Chapter 14 Crowded Outlets: A North American Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri Pilgrim’s Auto-ethnographic Memoir

In: Narrating the Pilgrimage to Mecca
Zahir Janmohamed
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Much of the Shiʿi pilgrimage experience on the hajj is about experiencing, negotiating, and ultimately, pushing up against the Saudi government’s attempt to monopolize definitions and parameters of religious expression. In this auto-ethnographic memoir of his pilgrimages to Mecca as a North American Shiʿi Muslim, the author addresses the following questions: How does one’s experience of the hajj change if you can wall of the Saudi state by plugging in your headphones and listen to a Shiʿi prayer or even a Shiʿi preacher of your own choosing? How does this change, if at all, the minority Muslim’s narrative of being an ‘outsider’ in Mecca, especially given that Shiʿi Muslims have long enjoyed a tenuous relationship not just with the Saudi state but also with other pilgrims? Finally, how does these new technologies have a capacity to change the power relations between Shiʿa pilgrims and Saudi religious authorities in Mecca and what limits are still there on Shiʿi religious performativity through prayer and bodily postures?

1 Introduction

Years ago, on my second hajj in 2011, I was pulled aside at the Jedda airport and ‘randomly’ selected for additional screening. My travel companion was an Indian filmmaker named Parvez Sharma who at the time was working on a film about being a gay Muslim in Mecca (Sharma 2015). Upon watching security guards escort me aside, he began to panic. I had spent the previous decade doing human rights work in Washington DC, first at Amnesty International and later in the US Congress, and he worried that my writing on Saudi Arabia might get us both in trouble.1 But I felt anxious for another reason: I am a Shiʿi Muslim and in my possession—albeit in digital form—were traditional Shiʿi supplications like Ziyāra Ḥusayn and Duʿāʾ Kumayl that during my previous trips to Mecca were confiscated by Saudi authorities because they told me these texts are bidʿa, or heretical.

I grabbed my suitcase and followed the Saudi guard to a small room. He was in his mid-twenties and had a pair of sunglasses tucked in his breast pocket similar to ones I carried. After turning on my various devices to make sure they were not a decoy, he began staring at my legs. ‘Those jeans,’ he said, pointing at the dark blue pair I was wearing. ‘Is this the style American girls like, or do they prefer the faded kind with holes?’ I laughed and explained that I am profoundly ill-informed on the fashion tastes of American girls. But my nervousness did not subside. My devices were still on, right in front of me, and I feared he might browse through them and discover the various Shiʿi prayer apps I had downloaded onto them. His mind, though, was elsewhere. ‘Abercrombie or Aéropostale? Which brand is more popular in California right now?’ he asked. I gave him an answer—I can’t remember what I said—and then he let me off and into Saudi Arabia.

In this chapter, I shall explore how technology—and in particular the wide scale availability of affordable mobile phones and tablets—has allowed minority Muslim communities to bypass Saudi censorship rules and to experience the hajj in entirely new ways. I focus on Shiʿi Muslims because, as I argue in this chapter, the Shiʿi pilgrimage experience on the hajj is about, among other things, experiencing, negotiating, and pushing up against the Saudi government’s attempt to monopolize definitions and parameters of religious expression.

But how does one’s experience of the hajj change if you can block the Saudi state by plugging in your headphones and listening to a Shiʿi prayer or even a Shiʿi preacher of your own choosing? How does this alter, if at all, the minority Muslim’s narrative of being an ‘outsider’ in Mecca, especially given that Shiʿis have long enjoyed a fraught relationship not just with the Saudi state but also with other pilgrims? And finally, how do these new technologies have the capacity to change the power relations between Shiʿi pilgrims and Saudi religious authorities in Mecca and what limits are still there on Shiʿi religious performativity through prayer and bodily postures?

This chapter seeks to address these questions and to examine how technology continues to re-shape not only the logistics of the hajj, but also the realms of religious possibility for Shiʿi Muslims.

2 Background and Approach

In conducting this research, I focused on a Toronto, Canada based hajj group that was founded in the early 1980s and caters mostly to the Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri Muslim community.2 Through interviews with its founders, as well as with pilgrims who have joined this group over the course of its history, coupled with my own experiences of visiting Mecca with this same group, I explore how Shiʿi pilgrims are now able to carry digital copies of Shiʿi supplication books—as well as audio files of Shiʿi prayers—that were once often confiscated upon entry by Saudi airport security when they were previously carried in their physical form.

My interest in this subject developed, in part, out of my observations of media coverage on the use of technology on the hajj. In 2014, outlets like BuzzFeed, CNN and others published articles about how some Muslim clerics were outraged by the ‘selfie craze’ on the hajj that year.3 These articles raise important questions, such as how technology is changing the physical and psychological landscape of the hajj, and how GPS devices might help reduce the occurrence of stampedes. But they also made me wonder if these reporters had ever spoken to Shiʿi Muslims on the hajj to assess whether their use of technology differed, if at all, from Sunni Muslims.

I should state, at the outset, that I admit the inherent problem in labeling something (or someone) as ‘Shiʿi,’ given the fluidity and intermixing of identities and texts within Islam. However, I use this term because it speaks to my own experience of visiting Mecca, as well as those I interviewed for this chapter, many of whom, like myself, were told by Saudi authorities that the things they carried, including their copies of the Qurʾan, were ‘Shiʿi’ and not ‘Muslim’.4

My first visit to Saudi Arabia in 1994 for the ʿumra testifies to this. It was seven years after the killing of mostly Iranian pilgrims in what is often called ‘the Mecca massacre’ and tensions were high between the Saudi and Iranian governments (Bangash 1998). Upon entering the country, our prayer books such as Mafātīḥ al-jinān were taken from us by a Saudi officer at the airport, as were our copies of the Qurʾan.5 We were also told in Mecca by both Sunni pilgrims and by Saudi religious police that we were praying ‘incorrectly’ for keeping our hands to the side during prayers, as opposed to folded across our bodies as many Sunnis do.

This echoed my own experience of growing up in the US. I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and my parents are Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri from Tanzania. There were fewer Muslims in the US back then and for most of my childhood, there was only one mosque near my home, which called itself a ‘Muslim mosque’. However, this mosque was, for all practical purposes, a Sunni mosque, as no Shiʿi programmes, prayers, or preachers were allowed there. I attended Sunday school at this mosque, and I was taught Islamic history there. However, the history I learned rarely, if ever, mentioned any of the figures loved and revered by Shiʿi Muslims, such as the sixth Imām in the line of succession after the Prophet Muhammad, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.

And yet the history I learned was never presented as ‘Sunni history’. It was presented as ‘the history of Islam’, the assumption being that anything else is non-normative. This confused me as a kid, to see the way Shiʿi identity was pushed off to the side, whereas in my house it was central. Despite this, I loved going to the mosque, if only because of the friendships I forged there, especially while playing basketball in the mosque parking lot.

But I realized early on that as a Shiʿi Muslim I had to hide, and to give up, a part of myself to be accepted inside that mosque. What I wanted from that space—and later in Mecca—was to be able to be my full self.

It was disappointing then, but not surprising, that my first experience of being in Mecca in 1994 was similar to what I encountered growing up. In fact, I had to leave behind my Shiʿi prayer books to be able to enter Mecca. So, when I returned in 1999 to Saudi Arabia—this time on my own for the hajj—I carried no Shiʿi books and no Qurʾan. The strategy paid off as I was able to enter the country without hassle. However, I longed for these Shiʿi prayers when I was sitting in front of the Kaʿba, reciting my prayers. It was in 2011, on my most recent hajj, that I was able to experience the pilgrimage the way I always wanted. I carried an MP3 player loaded with Shiʿi supplications and as a result, the hajj felt entirely different. When I entered the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, for example, I could listen to Shiʿi supplications like Jawshan kabīr that I had grown up reciting and that moved me on a deep, emotional level. Suddenly—thanks to technology—the hajj felt a little bit like my own. And it made me wonder: did other Shiʿi pilgrims feel this same way about technology? Or had technology impacted, or perhaps hindered, their pilgrimage in ways I had not accounted for or imagined?

In June 2019, I wrote a questionnaire and sent it to pilgrims who travelled to Mecca with a Toronto based group, which I shall call the Hajj Council of North America (HCNA). I have changed their name per the requests of the organizers of HCNA, who fear that the Saudi government might deny them visas if they speak openly about the hajj. In fact, part of the reason I picked HCNA was because I knew I could earn their trust. I have known the organizers for twenty years, having completed my first hajj with them in 1999. As a result, they were able to open up with me about issues they might not reveal with others because, as one organizer told me on condition of anonymity, ‘the Saudis are finnicky and you never know who you can trust.’

The second reason I focused on HCNA is because of their history. The founders were both born and raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and belong to the Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri community, a group which traces their lineage back to India’s western state of Gujarat. When members of this community first immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, they observed a trend among recent immigrant Muslim communities in Toronto to ‘return back’ to their home countries such as India or Tanzania to join a hajj group from there. The founders of HCNA wanted to cut out that step, which they regarded as unnecessary. It was, in a sense, a statement that they were making to themselves about their intention to make Canada—and not Tanzania—their home.6

But HCNA also did something else that changed the way many North American Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri communities completed their pilgrimage: they conducted everything in English. At the time, it was a controversial decision. Urdu has long been, and for many it still is, the language of religious traditions like the majlis, a Shiʿi gathering in which a lecture is given about the family of the Prophet Muhammad, and the marthiya, an elegy recited in usually Arabic, Persian or Urdu about the family of the Prophet Muhammad. By picking English, not only were they displacing religious scholars who cannot speak English; they were, as one organizer told me, ‘making a statement that they would be western facing.’

When I sent out my research questionnaire, I did not know what to expect or who would respond. The group continues to maintain an active email list, which is open only to those who have gone on hajj with them. I was floored by the number of responses I received, many of which pushed me to reevaluate not only my assumptions about technology, but also my very definition of technology itself. Most of the respondents were female and younger, between the ages of 20 and 40. Female respondents were more likely to be comfortable with me using their real names in this chapter, while male respondents overwhelmingly asked me to change their names. However, for the purpose of consistency and safety, all of the names below have been changed.7

3 Organizers Perspectives

Today, HCNA brings about 300 pilgrims a year on the hajj, with a staff of about five and around twenty volunteers including chefs, drivers, medical staff, etc. I spoke to three of the core staff members, two males and one female. Mansoor has co-led this group for the past 19 years. During the hajj he co-led in 2018, the group brought 305 pilgrims. Of those, Mansoor told me, he estimates that around 90 % live either in Canada or the US, with the remaining pilgrims residing in Europe or parts of Africa and Asia. The bulk of the pilgrims, around 80 %, are from the Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri community. Each year there are some Sunnis who join, many of whom are married to Shiʿis.

Mansoor emphasized that he does not turn anyone back who wants to complete the hajj. They have had pilgrims from the LGBTQ community, as well as pilgrims who were formerly incarcerated.8 The group can do this, he told me, because the group skews young—around 60 % are ‘probably under 40’. He was also insistent to point out how the costs of hajj have skyrocketed. As a point of reference, my first hajj in 1999 cost me around 3000 dollars, including a roundtrip airfare from San Francisco. In 2011, I paid 7000 dollars to travel with HCNA. In 2019, Mansoor said he would charge just over 10,000 dollars per pilgrim.9 While anonymous donors each year fully fund about five to seven pilgrims who require financial assistance, Mansoor said the demographic of his group has shifted over the past decade, from middle class to ‘solidly affluent.’

In some ways, technology has made the pilgrimage easier. Mansoor remembers a time, in the early 2000s, when he had to carry a suitcase full of Shiʿi supplication books in case other pilgrims had their copy confiscated at the airport. ‘It was a hassle,’ he told me. ‘The weight of the books, the interrogation, the fear that would rise in my stomach on the flight to Jedda. It’s one worry that has gone away.’ In other ways, though, technology has created new problems, he explained:

There was a time, in the 1970s and the 1980s, when [Ayatollah Ruhollah, zj] Khomeini was alive, when if you pull out a Shiʿi prayer book and a Saudi guard saw you, you will never know if he was going to beat you. Now, I tell new pilgrims: ‘You are lucky.’ They have no idea what you are reading on your iPhones. The downside, of course, is that people stare at their phones too much.

Of the three organizers I spoke with, Mansoor, who is in his late 50s, was the most enthusiastic advocate of technology on the hajj. One reason, perhaps, is that he regularly uses technology in his medical practice and has seen how it has improved his professional life. But another reason is that technology has deepened his spiritual experience of the hajj. He recalled:

When you are sitting in Medina, and you are listening to a beautiful Urdu poem about Imām Ḥusayn, there is nothing like it. It is who we are as Shiʿis. And now that I have these wireless headphones, it has become so easy.

Mansoor was effusive in his praise of technology but he also reminded me of some of its pitfalls. Topping his list were two gripes: crowded outlets and complaints from pilgrims about the lack of Wi-Fi access. In the past, fights within his hajj group were likely to be caused by sleeping arrangements; now they are often technology related.

In Mecca, we stay in this, I don’t know, 1970s or 1980s built hotel. It was not designed for modern life with all the things we carry. If I hear someone shouting in our hotel lobby, it’s probably because they are arguing about another person hogging an [electrical, zj] outlet.

Another annoyance technology brings, he said, is increased distraction. Mansoor observed:

It’s weird, because I used to say, forget about your life back home. Focus on hajj. But then I remember that they need their devices to read their Shiʿi duʿās. Other times, when I am giving instructions on safety and people are on their phones, it can be dangerous if they are not listening, because there are serious safety issues on the hajj.

Other organizers from his hajj group told me that they view the issue of technology differently. Shakir is a recently retired from HCNA and is based in Toronto, where he runs a small business. He accompanied this group on their first hajj in 1983 and co-led it for 26 years. For him, the difference is not so much technology. It is in the Saudis themselves, who have, in his words, ‘finally opened up’. He too, like Mansoor, remembers a time, which he also referred to as ‘Khomeini’s time’, in which ‘Saudis were outright hostile towards Shiʿis.’ He acknowledged that some Shiʿi pilgrims—Iranian, Iraqi, or Syrian nationals, in particular—have it tougher than Khojas. A moment later, he seemed to change his mind and said, ‘The Saudis see any Shiʿis and they think Iran.’10

Shakir continued to change his opinions during our interview, a sign, perhaps, about how conflicted he feels not only about the Saudis, but also in talking about this topic. For example, I asked him why there has been a shift in Saudi attitudes towards Shiʿis, but he quickly responded, saying ‘I don’t get into politics.’ Moments later, he cited one example of how things are improving: on Thursday evenings in Medina, Shiʿis hold a mass gathering to recite Duʿā Kumayl, something he said was unheard of in the 1980s.11 For him, there is no problem being a Shiʿi on the hajj. The issue is about Shiʿis gathering without Saudi approval.

He recalled one incident in which a large Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri family from Toronto was sitting on the rooftop of the Ḥaram listening to a young family member reciting Qurʾan from an iPad. His recitation was so beautiful that a crowd formed around him. Soon after, Saudi guards came and made them disperse. For Shakir, it is not that the Saudis fear Shiʿi beliefs. It is that they fear Shiʿis will organize, something he said has often led to hilarious encounters. He elaborated:

I was sitting with this Shiʿi mawlānā (religious scholar) and he and I were watching a Manchester United game streaming on my laptop outside our hotel. The guards came and told the mawlānā, he can’t be preaching. I tried to explain that we are just talking about football, but they didn’t care.

Shakir, who is in his early seventies, added that bringing Shiʿi books on tablets or mobile devices is a rather trivial, moot point. The biggest technology advance on the hajj, in his estimation, are things like the water-cooled marble, fans, and escalators—things that benefit all pilgrims, not just Shiʿis. For the most part, he believes, the experience of hajj is about the same as when he first went decades ago, despite the incremental changes he believes the Saudi government has made toward Shiʿis. He went on:

Can I recite Duʿāʾ kumayl now a bit easier on my iPhone? Sure. But make no mistake: we are always reminded there that we are Shiʿis. We feel it at Janna al-Baqīʿ.12 We feel when we see the history they have demolished; we feel it when we have to be careful who we pray next to in the Ḥaram. That will never change.

For him, the very landscape of Mecca and Medina—and specifically how the Saudis have remade it—enforced in him his otherness, that his view of history, at least to the Saudis, was contrary to their understanding, which is to say, ‘the norm’.

Zainab, one of several women co-organizers of this group, concurs. While mobile devices and tablets have made her less anxious about carrying Shiʿi books, she told me that, ‘If a guard is in a bad mood and doesn’t like Shiʿis, they can pick something about you—your ʿaqīq ring or fayrūz ring—and harass you.’13

She related to me an incident which illustrated both the advantages and disadvantages of using technology on the hajj. On a recent pilgrimage, she began listening to a lamentation of Imām Ḥusayn on her iPhone’s headphones. But that led to problems she had never encountered before. ‘As I was listening, I began to cry. Soon a small crowd of Sunni women gathered around me,’ she said. ‘They wanted to know what I was listening to. When I told them, they said such material is not Islamic. It was humiliating but …’ Her voice trailed off and she double checked to make sure I was not planning to use her real name. When I gave her my assurance that her name would in fact be changed, she continued. ‘Technology has changed. Sunnis have not,’ she said. Moments later, she added, ‘But Sunnis are becoming more tolerant towards Shiʿis, especially the younger generation.’

She also shared some of Mansoor’s annoyances about technology. Chief among them is that she often finds that pilgrims have not really left their work back home like they once did. ‘The hajj doesn’t feel the same,’ said Zainab, who works in the medical industry. ‘People are on conference calls, checking their emails. Hajj used to be about getting away.’ Today, her biggest concern is not so much about being Shiʿi on the hajj, but about being a woman. In the future, she would like to see Saudis use technology to monitor when and how crowds get abusive, especially towards women. ‘All the cameras are pointed at us,’ she said. ‘Why not use them to ensure women are not grabbed?’14 With the Saudi government planning, to increase the number of pilgrims on the hajj each year, she fears what this will mean for women’s safety. She rattled off a list of ways in which technology could be used to safeguard women. ‘I am not worried about the future of hajj as a Shiʿi. I worry about being a woman, given how many people the Saudis say they want on hajj,’ she said.

4 Participant Perspectives

Of the twenty or so pilgrims from this group who I spoke with, many were in their late 20s and early 30s. Because of rising costs of the hajj, as well as stricter Saudi rules about pilgrims who return for the hajj, the group has seen a drop in what Mansoor called ‘serial ḥājjīs’, pilgrims who perform hajj frequently. Among male pilgrims, one reoccurring theme that kept coming up is that they wanted the hajj to be harder. They lamented how technology had made the trip more convenient and more ‘western’.15 Azhar, a pharmacy student in his mid-twenties who now lives outside Chicago, was a bit confused by my interest in technology on the hajj. He cannot remember a time in which technology—and the use of devices in particular—was not a part of his religious practice. At the Shiʿi mosque that he attends, for example, all the prayers are projected onto a screen using PowerPoint. ‘Why would technology not be used at the hajj?’ he asked. For him, if he could change one thing about the hajj, it would be to ‘cut off the internet and destroy all the hotels.’ The problem with the Ḥaram, he said, ‘is that it looks like an Apple store, with clean lines and no personality of its own.’ Azhar had always heard stories, especially from his grandparents, about Mecca. Back then, according to what they told him, there were ‘lamps, minbars, Ottoman art, and an actual well for Zamzam.’ In short, he thought and wanted Mecca to look qualitatively different from ‘back home.’ He wanted it to look exotic and at times during our conversation, it sounded like he wanted Mecca to look like a scene from the Disney movie Aladdin.

This theme came up a lot, particularly among male respondents: that the construction boom in Mecca has stripped the city of its ‘soul’ as one respondent told me. Several of the respondents—like Azhar—had never left North America. They expected, and hoped, for Mecca to look more ‘eastern’. One person even told me: ‘Even the Arabs don’t stay in tents there.’ Azhar wants to go back to Saudi Arabia when the weather is hotter, so that he can experience more hardship. ‘The hajj was too easy. It’s not meant to be that way,’ he said.

Others, particularly female respondents, said they saw new possibilities in the use of technology at the hajj. One said she felt safer knowing she could use GPS to find her husband if they were separated by crowds.16 Another said that technology had given her space to articulate her grievances. She recalled visiting the Starbucks in Mecca, only to notice how small the ‘family’ section is where women are permitted to sit. After she returned to Toronto, she tweeted at Starbucks and they responded right away, saying they would look into the matter.

One previous participant with this group, an early 30s bank employee who lives in Florida, told me that having internet on hajj allowed her to educate her colleagues about Islam by posting trip updates during her pilgrimage. ‘It’s good for people to see what we do, because they have so many misperceptions and biases,’ she said. For Masooma, a high school teacher in her mid-thirties who lives in Toronto, having technology at the hajj made her aware of her class privilege for the first time. On her last visit in 2015 with this group, she packed her iPad, per their recommendation. One evening in the Ḥaram, a crowd gathered around her as she was reading Qurʾan from it. ‘Some had never seen an iPad before and I think they were jealous,’ Masooma said, who was born in Kenya. She started speaking to the other pilgrims and began to realize ‘how inequitable the hajj can be.’

But by far the most interesting insight, at least in my estimation, came from a recent college graduate named Leila who lives in Toronto. For her, having technology on the hajj allowed her to push back on the group’s resident Islamic scholars—all of whom were male on her hajj in 2018. Each year, the group hires a few religious scholars, or ʿulamāʾ, usually individuals trained in Qum, Najaf, or Lucknow, who guide pilgrims during hajj. When Leila went, she found these scholars to be ‘condescending and totally boring.’ During her hajj journey, she and a few young women found a Wi-Fi spot and downloaded the lectures of a female scholar they admire from Canada, who they listened to throughout the pilgrimage using headphones. What technology allowed them to do, she said, was ‘to shut off male voices and to follow women.’ Leila then used a phrase to describe technology that kept coming up throughout my interviews: ‘It lets me do my own thing.’

5 Conclusion and Postscript

When I began conducting research for this chapter, I had, admittedly, a rather narrow definition of what technology is and how it is used by North American Khoja Shiʿi Ithna Asheri Muslims. But in conducting interviews, I observed that technology is creating a multiplicity of new ways of being on the hajj, not just in spaces like the Ḥaram, but within hajj groups themselves. I also learned that not only are the uses of technology varied, but also the very definition of what technology is. Younger pilgrims tended to look at personal devices such as mobile phones as being technology, whereas older pilgrims saw advances such as escalators and air-conditioners to be technological advancements.

Technology, I observed, often allows pilgrims a higher degree of agency: they can, for example, call their own taxi using the Uber app on their phone; they can listen to whatever preacher they want, in whatever language they prefer; they can find their way around Mecca using GPS. In the past, groups like HCNA had a monopoly on these services. You needed them, for example, to arrange your transportation. But now technology has shifted the power away from the group towards the individual. Technology has also displaced the role of the scholar. Previously, a group like HCNA would have its paid, approved Islamic guides that it brought along with them on the hajj. Today, if pilgrims are bored or frustrated by HCNA’s religious scholars, they can seek their own religious guidance on their iPhone. But how then does this redefine the role and authority of HCNA?

Among pilgrims who travelled with HCNA, I saw a clear divide in the way men and women view technology on the hajj. Men told me that they did not want just to remember Imām Ḥusayn during the hajj; they wanted to be like Imām Ḥusayn. That is to say, they wanted hajj to be arduous, and fraught with persecution, as if Mecca were a modern-day Karbala, Iraq. In short, they wanted to be martyred, just as Imām Ḥusayn was. Women, for the most part, wanted the hajj to feel safer, more equitable and for there to be less ‘masculinity both within the group and within the Ḥaram,’ as Leila described it. When I asked Leila to elaborate, she said she wanted men to take up less space; both figuratively and literally. Women should be given more space in the hotel, Leila said. There should also be more acceptance within HCNA that women often experience things on hajj that men do not, such as groping, harassment, etc.

My research also made me eager to understand how technology is used among other religious minorities and among groups on the hajj such as queer Muslims. The interviews I conducted lead me to conclude that, if pilgrims are given a chance to express themselves, more stories will emerge that may complicate our understanding of who does, and does not, fit in on the hajj.

After I finished my interviews, several of the participants from HCNA continued to contact me, wanting to share their joys, and frustrations, of being on the hajj. To me it suggested that there is demand for these types of inquiries and for a more robust conversation about these topics. It also illustrates, perhaps, the ways in which HCNA has not allowed for these types of introspective conversations. When I asked an HCNA volunteer why that was, he told me:

We aren’t really having the tough conversations internally about how hajj is changing. I think we fear we will be replaced. People will not see a need any more for hajj organizers and we will go out of business.

A few months after conducting this research, I visited Saudi Arabia in December 2019. Advances in technology meant that I did not even have to leave the comfort of my home to apply for a visa. I uploaded my photo and obtained an ‘e-visa’ online. My airline ticket was also booked online, as was my hotel. Gone were the ʿumra brokers, the paper forms, the long queues at the Saudi embassy. Upon arrival in Jedda, I did not fear a security guard would search through my devices because they were too preoccupied looking at their own phones. When I left the Jedda airport and made my way to Mecca, I hailed a car, using the Uber app. I tried to talk to the driver about how things have changed in Saudi Arabia, but he was watching YouTube the entire way there—yes, while driving.

During my previous visit, in 2011 when I completed the hajj with HNCA, mobile technology was still relatively new. The iPhone had just been released a few years earlier, in 2007. Today the smartphone has taken over our lives and I have to say, it made my experience of visiting Mecca all the more meaningful. Technology made it easier for my wife and I to find each other after prayer; it made it possible for me to video chat with my parents in front of the Kaʿba; and it allowed me to put in my headphones and listen to whatever Shiʿi prayer I wanted. At its core, I believe, the pilgrimage to Mecca is about connecting with yourself and with those you love, and technology enhanced my ability to do this.

I should also add that the Saudis seemed to have softened their grip on pilgrims, such as breaking down barriers where men and women can eat. They have even started allowing Shiʿis to gather in small groups.17 I had become so accustomed, during my prior visits, of tensing up while visiting Mecca because I am a Shiʿi. But no one seemed to care anymore, and it filled me with a sense of calm and hope that Mecca might be more becoming more inclusive.

It did not last long, though. The day before I left Mecca, a South Asian migrant worker began following me while I walked around the Kaʿba. When the crowds thinned, he pointed to his feet and began speaking with me in Hindi. His shoes were falling apart, and he could not afford a new pair. He worked long hours doing construction work and was in a lot of pain, he explained. Would I help him buy him new ones, something with more stability, more protection, he asked?

In conducting my research for this chapter, perhaps I viewed technology too narrowly, conceiving of it largely as the devices we keep in our pockets. But the things in our shoes that help us stand straight, that give us support, that protect our toes such as a steel cover—this can also be seen as a type of technology, a technology he did not have access to, a technology that could have made his life more bearable.

I have always wanted to feel like I could worship and be in Mecca the way I wanted to as a Shiʿi Muslim. Technology allowed me to do this, to bring in the prayers I wanted, and to hear the Shiʿi supplications that I cherish. Technology also allowed me to connect with my family and friends, and to have a fuller, and more meaningful, experience on the hajj. But meeting that South Asian worker, begging for money, reminded me that for many others, some technology—as well as ease of being—is still out of their reach in Mecca.


I worked at Amnesty International from 2006 to 2009 as the Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. From 2009 to 2011, I was a senior foreign policy aide to Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to the United States House of Representatives.


Because of the sensitive nature of my interviews, and because the organizers of this group did not want to lose access to Saudi Arabia, they asked that I do not disclose the name of the group.


Nashrulla, Tasneem. 2014. ‘Hajj selfies.’ BuzzFeed, October 1, 2014; see also Keen, Andrew. 2014. ‘Selfies at the hajj: Is how tech allows narcissism to run riot?’ CNN, October 30, 2014.


According to those I interviewed for this chapter, the definition of what is ‘Muslim’ keeps contracting, at least on the hajj, and the definition of what is ‘Shiʾa’ keeps expanding. Elderly pilgrims, for example, told me that Muslims of all sects, at least those from South Asia, often recited Urdu songs in praise of the Prophet Muhammad in the 1960s and 1970s. Today that practice, they told, is not only less common among Sunnis, but many Sunnis now regard it as ‘Shiʾa,’ a comment they also heard from Saudi religious police.


Mafātīḥ al-jinān is a Shiʾa Ithna Asheri compilation of supplications compiled by ʿAbbās Qūmī (1877–1941).


The history of HCNA was narrated to me by Shakir, who co-led the group from 1983 to 2009.


I realize, of course, that those who fill out a questionnaire like the one I sent out might be disposed to a certain perspective on technology use at the hajj. For this reason, I sent several calls out for responses and also reached out, at random, to various people on the email list. I also did my best to ensure a diversity in terms of gender, education level, class, religiosity, and geographic location.


It is telling, perhaps, of his views on homosexuality that when I asked him if they would welcome LGBTQ members, he responded by telling me: ‘Sure, and we have even brought former prisoners, too.’


At the time of my interview with him, he presumed that the 2020 hajj would go on. This was, of course, long before the COVID-19 pandemic.


I asked him to clarify why Khojas, who are of South Asian descent, often do not face the same scrutiny. His answer: ‘Simple. The Saudis are not at war with their home countries.’


For a photo of Duʿāʾ Kumayl being held in Medina, see this photo from 2005:, accessed July 21, 2021.


Janna al-Baqīʿ is the cemetery that houses the graves of several of the members of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as his companions. Shiʾi Muslims believe there are blessings in visiting these gravesites while some Sunnis believe it is heretical to do so.


The stones in her rings—ʿaqīq, which is made of carnelian, and fayrūz which is made of turquoise—are commonly worn by Shiʾi men and women, usually on the right hand, as some Shiʾis believe these stones carry special spiritual powers and were favoured and worn by members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family. On the website Artefact, Fatima Batool has a good write-up about the Islamic significance of the ʿaqīq and fayrūz stones, especially as it relates to Shiʾi Muslims. See here:,to%20a%20person%20while%20travelling, accessed July 21, 2021.


According to a 2017 article, the Saudis installed 6000 security cameras to ensure the safety of pilgrims. See, accessed July 21, 2021.


In his 2012 New Yorker piece, Basharat Peer reported on the modernization of Mecca. See, accessed July 21, 2021.


The BBC wrote about e-bracelets on the hajj in a 2016 article. See, accessed July 21, 2021.


My wife, I should add, was still routinely asked to fix her hijab, so in some ways, this progressive spirit only extends so far.



Figure 14.1

The author, wearing headphones, during his pilgrimage in 2019

personal photograph author
  • Bangash, Zafar. 1988. The Makkah massacre and the future of the Haramain. London: Open Press.

  • Sharma, Parvez. 2015. ‘A sinner in Mecca.’ Netflix, April 29, 2015.

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Narrating the Pilgrimage to Mecca

Historical and Contemporary Accounts



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