Recent images of a newly rebranded cosmopolitan Mecca show Islam's holiest site lit by skyscrapers towering over the Ka'aba, the shrine built by the Patriach Abraham and his son Ishmael. The Ka'aba is a modest but overpowering, cubed brick building, referred to as the House of God, towards which millions of Muslims turn to pray five times a day. It is also the focus of the Hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam. It is obligatory for every Muslim (who can afford it and is physically able) to perform the journey, one taken by millions of people over almost 1500 years. But the daunting new urban infrastructure proposed by Saudi Arabia has led to expressions of both pride and disgust. It has been both hailed as a needed reform and condemned as the "Las Vegasization" of the holy city of worship at the expense of Islamic heritage.
Does technology have a place in a sacred space? It seems as though there might be little choice.
The Saudi government has made considerable changes within the past years to the main ritual sites to accommodate the increasingly large number of faithful who attend the annual pilgrimage. From heat-resistant marble floors to unfathomably large air conditioning units to escalators, the Ministry of Hajj has undertaken many efforts to make the journey easier as the Hajj moves into the summer. This past year, in particular however, technology and the spiritual journey have collided in an unprecedented way and may help change the shape and direction of how many pilgrims interact with the Hajj. The booming popularity of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as well as the growth of multimedia and citizen journalism as forces of information sharing made easy (both in accessibility and use) have made the collusion inevitable. This has been bolstered by the organic and created growing need to connect with others, both known and unknown, channeled through camera-phones with impressive data plans.
Facebook photo-sharing of solemn or excited faces in front of a backdrop of a thunderous crowd of white garb with specs of color has been one of the oldest expressions of the relationship between the Hajj and social media technology. And it has grown considerably. On Twitter, many Hajjis will tweet brief reports of their experiences. Bilal Aslam, a DC native, went so far as to transcribe daily journal entries from his pilgrimage onto an online forum. According to Aslam after "seeing so many interesting and crazy events, I had to share [them] with others."
Yet the intersection of Hajj and the internet has gone beyond just simply sharing images and sentiments of the experience. Such technology has also been used to fulfill the practical needs of pilgrims while other forms have been used to make the burdens of the journey easier. There was a concerted effort by the governor of Mecca to use new media as a means through which would-be pilgrims could gain information about not only what to expect on the pilgrimage and the sort of services provided for them, as well as learn about proper religious legal conduct.
In addition to this, other services have been arisen to help pilgrims learn about what is done during the Hajj, connect with other pilgrims and find appropriate tour groups. This past Hajj, the Saudi government sent out 3.25 million text messages per day to keep pilgrims on their ritualistic toes. Perhaps Saudi Arabia's most emphatic technological approach to Hajj this past year was the live-streaming of the entire pilgrimage on YouTube, allowing millions around the world to click open images of circumambulating pilgrims.
Among young Muslims, the Web has also become the preferred mode of finding information about traveling and booking for Hajj as well as connecting and communicating with service providers. FlyHajj.com, a recent start-up from Pakistan, helps address practical challenges faced by pilgrims, tour operators in multi-billion dollar Hajj marketplace. The online travel portal, which perhaps shows the greatest potential for the market it seeks to fill, caters to both potential pilgrims as well as tour operators who specialize in creating Hajj travel packages. Bringing together otherwise scattered information, tour groups, the website allows travelers to find affordable and appropriate packages, which include accommodation and shopping alongside travel arrangements. Pilgrims can post reviews of their experiences and connect with other pilgrims.
While many lament the new tech-savvy feel of Mecca and experience of the Hajj, they miss that technology, at least the less visually-intrusive part of it, has been, and is increasingly becoming, an integral part of the pilgrimage, both to aid the journey as well as make it more easily accessible to both pilgrims and non-pilgrims alike.
Kaaba photo by Tab59