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Weaving religion and business
Islamic prayer rugs have traditionally been used for one primary purpose. Niyya asks: "What if they can be more?"
The use of prayer rugs dates back well over 1000 years.
Deriving from the Islam tradition of praying on clean surfaces, it is said that Mohammed began the practice by praying on a khumrah, a mat constructed from palm leaves. While prayer rugs began as ritual objects, they took on additional meaning and were often treated as works of art under the Ottoman dynasty, with increased attention to quality and design. The rugmaking industry thrived as mats were traded from Turkey to Morocco, to Europe, Central Asia, and India, establishing what became known as the “rug belt.” During this time, certain rugs were considered too precious a commodity to pray on, and were instead displayed as objects of fine art. And they still are. In 2009, a Persian Savafid rug was sold at Sotheby’s London for a whopping $4.3 million.
Today, rugs remain ubiquitous in Islam culture, but in a melting pot environment like the US, it’s not always easy to break off into a private area to pray. Our society just isn’t set up for that, so much so that the practicality of toting a mat everywhere you travel can be imposing. Take a subway commute, for instance. Wouldn’t it be great if someone imparted a modern, multipurpose mentality while honoring the rich legacy of prayer rug design? What if that rug could double as a fashionable shawl? Or a blanket?
Niyya, a lifestyle prayer mat company founded by Myhra Mirza, does just that. But it hasn't been easy. With a full-time design lead position at a digital product agency in Brooklyn, NY, Myhra took her product all the way from idea to execution—without saying goodbye to her day job. Supermaker spoke with the boundary-pushing founder about getting Niyya off the ground, juggling her day job, and the intersection of faith and work.
What led you to create Niyya mats, and how were you fit for the task?
The idea for Niyya first came about when I was preparing for vacation, and was searching for a portable prayer mat. I noticed that it was one of the few Islamic items that had yet to be modernized. Most of these travel companions are very basic in design and personality. They also don’t offer much padding between you and the ground, so when praying on tile or a hard surface, it can feel taxing. I wanted to create a product that was more visually appealing, informed by modern design and also providing enough padding to be comfortable to use on a variety of surfaces.
In the digital age, the ability to quickly take an idea from concept to product has created a lot of noise in the marketplace. As a designer, I have always wanted to create something useful that could also benefit the Muslim community and not just be another addition to an oversaturated market. Recreating a tactile tool that we all can use on a daily basis aligns with my skill set for digital product design, and has introduced me to new challenges that allow me to pull from my traditional education in graphic design. My full-time job is as a digital design lead at a digital product agency in Brooklyn, NYC. So outside of work, I find it really satisfying to create products in a more tactile medium.
The multi-functionality of Niyya is unique in the marketplace. What inspired this concept?
The requirement for a prayer mat is essentially a clean surface between you and the ground, without any illustrations of animate objects. Creating a portable mat that is thicker and softer than a thin sheet opened up the ability for it to be utilized for a variety of uses. Suddenly my creation was not only a prayer mat, but also a shawl, throw, or tapestry.
When I end up buying portable items to travel with, they tend to add up quickly and sometimes I end up traveling with more bulk and products than are needed. Living in NYC, that becomes an issue very quickly since public transit is my main source of transportation. I’m always looking at ways to streamline so that I’m not that uncomfortable passenger balancing multiple heavy bags on train.
So with that in mind, I wanted Niyya to have the ability to take on many uses. In the winter, the mat can have the daily function as a scarf you throw over your neck to keep you warm, then easily be taken off to use for prayer. In the summer, it can be used as a shawl to fight off the chilly AC. As I started to think of all the possibilities that the mat could function as, it became more of a meaningful project. I liked that my mats were sustainable items that could be more ethically consumed by taking on many forms of function.
So far the response has been very positive, and there has been a wide range of people interested in the mats for a variety of uses.
Walk us through your approach to design and manufacturing.
I wanted the design to evoke familiarity, so keeping a traditional arch motif was still very important. I also incorporated abstract shapes that were influenced by strokes of the Arabic alphabet to create patterns within the mat, giving it a more distinctly modern design feel.
When designing and naming these first 4 mats, I also thought it was important to focus on the product’s main purpose—that being prayer, and the process that helps you achieve peacefulness. The names are Salaa (prayer), Dhikr (remembrance & mindfulness), Sabr (patience) and Tahara (purification/ cleansing). The colors and designs are also in part representative of that.
I went back and forth about the length of the mat for quite some time. It is actually a little longer than a traditional sized mat, and I was concerned that would not be ideal for a product that is meant to be more portable than the standard. But by making it a bit longer, it actually allows the product to be used in different ways as well as accommodate taller people and mothers who pray with their young child in hand.
The mats are woven in America and are 100 percent cotton. I thought it was important to support American business to create Islamic based products. It helps solidify that we are also part of this nation and want our industries to thrive.
What did your timeline for launching look like? What major hurdles did you overcome along the way?
Niiya launched this April, but the initial idea was born in July 2017. It then took me a few months, until around October 2017, to fully ideate and identify vendors that I could align with. In January 2018 I had my first prototype in hand, and the product was ready to sell by that May.
The biggest hold up came with designing and developing the website, as well as personal life circumstances. Up until the website design, getting Niyya off the ground required skills and hats that I don’t necessarily get to wear on a day to day basis. I found these new challenges exciting. But when it came to having to design and create the site, something I do as my day job, my excitement and motivation to work on it after work was at a much lower level. I also had to be mindful of my budget and careful to limit its complexity.
Once I designed and prototyped the site, my next challenge was finding a developer within my budget range. I wound up with a developer who didn’t understand the effort that would go into manipulating a Shopify template, and they ended up quitting halfway through. I then hired a second developer who kept failing to meet the timelines he had set, and was not detailed-oriented. Managing this process and assuring the quality of the site was the biggest and most drawn out hurdle that I had to deal with.
How do you manage running Niyya while holding on to your day job?
Maintaining a work-life balance is probably my biggest hurdle. Working a full time job in front of a screen, and finding time to design for myself, while also making sure I maintain a healthy balance was a learning curve, especially since I definitely value my free time. As a result, it took a bit longer to launch but I was able to keep more of a balance.
However, what was exciting was the new challenges I don't usually have to deal with, such as figuring out a process for production. Creating the business model was also an overwhelming thought at first, but thankfully I had some great coworkers and friends who had gone through starting up their own business and could share their wisdom.
How does your faith intersect with business?
The name Niyya translates to the Islamic conception of intention, of being thoughtful throughout your day with your purpose and actions, so the business is very closely intersected with my faith.
Taking those 10-15 mins to just reset and a focus on something beyond the day-to-day hustle helps to keep things in perspective. I think it’s similar to people who do daily meditations, and I definitely think it’s important, being that it helps to take a break from getting caught up in irrelevant worries and helps put the focus on what is actually important.
We’ve talked about the importance of bridging communities in today’s socio-political climate. How does Niyya help to foster this mission?
In Islam there are many differing sects and schools of thought, but one unifying item outside of the Quran is the prayer mat. No matter your belief or sect, we all use a mat to pray with, and so I think of the mat as a powerful, symbolic item that represents unity and brings people together. Outside of the Islamic world, there are a lot of biases, stereotypes, and negative associations with Muslims from the media, as well as opinions about what we believe and our temperaments. I thought it was important to create an item that can have multiple purposes as a way to knock down the wall between the Muslim community and those who have predisposed stigmas towards us.
I think there's beauty in creating an item that is predominately used as a way to achieve inner peace and talk to one’s creator, but then to be used by others outside of the faith in whatever intent they choose to enrich their daily lives—whether as a shawl, beach mat, scarf, or throw. By using this same item as a decorative item or accessory, I hope it brings communities closer by showing that no matter your background, a simple object can impact your daily life in a meaningful and different way. It also normalizes and gets more people publicly comfortable with seeing muslim practice their faith outside on the go, hopefully breaking down misconceptions they may have. For me, it was important to create a tool that could be used regularly but also foster healthy discussion.
What does success look like for Niyya over the next year? What is your plan to grow?
Success for me will be generating enough interest and support for Niyya to allow me to release new designs and ideas. Later on, I would love to create more items around the same ideas of intention and mindfulness.