Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Virtual Hajj Experience | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – It is now possible for every Muslim to learn how to perform the Hajj or Umrah rituals correctly through the online virtual world of “Second Life” before physically embarking on this spiritual journey in real life. It is now possible for people to learn how to perform the Hajj rituals by virtually visiting Mecca, Medina, and the other holy sites that must be visited as part of Hajj after the “Islam Online” website recently introduced an educational hajj program on the virtual world of “Second Life.” This project also aims to reduce the common errors made by many pilgrims.

Hisham Jaafar, Editor-in -Chief of the “Islam Online” website told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Hajj Island” on Second Life includes a complete three dimensional representation of The Grand Mosque in Mecca following its recent development and enlargement. “Hajj Island” also allows users to travel between the Safah and Marawah hills, as well as visit Mina where “the stoning of the devil” ritual is performed. In order to simulate the rituals as realistically as possible, the model also includes the newly-built Royal Mecca Clock Tower, which overlooks the Grand Mosque, and is the largest clock-tower in the world. There will also be a virtual train linking Mina and Mount Arafat, with this train set to operate this year for the first time.

“Hajj Island” was opened following an official launch by “Islam Online” last month. Over the past few weeks, according to Jaafar, it has provided Muslim and non-Muslim visitors with lectures and training courses on the pilgrimage. It also provides virtual guided tours around the places of worship linked to the Hajj; these tours are free of charge and available in both English and Arabic. The training courses offered by “Islam Online” allow for direct interaction between the lecturer and students, allowing those participating to reach an understanding about the Hajj and its rituals.

Around 400 people visit “Hajj Island” every day. A team made up of 9 individuals of different nationalities put in approximately 300 hours of work designing and developing the virtual “Hajj Island” to ensure that it reflects reality. This team utilized a number of resources in designing Second Life’s “Hajj Island” and ensuring that the Hajj rituals performed in virtual reality corresponds to the real-life experience,. These resources include pictures and images of Mecca and various other holy sites as well as Sheikh ‘Ubayd Allah Mohamed Amin Kurdi’s prominent book “The Magnificent Kaaba and the Two Holy Mosques: The History and Architecture.”

Awatef Mohammad Fahim, who presides over a department of the “Second Life” website, revealed that the training for the Hajj rituals takes around 45 minutes. After logging in, the trainee, in the form of a three-dimensional character (called an avatar), wanders through this virtual world that includes a reproduction of all the important Hajj locations and holy sites. Fahim revealed that this begins with the avatar dressed in the ritual hajj robes which are known as the ihram; with the avatar free to wander around the Grand Mosque in Mecca and join in the tawaf [circumambulation of the Kaaba seven times], as well as view the stone that preserves the footprint of Prophet Ibrahim which is located near the Kaaba, view the Black Stone, perform the Sa’y between Safa and Marwa, visit Muzfalifah, perform the stoning of the devil ritual at Mina, and climb Mount Arafat. Fahim said that those visiting “Hajj Island” are provided with all the necessary information about the Hajj rituals in the form of numbered signposts, and also through arrows, maps and pictures, adding that it is easy for one’s avatar to move between one location and the next using their keyboard and the tools found included in this program. Fahim also said that those visiting “Hajj Island” are also able to learn the required prayers that would need to recite during the Hajj.

Fahim added “During every ritual whenever the trainee wants to ask a question he can immediately stop the lecturer and ask his question, whether by text or by audio. The lecturer here plays the role of a guide that would be found during the time of the Hajj, and this is what is unique about this form of training. It allows the trainee to interact with the lecturer, and thus take full advantage. There is also a mutual understanding between those leading the training that this is an environment designed for social interaction. This is the opposite of video training programs that explain how to perform these rituals”.

Fahim concluded “the second objective [of the project] aims to introduce non-Muslims to Islam, especially as there are approximately 25 million people registered on Second Life, and most of them are non-Muslims. The Hajj is a major duty in Islam and the mixing of Muslims and non-Muslims [here] allows non-Muslims to have the opportunity to learn more about Islam. They are already attending in large numbers, especially for the lectures that are being offered in English. Indeed, there are men and women from America, Britain and Europe participating in the training programs, and last week, a German university professor attended the training along with his non-Muslim students. One of the trainees, from the Dominican Republic, recently announced her conversion to Islam, after learning the rituals of the Hajj through this training process.”

Fahim explained that individuals who have previously performed the Hajj have discovered that they did certain rituals incorrectly after undertaking the virtual training program, which prompted them to undertake the Hajj once more. Fahim also pointed out that the website allows users to enter “Hajj Island” at times when there are no lecturers present, and here they can interact with written texts that explain the rituals step by step, or seek help from Muslim volunteers who are present 24 hours a day, to help and guide visitors. According to those responsible for the site, educating people about the Hajj rituals in this manner – relying upon digital technology – has drawn praise from many quarters. Many of those who have undergone this training program via “Second Life” have expressed their satisfaction with what they learned, especially as this is something that harnesses modern technology and is accessible to everybody.