.
I enrolled in a Bachelor of Design course at university, and actually started my first design firm at the same time, even though I was very new to it. It was a big experiment, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was excited by the potential of technology and creative expression. That was around the year 2000/01, when a lot of early internet technology was starting to get traction – animation was online, video was very new, and I was right in that space.
Parallel to that, I was having my own personal journey and became interested in Islam and the spiritual path. I was asking so many questions around my own existence and what it all means; how is it that I’ve been born with all these opportunities and blessings that somebody born elsewhere doesn’t have? This discovery process really answered a lot of the questions that I had in ways that I never would have imagined - very deep, but also very simple ways.
Peter receives award from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum 2015.jpg
So these two paths have always been connected and over time, particularly with travel, I really saw them mature, intertwine, and be enriched by traditional Islamic cultures. My design profession and interest in start-ups and entrepreneurship was growing at the same time as my spiritual awareness was deepening, and the potential of all those things together was a really fascinating journey to explore.
You take an innovative approach to Islamic design and entrepreneurship, and are known to say innovation has been central to reconnecting with Islam over generations. What does this mean for Islamic art and culture in the present day?
My understanding is that Muslim cultures and civilisations have always adopted, embraced and been curious about technologies that can improve the human experience. That there was an appreciation and connection to the beauty of the divine source of that technology’s inspiration.
So through their work, calligraphers or architects or craftspeople were helping people to remember God and reconnect. It wasn’t about shying away from technology or innovation, but seeing its potential to improve themselves and their condition. And I think that continues today. We’re on the next part of the journey, where the culture of the day – the zeitgeist – is digital platforms using hyper-connected devices.
Peter working with UAE clients
I think our spirituality is increasingly important in a time when we can become easily distracted, so reconnecting to and re-embracing some traditional understandings of Islamic art becomes very profound. For example, taking the concept of Niyyah and looking at what it could mean for a product designer or start-up founder. Or taking basic concepts around Barakah and looking at how we could bring blessings into our projects.
While these things that were traditionally implied or understood by Muslim practitioners in the past, we might have to consciously describe them and think more deeply about them today. And used the right way, with the right intention, the tools that we have today can really help us to do that. The technology we have at our disposal gives us new and dynamic ways to connect to the divine through art and culture, and I think it’s a really exciting time for creatives to explore that potential.
In a world of social media and new technologies, how can we keep growing our Islamic traditions with these new tools?
I believe that many of the challenges we face as humans are timeless: Working on ourselves, the journey of consciousness and awareness, and remembering and connecting with the source of all these blessings.
The new tools we have can of course be a distraction from all of that, but I also think there’s huge potential to use them in positive ways. For example, we could create new interfaces for people who might be looking for a window into a spiritual practice or path. Interfaces that are firmly rooted in the Islamic tradition, but for new audiences who might discover them because they’re using some of these new tools and technologies.
Things like videos and social media content have proven to be beneficial when they have the right intention behind them, so that’s an obvious way that we can keep growing our Islamic traditions in a modern context. But I think more creative opportunities lie in thinking about the Metaverse and VR, for example. What is our place in that, as modern day Muslims? How can these tools benefit us, and how can we use them to benefit others? I think it’s healthy to have conversations and curiosity about these things, so long as we’re staying connected to our teachers and scholars to keep us grounded.
We recently started a new Discord server called Metaverse Muslims for this purpose, to discuss things such all manner of topics, opportunities, challenges and developments of the Metaverse. It’s open to anyone and everyone who has questions, opinions, concerns, ideas, and we hope it provides a safe space for people to openly talk about what the Metaverse means for Muslims, and how we can navigate it.
You encourage fantastical aspirations for creative and innovative entrepreneurship in the Muslim community for the future. How can we work as a global community to make this happen?
I think it’s important to listen to our young people and look at where young Muslims are. More and more Muslims are getting into gaming, and becoming curious about things like Blockchain, NFT projects, spending time on Discord servers, and things like this. So we have to look at where Muslims are and see the potential for good in those platforms – as well as being aware of any dangers there might be, of course.
So, I think listening, connecting and being comfortable with having open conversations is important, as well as having a really positive mindset about what we can do as a global community. There are so many brilliant, talented creatives, imaginative Muslims out there, and with the right support they have the potential to do incredible, profound, impactful things.
I also think it’s important to be proactive in connecting different communities who might be ‘like-hearted’. They might not necessarily be ‘like-minded’ in exactly how they think and what they see in front of them, but they’re ‘like-hearted’ in as much as they all what a wholesome future, where spiritual wellbeing is considered in the design process, or in the gaming platforms they use, or the technology they might be interested in.
To me, these kinds of connections, conversations and collective movements can really help us build a beautiful future, with our spiritual practice guiding us through things safely.
What is Islam Imagined? How and why was the project conceived and developed? Can you tell us the objectives of Islam Imagined, what do you hope audiences gain from engaging the platform?
Islam Imagined is a project that started in 2015 and was essentially a catalogue of actives and challenges for educators, parents and for young people based around STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math).
It was developed to help young people think about some of these technologies, ideas and future possibilities, and the role our faith might play in those things. Something as simple as, knowing that there are many young Muslims on Minecraft, encouraging them to build Minecraft mosques. It invited a lot of interesting conversations and created some very beautiful and creative designs. One of my friend’s kids, for example, invented a girls-only virtual mosque. I think that encouraging that kind of imagination is really healthy, and can start to unlock even more creative and critical thinking in the future.
Islam Imagined Space Mosque
There are many activities on the platform that audiences have benefitted from, and I hope will continue to do so in years to come; allowing people to think about the future in interesting ways. We didn’t create Islam Imagined with an agenda to say what that future should look like, or advocate a particular way to use this technology, but it does try to make a connection to our faith, and say that it has a role in all parts of our lives – including what the future might be.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you in terms of design and technology? What are the potential opportunities and how can we work towards collectively achieving those goals?
I think there’s an immense potential for communication and connectivity – perhaps more than ever. And I believe there will be an increased fidelity of that communication and connectivity as we learn how to best use virtual technologies in the Metaverse.
Having said that, real connection is a different matter, and it’s important to always remember that. Real connection comes through spiritual practice and presence, and we don’t rely on technology to deliver that. That’s one of the reasons our faith is timeless – it addresses the way humans are designed, and our faith keeps us grounded.
As beneficial as it can be, technology by itself is not a solution. As we all know, it can be used to create digital experiences that are designed to sell or addict. There’s a lot of design for distraction, and I think that this is where one of the big opportunities lies: Creating a counterpoint to that. Instead of designing for distraction, I’d love to see people designing for remembrance, designing for connection, designing for personal contemplation. Using technology for these positive aspirations.
An example of something that already exists might be a prayer app that reminds you when to pray, or gives you the Qibla direction while travelling. It might be a simple example, but it’s something to be inspired by, build on, and take encouragement from that design and technology can be used for good. And today, with so much access to like-hearted people around the world through social media, video calls, and the like, we can work upwards together more than ever before.
Find out more about Peter Gould and Islam Imagined here: http://www.islamimagined.com
The views of the interviewees who are featured in Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.