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definition - Islam_in_Saudi_Arabia

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Islam in Saudi Arabia

Islam by country

Islam in Saudi Arabia is the sole official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose territory was the birthplace of the Muslim religion. Muhammad , the messenger of the Islamic faith was born in the city of Mecca and raised in the Hejaz region, to become later on the prophet of Islam. He unified the diverse tribes of the Arabian peninsula. Although the Arabian peninsula was later fragmented, the cities of Mecca and Medina remained the center of the religion, attracting millions of pilgrims, clerics and students from across the Muslim world. Political control of the two cities gave considerable power and legitimacy to any kingdom or empire in the global Muslim community.

While what is now Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of Islam, it was also home to various sects and strands of the religion until the rise of Salafism, also known as Wahabbism, a fiercely puritanical strain of Islam that gained patronage of the primary rulers of the Arabian peninsula. When the modern kingdom was established, Salafism became the only brand of Islam espoused by the government. The Saudi government hosts multiple international Islamic organisations and uses its government arms to propagate the Salafi brand of Islam worldwide. The King of Saudi Arabia is considered the guardian of the two mosques, considered the holiest in Islam, of Mecca and Medina. The majority of the fifteen to twenty million Saudis are Salafi Muslims, an orthodox movement within Sunni Islam.[1] The eastern regions are mostly populated by Twelver Shias, while the Southern regions of Saudi Arabia are largely populated by Zaydi Shias.[2] Saudi Arabia also receives several millions of pilgrims who perform the prescribed Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, as well as resident communities of clerics and religious students from most if not all countries that have significant Muslim populations.



Non-Muslim populations of Saudi Arabia are dominantly found in populations of foreign workers. Saudi Arabia has an estimated foreign population of 8 million, most of whom are Muslim. The foreign population reportedly includes 1.6 million Indians, 1.5 million Pakistanis, 1.2 million Filipinos, 1 million Bangladeshis, 1 million Egyptians, 600,000 Indonesians, 400,000 Sri Lankans, 350,000 Nepalese, 250,000 Palestinians, 150,000 Lebanese, 100,000 Eritreans, and 30,000 Americans. Comprehensive statistics for the religious denominations of foreigners are not available; however, they include Muslims from the various branches and schools of Islam, Christians, and Hindus.[3]

  Islamic history

In the first conversion to Islam followed the rapid growth of the Muslim world created by the conquests of the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphs. Muslim dynasties were soon established and subsequent empires such as those of the Abbasids, Almoravides, Seljuk Turks, Mughals and Safavid Persia and Ottomans were among the largest and most powerful in the world. The people in the Islamic world made many centers of culture and science, and produced merchants, travelers, notable scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, doctors and philosophers initiating a Golden Age of Islam. The activities of this quasi-political community of believers and nations, or ummah, resulted in the spread of Islam.

  Sharia law

Sharia, or Islamic law, is the basis of the legal system in Saudi Arabia. It is unique not only compared to Western systems, but also compared to other Muslim countries, as the Saudi model is closest to the form of law originally developed when Islam became established in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century.[4]

  Salafi theology

The political and cultural environment of contemporary Saudi Arabia has been influenced by a religious movement that began in central Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century. This movement, commonly known as the Salafi movement, grew out of the scholarship and preaching of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence who had studied in Iraq and the Hijaz before returning to his native Najd to preach his message of Islamic reform.

  Shia Islam

In the Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia there are Shia courts who deal with cases such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.[5] Shia demonstrations in Qatif have sometimes led to conflict with Sunni Saudi religious authorities who disapprove of Shia commemorations marking Husseins martyrdom. There also also Shias living in Souther Saudi Arabia, who are mostly from the Zaydi branch.[2]


The hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, occurs annually between the first and tenth days of the last month of the Muslim year, Dhul Hajj. The hajj represents the culmination of the Muslim's spiritual life. For many, it is a lifelong ambition. From the time of embarking on the journey to make the hajj, pilgrims often experience a spirit of exaltation and excitement; the meeting of so many Muslims of all races, cultures, and stations in life in harmony and equality moves many people deeply. Certain rites of pilgrimage may be performed any time, and although meritorious, these constitute a lesser pilgrimage, known as umrah.

  Pilgrims in the annual Hajj at the Kaabah in Mecca.

The Ministry of Pilgrimage Affairs and Religious Trusts handles the immense logistical and administrative problems generated by such a huge international gathering. The government issues special pilgrimage visas that permit the pilgrim to visit Mecca and to make the customary excursion to Medina to visit the Prophet's tomb. Care is taken to assure that pilgrims do not remain in the kingdom after the hajj to search for work.

An elaborate guild of specialists assists the hajjis. Guides (mutawwifs) who speak the pilgrim's language make the necessary arrangements in Mecca and instruct the pilgrim in the proper performance of rituals; assistants (wakils) provide subsidiary services. Separate groups of specialists take care of pilgrims in Medina and Jiddah. Water drawers (zamzamis) provide water drawn from the sacred well.

Since the late 1980s, the Saudis have been particularly energetic in catering to the needs of pilgrims. In 1988 a US$l5 billion traffic improvement scheme for the holy sites was launched. The improvement initiative resulted partly from Iranian charges that the Saudi government was incompetent to guard the holy sites after a 1987 clash between demonstrating Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police left 400 people dead. A further disaster occurred in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims suffocated or were crushed to death in one of the new air-conditioned pedestrian tunnels built to shield pilgrims from the heat. The incident resulted from the panic that erupted in the overcrowded and inadequately ventilated tunnel, and further fueled Iranian claims that the Saudis did not deserve to be in sole charge of the holy places. In 1992, however, 114,000 Iranian pilgrims, close to the usual level, participated in the hajj.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has occupied a special place in the Islamic world, for it is towards Makkah and Islam's most sacred shrine, the Ka'abah, located in the Holy Mosque there, that Muslims throughout the world turn devoutly in prayer five times a day. An appreciation of Islamic history and culture is therefore essential for a genuine understanding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its Islamic heritage and its leading role in the Arab and Muslim worlds.[6]

To symbolize their leadership of the worldwide community of Muslims as well as their guardianship of the holy sites, Saudi kings address the pilgrimage gathering annually. The Saudis also provide financial assistance to aid selected groups of foreign Muslims to attend the hajj. In 1992, in keeping with its interests in proselytizing among Muslims in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, the Saudi government sponsored the pilgrimage for hundreds of Muslims from Azerbaijan, Tashkent, and Mongolia.

  Islamism in Saudi Arabia

Liberal experimentation, and openness to the world in the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, has led to a conservative reaction and an ultraconservative, politically activist Islamist movement. In 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca came under attack by religiously motivated critics of the Saudi monarchy. The conservative revival also became apparent in the media (increased religious programming on television and radio, and an increase in articles about religion in newspapers), in individual behavior, in government policies, in mosque sermons, and in protest demonstrations against the government. Saudi Islamism gained momentum following 1991 Gulf War.[7] The presence of U.S troops on Saudi soil from 1991 onwards was one of the major issues that has led to an increase in Islamist terrorism in Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamist terrorist attacks in Western countries by Saudi nationals – the 9/11 attacks in New York being the most prominent example.[8] But also many Saudis who did not necessarily support the Islamist terrorists were deeply unhappy with the government stance.[9] Islamis terrorist activity increased dramatically in 2003, with the Riyadh compound bombings and other attacks, which prompted the government to take much more stringent action against terrorism.[10]

  Islamic legitimacy

The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, led by the Al ash-Sheikh, which influences almost every aspect of social life, is deeply involved in politics. It has long been fractured into at least two distinct groups, with the senior ulema closely tied to the political agenda of the House of Saud. A younger generation of ulema, who are less firmly established and more radical in tone, have openly criticized the senior ulema and the government in the past.[11]

Fractures between the government and this younger generation deepened in May 2003, when Riyadh fired or suspended thousands of them.[12] Many were to be "re-educated," while others were simply ousted from the religious establishment. The move did little to endear the government to an already frustrated and religiously radical cadre of clerics.

The Islamic Legitimacy of the modern Saudi sate has been questioned by many groups and individuals including Al-Qaeda.[13]

  Defense of Saudi Arabia as an Islamic State

Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Al-Sheikh, has defended the religious establishment's legitimacy in a public forum, while responding to mounting criticism of the religious leadership's close political alliance with the ruling House of Saud.[14] During a question-and-answer session with members of the public and the media, Al Al-Sheikh denied that the government influenced fatwas (religious rulings) and said accusations to the contrary within the media were false

Both the criticism and the public response to it indicate a deepening level of dissent, not only within the kingdom's religious establishment, but also among the public. It is significant that the question was asked and answered in a public forum, and then reprinted in the media -- including the Arabic and English language newspapers. Similar questions of legitimacy will arise in coming months, with the kingdom's religious, political and perhaps military leaderships becoming the focal points for increasingly intense criticism. That Al Al-Sheikh answered the question about government influence over fatwas so openly is a clear indicator that the public has growing concerns about the legitimacy of religious leaders. Also, that the statements were reprinted in the press signals that the Saudi government -- which wields enormous influence over the local press -- is moving to respond to the charges of undue influence and corruption and illegitimacy.

Shaykh Saalih al-Fawzaan says:

Question: What is your advice to those who say that this country fights the deen and restricts the du’aat?

Answer: Since the Saudi state began, it has been aiding the deen and its people, and it was not set up except on this foundation. And now it aids the Muslims in every place with financial help, building Islamic centres and masaajid, sending du’aat, printing books foremost amongst them - the Noble Qur’aan, opening centres of learning and Sharee’ah colleges, and also it rules by the Islamic Sharee’ah and has an independent body for enjoining good and forbidding evil in every town. And all of that is a proof that this state aids Islam and its people, and it is a thorn in the throats of the hypocrites and the people of evil and splitting. And Allah will aid His deen even if the mushrikeen and those of evil intentions hate it.

And we do not say that this state is perfect in every way and that it doesn’t have any mistakes. Mistakes occur from everyone, but we ask Allah to aid us in rectifying the mistakes. And if the one who said this looked at himself he would find mistakes in himself which would prevent him from speaking about others and he would be ashamed to look at the people.

Shaykh Saalih al-Fawzaan Al-Ijaabaat al-Muhimmah fee Mashaakil il-Mudlahimmah, by Muhammad bin Fahad al-Husayn. Translated by Abul-Irbaad Abid Zargar

  See also


  1. ^ Saudi Arabia, Islam in, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam
  2. ^ a b Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape - Page 30
  3. ^ International Religious Freedom Report 2007 - Saudi Arabia
  4. ^ Otto, Jan Michiel (2010). Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present. p. 172. ISBN 978-90-8728-057-4. 
  5. ^ Saudi Arabia, Precarious Justice: Volume 20 - Page 133, Human Rights Watch - 2008
  6. ^ Islam, Information Office of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC
  7. ^ Federal Research Division (2004). Saudi Arabia A Country Study. pp. 122–123. ISBN 978-1-4191-4621-3. 
  8. ^ Blanchard, Christopher (2009). Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations. United States Congressional Research Service. pp. 5–6. 
  9. ^ Hegghammer, Thomas (2010). Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-521-73236-9. 
  10. ^ Cordesman, Anthony H. (2009). Saudi Arabia: national security in a troubled region. pp. 50–52. ISBN 978-0-313-38076-1. 
  11. ^ http://www.stratfor.com/saudi_arabia_grand_mufti_defends_legitimacy
  12. ^ http://www.stratfor.com/dissident_saudi_clerics_weaken_riyadh
  13. ^ Video: As-Sahab media, "Knowledge is for acting upon"
  14. ^ http://www.stratfor.com/saudi_arabia_grand_mufti_defends_legitimacy

  External links



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