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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Visiting Medina as Non-Muslim

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Saudi Arabia is a place that has remained mysterious and untouchable for years. However, as of 2019 this country that was closed for tourism opened its doors to 40+ nations around the world. At the same time the announcement was made for opening tourism, they also implemented changes such as women coming to the country no longer have to be escorted by a man and wouldn’t be required to wear the traditional abaya and headdress. After opening up in late 2019, only a few months later it was closed again due to Covid-19. Therefore, it has only been within the last few months that tourism has been able to fully resume again. We were excited about this opportunity to explore Saudi Arabia – to see firsthand all that Saudi Arabia beholds!

Our first stop was Medina, the second most holy city in Islam. This definitely isn’t a tourist attraction, so to be honest, we found it a bit difficult to find much information about it. Therefore, but we wanted to share some information about visiting Medina and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi 'The Prophet’s Mosque' as a non-Muslim.

Courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia
Al-Masjid an-Nabawi 'The Prophet’s Mosque'

Muslim's Umrah "Pilgrimage" to Mecca

As one of the 5 pillars of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca – either Umrah or Hajj -- is something that is truly fascinating. Umrah is when Muslims come any time of the year; whereas Hajj takes places on specific dates according to the Muslim lunar calendar. I won’t get into the details of it, as I am not an expert in this area, and would be afraid to misrepresent something – but I HIGHLY recommend taking some time to read more about this special time during their faith & how they enter a state of holiness upon their arrival. The number of people who come to Mecca for this journey as part of their faith is really astounding.

Jeddah is the Main Entry Point for Umrah

We flew into Jeddah, which is the main airport for Muslims wanting to journey to Mecca. Men & Women come to Mecca to visit the mosque that was the birthplace of the religion by their prophet Muhammad.

There is a series of rituals or rules that they must follow when they are journeying to Mecca and part of this is wearing Ihram clothing. The very basics are that men must wear two white unhemmed sheets, usually a towelling material, and only a belt with no undergarments; whereas, women’s garments can vary more but they do not cover their faces & only wear a hiab. This similar dress is all to represent that in front of Allah all people are created equal, regardless of earthly status, and create a sense of unity among all Muslim believers. However, upon entering the holy area of Mecca (including the airspace above it from my understanding) they must wear these robes. When we departed on our flight from Bahrain, there were only one or two men who were wearing the Ihram garments, but upon deplaning there were several more. Therefore, many of them changed during the flight before they entered the boundaries of ‘Miqat’. When we arrived in to Jeddah, the majority of the arriving men were wearing Ihram attire, and it wasn’t even the time of year for Hajj, so it would be truly eye-opening to see so many gathered here to continue their journey to Mecca.

Mecca is the most holy city and home to the largest mosque in the world; however, non-Muslims are unable to enter it. I completely understand this and to be honest, it is probably best that way, as it is such a sacred trip for them that it would be wrong for others to interfere.

The Second-Most Holy City in Islam - Medina

Medina is the second most holy city in Islam and in more recent years HAS been opened to non-Muslims. It is home to the second largest mosque - Al Masjid an Nabawi, or in English ‘The Prophet’s Mosque.’ The entire city in general has a spiritual feel to it.

We were headed northwest to Al Ula and we wanted to take the time to visit this sacred city, if we would be passing by & we wanted to share our experience with you. However, just to be completely upfront, our experience may or may not be the same for everyone and it does seem to be a bit of a grey area. Some people say that only Muslims should enter the mosque grounds in Mecca, whereas others say that is only pertinent to Mecca. However, we tried to be respectful as possible – always asking for permission and not making any assumptions.

Adapting our Plans | No Kids Allowed in the Mosque

Upon arriving in the area of the mosque, the mid-day prayer had just ended and there were a rush of people exiting the mosque. This was actually quite interesting to see, as there were so many people and you could tell that they were from a variety of places. We also used it as an opportunity to assess what people were wearing to make sure that our attire would be appropriate.

We tried to enter into a parking garage under the mosque that was labeled as ‘Family Parking’ on Google. However, when we entered the garage, the guard stopped us and told us ‘No Children’ and made us exit the garage. For a minute we thought we were hooped; however, we decided we would find parking elsewhere and just take turns if needed.

After finding parking at an open lot within walking distance of the mosque, we proceeded there. The kids and I sat in a shady spot outside, while Alex proceeded to enter the mosque. While he was inside, the kids & I waited outside and observed other families coming to the mosque. Many of them would leave the children outside with another adult and then proceed into the mosque, so we realized that not even Muslim children are allowed to enter.

Entering the Grounds of the Mosque

There were guards at the several different entrances, who monitored the people coming and leaving the courtyard area of the mosque. As Alex approached, he explained he was a tourist and asked if it was okay for him to go look, which they proceeded to let him do. He was able to walk around the courtyard area of the mosque’s grounds, as well as go inside. He asked a couple different people if it was okay if he took photos and they said ‘yes.’ He had an overall smooth experience.

Man wearing white thobe in front of the Medina Grand Mosque, Saudi Arabia
Alex in the courtyard in front of Al-Masjid an-Nabawi 'The Prophet’s Mosque'

Once Alex was done looking, he came out to let me have a turn. My experience was a bit different. I proceeded to go in the same gate that he had, but was stopped by the guard. He didn’t understand or speak English, so it was hard to communicate. However, he simply said “No English” and shook his head. I pointed to the mosque and ask ‘OK?’ but he continued to shake his head. He wouldn’t let me proceed any further, so I exited. I wasn’t sure if it was just this guard, my attire or that I was obviously not Muslim. Alex went with me to a separate gate entry and he approached one of the guards at that gate and asked if it was okay for me to enter. He said ‘No Kids’ but allowed me to enter at that particular entrance.

Once in I walked around the courtyard and proceed to the women’s prayer hall. All along the outside of the mosque are shades to protect people from the sun & large carpets all along the outside for them to pray. No matter which way you looked around the outside of the mosque the carpets were as far as the eye could see -- often times several rows of them. The amount of people who could be here at one time praying was definitely the most impressive.

White Fan shades & red carpets sit outside the Medina Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia.
The shades & red carpets set out for people to pray outside the mosque.

Once getting to the entrance of the Women’s area, I removed my shoes and proceed inside. There were women who were sitting at the doors checking bags, etc. I didn’t have anything with me, so they didn’t stop me. I walked around the hall for a few minutes and observed various women praying, resting or studying from the Quran. Unlike Alex, there was an electric sign out front the entrance that had a no photo icon, so I didn’t even ask if taking photos was allowed inside. From the area I could see, plus looking at Alex’s photos later, the women’s prayer hall was much smaller than the total area of the Men’s side of the mosque.

Overall, I think the most important thing to remember is that entry into the gate of the mosque is not a guaranteed. You might be allowed to enter, so don’t come to Medina banking on the fact that you will be able to get in to view it.

Proper Attire for the Mosque
Men’s Attire

From the very little bit of information we could find in English, as long as Alex wore pants and shirt he would have been able to enter. However, he decided to purchase a thobe and in hindsight it was the best decision. Almost all the men were wearing one and he would have definitely looked out of place without one. I also think it probably helped him look more respectful as well.

Women’s Attire

If wanting to fit in and not stand out, then a traditional black abaya with a black headdress would be the best thing to wear.

Otherwise, the basics for women’s attire was the following:

  • Make sure that the dress goes all the way to the floor & sleeves to cover arms all the way down to the wrists

  • Have a headdress that completely covers your hair and top of your head

  • Footwear is your choice. I just wore sandals, so they were easy to slip on and off. I noticed the other Muslim women visiting were wearing a mixture of both – sandals and closed-toe shoes.

Woman wearing full dress & headscarf as appropriate attire to enter the mosque.
Dressed in my full length & long-sleeved dress & headscarf as a woman.

If you have visited other mosques as a tourist, often times they will have robes that they will lend or rent out. However, this wasn’t the case here, you had to be fully prepared and have all your own attire, because as mentioned before, this isn’t considered a ‘tourist site.’

Thoughts About the Visit

It was a real honor and privilege to be able to see this significant mosque in person and learn more about the Islamic religion firsthand. Once entering the courtyard and in the prayer halls, there was a real sense of peace and calm. Probably because children weren’t allowed…ha ha! But in all seriousness, its sheer magnitude and thinking about how many people could come here to pray is astounding! Most importantly, it is essential to visit the mosque with respect and reverence.

We definitely started our trip to Saudi Arabia with one of the most important sites in the country. There is so much Saudi Arabia can offer and we are excited to explore more – next up are the mountains and unique rock formations of the northwestern Saudi Arabia in Al Ula.


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