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Mecca, lecca, hi mecca, hiney ho...
April 5, 2007 4:55 PM   Subscribe

How do they tell if you're a Muslim if you want to go on the hajj or umra to Mecca and Medina?

One of the places I wish I could see before I die is Mecca and Medina, as the Kabbah and the Prophet's Mosque do look pretty impressive. Of course, I as a non-Muslim cannot enter the holy cities.

But I looked at the hajj visa requirements. Unless I was a convert, which would require a certificate, there's apparently no way of verifying if someone is a Muslim is not. I could just say I'm a Muslim and as long as I meet all the other requirements (i.e. proof of reservations for hotels and airfare, vaccines, etc.), and I'd be in.

Anyways, my question is - is there anything stopping me from pulling a Sir Richard Burton and pretending to be a Muslim to go on the hajj? How the heck do they check that?
posted by champthom to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
What do you look like? You could make up some bs about being of serbian or bosnian descent, then they might buy your story.
posted by OldReliable at 5:15 PM on April 5, 2007


Google Answers and Cecil have taken a whack at similar questions.

Richard Burton had the advantage of a deep knowledge of Muslim history, culture and traditions before he chose to visit Mecca. I imagine if someone without this knowledge were to be detained, it would be pretty easy to figure out that he was shamming.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2007


You would, of course, have to be able to pray convincingly. It's not just a matter of bowing your head and looking solemn; you'll have to learn chunks of Arabic and some fairly complex patterns of movement.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2007


From what I understand, the fundamental problem is finding a tour to take you there. A visa doesn't get you there, it just lets you in the country once you arrive.

The process of joining a tour starts at your local mosque. So those are the people you need to convince. The Imam vouches for you to the tour company, and the tour company vouches for you to the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, which in turn arranges your visa.

I would expect it to be difficult to convince a local Imam that you are Muslim.
posted by mendel at 5:32 PM on April 5, 2007


You would, of course, have to be able to pray convincingly. It's not just a matter of bowing your head and looking solemn; you'll have to learn chunks of Arabic and some fairly complex patterns of movement.


Not necessarily. Many of the rubes that go on hajj, even from the Kingdom of Saud, don't know the basics of the prayer all that well. What would stop you, if anything, would be the consulate that you applied for a visa.

And what mendel said about the tour. You would be totally overwhelmed during hajj without a group. If you just went in the off season when people were making umra, you would stand out alot more and there are many suspicious eyes there. Conversely, you could just learn the shahada in a few seconds and repeat it to anyone you met.

The point of going to Mecca really is to participate, not be a spectator.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:45 PM on April 5, 2007


(And the penalties if you get caught, under Sharia law in Saudi Arabia -- the land of the death penalty for drug offences -- will probably be severe.)
posted by mendel at 5:45 PM on April 5, 2007


In Malaysia, at least, there is an entire organization devoted to getting people to the Hajj. Is there such a thing where you live?
posted by divabat at 6:01 PM on April 5, 2007


This is not recommended. The penalty if you get caught is death. The official form of execution is public decapitation by sword, but sometimes they don't wait that long.

In February three French were killed in Saudi Arabia by gunfire because they were near Medina. The gunmen didn't bother asking any questions (like "are you converted?"), they just saw Occidentals and opened fire.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:09 PM on April 5, 2007


This is not recommended. The penalty if you get caught is death. The official form of execution is public decapitation by sword, but sometimes they don't wait that long.

In February three French were killed in Saudi Arabia by gunfire because they were near Medina. The gunmen didn't bother asking any questions (like "are you converted?"), they just saw Occidentals and opened fire.


They weren't killed by soldiers or police, but bandits. That wasn't a question of protecting the holy city, but further proof that one should be part of a hajj group.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:32 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was going to say, there are plenty of Occidental Muslims who participate in the hajj, I saw a documentary about a blond haired blue eyed American Muslim who went. So I doubt official people are going about killing pale faces without provocation.
It's going to be a damn difficult thing to do.
posted by edgeways at 7:42 PM on April 5, 2007


Thanks mendel.

My only question left though is - would they do some sort of "background check" with a local iman if I was to go through a tour group online?

On a related note, I have often been mistaken for Middle Eastern (also Indian or Hispanic), so I could pull it off maybe...
posted by champthom at 9:10 PM on April 5, 2007


Burton's Wiki entry (as well as other sources detailing his trip) note that he got himself circumcised prior to going, which is something to consider. While it's unlikely that anyone would 'just happen' to see you nude, if something else gave you away, that's something that might get checked (and would be a dead giveaway that you weren't Muslim).
posted by jedicus at 9:14 PM on April 5, 2007


My only question left though is - would they do some sort of "background check" with a local iman if I was to go through a tour group online?

It would probably depend on the organizers. Although, most tour groups have mandatory classes and consultations long before you embark. Once underway, unless you had done all your homework and learned the integrals, it would be fairly obvious to other people in your group that you weren't a Muslim. The "background check" you asked about would be a call to the imam who typed up a letter on mosque letterhead stating you had converted to Islam. You get one of those by actually going to the imam and reciting the testament of faith, or shahada.

The above references a hajj package. Again, umra is more flexible and it is much easier to make one's own arrangements for making umra. However, as a Muslim, I don't countenance either of these things and would ask that you consider looking into visiting other holy sites such as Mount Athos rather than looking seeking a tourist experience in Mecca or Medina .
posted by Burhanistan at 10:09 PM on April 5, 2007


Ignoring the hows of your question, have you really considered the whys? The Hajj is not some festival with a love-hate relationship with the tourists that come to visit, it is a holy pilgrimage that Muslims have to perform if they are so able.

A look at the numbers (over a billion Muslims in the world, only a couple of million people able to perform the Hajj in any given year due to visa limits and capacity) shows that most Muslims will never be able to fulfill this duty of theirs.
No matter how much they increase capacity and improve the infrastructure there will always be more demand for performing the Hajj than physical space to accommodate pilgrims.

If you were successful in infiltrating the Hajj I'm sure it would be a great experience for you. Having done it as a child (all above board mind you, no infiltrating) I'll tell you that it was leagues above any travel "experience" I've had since. I wish that non-Muslims were allowed to experience the Hajj first-hand. The sense of joy, reverence, community is something that doesn't come through in any of the videos of it I've seen and isn't something I've experienced many times since.

When a Muslim prays, they pray in the direction of Mecca. Think about it, every (reasonably devout) Muslim knows where Mecca is at pretty much all times. Five times a day (or considerably less in many cases) they pray towards Mecca. Even for those who have never been there, and will never go, there is a connection with the city. We're homing pigeons, and Mecca is home.

Don't do this. I have absolutely no doubt that a trip to Mecca and Medina would be greatly satisfying to you. But it would take so much more away from the person who's spot you took.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:36 PM on April 5, 2007 [7 favorites]


It seems disrespectful to me as well. Many Muslims struggle their entire lives to save enough to make the hajj, and most never get the chance. It's not a tourist event, despite the size of one's pocketbook.

Essentially, what you'd be saying is that you so admire the (admittedly) impressive sites that your desire to see them should supercede the wishes and intent of the culture which created them and sees them as sacred.

I think, to be perfectly honest, that the kindness (and as someone's already said, the "joy, reverence, community") that you'd experience if you did this successfully would probably make you feel like shit afterwards for obtaining it solely via wrongful deception and a very 'ugly American' attitude. Or perhaps you're such a person as to still feel vindicated in going and leaving with no guilt attached, which is a sadder possibility.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:21 AM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not necessarily. Many of the rubes that go on hajj, even from the Kingdom of Saud, don't know the basics of the prayer all that well.

Huh. I stand corrected.

Ignore the people who say you shouldn't do this because it's disrespectful to Muslims. That's hogwash. What they don't know won't hurt them, and it should be a great experience (assuming you avoid being crushed). And if you do it, by all means post an update here!
posted by languagehat at 6:08 AM on April 6, 2007


Burton's Wiki entry (as well as other sources detailing his trip) note that he got himself circumcised prior to going, which is something to consider. While it's unlikely that anyone would 'just happen' to see you nude, if something else gave you away, that's something that might get checked (and would be a dead giveaway that you weren't Muslim).
posted by jedicus at 4:14 AM on April 6


I thought most americans were circumcised? How is that a criteria for distinguishing between faiths in that case?

Plus, I would say that for as long as there are a few million believers and a single infidel on the Hajj, the odds are not high for success.

You'd best be a sincere & convincing muslim scholar at the least if you aren't Muslim. You're post title doesn't convince me.
posted by dash_slot- at 6:33 AM on April 6, 2007


I thought most americans were circumcised? How is that a criteria for distinguishing between faiths in that case?

Most American males are. Some are not. If champthom is not, well, that could be an issue.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:23 AM on April 6, 2007


Who besides Burton has done this? Anyone recently? (Mind you, these days I can see how anyone doing it might not want to publicize the fact, but you never know.)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:16 PM on April 6, 2007


Dude, people die all the time at Hajj. Young people too. Just Google Hajj and stampede, or Hajj and fire. Actually, it looks like there's a Wikipedia page devoted to this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incidents_during_the_Hajj

My friends - all in their 20's - did their wills before going, AND they were going with a tour. If you don't go as part of a tour, and if you don't go having done all your homework, you're at significant risk. What's the point? Visit the Blue Mosque in Turkey, get your tourist experience there.
posted by exhilaration at 2:26 AM on April 9, 2007


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