The black silk was cold and soft. The protruding layers of thread that spelt out "Allah" in neat Arabic curls absorbed the tears and prayers sprayed at the cloth's delicate font, while still reflecting the flood of light that shone from looming construction cranes and endless spurts of cell phone flashes.
I rubbed my hands gently against the Kabah.
Infinite prayers, regrets, wishes, and questions raced inside me, bottling to a head when I had just fractions of a second to solidify a crucial dilemma: do I whip out my phone, conveniently stored in a pocket of my abaya, and snag a quick photo of my family and myself-or not?
This past winter break featured our visit to Saudi Arabia, completed in order to perform Umrah-the minor Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, often described as an abridged version of Hajj able to be completed any time of the year. It consists primarily of seven Tawafs, or "laps" around the Kabah, and couple additional other traditions, like running between two mountains to simulate the same path that Hagar (wife of Abraham) ran in desperation to find water for her and her son when stranded in the Arabian desert some many centuries ago.
So, photo or not?
I paused, for as long as it was physically possible to do so in a sea of a million people vying to stand, more or less, exactly where I was standing. A mosaic of ages, races, cultures, languages, genders, and classes chugged by me in a clunky but common circular rhythm around the very draped black box my two palm reached up against. Bound by similar chants of Qur'anic verse and Arabic prayers, we all made the journey here to Mecca for a reason way beyond this finite moment. And yet, we stood here with a longing to revel in this second, this experience, this feeling forever. And our lives in the 21st century afford those of us with the resources the very option to nourish that craving, perhaps addictively.
Photos, symbolism, and faces have historically maintained a level of controversy in many Islamic societies.
Yet for every one abaya-the most common garb for women in a country where full body coverage is an around-the-clock obligation; plus for every one red-checkered Kufi-the traditional male Saudi headpiece; and plus for every one wheelchair-which carried the dedication and faith of a pilgrim who additionally overcame disability or illness to be in Mecca; yes, for all these iconic, blessed, and admirable traditions of the pilgrimage combined, I counted at least one selfie stick.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a selfie stick-maybe Disney would disagree with me on this one. Sure, I find them tacky, irritating, and dangerous in such crowds (and Mecca is certainly filled with magnitudes more worth of people than Anaheim or Orlando, Paris or Tokyo)-but my shock with the selfie stick phenomenon perhaps only lent a lens into greater trends regarding religion (specifically Islam), technology, and reconciling tradition.
For context's sake, I am no stranger to a non-US or Western countries, traditions, or cultures; but I am a Muslim-American born and raised in the States, surrounded my parents, friends, and family who identify similarly. I am neither a stranger to technology, social media, or mass crowds of people (though again, Mecca's density, as well as obligation to host this entire mass of humanity performing tasks and procedures in sync and specific times simultaneously, is likely comparable to no other place on Earth).
Maybe I should've seen it coming. It's reasonable to expect the intersection of global technology with any local community around the world these days. The popular social media application "Snapchat" featured a photo-video-series during a day of Ramadan last summer that allowed people in Mecca to submit their photos and videos to circulate around the world. As an avid follower of this series last July, I should be among the first to note that much of the content were selfies, perhaps via the stick.
Yet it's not even about the selfie, let alone this demonized stick. It is about a crumbled expectation I should have never maintained in the first place. My Muslim-American childhood featured weekly Islamic Sunday School, where we heard the glories of Hajj and Umrah, the beauty of Mecca, and the epiphanies of these experiences.
And none of that was inherently false.
But the selfie stick is, as aforementioned, a lens to greater patterns of traditions, or in cases, the question of their dissolution. My Sunday School exposure, glossed by my dad's accounts of his childhood in 1980s Saudi, crafted a very containedly spiritual image to me-gullibly morphing Saudi into a type of infallible dimension that guaranteed a spiritual renaissance in one's
And let me be clear-Umrah was spiritual for me. It just wasn't in the way I expected. Globalization has hit, and it hit has hard. We prayed prayers in the white marble floors of the mall attached to the mosque of the Kabah when too many hundreds of thousands filled the actual inside facilities of the mosque itself. Haagen-Daaz, Dior, and H&M's English as well as Arabic transliteration signs dimmed for daily prayers and loomed over us, just like the skyscraper cranes that towered magnitudes of height outside above the Kabah.
In all of this, however, no one could ask for more beautiful maintenance, construction, and preservation of these astounding structures than what the Saudi government has offered. And yet it has come at many costs-one of which includes local Arabian markets and storefronts being pushed (at best) to the random alleys behind the now massive Hiltons and European-brand hotels.
What was so special about touching the black silk? What was it about contact or a selfie with the black silk that would make or break my pilgrimage? This whole box is just a metaphor, anyway, for "God's home." Wasn't the whole point that God is beyond a ritualistic procedure or exact location? Although yet, here I was, thousands of miles away from home, to perform the most sacred of rituals.
It is a contradiction. It is a controversy. On one hand, these recent expansions have face-lifted Mecca and adorned the city with gorgeous towers, incredible hotel-malls, and halal-versions of dozens of Western fast food chains. Yet these experiences-praying next to Krispy Kreme and always having KFC as an option to gorge endlessly after Tawaf-are the ones that most affected me. As we passed H&M for congregations, it wasn't, "OMG WHAT'S THE SALE???" (Admittedly, my thought by previous habit.) I tried to sway more toward, "Well yeah, H&M is next to me, but can I still concentrate on prayer?"
It's easy to want to go to Mecca and hope just performing all the rituals and being away and cut-off will enlighten you. It wasn't like that for me at least.
And good or bad, that's owed to technology.
Islam and technology, perhaps a focused subset of the typical "religion and science debate," is as equally negligible a discussion as it is manageable-in that it is neither. We are struggling to converse in a world whose social axis is fastened parallel to technological advancement.
Is this a reference to an extremist group that promotes barbaric savagery on 21st century websites using 21st century video editing software? Only if your consideration of dialogue is that narrow. It is as much that as it is a reference to any other of the boundless conversations that string together the world of Islam and tech-which also, by the way, covers employing social media to spread the word about fighting Islamophobia; cultivating ways to mass-distribute and educate more varying diversity in interpreters of Qur'anic translations; and utilizing a mainstream social media platform like Snapchat to showcase the beauty of some of the most sacred traditions and special experiences to Muslims and non-Muslims alike around the world.
We owe the positives, as well as the side effects, of these globalization mechanisms to tech. Do we see a grave issue in non-Muslims abusing via ridiculing gifts like the Ramadan-themed snapchat sticker-frame/filter, which was available to the app's users around the globe during part of the Holy Month in 2015? Maybe it should match how concerned we grow by Khutbah leaders who abstractly claim people must "denounce the Western ways" and "technological developments" of life-as they regurgitate such words from a Safari page off their latest iPhone and work up a temper sustained by the most advanced pacemaker regulating their hearts.
The more productive conversation is equally about movements facilitated by tech-even the Tumblr blog "Side Entrance" run by Hind Makki where women around the world submit and publish photo sets of their local mosques that juxtapose women's entrance/facilities vs. men's. It can be simply discovering your favorite Adhan app on your Phone or computer. It is crucially about honoring the great Islamic empires, who contributed strides to mathematics, astronomy, medicine, sciences in general, by kindling the intellectual inspiration to learn and achieve more.
It's about how the seemingly trivial milestones of a "Snapchat" feature fostered, largely at least, an element of awareness for others and pride for me in my religion last summer-the latter of which I have grown up in post-9/11 America never knowing. It's about how that same culture of pictures and displays and social media then sting me in the moment throughout my stay in Mecca-sting me, as I, too, play a role for the most part.
It's different for everyone, which is perhaps most critical. Ultimately these threads of thought-of technology, of Islam, of reconciliation-precipitated into a feeling that evoked in me a decision in how I should act in a given situation: perhaps a crude definition for one elementary, but foundational angle in viewing the concept of what is religion.
Should I take the photo?