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Five times a day—in Mecca, above, and around the world—faithful Muslims roll out their prayer rugs to worship God. Islam literally means "submission," and nowhere does that concept resonate more powerfully than in Saudi Arabia. "Islam is totally ingrained in the fabric of contemporary Saudi life and this is perhaps beyond the comprehension of many foreigners," writes businessman Hani A. Z. Yamani in To Be a Saudi. "It is a constitution, a law, an economic path, a social regulator, and God's eternal instructions."

No preliminary interviews are conducted before the royal audiences, which are held by every princely official in the nation. Anyone is free to attend, and it's not unusual for a Bedouin camel herder with grazing complaints to precede a billionaire property baron who needs a construction permit. In both cases, the prince listens attentively and then assigns the matter to one of the aides who stand beside him during the majlis.

Beyond the palace walls, the range of such meetings is endless. Some are neighborhood meetings aimed at sorting out local disputes. At others, intellectuals and writers meet businessmen and engineers, or bureaucrats compare notes on the problems of government with their retired predecessors.

As at the royal majlis, the resonance with the tents of the Bedouin past is inescapable. Men wander in at the end of the day, shake hands all around, then join conversation circles over cups of brain-charging Arabic coffee, sugary dates, and heavily sweetened ginger tea.

At one majlis, I asked a noted Muslim scholar, an imam, how Islam's venerable assertion of religious tolerance could be reconciled with Saudi Arabia's ban on Christian churches in the kingdom.

"It was the command of God, conveyed to us through the Prophet Muhammad, that no other religion be permitted in the land where Islam was born," the imam replied.

To my surprise, another guest picked a point-for-point argument with him. "I've heard that allusion a hundred times, and nobody has ever convinced me that this is what the Prophet's words really meant," he said.

It is in these gatherings that competing visions for the kingdom's future are being imagined and discussed. In their updated Bedouin encampments, the Saudis are negotiating their own way through a perilous landscape, where old assumptions are being challenged along ancient roads in the birthplace of Islam.

From a passenger plane descending into Medina under a full January moon, the Prophet's Mosque was a dazzling rectangle of white light, pulsating several thousand feet below at the city's heart. An hour later I was under its minarets, walking slowly across a vast square of polished marble in sight of the tomb of Muhammad, which is what makes Medina the second holiest site in the Islamic world, after Mecca.

Majed and Riyadh and I had driven into Medina from the airstrip, until we reached an area several blocks from the city center that was flooded with people making their way toward the mosque. We parked the car and joined them.

The first days of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that marks a lifetime's spiritual goal for Muslims and draws more than two million people each year to Mecca and Medina, were upon us.

Many of the pilgrims around me were Saudis and Arabs from the Persian Gulf. But among them were throngs of Indonesians and Malays, Algerians and Moroccans, Senegalese and Nigerians, Somalis, Uzbeks, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, Turks with red crescent-moon flags embroidered on their shirts, Chinese in yellow windbreakers stamped with the logos of Xinjiang travel agencies.

There were as many women as men in that crowd, marching forward to the Prophet's tomb in the great egalitarian pageant that is Muhammad's chief legacy. Islam is a religion without an institutionalized church, without a Vatican, without a formal priesthood; its animating principle is a direct relationship between believers and God, a personal relationship that transcends race, class, and gender.

The faces around me were a study in raptured meditation, and in the immense silence that enveloped the Prophet's Mosque, I fell into a reflective trance of my own. Then Riyadh, whose father is an official of the hajj, gently touched my arm. "Now, my friend," he asked. "Do you understand?"

Riyadh's question was a central theme of my quest in his country: trying to understand the coexistence of Islam's rich worldwide diversity—its private song to God in 1.3 billion voices—and the monotone religious orthodoxy that prevails in the kingdom itself.

Most Saudi interpretations of Islam in 2003 still sound the puritanical chord struck over two centuries ago by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the religious reformer whose alliance with the Saud clan bestowed religious legitimacy on the Sauds and enormous political power on Wahhab's followers.

Today, in mosques all over the country and in Saudi-funded religious schools throughout the Muslim world, clerics advocate Wahhab's stern program, which is based on a return to the "pure" Islam practiced during the Prophet's time. Its spirit is at fierce odds with the consumerism that has erupted in Saudi Arabia since oil was discovered, and—fundamentalists charge—with the lavish lifestyles of the Saudi royal family.

Though public criticism of the monarchy is rare, some clerics do speak out on political topics in voices that can veer toward the fanatical. More common are the virulently anti-Western sermons that bolster Osama bin Laden's portrait of an Islamic holy land surrendered to foreign corruption.

Caught in the crossfire are the vast majority of Saudis, and none more vulnerably than the kingdom's women. Wafa M. is a 26-year-old science teacher so devoted to her profession that she makes a 200-mile (320-kilometer) round-trip five times a week from Jeddah to a rural high school near Medina that would have no biology department without her. That alone puts her on the leading edge of change in a society where half of all women were illiterate as recently as the mid-1990s.

By law, however, she can't drive a car; she's ferried to the school in a chauffeured minivan with four other female teachers. She cannot walk the streets of her city unveiled or unchaperoned without risking confrontation with the mutawaeen. She cannot travel abroad without a mahram, a male guardian from her immediate family.

Like the overwhelming presence of foreign workers in the kingdom's streets, the overwhelming absence of women in public can be jarring to outsiders, no matter how prepared they are to encounter Saudi misogyny. It is as though the traveler enters a half-populated landscape, in which 50 percent of the human race has been relegated to faceless shadows that flit discreetly along the margins of activity, or black-veiled wraiths who toss numbered paper wads to teenage boys in hope of a disembodied flirtation by cell phone.

The chief enforcer of constraints on Saudi women, in the simple caricature of Saudi society, is the domineering husband, a staunch ally of the religious police who stalk the streets in search of "immodest" women.

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