Despite my lack of belief in any particular supreme being, I recognize that some of the most incredible things in human history would not have been accomplished without a religious purpose. Each time I get the opportunity to witness one of these wonders, I gain a sense of appreciation for the power of faith behind it. The experience can be a better lesson about a religion than any textbook in the world. Mecca, at least on paper, seemed to be one of the best travel destinations for understanding a religion. I recently read that for non-Muslims, Mecca can be harder to get into than North Korea and Antarctica. As such, I will have to take it off my travel checklist, for now, and just hope that Saudi Arabia changes its tourism policies within my lifetime.
Reasons I have read include that Makkah is already quite crowded with Muslims; so to allow people of other faiths access to this holiest of cities in Islam could potentially be detrimental in terms of crowd control — not to mention that it could also be potentially distracting to those who wish to have a pure experience performing their Umrah; and significantly more difficult during the period of time when Muslim people annually embark on a pilgrimage to Makkah called the Hajj, which must be performed at least once in their lifetimes…
O you who have believed, indeed the polytheists are unclean, so let them not approach al-Masjid al-Haram after this, their [final] year. And if you fear privation, Allah will enrich you from His bounty if He wills. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Wise.
“They do check everybody”, according to this article written by Ross of Travelling For Fun who attempted to enter Makkah while in Saudi Arabia. “How do they do it? By putting huge checkpoints across the motorways exactly like tolls. And they also put a huge sign over the road to say if you are non-Muslim then get off. It seems crazy but in Saudi anything is possible. You feel very unloved and rejected. Up the ramp I went and onto the ‘Christian bypass’ which brings you 50km out of your way into the desert to bypass the city. The city is the holiest in Islam and hence Mecca is forbidden for non-Muslims, Medina further north also has this restriction. So how do they know that a white dude from Ireland isn’t a closet Muslim? Well firstly if you convert to Islam you need to take a Muslim name, Mohammed, Hamed, Abdullah etc.”
While Ross was unsuccessful in his quest to visit Makkah, another person went to great lengths to successfully visit the holy city.
“But the Muslim distrust of outsiders often got in my way and so I found it advantageous to claim – falsely – that I had converted to the Islamic faith”, according to this article which is part one of a series of three articles written by “Hajji Mustafa” for WND — also known as WorldNetDaily — which claims to be an independent news company that “has the largest reach of any Christian website” in the world. “The Saudi authorities prohibit non-Muslims from venturing within 15 kilometers of Mecca or the other holy city, Medina. Infidels who are discovered in the sacred precincts can expect severe punishment. Through the centuries, only a handful of Westerners have breached these regulations and attended the pilgrimage ceremonies without genuinely becoming Muslim.”
“No more than fifteen Christian-born Europeans have thus far succeeded in seeing the two holy cities and escaping with their lives.” That did not stop Mustafa — a pseudonym, as revealing his real name could possibly endanger his life — from converting to Islam for the purpose of entering Makkah; and he details his experience in three parts. Here is part two; and here is part three of that report.
Should Those Who are Not Muslim Be Allowed to Visit Makkah?
Although I have never been a religious person — I do believe in God — part of what travel is all about is to experience the culture, items and actions which would not typically be experienced at home. My original home town of Brooklyn could be considered exotic to many people around the world — but unless they experience being in Brooklyn, they will never know what they might be missing.
Paradigms influenced by religious beliefs are some of the most tangible aspects of the culture of a destination which contribute to the overall travel experience — as well as some of the most personal traits which form deep within a person. It is interesting to witness how and why people do what they do and believe what they believe — which to me leads to a better overall understanding of people; and a better understanding of people seems to lead to less chance of conflict.
While the news is rife with malicious acts by Islamic militants — such as members of the Islamic State — every religion has members who are extremist in nature and have little or no tolerance to others who are “different.” Ignorance fuels misunderstanding, which in turn increases the chance for needless conflict.
On a ferry years ago, a piece of jewelry in the shape of the country of Israel but with the colors of the flag of Palestine hung from a necklace worn by a young woman who wanted to hold what she thought was an adorable toddler. Her travel companion — a young woman from the country of Georgia — also wanted to hold the little boy.
I thought I had witnessed a truly wonderful moment between the two women and the parents of the little boy; but I wonder if the Palestinian woman would have behaved differently if she knew that the boy she was holding was Jewish.
I would prefer to think not — especially after I witnessed a very special exchange between two men some years ago at a barbecue joint in South Florida. One man was from Lebanon; the other from Israel. After dinner, I was asked to time a discussion they were about to have, to which I agreed. The prelude of the discussion was a rather bold statement: that they would resolve all of the major issues between Lebanon and Israel in 15 minutes.
The men resolved their difference in fewer than eight minutes.
They remain good friends to this day; but a fence — and a declaration of war, which is still technically in effect — keeps them apart. They had to meet in the United States to break bread with each other as witnessed by a couple of dozen members of FlyerTalk.
To me, this is one of many examples of proof that a little understanding goes a long way…
…which leads me to my sadness: while I have no desire to experience an Umrah — a term of which I had never heard before I read about it by Elena Nikolova — for myself, I would at least like to witness the joy and the meaning of an Umrah experienced by a Muslim person; to better understand the religion of Islam; to combat the hurtful comments of discrimination espoused by people who typically know no better.
What better place to witness that pure unbridled euphoria of a Muslim person than within Makkah itself?
My thoughts do not apply solely to Islam. If more people better understood Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions around the world, I strongly believe that world peace would actually become a more realistic goal — basic human nature put aside for an idealistic moment.
One shining example of proof is this trip report with photographs posted by FlyerTalk member isaifan, who called his experience of Hajj “a journey of a lifetime.” Comments by FlyerTalk members of other faiths expressed genuine interest in Hajj; as well as gratitude and appreciation to isaifan for sharing such a personal experience.
Although I also appreciate Elena and isaifan to share their experiences, I would at least like to have had the choice to witness it in person. With all of the utmost due respect to them, it is almost like watching a documentary or reading a report about an interesting place instead of actually traveling to it and experiencing it.
I have read some heartless comments in various places around the Internet saying things like “Who would want to go there anyway” or “I would not want to witness it.” Those comments are valid — but they seem to smack more of “sour grapes” rather than express an actual desire.
Delving full-throttle into experiencing all of the nuances of a religion is not necessary for better understanding of people and their beliefs in general; but not being permitted the chance to actually experience something meaningful which a person has never experienced before is a small but better opportunity towards potential world peace wasted.
Experiencing what is currently the third tallest building in the world known as the Abraj Al-Bait Tower or Makkah Royal Clock Tower, sporting the largest clock face in the world — as well as the hotel properties of lodging chains such as Fairmont and Hilton Worldwide — would be an added bonus to visiting Makkah. I suppose that Christopher J. Nassetta — the current chief executive officer of Hilton Worldwide — is not allowed to visit Makkah Hilton Hotel and will never see that hotel property. If that is true, how weird is that?!?
In the meantime, I suppose I have no choice but to be satisfied with viewing the photographs and reading about the experiences of Hajj and Umrah which people of the Islamic faith who have been to Makkah are willing to share…