CAIRO: In the virtual world Second Life, users can engage in many different activities such as building virtual property, trading, traveling, and this year, going on hajj is no exception.
On Islam, an Islamic website, created a Hajj Island on the virtual world Second Life which allows anyone to perform the hajj rituals.
Second Life is an interactive 3D online community where users, called “residents,” create an alternative life as avatars.
Second Life’s three dimensional space and interactive nature has attracted many organizations. Companies, educational institutions, artists, banks and even countries have created virtual spaces on Second Life that they use as platforms or as virtual work spaces in which people can interact with the help of 3D visual tools.
On Hajj Island, residents virtually perform all the rituals of hajj in a 3D recreation of the actual hajj sites, guided by Islamic scholars who explain the rituals and answer the residents’ questions.
The island was built three years ago when On Islam employees, Mohamed Yehia and Ahmed Fathy joined Second Life and started to think of useful ways to benefit from it.
“We started by building a Ramadan tent to introduce Islam to the residents, then we realized that Second Life is a great tool for practical training because of its interactivity. The trainee doesn’t only listen, he does everything by himself,” said Yehia.
The virtual island was built by an international team of experts who put in 300 hours of work to create an accurate replica of all the sites and buildings of the real pilgrimage with the aim of providing a “realistic, educational and fun” experience for visitors.
According to Yehia, the island aims at training Muslims for the hajj and informing non-Muslims about it and about Islam in general.
After teaching Muslims about hajj rituals for 25 years at Al-Azhar using textbooks and lectures and being a trainer in the Second Life Hajj Island for three years, Mahmoud Ismail said that the island proved to be much more efficient in teaching Muslims the rituals of hajj than the ordinary methods.
Ismail said that a survey conducted on 200 recipients of the traditional hajj training showed that 99 percent of them found the actual hajj rituals different from what they expected based on the training.
“In Al-Azhar and any other Islamic centers we only use theoretical methods to teach hajj, and some people resort to books, but the problem is that reading is based on imagination, so every person imagines the rituals of hajj in his own way which is very different from reality,” said Ismail.
Ismail said that the island is completely different as it gives the people an exact simulation of reality so that when they go on hajj they’re not surprised.
Radwa, who attended the Hajj Island training, said that she felt during the training that she was already there performing the actual hajj because everything is recreated very accurately.
“When I went on the actual hajj I felt that I was there before, I was sure that I knew how to do everything in the right way so I could focus on the spirituality instead of worrying about the details,” said Radwa.
For Muslims and Non-Muslims
The Hajj Island was originally meant for Muslims to practice before they perform the actual hajj, but it has attracted non-Muslims who wanted to experience the rituals and encouraged four visitors to convert to Islam.
According to Wael Shehab, Al-Azhar scholar and a trainer in Hajj Island, a lot of non-Muslims attend the trainings because they will never experience hajj in real life and end up learning a lot about Islam through it.
“The training has corrected a lot of the misconceptions that the non-Muslims who attended it had about Islam,” said Shehab.
Shehab added that the program doesn’t aim at converting people to Islam but only to educate them about it.
“We introduce non-Muslims to Islam so that they get the real picture and as a result some of them convert to Islam, or at least correct their misconceptions about it and think of it positively,” said Shehab.
Yehia said that even though the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims on Hajj Island is an unintended side-effect of the project, it proved to be more important than the original goal.
According to Yehia, the island became a place where Muslims and non-Muslims from all over the world meet and discuss any topic from the comfort of their homes. This allowed them to open up to each other with no fear, and to have discussions on controversial topics.
“A Jewish girl visited the island because she had always wanted to learn about Islam but was afraid, but in this atmosphere, she could visit mosques and talk to Muslims with no fear,” said Yehia.
On Islam also uses Second Life for cultural and religious events and live question and answer sessions which aim to educate and inform Muslims and non-Muslims alike about Islam.