Q. Is there anything in the Qur'an or authentic Sunnah that prohibits non-Muslims from entering the sacred precinct (Kaaba) or any of the other "Muslim holy sites"? If not, how did this policy get started?
A. The land in which the Muslim holy sites are located is referred to as the Hijaz -- that strip of land in which Mecca and Medina are situated. Sura 9 unequivocally lets us know that those who worship other than Allah are not allowed to visit those places -- even if they are related to the (Muslim) inhabitants thereof -- (see 9:2,17,23,28) Obviously, Sura 9 is in reference to those who are specifically hostile to the Muslims. It may be argued by some that 4:91 conditions those verses, saying that if they do not wage war against us, then we are not allowed to fight them, and therefore they may be allowed to visit the holy sites. But 4:91 is NOT in reference to the holy sites, and only speaks of when it is correct to commence or desist from retaliatory action. It has nothing to do with visiting the holy places. It may also be argued that the Jews and Christians are in a different category to unbelievers, for they are recognized by Allah as monotheists in principle, and the Qur’an even counts them among those who are entitled to heaven. This is certainly true, and indeed, there is evidence (however arguable) to show that there were Christians and Jews living there after the death of the Prophet.
But recognizing the professed monotheism of these two religions, and their status in light of 9:28 is somewhat problematic. Whether we wish to admit it or not, the relationship between Islam and the other two major monotheistic religions had rapidly deteriorated to the point where we KNOW by observation that if unfettered access to these sites were allowed, then there would be security concerns. Those places are supposed to be sites in which there are NO security concerns, hence the grounds for restriction. The Qur’an says: "Who are more wicked than those who seek to bar the mention of God…(see 2:114). In light of this truth, and in spite of our recognition of the People of the Book, and in spite of the fact that ideal pluralism, as envisioned by the Qur’an, would allow peaceful cohabitation with the People of the Book, we cannot be inattentive to reality -- that Islam's holy sites are to be areas in which all preventive measures must be taken to ensure safety and security. This therefore is in accordance with the Islamic maxim: "Dar al-mafaasid yuqaddam ala jalb al masalih" -- which in function means that pragmatic outlook lets us know that the repelling of evil is given precedence to doing that which may, under normal circumstances, be better.
There is another rule too that dictates "Affliction is to be removed" -- and in the case of security concerns of the Hijaz, we must remove anything that threatens the Muslim peace of mind. That being said, one must still tackle the issue of Christians and Jews being there after the Prophet's death. As explained elsewhere in this site, Islam's laws are institutionally based, except when specifically ordered for all and sundry. The presence -- if indeed there was -- of non-Muslims was a small one, and those non-Muslims were not in a position to cause problems, for they were a few slaves or people with a specific task. One may extend this to modern times to mean that if the guardians of Islam's holy sites were to allow certain repair personnel, or medical personnel, or heads of state to visit, this permissibility may not be seen as breaking Islamic law, although such allowance would cause controversies on several grounds. At the point of seeming to overly berate the point, I must stress that pragmatism must take precedence over idealism, and therefore, given the current state of affairs, the ban on all non-Muslims seems to fit within the Islamic law that seeks prevention before cure. And Allah knows best.
Posted January 19, 2002