Saudi Arabia has recently opened its doors for tourism. One of the most common questions from travellers is: are tourists who are non-Muslims banned from Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s most famous city?
Mecca receives nearly 9 million visitors each year. Yet, unlike other cities around the world, this city is not open for everyone. Each of these 9 million people is Muslim, for non-Muslims are banned from Mecca under Saudi Arabian Law.
Mecca is the holiest city in all of Islam. It is believed to be the birthplace of God’s revelation to man, and the city is centered around kabba, which is believed to be the site where God first revealed his message to the Prophet Abraham. Every day, more than a billion Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca during the 5 daily prayers that Muslims complete.
Why are Non-Muslims Banned from Mecca?
The issue of banning non-Muslims from Mecca is complicated. Religiously, the Quran’s Surah Al-Tawbah is most commonly cited as the main reason why non-Muslims are banned from Mecca.
The Surah roughly translates to: “O believers! Indeed, the polytheists are spiritually impure, so they should not approach the Sacred Mosque after this year.” In Arabic, the original word for polytheists is Mushirk . Mushirk refers to a person who associates other actors to God.
As Mecca and the kabba is understood to be a place built by the prophet Abraham to declare the first of God’s revelations, the question then becomes whether or not the other “people of the book” who believe in a God’s message as a transmission from the Prophet Abraham should be allowed to enter the haram of Mecca.
Whether or not the other Abrahamic religions are mushirk(polytheist) is also controversial, particularly in regards to trinitarian Christians, and the Quran states at different points that Jews and Christians are both believers and non-believers.
In a historical context, Surah-al Tawbah was written in the 10th year of Hijrah. During this time, the kabba was a site for many polytheistic pilgrimages. It was the center of a lot of shirk (idolism), particularly to the pagan Gods Hubal, Manaf, Isaf and Na’ila. At this point in history, it is generally understood that the banning of mushriks in Mecca refers to the polytheistic worshippers that frequented Mecca in the year 632 (10 Hijrih year).
Different Islamic scholars during the creation of the Islamic Madhabs had differing views on this surah. The scholar Imam Abu Hanifah (Hanafi School) stated that entrance to the Kabba was restricted to prevent pagan hajj (pilgramage) that was common during the jahiliyya (age of ignorance) and Imam Malak (Malaki school) stated that it was only as a result of non-Muslims and mushirks tendency to be in a state of spiritual and physical uncleanliness. Imam Shafi’i (Shafi school) stated that the people of the book should be banned from entering the holy mosque until they found faith in Islam, but he cited an important hadith in which non-Muslim Thumamah ibn Athal declared his faith upon seeing the holy mosque.
In reference to whether or not Christians and Jews should be allowed to enter Mecca and Medina with the exception of the physical grounds of the Holy Mosque, the isnad (chains of transmission) regarding the Prophet’s understanding of this are quite weak, and there is not a clear agreement as to the actually boundaries of restriction.
However, non-Muslims were not officially banned from Mecca until 473 years after the founding of Islam. The law was first instituted under the ruler Noor-ud-Din in 1081 AD. This law was put in place after Pope Sixtus sent two spies on a mission to try to remove the Prophet Mohammad’s body and return it to Rome. This was part of the Pope’s attempt to weaken and discredit Islam during the Crusades.
Overall, the issue is not clear, and depending on different people’s interpretation of Islam, it can be understood in different ways. Some may argue that the Quran forbids non-Muslims from visiting Mecca, while others may see this ban as a political decision that occurred as a result of religious wars and espionage between Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages.
So Can a non-Muslim Visit Mecca?
While some Muslims might find it ethically-okay for Christians and Jews to view Mecca depending on their state of cleanliness, their beliefs of the oneness of God, or their interest in converting to Islam, it is still illegal to be caught visiting Mecca as a non-Mulsim under Saudi Law.
A recent case, in which an Jewish Israeli journalist snuck into Mecca, resulted in massive outrage and the arrest of his Saudi friend. While this case was linked to much-larger political tensions, it is still risky for everyday tourists to attempt to explore Mecca, as they may be deported or arrested if found.
Non-Muslims typically stand out in Mecca, as the city has a strict code of rituals that non-Muslims struggle to follow. Men must wear an elaborately folded white cloth known as the ihram, and there are very specific and complex rituals, prayers, and Arabic greetings that all Muslims are expected to know and recite in Mecca.
Overall, it is not a good idea to try to visit Mecca as a non-Muslim. It is illegal, and the risk outweighs the reward.
Why are Non-Muslims Banned from Mecca Still?
For many years, it was nearly-impossible to sneak into Mecca as a non-Muslim, as tourism was banned for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
Yet, since 2020, Saudi Arabia has opened its borders for tourists to come explore the country’s rich culture and history. The state has unveiled a massive plan to promote tourism as a centerpoint in the country’s economy, which represents a massive switch in the state’s ideology.
Many travelers wonder if tourists will someday be allowed to enter Mecca as part of this new push towards tourism.
Someday, could non-Muslims visit Mecca? Maybe
Will it be open for non-Muslims to visit Mecca soon? Probably Not
In short, Saudi Arabia has no need or desire to open Mecca to non-Muslim tourists. Visiting Mecca is one of the pillars of Islam, and every Muslim seeks to carry out a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life. With nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world, there is never a shortage of pilgrims.
In fact, many Muslim countries have a strict system for regulating visas for Muslims to travel to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage at Mecca. Many Muslims wait decades to get a visa to be able to travel to Mecca.
Considering that a pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the most significant dreams for millions of Muslims around the world, it seems both irresponsible and inconsiderate for Saudi Arabia to open Mecca for non-Muslims and reduce the number of places available for devout Muslims.
Can I Visit Any Mosques in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, most mosques in the world are open to non-Muslims. Non-Muslims cannot enter the city of Mecca. However, non-Muslims can enter the city of Medinah, located north of Saudi Arabia. They are only restricted from entering the Prophet’s mosque, where the prophet Mohammaed is buried. Non-Muslims also may be restricted from entering mosques during one of the five daily prayers in Islam.
Otherwise, non-Mulsims are otherwise largely welcome to visit mosques in Saudi Arabia. Some mosques even have learning spaces for non-Muslims to ask questions about Islam and learn more about the country and its religion.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply religious country, and one can still gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the religion and the country by chatting with locals or visiting one of the thousand, less-popular mosques around the country.