Performing Hajj: Sacred Rituals and Social Media
Mecca’s annual pilgrimage has become a major social media event—and many are now asking whether social media helps pilgrims glorify their faith or themselves.
December 17, 2015One of the most-shared images from last year’s Hajj pilgrimage had an unlikely inspiration—Ellen DeGeneres’s famous “Oscar selfie.” The photo captured perhaps 40 beaming men, each draped in the humble white cloth of a pilgrim. The photographer is giving a thumbs-up sign, and the Kaaba looms far behind. This Kodak moment by the Kaaba was hardly unique; Mecca’s annual pilgrimages have become major social media events. What this trend means for the state of worship is a topic of heated debate.
Saudi authorities banned the use of phones and cameras in the Grand Mosque until just a few years ago. Today, many use smartphones and social media to share every step of their spiritual journeys. A surge in posts earned Hajj 2014 the title “the year of the selfie.”
The trend could not only change the way outsiders view Islam’s most sacred spaces, but also the way that Muslims experience them. Certain religious scholars insist that social media use distracts from prayer, in defiance of a saying by the Prophet Muhammad. Others decry the narcissism of it all, turning the religion’s holiest sites into mere backdrops for self-portraits. Proponents argue that the images celebrate faith and provide a powerful antidote to negative stereotypes of Islam.
Like many religious debates, it continues to rage on. For better or worse, advocates of both sides will continue to have more material to work with. This year, social media giant Snapchat broadcast a live feed of pilgrims’ personal videos from inside Mecca to its 100 million users, after hundreds of thousands mounted a lobbying campaign on Twitter.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.