I just watched an amazing multimedia presentation of a Sufi shrine. I recommend you to immerse yourself (full screen volumes turned up, no interruption), as much as you can on a computer screen, into the world re-imagined and captured here. More on the experience after the official description:
IN THE COURTYARD OF THE BELOVED ( http://exposureroom.com/members/andreasburgess/26664dd5b55c449c8fa6faacc2667076 ) is a visual and aural portrait of Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah, a Sufi shrine in New Delhi, India. Made from over 18,000 still images and ambient sounds recorded on-site, rapid-fire bursts of kaleidoscopic imagery assemble into fractured collages where a moment expands outwards and then converges back into itself, fleshing out a three-dimensional rendering of place.
Each day, hundreds of pilgrims travel by airplane, train, car, rickshaw and foot to reach this shrine, which honors a 12th century Sufi mystic who believed in drawing close to God through renunciation of the world and service to humanity. Beginning with imagery from these journeys, the film then enters the physical space of the shrine; a unique nexus of marketplace, social space and spiritual haven, where devotees come to offer their prayers and find a moment of reflection away from the din of Delhi traffic. As the sun sets behind the dome, musicians begin the qawwali, a style of Sufi devotional music that ranges from contemplative religious elegy to raucous crescendo.
Having explored the shrine’s visual and auditory experience online I started to think about the nature of cyber-pilgrimages. I had three circles of thoughts before I checked what the literature says. First, noticing the fantastic opportunities that new media enables for pilgrims. The full sensory experience of being at a shrine cannot be duplicated via digital means (yet). However the online world can add a lot to the offline, and create a different kind of pilgrimage that in some ways is better than the original. There are features and characteristics of doing it online that you cannot do offline. Starting with the number and mix of concurrent visitors, not to mention the mix of people who can be “present” at the same time.
My second line of thought was about how (virtual) access to sites that hold significance in your belief system can change your religious life. On one hand it can be provide you strength and refreshments to “go” there any time you want to. On the other hand it may cheapen the experience, because one of the value of doing a pilgrimage is the infrequency of the event. Something you prepare for and anticipate and then fully present yourself for. If it’s just a click away that may take away from the spirit of it.
Finally, if your religion is keen on proselytizing then the option for cyber-pilgrimages can act a double edge sword. It and the aesthetic beauty of your shrines can draw in people. But it can also alienate potential converts. After all why bother joining, if they can get whatever they want online. I know that it is very limited and simplistic view of conversion and religion itself, just arguing the devil’s advocate here.
Now let’s have a quick view of what scholars wrote about cyber-pilgrimage. This is not exhaustive survey of the literature, just a few highlights on chronological order.
Mark W. MacWilliams argues in a 2002 issue of Religion, in his “Virtual Pilgrimages on the Internet,” article that virtual pilgrimage has four key characteristics as a form of religious travel:
- First, it creates a mythscape, an immaterial mental geography that originally comes from sacred oral or scriptural traditions.
- Second, it exists as an interactive visual-auditory medium for experiencing a sense of sacred presence.
- Third, it generates symbolic forms of entertainment that are liminoid in character.
- Fourth, as a leisure activity of individuals ‘Net surfing’ from their home or office computers, it can create ‘virtual travelling communities’ of pilgrims who use the discourse of communitas to describe their experience.
Sabine Kalinock, in a 2006 issue of Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet, discusses the relation between innovations and traditional discourses in her “Going on Pilgrimage Online : the Representation of Shia Rituals on the Internet” essay:
Emphasis is laid on the possibilities that the Internet offers and which are especially important in the Muslim and Iranian context: the mixing of the sexes, exchange with believers in other parts of the world and the free expression of critical ideas.
Below is the abstract of Connie Hill-Smith‘s “Cyberpilgrimage: A Study of Authenticity, Presence and Meaning in Online Pilgrimage” in a 2009 issue of Journal of Religion and Popular Culture:
The idea of cyberpilgrimage may be met with scepticism. There may be a sense that pilgrimage via the Internet intrinsically cannot be authentic, that without any physical depth, it can only be an affectation, even a caricature, of “proper” (terrestrial) pilgrimage. This “authenticity issue” is crucial, and failure to address it will undermine academic attempts at its study, even while Internet religion becomes increasingly central to understanding contemporary religious expression. This article explores various aspects of the new phenomenon of cyberpilgrimage, framed by a discussion of the potential authenticity of cyberpilgrimage.
I feel that these three articles prove that my initial thoughts were on the right track. I still have a lot to read on the topic, I will probably start with reading all the references of the last, latest article. Meanwhile I cannot deny the feelings the Courtyard presentation evoked in me, a non-Muslim, who appreciates Sufi theology, poetry and the art it inspired throughout the centuries. I bow in front of beauty but do not prostrate myself.