Saudi Arabia factfile
The Cradle of Islam
al-Mukarramah – “Makkah the Honoured” was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570, and
it was here that the Qu’uran, the holy book, was first revealed to him forty years later.
For the world’s billion Muslims, the western region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam’s
two holiest cities; Makkah and Medinah. Five times a day, Muslims around the world turn to face Makkah to pray.
Today’s King Fahd ibn ‘Abdulaziz adopted as his official title “Custodian of the Two Holy
Mosques” to reflect the serious responsibilities involved in taking care of these holy sites. The central
position of Makkah in Islamic history and pilgrimage means it is truly the centre of the Muslim world.
The revelations of God to the Prophet Muhammad were inscribed in the Qu’uran, which is written in classical
Arabic. Islam means ‘submission’ to Allah. It is regarded as the last of the revealed religions
and Muhammad is the last prophet. The holy book contains the Five Pillars of Islam which every Muslim accepts
as his duties, and sets forth the concept of an ideal Muslim community.
pilgrimage to Makkah, known as the Hajj, is devoutly performed by more than 2,000,000 Muslims every year. Hajj
means worshipping Allah by performing set rituals, over a period of four days. It is a time of great religious
intensity for the pilgrims. On completion of the Hajj, a pilgrim will be known by the title ‘Haji’,
inserted in front of his name.
In addition to the Hajj, hundreds of thousands of Muslims come to perform ‘umrah’, the lesser
pilgrimage which involves several of the same rituals as the Hajj. As many as a million worshippers also attend
nightly prayers in in the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
Makkah’s Sacred Mosque surrounds the Ka’ba, an empty, cube-shaped structure some 15 metres tall,
which is draped in a gold-embroidered black silk cloth called the Kiswah. According to the Qu’uran the
first Ka’ba was built by the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Isma’il (Ishmael) as a place
of worship for the one true God. Pilgrims walk around the Ka’ba seven times as part of the ritual of the
As Ibrahim’s wife, Hajar ran frantically between the small hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa searching for
water for her ailing son Isma’il, an angel appeared and brought forth what is known today as the Well
of Zamzam. The well is incorporated into the Sacred Mosque. Within ten years of the Prophet’s death the
area around the Ka’ba and the Well of Zamzam was already developing as a holy site.
the 10th century the Sacred Mosque covered an area of some 27,000 square metres. Since air travel has made it
easier for pilgrims to flock to Makkah from all over the world the site has been greatly expanded to accommodate
them. In 1955 King Fahd, son and successor of King Abdulaziz, ordered the first expansion of the Sacred Mosque
in more than 1,000 years. It now encompasses 356,000 square metres.
The complex also houses one of the world’s largest air-conditioning
plants to cope with temperatures topping 40°C, and special heat-resistant
marble tiles cover the floor. Zamzam water is cooled and sterilized
for drinking with ultra-violet light. Escalators zoom 15,000 people
an hour to the rooftop prayer areas. Seven minarets, 89 metres high,
call the faithful to prayer.
Makkah itself has been developed with up-to-date facilities, medical services and housing to cope with the
largest regular human migration on earth. The responsibilities involved in taking care of its pilgrims in the
modern world have been taken very seriously indeed.
city of Medinah lies 450 kilometres north of Makkah and is Islam’s
second most holy site. Originally called Yathrib, it provided a
safe shelter to the Prophet Muhammad and his small group of followers
when they fled from their persecutors in Makkah in 622. Their flight
is known by the name hijarah. The Muslim calendar starts from this
date. The Prophet received further revelations from God in Medinah,
and it was here that he built the first mosque of Islam. When he
died in 632 his remains were buried within the building, constructed
of palm logs and mud bricks.
Today the Prophet’s Mosque has been expanded to accommodate 2,000,000 worshippers. The weekly Friday
prayers are broadcast via satellite around the globe. The mosque has 10 minarets, each of which are 105 metres
high, and a series of 27 domes, capable of being electronically opened and closed. Over a dozen awnings shelter
worshippers from the hot sun.
Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam continued to expand as a religious and political force and
today there are approximately 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.
To find out more
about Islam, take a look at:
Source of reference: Aramco World Jan/Feb 1999
Photographs courtesy of Peter Sanders.