The virtual world offers a new type of hajj
The horrific stampede during last month’s hajj has renewed concerns about safety at this annual five-day pilgrimage for Muslims.
A combination of confusion and crowds rushing to complete rituals in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, resulted in more than 700 deaths, with ongoing claims that the toll could be much higher. Considered the world’s largest yearly gathering, pilgrim numbers have topped 2 million a year in the past decade.
One way of avoiding the crush is to take a virtual hajj. Some criticise digital simulations as offering a sanitised experience free from the push of crowds, heat and cross-cultural challenges that many encounter as first-time visitors to the Middle East. But others suggest that it could serve to better prepare attendees, and that some Muslims could even view it as an unofficial substitute.
Versions of the virtual hajj have existed for more than a decade, from text- and image-based versions that allow you to explore the rites and rituals to webcams streaming live feeds from key sites. The idea of participating in this way gained global attention in 2007, when Egyptian site Islam Online launched a hajj in the virtual world Second Life. People could take part via an avatar in a digitally recreated Mecca.
Mecca in 3D
More recently, the Mecca 3D app, currently under development, seeks to offer an immersive simulator with a virtual guide that gives historical information and religious counsel. The plan is for it to work with an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset.
This means that Muslims who are unable to undertake the hajj for physical or financial reasons could engage with it. Although the hajj is a holy obligation for Muslims, the Koran allows for exemptions if the journey would cause hardship. A virtual option can offer the faithful a way to transcend such limitations.
It also opens a door for non-Muslims, who are normally banned by the Saudi authorities. In my own teaching, I have taken students to virtual Mecca to help them better understand and appreciate this tradition.
Such simulations do face opposition from some religious conservatives. One key fear is of secularising the pilgrimages. Critics also argue that the traditional hajj is a communal experience full of the joys and challenges of sharing the pilgrim road with others. In contrast, a virtual hajj is largely an individual experience.
Yet designers of digital versions argue that although some features of the experience are lost online, such formats still provide a legitimate opportunity that can supplement the real thing and enable pilgrims to reflect on previous offline experiences.
And no matter what religious concerns are voiced about the limits of a virtual hajj, the fact is that we live in an increasingly technological world in which such experiences are ever more common, and will probably become more popular.