When around a million pilgrims gather for the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Mecca next week, many will have cell phones in their white robes. Hajj selfies were all the rage in Mecca before the pandemic pause, and hundreds of thousands of self-portraits will be snapped at the first mass gathering in the holy city since 2019.
The Saudi authorities don’t like that at all. The Hajj Ministry in Riyadh called on pilgrims to focus on serving God during the pilgrimage beginning July 7. Especially when circumnavigating the Kaaba sanctuary in the center of the Great Mosque of Mecca, selfies could even be dangerous.
If a pilgrim stops to take a picture, following pilgrims may bump into them in the crowd. In addition, other pilgrims could appear in the picture without asking their permission. Selfies could also disrupt the devotions of other pilgrims, the ministry warned. The appeal will probably not be of much use.
Just as tourists want to show their friends and relatives where they are vacationing with their snapshots in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Brandenburg Gate, Mecca pilgrims send a selfie greeting from the Hajj home. Before the corona pandemic, Saudi Arabia temporarily banned pilgrimage selfies, but with more than two million pilgrims at the time, this could not be enforced.
This year, the Saudi Hajj Ministry, which is allowing one million pilgrims for the first time since the pandemic, is content with an appeal. The ritual circumambulation of the Kaaba is mentioned in the Koran and is one of the duties of a pilgrim on the Hajj. Following the example of the Prophet Mohammed, the believers should make seven laps counterclockwise around the sanctuary covered with black cloth.
The fact that many pilgrims take selfies of these holiest moments of the Hajj raises not only practical but also theological questions. Pilgrims should always have the Kaaba to their left when circling around and complete the seven laps without interruption. If they stop for their selfie and turn their backs on the Kaaba to get the picture, they are breaking these rules.
In addition, selfies can be understood as showing off and disrupting contemplation. A group of British Muslims years ago branded selfies in Mecca as “a dangerous phenomenon that destroys the spirit of pilgrimage”. Ahead of this year’s Hajj, an Indonesian diplomat in Saudi Arabia warned pilgrims from the world’s most populous Islamic country not to take group selfies in front of the Kaaba.
Some groups of Indonesian pilgrims took pictures of themselves with banners in front of the shrine and were therefore warned by the Saudi authorities, Consul General Eko Hartono said, according to a report by the Indonesian news agency Antara. In extreme cases, pilgrims could be sent home. But individual selfies are fine.
Some observers believe the trend is irreversible. She understands the criticism of the Hajj selfies, wrote columnist Shelina Janmohamed in the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National. However, nowadays the principle applies: “If it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen.”
She herself has already taken Mecca selfies. For the Saudi authorities, however, cell phones in Mecca are not only a curse, but also a blessing. They offer a mobile app designed to help pilgrims use local transport and ATMs during the Hajj. Pilgrims who have lost their way in the crowd of pilgrims can also use the app to find their way to their hotel or tent.
Saudi Arabia also relies on modern technology elsewhere. At the end of last year, the country presented a pilot project that would allow believers to see and touch the so-called Black Stone in the Kaaba in virtual reality. Mecca pilgrims are supposed to kiss or touch the stone at the southeast corner of the Kaaba, which is often impossible because of the crowds there.
According to tradition, the stone fell from heaven at the time of Adam and Eve and was placed in the Kaaba by Mohammed. The virtual version of the Black Stone is intended to give Muslims the opportunity to be close to the sanctuary without having to travel to Mecca. So much digitization goes too far for some. The Turkish religious authority decided that a virtual pilgrimage is not a substitute for the real one.