It's hajj season, time for millions of Muslims to converge on the holy city of Mecca in a pilgrimage that's obligatory for every Muslim at least once. Rituals begin next week, but airports already are packed with white-draped pilgrims and authorities are on high alert in regional transit points.
On television, hajj looks overwhelming and rigorous. When we lived in Saudi Arabia, my father performed the hajj and came back thin and drained. The rituals are physically demanding, most pilgrims sleep in uncomfortable tents and the crowds are crushing as millions share the same patch of sacred land.
Despite the hardships, returnees (who receive the honorific "hajji," or "hajjiya," for a woman) often describe being spiritually moved. Malcolm X and others have commented on the hajj as a chance to see the spectrum of Islam: Nigerians, Turks, Iranians, South Africans, Indians, Filipinos, Malaysians, Egyptians, Chinese and French, all mouthing the same prayers.
Now, you can experience the hajj from the comfort of your home, by becoming a member of Second Life, the immensely popular virtual world where residents can buy property and explore other continents. The Cairo-based Website IslamOnline bought an island on Second Life and moved Mecca to cyberspace. Muslims and non-Muslims alike can perform Hajj 2008, even swathing their avatars in the traditional while pilgrims' attire.
Second Life residents who visit the island can get free "bags" that contain all the hajj essentials: white garb, a tent and a sleeping bag.
"Virtual pilgrims will go all the way through Al-Masjid Al-Haram in the holy city of Makkah to Mena and Mount `Arafah," says an article about the virtual hajj on IslamOnline. "Through their avatars, trainees will also be able to gather pebbles for the symbolic stoning of the devil at the Jamrat Bridge."
I tried to visit the hajj island today. I signed up for Second Life, downloaded the animation software and found myself in virtual Russia without a stitch of clothes on. Try as I might, I just couldn't figure out how to navigate Second Life. I finally located a map and headed toward IslamOnline's island. However, I still couldn't figure out how to clothe my nude avatar and decided to sign off rather than arrive in "Mecca" stark naked.
If any seasoned Second Life residents are reading, perhaps you could share some tips on clothing avatars and getting to hajj island. Apparently, signing up is worth the effort. IslamOnline promises an "awe-inspiring" experience that's "the closest you can get to the real thing."