Index / Religions
Saudi Arabia /
Islam is not only the religion of Saudi Arabia, the country is also the place where the religion was founded, and remains the geographical focal point of all Muslims, with the two most holy places in Islam; Mecca and Madina. Saudi Arabian law defines the country as Muslim, and also requires all citizens to be Muslim.
Officially Muslims constitute 100% of the population, but considering the the considerable expatriate community, 90% is a better estimate. Even among citizens, there are non-Muslims, the Isma'ilis are classified and generally considered Muslim, but their faith does no longer share the common concepts with Muslims in general, hence LookLex classifies this as an independent religion.
In matters of religion, Saudi Arabia is even more intolerant and suppressive of minorities than other Muslim states. Practice of other religion is illegal, and holy regions are even close off to non-Muslims. Even Sunni Muslims face many restrictions and control on worship and life in general, and the religious freedom of Shi'is is strictly controlled. The country has a very zealous religious police, the Mutawwa'a, that enforces religion at all levels of society.
Saudi government has issued statements that it secures the right for non-Muslims to worship in private homes, but many reports tell about much hardship. Priests and other religious specialists are not permitted into the country, meaning that many are unable to perform their basic rituals. In the cases when non-Muslim worship has been judged improper, reactions have been imprisonment and finally deportation.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has a staff of about 500 that work to convert foreigners to Islam. Official reports indicate that there are about 1,000 such conversions a year.
Sharia law is used for all inhabitants of Saudi Arabia, no matter religious adherence.
In Saudi Arabia the Sunni branch of Islam is dominating. Shi'ism is found in two variants, Twelver in the northeast, in the regions close to the Persian Gulf, and Zaydi in the south, close to Yemen.
A clear majority of the foreign workers are also Muslims, coming from Asia and other Arab countries.
Education in religious subjects in Saudi Arabia has been strongly criticised by international observers for its promotion of hate and intolerance towards other religious views than Sunni Islam, which affects even fellow Muslims, like Shi'is and Sufis Children are educated in that there cannot be any peace between Muslims and non-Muslims, that Christians and Jews are enemies.
There is only one madhhab (school) of Sharia (Muslim law) operative, the Hanbali, with the tenants of Wahhabis added. Wahhabism helped organize the Arabian tribes and was central in the development of the modern state of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism has been modified (in particular, the prohibition against minarets is long exercised), but remains central to the practice of the religious police, the Mutawwa'a.
Strict and centralized restrictions have emptied the Islamic traditions of Saudi Arabia to the point that only the most central rituals and festivals are celebrated. Only Id al-Fitr celebrating the end of fasting in Ramadan, and Id al-Kabir celebrating the conclusion of hajj.
It is illegal to criticise the official version of Islam as well as to promote challenging ideas. This includes restrictions on those that favour an even more restrictive understanding of the Islamic values.
About 70% of mosques are supervised and financed by state, through the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The remainder are run by private persons and institutions.
Despite being heavily discriminated, some dimensions of the Shi'i faith are permitted in Saudi Arabia. Shi'is are allowed to use their own legal tradition in noncriminal cases within their community.
Only in Qatif is the celebration of Ashura permitted, and then in a restricted manner. In all other cities and regions where Shi'is make up the majority it is not legal. Many Shi'is travel to Qatif to partake in these celebrations.
Shi'i mosques are privately run, but there are problems obtaining permissions to build mosques. The government has offered to build and finance Shi'i institutions, but the Shi'is have refused, fearing government control.
As Shi'ism is considered a heresy by many Sunni theologians, they have since centuries been heavily discriminated by the Sunni majority and political leadership. Shi'is are prevented from top positions in politics and military, and faces also restrictions on employment in the oil and petrochemical industries.
Possibly the largest Isma'ili community in the Middle East is in Saudi Arabia, though the figures here differ very much, and are most likely subject to the interests of the informants. Their numbers vary from 200,000 to 1,000,000. Hence our estimate is set in the middle between the extremes, but this may be much wrong.
Isma'ilis mainly live in the mountainous regions close to the border to Yemen; their community continues on the Yemeni side.
The number of non-Muslims is hard to assess, there are no official statistics on this, and many foreigners are Muslims. Estimates in general agree that Christianity make up the largest group, with also a large group of Hindus.
No group are permitted to build churches or temples, and worship can only be performed privately, but even then there are many restrictions.
Non-Muslim clergy are not permitted to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. This causes difficulties for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who require a priest on a regular basis to receive the sacraments required by their faith.