Saudi Arabia occupies a special place in the Islamic world as the birthplace and heartland of Islam. Islam is the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its tenets are enshrined as law. The public practice of any religion other than Islam is not allowed in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis, about 85% of the population, are Sunni Muslims who follow the Wahabbi sect of Islam. The Shiite minority, about 15 %, live in the Eastern Province and Asir region of the country. The sexes are strictly segregated in public although educational and job opportunities for women are increasing. The followers of Islam, called Muslims, believe that there is one God, Allah, and that Mohammed was His last prophet. Many beliefs of both Christianity and Judaism are also part of Islam. Today there are about one billion Muslims in the world and they include many races and cultures in every continent.
Muslims, any where in the world, turn toward the sacred Ka'abah (a black cube-shaped stone in the square of the Holy Mosque in Mecca) in prayer five times a day. Every Muslim must pray these five prayers and in Saudi Arabia, offices and shops are obliged to close during those times. Exact prayer times are published in daily newspapers and occur at dawn (fajr), midday (dhuhr), mid-afternoon (asir), sunset (maghreb) and evening (isha). The Holy Qur'an is the sacred scripture of Islam, revealed by Allah (God) to His Prophet, Mohammed. Islam consists of adherence to the Qur'an (holy book) and the duty to believe and follow the Five Pillars of Islam.
To the people of Saudi Arabia, Mecca the birthplace of Islam and the prophet Mohammed, and Medina where the Prophet's Mosque and his burial place are located, are holy cities. King Fahad (the present ruler of Saudi Arabia) recognizes the unique and historic traditions represented by these two holy sites and has adopted the official title of "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" as an expression of his deep sense of responsibility to Islam and all Muslims. The "Hajj" (pilgrimage) is very different to the "Umrah". Umrah is an individual act of pilgrimage to Mecca made by Muslims at any other time of the year. Hajj is the worldwide gathering of the family of Islam in a devout and lengthy act of corporate worship, regardless of social status, wealth, nationality or colour. It is an invitation open to every Muslim, with all rivalries forgotten, and with full safety guaranteed for every pilgrim.