#HajjSelfie: How the Practice of Islam Has Changed

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.

The evidence?


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.

#HajjSelfie: How the Practice of Islam Has Changed

7 thoughts on “#HajjSelfie: How the Practice of Islam Has Changed

  1. 1

    Well, considering the Saudis have spent the last century reducing Mecca’s priceless historical landscape to rubble and then paving it over, it’d be a bit inconsistent to then accuse people of treating the place they gave a damn about it beyond the most basic level.

  2. 2

    As I understand it, in much of Islamic tradition, depiction of the human form is potentially idolatrous, and depiction of the Prophet especially bad. That’s why so many mosques have intricate geometrical patterns — representational art was a no-no.

    This extended to very recent times in some of the less developed parts of the Muslim world. Mullah Mohammed Omar, a former Taliban leader of Afghanistan, was photographed only a few times. However, his colleague Osama bin Laden was much more friendly with cameras, and even very hard-boiled Islamists nowadays often have lots of pictures of their leaders and heroes.

    I think that it is in good part a result of familiarity with depictions of human beings. If one seldom got to see such depictions, one might get freaked out at the sight of one. It would seem human enough to make one very perplexed.

    But present-day technology makes such depictions almost absurdly easy to make, and we don’t get freaked out at the sight of them. This nowadays includes many Muslims, including many Islamists.

  3. 4

    I had an immigrant African muslim I used to work with tellin me islam is the same all over the world. Well… contrast the African American muslim boozy party girls at the same job site with the “them emo fairies had it comin'” piece of shit from Iraq that worked at the same site in a different building. If u wanna front like you are a monolith, whether the conception is progressive or regressive, you’re gonna have a hell of a job getting millions of people marching in lockstep for you.

  4. 5

    If people weren’t dying for violating this week’s unchangable and eternal rules, it would be funny.
    Germany has a fairly big muslim population and you get all sorts. From my daughter’s friend and her family where she and the girls were a lot less clothing than we usually do to those where 12 yo girls are fasting during Ramadan.

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