The pilgrimage is a test of their bodies and souls, aiming not simply to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam but, also, to demonstrate their love for God.
The one-hour National Geographic documentary has not been limited to TV screening alone. It has been viewed by different audiences alike in synagogues, churches, and schools. Audiences all came to share one thing, said imam Yahya Hendi, "building bridges using common ground with others." Hendi added that People of the Book [Christians and Jews] could really unite because of the common history they shared.
Mehdi and Hendi were two of four American Muslims on a four-day trip to Egypt with the US Department of State attempting to create a better understanding of Islam around the world. The four citizen-diplomats undertook the trip endeavoring to inspire, help, and encourage other Muslims in their interreligious efforts to correct skewed perspectives on Islam. Saudi Arabia and Jordan were two other Arab countries on the diplomats' itinerary, wherein the movie Inside Mecca was showcased. The annual Islamic pilgrimage was precisely chosen for the documentary because it is an event that takes place in a set period of time that helps to tell a story.
In recent years, entry has been granted to foreign channels. Mehdi was granted special access at the making of the Kiswa, a black curtain embroidered with gold-plated letters wrapped annually around the Ka`bah at the end of Hajj. Ka`bah, the center of the holy city Makkah, has a history that travels through time before Islam. The history of the Hajj, Makkah, and what they represent to Muslims is also illustrated in the documentary through archival scenes. Mehdi was also allowed to shoot the slaughterhouse where Muslims commemorate the early sacrifice of Prophet Ibrahim's (Abraham) son.
Mehdi has been criticized for depicting images in her documentary of Prophet Abraham, whose sacrifice is retold with slight variations in Judaism and Islam. The director explained that images create a common understanding and interest among audiences from different backgrounds. "This is TV, we require images. We cannot tell a story without images. There is no written prohibition on representing literature."
One of the images presented in the documentary depicts Prophet Abraham's submission to God. It portrays the Prophet holding a knife and about to cut his son's throat when he receives a revelation from God.
While the use of photography for educational purpose is not prohibited, Islam forbids the depiction of prophets as it may lead to idolatry or shirk.
Not Just Arab
"Islam isn't about Arabs," Mehdi stressed during the discussion forum. This message is also reflected in the score accompanying the documentary. American composer Steve Dancz chose melodies from the Far East, conveying that Islam is a religion embraced by many around the world.
The characters for the documentary, too, were selected based on their diversity, as well as according to the need to conduct the interview in English. Inside Mecca documents not only the physical journey but also the inner quest of three Muslims: executive Ismail Mahbob from Malaysia, evangelist Khalil Mandhlazi from South Africa, and college professor Fidelma O'Leary, an Irish-born American who converted to Islam from Christianity 25 years ago.
Mehdi explained that she chose to portray an American woman on purpose. When Mehdi first saw Fidelma among a group of other women, she assumed that "the one who was wearing pink" was not Muslim. Depicting her in the documentary"shatters all sterotypes," said Mehdi
Although entry into Makkah is prohibited for non-Muslims, both Fidelma and Khalil were nevertheless questioned about their religion inside the city. A blond-haired, blue-eyed American Fidelma, and Khalil, with strong South African features, stood out among their fellow Muslims. "Don't ask me where I come from or who my father is. It is Islam that brought me here," said Khalil.
"When people said 'bye' to loved ones, they didn't know if they'd see them again," the film narrates the trip that was filled with peril hundreds of years ago. The Saudi government organizes the logistics for the Hajj all year through. Minister of Hajj for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iyad Madani, interviewed in the documentary, said that they are always preparing for Hajj, "Before, during, and after."
Calling for others to make a change, Imam Hendi, also a member of the Judiciary Council of Shari`ah Scholars, urged the audience to invite foreign journalists to see Islam in its land. Dismayed at how some Muslims accuse people in the West of misrepresentation, he stressed that change should start from the region, "This way we'd change the image of Islam."
Hendi also expressed his frustration at the segregation of women during Hajj, "Yesterday I saw women segregated like animals in their religious space. And men have freedom to do anything in the world. We segregate women in our own ghettos."
The Islamic scholar said, "Islam has been completely misunderstood especially after 9/11." Hendi believes that more documentaries should be made to correct this viewpoint, and he stated that this documentary "has transformed lives, hearts, and souls."
The screening stirred an ongoing dialogue among audience members and speakers as to what action could be taken in a similar direction. There was a strong urge to make more documentaries on the lives of Muslims. University of Michigan graduating senior Azmat Khan, who also accompanied the team of citizen-diplomats, expressed the importance of "exploring your ideas and themes in the arts."
France is the next destination for Mehdi who is shooting yet another documentary entitled, Monks and Muslims: Finding Faith in Algeria.
Inside Mecca is one of many documentaries that Mehdi has written, directed, and produced as an initiative on behalf of an American Muslim of Arab descent to reveal the diversity within Islam, a religion embraced by many around the world, of whom only 20 percent live in the Arab world.
Inside Mecca Builds Bridges
In her documentary Inside Mecca, director and producer Anisa Mehdi follows three Muslims from different races and backgrounds on their spiritual and physical journey to Makkah (Mecca).