Saudi Arabia less rigid with Muslims during haj

Thu Nov 18, 2010 6:17am EST
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By Ulf Laessing

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters Life!) - 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.

King Abdullah has tried hard to dispel the association between Saudi Arabia and lslamist militancy, promoting an international "interfaith dialogue" through the United Nations.

This year's haj -- which ended this week -- drew a record 1.8 million foreigners from diverse regions of the world like Nigeria, Russia and Indonesia that apply a less strict form of Islam than Saudi Arabia.   Continued...

<p>Muslim pilgrims cover themselves from rain in Mena November 17, 2010. Millions flock to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the annual haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha to mark the end of the haj by slaughtering sheep, goats, cows and camels to commemorate Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail on God's command. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed</p>