Saudi Arabia less rigid with Muslims during haj

November 18, 2010


(Photo: Haj pilgrims arrive to cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan in Mena, November 16, 2010/Mohammed Salem)

Saudi Arabia’s religious police keep such a low profile during the haj, it’s hard to imagine that you are in Islam’s holiest city.

The kingdom, where Islam first emerged around 1,400 years ago, applies a strict form of Sunni Islamic sharia law that imposes gender segregation, forces shops to close during prayer times and prohibits women from driving.

But in Mecca, the enforcement of many of these rules is relaxed during the haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim. And with the government investing billion of dollars in recent years to make pilgrimage safer and more comfortable, many pilgrims end up going home as goodwill ambassadors for the country.

“We have to thank Saudi Arabia for their services. It’s getting better and better every year,” said Ritha Naji, a U.S. pilgrim performing a “stoning of the devil” rite that has been the scene of numerous deadly crushes in recent years.

The Grand Mosque, home to the Kaaba shrine which Muslims around the world turn to in prayer every day, is the only place in the desert kingdom where women and men can pray together. Western diplomats say this tolerance is part of wider efforts to improve the country’s image over the past decade after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington in which Saudis were involved.

Polite policemen guide pilgrims around the vast Grand Mosque, while the religious police turn a blind eye to pilgrims taking the kinds of photographs that they had frowned on in previous years.

In the capital Riyadh, religious police scour the streets to keep unrelated men and women apart, but in Mecca the sexes mix easily in shops and restaurants. Some eat side-by-side on the ground in front of the Grand Mosque, an impossible sight elsewhere in the kingdom.

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