My experiences with the clashes of modernity and the subsequent demise of spirituality
Hiss beautifully and with great detail articulates the experience and significance of Grand Central Station. More than half a million people pass through Grand Central Station each day, he writes, while the many entrances act as several paths into a single large room. The room serves its purpose of housing and directing the intentful towards their desired destination. I was immediately awestrucked by his description and connection to Grand Central, for last spring, I had the great fortune of partaking in a similar experience where I gained similar insight and appreciation for a similar-functioning historic destination. For one week, I had embarked upon the road to Mecca.
On making the pilgrimage to Mecca, the distance, journey, and shared purpose of the millions of believers adherent and joined simultaneously in the same prayer puts everyone at once in conversation. Perhaps no better example on earth than Mecca replicates the insights of Yi-Fu Tuan, that "to know a place in the full sense of knowing requires participation by the discerning eye and mind." In Islamic doctrine, the Kaaba (though just a mere accumulation of rocks covered by black cloth), has metaphysical offerings to pilgrims in the real. The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad to his companions were instructive to look and gaze upon the black structure, for it - like prayer - is considered an act of worship.
Indeed, one could sit passively, merely affixing his gaze upon the central figure being circumambulated by millions and yet be awarded with an abundance of good deeds. Reciting prayers and in communication with God, believers circumambulate the Kaaba seven times in a counter clockwise motion; it is precisely here that the sublime and symbolic join, for believers circumambulate in such a direction that their hearts are both physically and spiritually closest to the iconic central structure.
This sensation, the cross-sensory and multi-sensory feeling of tranquility and connection between the created and creator is referred to in Arabic as either khushua
, and an increase in such is the ultimate goal of the pilgrimage. Among the narrations that are believed to be the direct words of God to humanity as transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad is the following in relation to this multi-sensory experience:
When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. about anything as much as I hesitate about [seizing] the soul of My faithful servant: he hates death and I hate hurting him."
The asthetic nature of a destination can change our spiritual connection to it. The appearance of the Harem, the title given to the sacred mosque that engulfs the Kaaba, has changed dramatically throughout history. Prior to and for centuries after the advent of Islam, the Kaaba stood upon the rock-ground surface that gives bedding to the mountainous desert region in Mecca. Eventually, structures were built around the Kaaba with the intent of constructing and, throughout the generations, making expansions to the Harem. Yet among the pitfalls of modernity is the eradication of history at the sacred site as necessitated by the annual growing number of able and willing pilgrims - with the ever accessible technology of airplanes, mass transportation, and the hotel and lodging industries of the twenty first century, accommodation is becoming increasingly scarce upon the holy ground.
If one were to turn on Saudi state television and catch a glimpse of a live stream feed on the Harem, the dismantling of the earlier Ottoman expansions are impossible to miss among the cranes and construction underway in the current Mecca expansion project. The result has been the beginning of the end of history, challenging our notions of time, space and place.
Initially difficult to reconcile, this was something that I had the bittersweet struggle of having to overcome during my week long stay. For many, including myself, the space of the Harem is a sacred escape from the life of this world. One makes a pilgrimage to be in isolation with the Creator, the ultimate reality in the fleeting life of this world. And while pilgrims for more than 1,400 years have spent their entire life savings from all walks of life and corners of the Earth to do exactly that, the essence of Mecca is now jeopardized by the contemporary demands of globalization. The changes of environment are not superficial, but have profound implications of a physiological nature, echoing Hiss's observations that, "today's world not only looks different, but sounds and smells different."
The natural has been replaced by the man-made. While the Muslims of Mecca were (and technically still are) dependent upon the rotation of the sun as an indicator of the appropriate time to pray one of the five daily prayers, technology has replaced such a sensation. Instead of the engulfing multi-sensory experience of looking at the sun, being touched by its warmth and seeking bounty from the food it produces, the pilgrimage seeks to replicate but in many respects becomes stripped of its minimalist nature.
Above the Kaaba, in a building immediately outside of the Harem, overlooks the world tallest clock tower in order to inform Meccans of prayer time. Indeed, one can now walk as I did immediately out of the sacred mosque and find oneself engulfed in the aroma of Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonalds French fries. If the desert heat and intense meditation becomes overbearing, one need not fear, for a Venti Triple Mocha Late
from a new Starbucks is always in walking distance. And when prayer time and the scheduled lunch break come to an end, one can now relax amidst the calm music and enjoy the latest bargains at the new H&M or Paris Hilton stores.
The reality, for me, was difficult to swallow; truth be told, I cried while in Mecca. Something inside of me had become entrenched in a realm of sadness having been put - unexpectedly - amidst the consumerism and familiarity I had hoped to escape. Sanctity can never be stripped, and neither globalization or the influx of fast food chains outside of what many hold to be the most sacred land on Earth will detract from its special and elevated stature. Because Mecca serves an alternative function than "tourist" destination, I struggled to come to terms with the clash of modernity and the eradication of religious history.
Perhaps retrospectively, every subsequent contemporary generation for the last 1,400 years has asked the same question. Alternatively, if we believe surrounding environments do indeed have physiological effects, perhaps what I experienced was in fact the beginning of the end of the sacred nature of Mecca. Can a parallel be drawn between Hiss's observations of unanticipated physical illness as a result of skyscrapers and the future spiritual demise of generations of pilgrims to come? Only time can tell.