Kuwait is one of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC. Just like most Arab countries, Islam is the main religion in Kuwait.
However, the religions in Kuwait are not limited only to Islam and its subsects. The religious landscape of Kuwait is rather distinct. In fact, it is one of only two GCC countries with citizens who are Christians, with Bahrain being the other one. This presents a reflection of Kuwait as a country that embraces diversity while keeping its culture grounded.
Kuwait’s geographical location is like a gateway towards trade and expatriate relationships, which have allowed the establishment of other cultures and religions that these expatriates believe in and adhere to.
The expatriate landscape of Kuwait is one of the most diverse presentations across all Arab countries, and it can be said that the majority of expatriates in the nation are Indians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iranians, Filipinos, and Turks. The country’s accessibility and the flourishing employment opportunities that it presents have led to this circumstance.
Indians alone comprise almost a million of the overall population as of 2019.
What Is the Main Religion in Kuwait?
Kuwait is a predominantly Muslim country, where the Muslim population is approximately 60 percent Sunni and 40 percent Shia. The official state religion in Kuwait is Maliki Sunni Islam. There are also minor Muslim sects in the society, but followers are limited in number. Currently, there are approximately 100,000 Shias who are non-citizens.
Islam has also facilitated the establishment of about 1,487 mosques all over the country as of 2016.
– Sunni Muslim
Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam, encompassing 90 percent of the entire Muslim population. The word Sunni came from the word Sunnah, which refers to prophet Muhammad’s behavior.
The differences between the two major Muslim branches, the Sunni and Shia Muslims, can be traced in origin to the differences in beliefs over the succession of Muhammad. This further branched out to several facets of Islamic culture, including its political, theological, and juridical aspects.
According to Sunni culture and traditions, Abu Bakr was the successor of Muhammad. Meanwhile, in the Shia culture and point of view, it is believed that Muhammad announced that his son-in-law and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, as his successor.
This divergence has led to ongoing tensions between the two branches, causing the eruption of numerous conflicts throughout history. This condition was further exacerbated or even aggravated in recent years because of ethnic conflicts and the birth of Salafism, as well as Wahhabism.
Salafism is an extraordinarily conservative and fundamental movement within the rules and virtues of Sunni Islam. In contrast, Wahhabism is the Islamic reform movement considered puritan and aims to establish pure monotheistic worship.
– Shia Muslim
Shia Islam, also known as Shi’ism, is one of the two primary branches of Islam. Shia Islam belief is that Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, designated Ali ibn Abi Talib to be his successor and next spiritual leader.
This designation was particularly highlighted at the event of Ghadir Khumm. However, he was prevented from succeeding Muhammad because of the decisions made by Muhammad’s other companions at Saaifah. This is the polarizing difference in point of view between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam believers and adherents.
Shia Islam is based on Muhammad’s hadith, or Ghadir Khumm, and considers Ali ibn Abi Talib to have received the divine appointment as Muhammad’s successor. He is likewise considered to be the first Imam.
The Imamah was also extended to Muhammad’s family, called Ahl al-Bayt, or “the people or family of the House,” because there are several individuals among Muhammad’s descendants who are believed to possess special political or spiritual powers over the community.
Shia Islam has many subsects, but in modern practice, it is considered that modern Shia Islam can be categorized into two groups: Twelvers and Ismailis, with the former being the largest and most influential Shia subsect comprising approximately 80 percent of all Shias.
– The Sunni–Shia Conflict
While the Islamic landscape in Kuwait is generally peaceful, the irreconcilable differences in belief between the Sunni and Shia have led to numerous minor clashes in recent years.
These clashes are considered minor in comparison to other clashes happening in other neighboring countries where the aggression when it comes to defending sides is rather abrasive and amplified.
With this conflict being so deeply rooted, it will take a great deal of time to find common ground beyond the differences, considering that both Sunni and Shia Muslims follow a similar vein. The turbulent Islamic conflict between subsects has been existing for several centuries. This is caused by the slight deviations and variations in beliefs between Sunni and Shia Islam, with both having numerous subsects.
Christianity is one of the minor but highly recognized religions in Kuwait. While there are approximately 800,000 Christians in Kuwait as of 2020, which is almost 18 percent of the entire population, only less than 500 are citizens.
The government recognizes several branches of Christian churches. These branches include Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Coptic Orthodox, as well as the Greek Catholic or Melkite, Anglican, and Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.
In addition to these Christian churches, there are other minority Christian groups that are not officially recognized, including Mar Thoma, Indian Orthodox, as well as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Despite not being officially recognized, these minor groups are free to worship in private.
Kuwait is home to almost 300,000 non-citizen Hindus. This number is directly proportional to the members of the foreign workforce who consider Kuwait as their second home. A large portion of the non-citizen population of Kuwait hails from South and Southeast Asia, hence the significant number of Hindus in the country.
Similar to the roots of Hinduism, Buddhism is being followed by about 100,000 non-citizens in the country. Buddhism is also one of the major religions in South and Southeast Asia. It is also practiced by a considerable number of foreign workers coming from the Far East.
Interestingly enough, there were many Kuwaiti Jews in Kuwait before the 1950s. However, all Jewish families left the country in the 1980s. Recent developments led to the recognition of a teenager named Yousef Al-Mahanna, who is known to practice Judaism secretly and seeks to go to Israel.
However, because of the Arab League Boycott of Israel, the Kuwaiti government threatened him with the possible forfeiture of his Kuwaiti citizenship. Aside from Al-Mahanna, there are less than one hundred Jewish foreign resident workers in Kuwait as of 2019 statistics.
Among all the recognized denominations in the country, the Sikhs comprise one of the small populations. Kuwait is home to about 10,000 Sikhs. Sikhism is both a panentheistic and monotheistic religion that originated in the Indian subcontinent around the 15th century. It is considered one of the youngest established religions in the world.
– Baha’i Faith
The Baha’i Faith is one of the newest religions in the world, as it was established in the 19th century. Its core virtue is the belief in the essence of all religions and the unity of all people. While the exact population of believers residing in Kuwait is unknown, Kuwait is one of the identified countries where this faith is being practiced by non-citizens.
The Kuwait Distinction
While Kuwait is still a very conservative, and Muslim in Kuwait remains the primary religious affiliation, it can be said that the country is more accepting of other religions than other Arab countries within and outside the GCC.
Citizens and non-citizens are harmoniously thriving together, and while some differences are considered irreconcilable because of faith and principle, the religious landscape in the country is generally peaceful. Therefore, the religious diversity in Kuwait today is truly remarkable, and it has always been for decades.
In the Kuwaiti Constitution, religious freedom is respected even though a primary religion – Islam – is in place. It was mentioned that the freedom of belief is noted to be absolute, and the constitution provides state protection to the practice of religions that are recognized by the country. However, it has been highlighted that practices must still adhere to established rules and customs and should not affect or promote conflict with public morals or policy.
The constitution managed to establish a common ground for the recognition of a primary religion while at the same time ensuring that other recognized religions take up space and respect. After all, Kuwait is one of the largest countries across the Arab world in terms of expatriate turnover and overall population.
Sharia has been declared as the primary legislation source, and all individuals are treated equally before the law, no matter what religious affiliation they have. There is no partiality toward Islam, and everyone will be treated equally and fairly under the same national law.
This situation allows foreign workers to have religious freedom despite being away from their home country, which solidified Kuwait’s status as one of the more preferred countries for foreign workers for its acceptance of religious differences.
In fact, Kuwait acknowledges religion-related celebrations organized by specific groups, as well as embassies of the countries with close diplomatic relations with Kuwait. However, it is very important to note that the organization of educational activities related to the introduction of a religion other than Islam in public institutions or schools is strictly prohibited and is considered to be against the law.
It is also worth noting that in terms of open-mindedness about religious diversity across Arab states within and outside the GCC, Kuwait is one of the most welcoming in terms of intercultural and religious differences.
This is something that the Kuwaiti government and its people should really be proud of. The only aspects that are considered slightly restrictive are the religious factors that involve the universal application of the lifestyle aspects of Islam.
However, these restrictions have been observed to only be slightly restrictive and still not as absolute compared to other countries. Nevertheless, the importation and possession of alcoholic products and pork is considered illegal and can lead to a penalty of 10 years imprisonment. Alcohol consumption also has corresponding penalties.
With all things considered, the landscape of religions of Kuwait is one of the most well-structured and respected in the Arab region. The way differences are embraced is genuinely distinct and remarkable, and it just shows that there can be fairness and cooperation despite differences.
Moreover, religion teaches its followers about fairness and humanity, and Kuwait can be an excellent example of the practical application of this aspect of religious beliefs.