If you're not on your own pilgrimage to Mecca, you might as well follow someone else's on Instagram.
The annual Hajj to Mecca is one of the most ancient and sacred rituals in Islam, but it's also the largest annual gathering of people on the planet, and this week many pilgrims are recording their rites through selfies, even as Islamic scholars begin to declare they're haram (illegal in Islam).
Last month, the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta, an Islamic authority with 780,000 followers on Facebook, issued a fatwa — a legal interpretation of Islamic law — stating that women should resist taking selfies and sharing them with strangers online because they can be used "in corrupted acts by deviants, and it is deemed foreign to our religion."
Professional photography is banned at many of the sacred sites in Mecca, but as over two million Muslims from 180 countries arrived in Saudi Arabia Wednesday for the yearly ritual, which marks the end of the Islamic lunar calendar year, many were clicking away as they circled the Kaaba. The center of one of the world's oldest mosques, which Muslims say was built by Abraham himself, Kaaba is considered by Muslims to be one of the most sacred places in the world.
Completion of the Hajj is intended to be the apex of a Muslim's spiritual existence, and documentation is generally discouraged in order to maintain the ancient purity of the tradition. Critics say filming the daily prayers and interrupting your own prayer at the two holy mosques can take away from what is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the most pious Muslims.
The Dar al-Ifta's website, which takes questions from users ranging from whether they think it's acceptable to paint or draw pictures of animals (they do) to whether they think it's okay to join a jihadist group (they don't), makes clear with each posted response that the answer is based on an interpretation of Islamic texts, but "Allah the Almighty knows best."
But in a conversation with Arab News, Saudi scholar Sheik Abdul Razzaq al Badr sided with Dar al-Ifta and criticized Muslims who choose to document their experience through smartphones.
"It is as though the only purpose of this trip is to take pictures and not worship," he said. "And when they return home they say: 'Come look at me, this is me on Arafat, this is me in Muzdalifah!'"
But no matter the scholarly interpretation, as Muslims flood Mecca this week to kiss the holy Black Stone, drink water from the Zamzam well, run between the hills of Safa and Marwah, and shave their heads to symbolize the end of the restriction of Ihram, you can be sure that many, especially the younger ones, will have their iPhones in hand, snapping away.
Just follow #hajj2014 to keep up.
Instagram user @alishareeff