The myth of the Muslim monolith is perpetuated by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Yet, within the span of my lifetime so far — and that’s not actually very long, as I am a Millennial — the Islam practiced and aggressively enforced in Saudi Arabia, Salafism, has shifted dramatically on the subject of photography.
In the mid-90’s, my father, mother, sister, and I traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah, the mini version of the 5-day Hajj pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia stands out in my childhood memories as a fundamentalist, stereotyped caricature come true. If you did anything that the locals didn’t find to be Islamic enough, they would come down on you, shouting “haraam! haraam!” and behaving with a great deal of physical aggression.
At the time, photography was strictly forbidden. Against the protestations of my cautious mother, my father had brought his camera along for the trip. He wasn’t so brash as to openly take it out in the haram itself, thank goodness, and was discreet. That he had gotten away with it for a few days might have contributed towards what happened during our tour of historical sites around Makkah. At one of the most famous Islamic battlefields (it might have been Uhud), he calmly pulled out his camera to take a picture. One of our tourmates became visibly agitated. My dad somehow managed talk him out of calling down the wrath of the Haraam Police, who would have scolded him profusely and confiscated (and then likely destroyed) his camera.
In the years since, the rules surrounding photography have relaxed. Numerous documentaries have been filmed in and around the haram. The Saudis also profit from two separate satellite channels that live-broadcast footage from Makkah and Madinah, throughout the day during religiously-significant times and 24/7 during the holiest days of the year. When you watch the channels, you can see people swarming toward the video camera, no wet-blankets shouting “haraam!” in sight — although you do catch, at times, some side-eye from those pilgrims unamused by the frantic waving and smiling of the “Hi, Mom, I’m on the TV!” antics.
And now? It’s gone even further. This year, #HajjSelfie became A Thing, to the chagrin of the Internet Haraam Police. It still shocks me just how much has changed in the approximately 20 years since I visited the two Islamic holy cities in Saudi Arabia for the first — and presumably last — time.