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On pilgrimage: Faith in times of technological change

Religions, with their diverse forms of faith practice, do not exist outside of time. The rapid change of a world shaped by technology forces all faith communities to adapt their practices again and again. The progress of the 21st century is evident in the possibility of collecting and using data from millions of people, the real raw material of our time, at least from an economic point of view.

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han sees in this development the danger that the great traditions of human history could lose their power of impact and turn into irrelevant information. “The transition from myth to dataism is the transition from narrative to pure counting,” he writes in his book Rituals. However, millions of believers still find the core and meaning of their existence in their practices, traditions and rituals. However, they cannot escape technological change.

In times of pandemic, many laws, ordinances and rules intervene in the everyday practice of religion. In mosques, prayers are performed at a distance and with respect for new hygiene rules; the usual gatherings and teaching sessions are replaced by Zoom conferences. In the process, users painfully experience that digital communication does not create real relationships, but at best connections. Social encounters and direct exchanges prevent Muslims from losing their essential cohesion, in a religion that is only experienced in the abstract. The current health crisis has strengthened rather than diminished the importance of the virtual and technological world. The big internet corporations are undoubtedly among the winners of these times. The solidarity-based society is facing unimagined challenges.

The tension between technology, science and religious experience in Islam has existed for a long time. Zakat, to take one example, was collected and distributed directly by an authority for centuries. Today, impersonal payment by bank transfer has prevailed. The sighting of the moon, the determination of the beginning and end of the fasting period, was traditionally triggered by the reports of eyewitnesses. For some time now, opinions have been divided as to whether a sighting of the moon by computer programmes, within the framework of an abstract conception of space, can replace the existential meaning of the sighting of the moon. Goethe was already concerned with the question of how the use of technical instruments affects our cognitive process. Part of his intellectual morphology was, as Rüdiger Görner writes, that “the sense of nature can only be grasped in a sensual way.” Faced with the dominance of abstract models in research, the poet took refuge from the emptying of existence of meaning.

“Rituals can be defined as symbolic techniques of enclosure. They transform being-in-the-world into being-at-home,” is how Han, on the other hand, describes the meaning of ancient religious or philosophical traditions. The interplay between technology and the practice of faith can be observed in the experience of pilgrimage, one of the pillars of Islam. Muslims discover the state of the world on this path. If you look at pictures of the holy sites from the last centuries, you will see the change of space and time. Technological and economic projects leave the rite itself unchanged, yet the new framework interferes with the experience of the faithful.

Today, the Saudi government uses progress to organise the large influx of pilgrims from all over the world in the modern age. After the end of the oil age, tourism is one of the hopes of a new economic future. It is important to remember that pilgrims and tourists belong to two different orders. Tourists travel through non-places, not looking for meaning, but consuming and recreating, while pilgrims have always been tied to places that gather and connect people.

The pilgrim is a figure that changes over time. The journalist Juan Moreno experiences this transformation as he walks along the Way of St. James. The old pilgrimage route in northern Spain has lost its original solitude and is now a major tourist project. “The internet has changed pilgrimage. More than any souvenir shop!,” the travel writer laments. In view of the ubiquitous mobile phones used by all travelers, irrespective of denomination, he notes: “To get away from the real world requires courage, surprisingly many manage to do so. But to do it from the virtual world at the same time is asking too much.”

A trip to Saudi Arabia has long become unthinkable without a smartphone. Pilgrims use their phones to find out about the details of the rituals, send pictures all over the world, book their rooms or flights and navigate their way through their undertaking. Then there are the apps that prove one’s vaccination status and restrict access to the most important stops on the pilgrimage. In everyday life, travelers have to show their permission at every location, and visiting Mecca and Medina also follows the logic of algorithms. The advantage is that in this way one controls the flow of visitors and prevents the infection of many believers. After all, once people have become accustomed to the unfamiliar procedure, they can perform the ritual without a big crowd.

The dilemma of those responsible is palpable: The journey should be safe and comfortable for millions of believers, while avoiding the negative consequences of mass tourism. For decades, the region has been one big construction site. In Mecca, the “Clock Tower,” which towers over everything, was one of the most gigantic construction projects in the Arab world. The minute hands alone are 22 metres long. The clock is a symbol that even the pilgrim cannot escape the calculated time. This applies precisely to the economic parameters of our epoch.

The terrain around the holy site today forms the most expensive real estate market in the world. Next year, the Abraj Kudai Towers will open in Mecca. This hotel project with about ten thousand rooms will consist of twelve towers housing accommodation, flats, a shopping centre, restaurants and food courts. Managing the crowds will remain a challenge for the organisers even after the pandemic is over.

Besides the growing number of travelers, one of the greatest innovations of modern pilgrimage is the overcoming of distances in the shortest possible time. Traveling by plane does not allow for a slow approach to the pinnacle of one’s religious existence. The railway line between Mecca and Medina is also one of the wonders of the new transport technology. The Haramain Express is a high-speed train that connects the cities in the west of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The cost of this project was enormous, with the track construction and the 36 trains alone costing about 6.7 billion euros. The maximum capacity of the line is 160,000 passengers per day and 50 million per year. The pilgrim flies across the desert at a speed of three hundred kilometres. Looking out of the window at the archaic landscape, one is reminded of the hardships and privations of the ancient travelers. It is not easy to decide whether the privileges of modern travel only simplify the pilgrimage, or whether comfort diminishes our existential experiences.

The victory of technology over nature is not yet guaranteed. The climatic conditions under which the operation takes place are extreme. Temperature fluctuations between +55 °C and -5 °C are common. About half of the line runs through sandy desert with the danger of dunes moving onto the track, the sand blowing it over and trains being “sandblasted.” Furthermore, heavy rainfall occurs, which causes otherwise dry wadis to swell into raging waters within a short time. But: Under normal circumstances, the journey is shortened by many hours.

Juan Moreno has published his travel stories under the title Happiness is not a place, thus reminding us of the inner dimension of every real journey. Of course, the Holy City has changed as dramatically as Mecca, at least on the outside. The new hotel buildings have replaced the old marketplaces here. One can regret these changes, but it is more important not to be distracted from the spiritual goals of one’s journey.

In the rapid change of time, there is continuity. At prayer times, thousands of Muslims flock to the mosque. The truth is that here – beyond the outward transformations – one experiences the enduring blessing of the great narratives that make up Islam untouched by the changing times. Love for the Prophet and communal prayer create the social bond that shapes the pilgrimage and ultimately leads to success. For all the power and fascination of technology, it is only a tool that can neither create meaning nor determine our lives alone.

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