Social media and the sacred journey
As I write, 33 Muslims from Barbados are fulfilling their pilgrimage obligations in Mecca, Saudi Arabia alongside more than three million others from all across the world.
The annual pilgrimage, or the hajj, for Muslims is here again and once more millions have undertaken this sacred journey. It is an obligation that has been fulfilled for centuries, before the advent of Islam in the 7th Century and in its current format for over 1,400 years since the beginning of the faith as we know it.
The actual rituals of the hajj go back much further to the time of Abraham, his wife, Hagar and their son, Ishmael. The scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – remind us of their story and their sojourn on earth. The pilgrim in Mecca and its environs basically reconnects with the lives of these three great personalities and their struggles in the barren plains of that part of Arabia.
As this pilgrimage has been going on for centuries, the travel to and the features of these holy places have undergone tremendous transformation. In the distant past, this pilgrimage was undertaken on the backs of camels, horses, mules, donkeys and even on foot. Muslims would leave their homes in distant lands and travel for months on land and sea to reach Mecca in time for the pilgrimage. In several cases, these journeys were done in large caravans.
One such journey in the 14th century is well-documented, due to the impact the caravan had on the economies of the lands it passed through and the historical significance it created. It was the journey to hajj of Mansa Musa. That journey is summarized by one writer as follows:
“Mansa Musa, fourteenth century Emperor of the Mali Empire, is the medieval African ruler most known to the world outside Africa. His elaborate pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in 1324 introduced him to rulers in the Middle East and in Europe. His leadership of Mali, a state which stretched across two thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Chad and which included all or parts of the modern nations of Mauritania, Senegal,Gambia,Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad, ensured decades of peace and prosperity in Western Africa.
In 1312, Musa became emperor following the death of his predecessor, Abu-Bakr II. When he was crowned, he was given the name Mansa meaning king. Mansa Musa was knowledgeable in Arabic and was described as a Muslim traditionalist. He became the first Muslim ruler in West Africa to make the nearly four thousand-mile journey to Mecca. Preparing for the expedition took years and involved the work of artisans in numerous towns and cities across Mali. In 1324, Musa began his pilgrimage with an entourage of thousands of escorts. He also brought considerable amounts of gold, some of which was distributed along the journey.
Accompanied by thousands of richly dressed servants and supporters, Musa made generous donations to the poor and to charitable organizations as well as the rulers of the lands his entourage crossed. On his stop in Cairo, Egypt, the Emperor gave out so much gold that he generated a brief decline in its value. Cairo’s gold market recovered over a decade later.
Upon his return from Mecca, Mansa Musa brought Arab scholars, government bureaucrats, and architects. Among those who returned with him was the architect Ishaq El Teudjin who introduced advanced building techniques to Mali. He designed numerous buildings for the Emperor, including a new palace named Madago; the mosque at Gao, the second largest city in Mal;, and the still-standing great mosque at Timbuktu, the largest city in the empire. That mosque was named the Djinguereber. El Teudjin’s most famous design was the Emperor’s chamber at the Malian capital of Niani.
Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage boosted Islamic education in Mali by adding mosques, libraries, and universities. The awareness of Musa by other Islamic leaders brought increased commerce and scholars, poets, and artisans, making Timbuktu one of the leading cities in the Islamic world during the time when the most advanced nations from Spain to central India were Muslim. Timbuktu was clearly the center of Islamic Sub-Saharan Africa.
Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca brought Mali to the attention of Europe. For the next two centuries, , Italian,German, and Spanish cartographers produced maps of the world which showed Mali and which often referenced Mansa Musa. The first of these maps appeared in Italy in 1339 with Mansa Musa’s name and likeness.”
Muslims from Barbados have been going for years and in the past that journey was seen as a huge undertaking. Families would prepare months in advance and when the time came to leave, groups would converge on the airport to see the pilgrim or pilgrims off. Communication during the 50s, 60s and 70s was very limited and so, as that person went on the journey, families and relatives left behind would eagerly await word of safe arrival.
Today, that journey is undertaken with much more ease and in considerably less time. Two flights from Barbados and one can be in the city of Mecca within 24 hours. Still, there is a bit of hype among some families, especially those travelling for the first time, although not with the same levels of excitement generated in the past and certainly no large send-offs at the airport.
I suspect that much of the lessened enthusiasm is due to modern technology, especially social media. Every step of the journey is now documented and communicated instantaneously. From airport to each stop the pilgrim takes, the families back home are in touch. Snapchat, Facebook, live video, WhatsApp and other modern forms of communication keep them in direct contact with their loved ones as they fulfill their religious obligations in these holy places.
I have reflected on these developments and wonder how much they have impacted on the pilgrim’s actual journey, the fulfillment of his or her obligations and the spiritual accomplishment that is expected from such an obligation.
I did the pilgrimage for the third time in my life in 2013 and I observed then the widespread use of smart phones during the rituals. Many persons were so caught up in taking selfies, talking on their mobiles, or just texting that I am not even sure they were cognizant of the importance of the place they were at or the spiritual exercises they were expected to be engaged in. Even during prayers, the mobile phones’ rings or pings would often interrupt the required concentration. I contrasted this to my previous pilgrimages back in the 80s and 90s when no such distractions were prevalent.
I think I will explore this topic more in the future and investigate to what extent smart phones and social media impact on the worship spaces in various religions.
In the meantime, I am sure many families are happy to be in constant contact with their loved ones as they continue on this journey of a lifetime called the hajj.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)