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Sat. Jan 16th, 2021

In 2020 as more of life went online, we ask: What are the limits to Virtual Islam?

In 2020, more of life went online than ever before, including religious activities. Prayers and lectures were streamed over platforms like Zoom, and Ramadan virtual iftars became commonplace.

Will this become the ‘new normal’, as believers accept the shift to a virtual religious life amid COVID-19, possible future pandemics, and looming challenges like climate change, which may affect the very way hajj is carried out? Is Virtual Islam on the horizon?

“It is a transformative moment in some respects because the traditional religious establishment within Islam is having to rapidly adapt to modernity in its fullest sense, not just because of COVID-19, but of where human society is,” said Adnan A. Zulfiqar, Associate Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, USA.

A NEW DIMENSION

As religious life went online with earnest earlier in the year, especially in the lead up to Ramadan and during the holy month itself, certain questions were raised about religious obligations and practices. Religious leaders, for instance, were careful to virtually present lectures instead of actual sermons as they were not physically in mosques with their congregation.
“Another dimension has been opened up: to what extent is ritual practice and worship able to be conducted through technology? There has been a real struggle over this,” said Zulfiqar, who has researched Islamic legal responses to COVID-19, including congregational prayers and funeral rights.

“The idea of conducting your Friday prayers via Zoom, where people are in various locations and the prayer leader in another – is that permissible? There has been, frankly, a lot of resistance to that, as if you open up the space of ritual practice, essentially you are giving everybody a marketplace in which they can choose. If you say this is just for COVID-19, to what extent can you later on put the genie back in the bottle?”

A technological shift was already underway before the pandemic confined people to their homes, and apps were launched to book prayer slots at mosques once stay-at-home restrictions eased.

Zulfiqar noted that fatwas have been increasingly issued verbally or through visuals on social media platforms rather than via the printed word.
“Islam is much less written than it was before. Traditionally speaking, there is a really formal way that fatwas are written, but I often couldn’t find them written down. People have become comfortable with the (fatwa’s) presentation by video as its the primary medium out there,” said Zulfiqar.
The generational gap over technological adoption, and acceptance, has also become more pronounced. “The physical sacred space is historically, and for the human psyche, so important that it will be difficult for the virtual to completely take over, but we will see. You already have in a lot of the Muslim diaspora third-way movements that are essentially ‘un-mosqued’, of young people gathering virtually but also organising virtually and meeting outside of the mosque or masjid,” said Zulfiqar.

VIRTUAL WORLDS
Religious communities have been meeting online through virtual worlds for over a decade, such as Second Life, which hit its peak popularity around 2010.

“It was very clear to Muslim communities on Second Life that it doesn’t count if you make avatars do daily prayers for you. Instead, people put their avatars on a virtual prayer rug and did their physical prayers at home. That kind of flexibility allowed them to feel they were in a group, which is really powerful,” said Robert Geraci, Professor of Religious Studies, Manhattan College, New York City, who researched Second Life religious communities in his book Virtually Sacred.

“What’s really cool is that technology reshapes what we get to do with religion, and forces us to rethink our assumptions,” he added.
Geraci noted that fatwas can be enablers for the technological transition.

“A fun case was the first Muslim astronaut, like what direction should she pray in, and how often, as she was going around the world twice in 18 hours,” he said.

VIRTUAL HAJJ

Apart from the five daily prayers, another key pillar of Islam, the hajj, could also take on a more virtual dimension.

“My vision was to create a virtual world where Muslims can visit important places on earth virtually,” said Bilal Chbib, founder of Muslim 3D, a virtual hajj pilgrimage platform.

Chbib has had to grapple with what is religiously permissible, and what users want.

“People do want to let virtual characters do the prayer, which sounds natural in that world, like to shoot at people in a 3D shooter game,” he said. But wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset to simulate prayer has not, so far, been a demand or fully possible.

Yet while a user can see and explore Makkah virtually as it is in the physical world, recreating the hajj experience, it is not equivalent to performing the actual hajj – a religious obligation – according to an Islamic scholar Chbib consulted.

Users of Muslim 3D or Labbaik VR, another virtual hajj platform, cannot therefore have another person carry out pilgrimage on their behalf, as shown in an episode of U.S. comedy series Ramy, where a character dons a VR headset to do umrah through hiring a Saudi man to relay his movements. “That doesn’t exist right now, but who knows,” said Zulfiqar.

‘Hajj badal’ or ‘umrah badal’ is where the pilgrimage is performed on behalf of someone not physically able to do so. Muslim 3D is investigating the possibility. “I don’t think people would have trust in it even if we had a scholarly opinion to say you can do it virtually, but maybe in cases where someone is very sick, or has money issues, they could entrust someone else to do it, and put on a VR headset to virtually follow in the footsteps of someone wearing a GPS locator. We will be on the frontline of what could be done,” said Chbib.

The fully immersive virtual reality present in futuristic films like Ready Player One, where the boundaries between the virtual and the real are near seamless in both mind and body, is a long way off, said Amir Bozorgzadeh, CEO and co-founder of Virtuleap, a health and education VR start-up.

“The technology is iterating really fast, and pairing with all kinds of limbs so to speak, with haptic gloves, but it is not very advanced yet,” said Bozorgzadeh.

More probable in the immediate term is heightened use of augmented
reality, which overlays digital content and information onto the physical world. Other sensory enabling technology may also make the experience more realistic. “VR periphery companies are creating smells and senses, which makes things even more profound in how it’s perceived by the brain in a way that’s not indistinguishable from reality – certainly the second best thing to fully immersive VR,” said Bozorgzadeh.

Chat-bots are also likely to take on an enhanced role in virtual experiences, being able to interact and learn from users’ needs, as well as act as guides. Such improvements are needed to improve the overall virtual experience.

“If you do your daily prayers on Zoom or a virtual world, you need to feel like you are with others, so that experience needs to be cultivated,” said Geraci.

Virtual experiences are considered beneficial for the physically disabled, people living in remote areas or on low incomes, or those unable to travel, as occurred this year. The Saudi Arabian authorities were forced to significantly scale down hajj and umrah due to the pandemic, effectively cancelling it, with millions of pilgrims impacted. With COVID-19 presenting significant unknowns in the near future, particularly travel, and the possibility of future pandemics, developing virtual pilgrimage may make sense.

“What if it is unsafe to congregate in Makkah for the next two or three years? Does that mean we should double-down on what can be done online and create the richest virtual experience? Does that satisfy a once in a lifetime experience for Muslims?” questioned Geraci.

Chbib has approached the Saudi authorities to develop the virtual hajj experience further. “It could be a perfect tool to prepare for hajj in a virtual space, and it would be great to work with Saudi officials. There’s definitely a huge interest to do that and some common interest,” said Chbib. Muslim 3D has been downloaded over 550,000 times this year.

HEATING UP
It is not only the pandemic and how this has changed religious interactions that may drive the shift towards virtual Islam. The spectre of climate change is another factor. According to World Bank projections, the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, is set to have over 100 days above 50 degrees Celcius if global temperatures rise by 4 degrees.

“Climate change could create a lot of different problems, like for hajj as it becomes impossible due to the temperature, so now is an opportunity to think about it from a theological perspective,” said Geraci.

The Saudi authorities would want to delay the prospect of virtual hajj, instead utilizing technology such as outdoor air-conditioning to keep the pilgrimage going, for religious reasons but also the $12 billion in revenues generated for the kingdom.
“If the climate became untenable, the second step they would do is change the dates of the hajj, to when it’s not as hot. If you are talking 365 days untenable, then they might have to go virtual,” Zulfiqar.

For the immediate future, how long the COVID-19 pandemic lasts may dictate the degree of adoption of virtual religious life. “Virtual space may become even more relevant. The waves of COVID-19 are going to have an impact on how virtual religion gets,” said Zulfiqar.

SALAM GATEWAY

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