Virtual hajj addressing global Islam and alienation from Saudi control

While what is called the “virtual hajj” became a necessity during the pandemic, it will likely assume a greater place in world Islam due to quota limitations on pilgrims and the globalization of the faith, writes Song Niu in the journal Contemporary Islam (online in January). Virtual hajj refers to several kinds of participation in the hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca and the Kaaba stone that is considered one of the five pillars of Islam. These include reenacting and building actual scenes of the Kaaba and other sites, the use of 3D digital and virtual reality technology in pilgrim role-playing, and broadcasting the real hajj to non-pilgrims with 5G network technology (which was especially widespread during the pandemic). All of these methods of participating in the hajj came into play during the Covid pandemic, but even before that many Muslims seeking to perform the ritual were denied access to the holy sites due to shrinking quotas allocated to their home countries or because of deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia. After the outbreak of Covid, Saudi Arabia “just provided scaled-down hajj quotas for pilgrims in 2020 and 2021, which had a huge impact on the rights of hajj applicants outside of Saudi territory,” Niu writes.

Source: Hajji VR.

Turkey has most actively promoted the virtual hajjes after hajj-reduction quotas were imposed on its citizens by Saudi Arabia. In 2013, Turkey held its first virtual hajj, involving a Kaaba replica built in the square of Istanbul’s Ottoman Mosque. Turkey has also contested Saudi hajj management through its cooperation with other Muslim nations and more active role in international organizations, putting pressure on the Saudis to compromise on hajj quotas. But it is Saudi Arabia itself that has furthered the reach of the virtual hajj through its Virtual Black Stone Initiative, with the government receiving support from Facebook and its “Metaverse” to virtually construct Saudi smart cities that bring the hajj experience to more Muslims. Religious scholars and leaders from other Islamic countries have criticized the government’s sponsorship of the initiative, arguing that it does not make for a genuine and fulfilling hajj experience. But even those calling for a return to in-person hajj participation see the virtual hajj as serving an important preparatory function, especially for younger Muslims. “From Indonesia to Saudi Arabia, many kindergartens and schools have improved Muslim children’s understanding of hajj rituals” and non-Muslims “can also obtain immersive experiences of the hajj rituals and preliminarily understand hajj’s global significance,” Niu concludes.

(Contemporary Islam,