Monday, November 14, 2011

Hajj 2.0

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

In a previous post, I commented on the online “conference” that was organized by Amir Ahmad last April on “The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media, a “conference” which explored the impact that the new media (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) are having on the Islamic debates at a global scale.

In my latest Huffington-Post article, New Media and Islam’, I discussed how these media and social networks are changing social habits among Muslims today, and how religious leaders and educational institutions are reacting. Examples (which ranged from a fatwa by Ayatollah Khamenei to a long-deceased Saudi sheikh who tweets, via his students, to tens of thousands of followers) showed how some officials are panicking, others have jumped onboard and are trying to use the ‘new media’ for their own goals, and some thinkers are criticizing and ringing alarms on these new “shallow” tools for their “destructive” effects on the inner self.

In this post, I would like to comment on how Hajj (Pilgrimage), a major religious function of Islam which takes place in Saudi Arabia, is now being transformed by these new social/media tools.

Transformations range from the individual usage of Twitter to the utilization of YouTube and other tools by the Saudi officials, for information as well as security purposes.

In a story titled “Saudi goes hi-tech for hajj pilgrimage” reported by AFP last week, we learned that the Saudi government had implemented the following unprecedented actions: a) live-streaming of Hajj (which, may I remind you, goes on for several days, before and after the high-point of the whole-afternoon prayer at Mount Arafah) via YouTube; b) posting of videos and documents about Hajj for guidance to those who need it, also through YouTube; c) texting messages each day to 3.25 million mobile phones of pilgrims to guide them through the correct procedures for the Hajj rites in order to “prevent that which is harmful” (i.e. to insure that no heterodox practices seep in); the AFP story stated that “[t]he messages [were] managed by more than 3,000 clerics, translators and administrators aim[ing] to correct ‘errors’ made by some pilgrims”, though I am perplexed by the 3,000 figure…

Another story, titled “Hajj Pilgrimage Enters Digital Age” and published by Qantara, the German magazine for dialogue with the Islamic world, focused on the individual Muslims’ adoption of the new media in Hajj. For example, it related how people are now using their smartphones moment by moment for a variety of purposes: looking up information on Hajj rituals, locations and directions; keeping in touch with people within the Hajj and back home; sharing impressions and stories and relaying pictures and anecdotes live from Mecca; commenting on a variety of issues, including sometimes socio-political and economic ones (“shouldn’t the returns from Hajj be shared with poorer countries?” asked one pilgrim); asking forgiveness from family, friends, and acquaintances worldwide, as Hajj is supposed to be a full cleansing experience which focuses on seeking forgiveness (from God and people), giving forgiveness to those who may have erred against the person, and pledging to adopt a new, purer lifestyle in every regard possible.
One pilgrim decided to conduct a new media “project” on Hajj: blogging and tweeting live from Mecca (and other Hajj locations) to relate the experience instant by instant.

Last year I wrote a post titled “Ramadan Apps, High-Tech Islam”, in which I described the many new smartphone apps that have appeared with the goal of helping Muslims perform Ramadan (fasting) and other duties (finding the Qibla, the direction to Mecca); well, this year there are a number of apps for Hajj, in several languages and using a variety of formats (audio, e-books, etc.).

Last but not least, as I mentioned in my Huff-Po article, the new media are now used by Muslim clerics who try to keep strong connections with their audiences, offering guidance, rulings, and advice. One good advice tweeted by a sheikh was for those who have already performed Hajj to donate the equivalent cost of a pilgrimage trip to the needy, and freeing some space (literally and figuratively) for others, instead of performing it again (many affluent people like to repeat Hajj a number of times)…
I think this is only the beginning of the impact that new technologies will have on the practice and even understanding of Islam (and other religions). This is fascinating, and it calls for more studies and discussions.
Oh, and do check out this year’s photo essay on Hajj by TIME magazine and Foreign Policy’s slideshow on Eid-ul-Adha and Hajj.


mezba said...

It's great how the Hajj is being managed by the Saudi government... no tragedies for the last few years. I am all for technology as it is used for the good of people.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thank you, mezba, for reminding us that an important aspect of Hajj is the safety of the pilgrim, and that there have been major accidents in recent times. The Saudi government has indeed taken a number of steps to improve the process, notably on the stoning procession, and with the recently announced Mecca-Arafah train project, it should smooth the whole process even more.
Now, technology is of course great when it used for the good of the people, but it is often difficult to predict the consequences of a technology or innovation early on. There is a whole field of study on technology and ethics.
And please do read my column on the Huffington Post (mentioned in the post above) on the impact of new media/technologies on Islamic life; I will have another column soon focusing more on that topic.

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