For Saudi Arabia religion is at the center of their everyday life. The country’s entire population consists of adherents of Sunni (90 percent) and Shia (around 10 percent) Islam.
As a homeland of Islam, Saudi Arabia occupies a unique place in the Islamic world, both as the center of pilgrimage for millions of Muslims from across the globe and as a regional power governed by an Islamic regime. The story of religion in Saudi Arabia is closely interwoven with the rise of Islam and its status as a major global religion; find out more in the article below.
What Is the Main Religion in Saudi Arabia?
Islam is both the main and official religion of Saudi Arabia. Although there is a large community of expats living in Saudi Arabia, which mostly consists of foreign workers, some of whom follow other religions, Islam is the only major religion present in the country.
An absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia is governed according to Islamic teachings. The legal system is based on Sharia law, a body of Islamic laws given in the Quran and the Sunnah, customs and traditions dating back to the time of Prophet Muhammad and his followers.
A National Identity That Is Centered on Islam
Islam permeates all aspects of life in Saudia Arabia. It affects socio-economic and political relations within Saudi society and dictates the beliefs and behavior of the nation’s inhabitants.
Two of the holiest cities of Islam, Mecca, and Medina are located on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, while Medina was where the Prophet spent the last years of his life, died, and was buried.
Every year, millions of Muslim faithful flock to Medina and Mecca from across the world to perform pilgrimage (hajj). The pilgrimage to Mecca is a duty of every Muslim, and it is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
What Branch of Islam Do Saudi Muslims Follow?
As we have already noted, about 90 percent of Saudis are adherents of Sunni branch of Islam. Sunnis form a majority in the Muslim world, comprising about 85 to 90 percent of all Muslims in the world.
Sunni branch of Islam maintains that the Prophet appointed no successor and that his followers elected Abu Bakr as the first Caliph. The adherents of the Shite branch believe that Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, was meant to be his successor.
The dispute between the Sunnis and the Shites was, at its inception, of a purely political nature. Its primary concern was the way in which the Muslim community should be governed. Whereas the Sunnis believe that anyone who’s sufficiently devoted to Islam can govern the community, the Shia hold that only the descendants of the prophet can do so.
What Are the Main Tenets of Sunni Islam?
The beliefs and practices of Sunni branch of Islam constitute the main religion of Saudi Arabia. Sunnis accept the first four caliphs as Muhammad’s rightful successors. The four caliphs are Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. In addition, the Sunnis recognize the six books of the Hadith (the collected body of teachings, sayings, and acts of the Prophet).
Four schools of law are recognized by Sunni Islam, these are:
The Wahhabist School of Islam
Together with Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country in the world that bases its entire legal system on Sharia law. What this means in practice is that Islamic law applies to personal status issues (marriage, divorce, inheritance) as well as criminal proceedings.
Muslims in Saudi Arabia are expected to conform to Islamic teachings in many aspects of social life. Things forbidden by Islamic law (haram) often have a status of a criminal offense and may be punished accordingly.
What Is Wahhabism?
The Saudi royal family and state apparatus are often described as promoting the Wahhabi movement. Wahhabism has originated in 18th century Arabia and is described as a reformist, puritan, and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Scholars of Islam consider Wahhabism to follow the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Wahhabism is also often seen as a part of a wider fundamentalist current within Islam that calls for the return to the ancestors’ traditions and interprets the Quran and the Hadiths in a strict, literal sense.
Wahhabism holds a prominent role in Saudi Arabia through its influence on politics and social life.
Shia Muslims: Second Largest Religious Group in the Country
Due to the lack of reliable data about the exact numbers of religious groups in the country, we don’t know how many Shia Muslims currently live in Saudi Arabia. According to most estimates, 10 to 15 percent of the Saudi population follow Shia Islam. The majority of them live in the Eastern Province, with smaller sects being present near the border with Yemen and the city of Medina.
How Do Shiites Differ From Adherents of Sunni Islam?
Unlike the Sunnis, Shia Muslims do not recognize the first four caliphs as the rightful successors of Prophet Muhammad. His son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib is seen as the rightful heir of the Prophet.
Moreover, according to Shiite teaching, Ali’s descendants hold spiritual and political authority over the Muslim community. In practice, the result of this belief is that only those who are descended from Ali are fit to govern Muslims. Differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims have increased over the centuries.
Numerous Differences Exist Between Shia and Sunni Muslims
Both branches of Islam agree on the core tenets of their religion, laid down in the Quran and the hadiths. Still, disagreements exist on a multitude of theological questions and the issues of how Islam is practiced in daily life. The Shia religious hierarchy is more complex, and it is always headed by a direct descendant of Imam Ali.
How Does Anyone Gain Entry Into Paradise?
Belief in the afterlife and the existence of a Paradise and a Hell is common to the adherents of both denominations; they differ in how entry into Paradise can be obtained.
For Sunnis, one can reach Paradise by following the commandments of the Prophet and the Quran and living a righteous life, but Allah passes the ultimate judgment. On the other hand, Shia Muslims believe that following and obeying the Prophet and the Twelve Imams is sufficient to attain paradise.
Shia Muslims Pray Differently
Another major difference between the two denominations is in the way they pray to Allah. Although both the Sunni and the Shia say five prayers per day, how it is done is not the same.
Each prayer is said separately by Sunnis, while Shia Muslims say all five prayers across three sessions of prayer. During prayer, Sunnis cross their arms over the chest; Shites keep them by their sides.
Saudi Arabia: Youngest Muslim Population in the World
In 2020, the population of Saudi Arabia stood at 33 million. It is a young nation, with over 56 percent of its Muslim inhabitants under the age of 30 (in 2015).
Ages 30 and over account for 44 percent of the total Muslim population. Recent research predicts that the kingdom’s Muslim population is going to increase 51 percent by 2050.
Court System Is Still Controlled by Clerics
Judges and lawyers are a part of the clerical establishment called the ulema. The ulema are legal scholars, guardians, and interpreters of the Quran and the body of religious texts considered authoritative.
The Sharia courts have jurisdiction over not only civil but criminal cases as well. As a part of religious reforms, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has reduced the power of the country’s religious police, stripping it of the right to make arrests.
Regulation of Dress Code in Accordance With Islamic Teachings
Having Islam as the official religion of Saudi Arabia has a practical impact on the daily lives of Saudi nationals, expats, and foreign tourists alike. This applies to the dress code, which is required by law to be in accordance with Islamic teachings.
Saudi women are encouraged to wear a traditional black gown called the abaya. The hijab and the niqab remain optional, but the great majority of Saudi women are expected to wear one. Women who come to work in the kingdom as expats or as tourists are also expected to dress modestly are not allowed to have their knees and shoulders uncovered.
The same restriction applies to men, albeit it’s allowed them to dress informally outside of public places.
Bikinis, Sleeveless Shirts, Short Dresses, and Loose Tops Are Not Allowed
In large cities such as the capital, Riyad, women might have to wear a headscarf. Clothes considered indecent such as bikinis and miniskirts, are expressly forbidden.
Men are forbidden from wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts. Jewelry representing symbols of other religions should be hidden, as it can be seen as disrespectful towards the majority of the country’s Muslim population.
Clothing that contradicts the practices of Islam or is considered offensive by Muslims must be avoided.
The Government Imposed Restrictions on Religion Rank as ‘Very High’
Saudi Arabia’s constitution does not contain a reference that allows for religious freedom. Adherents of religions other than Islam are effectively barred from practicing their faith in public.
Worship practices and religious symbols representing the beliefs of non-Islamic religions may be considered offensive by the public. Laws prohibit non-Muslim from worshipping in public or having places of worship. According to the government, non-Muslims are free to worship and practice their religions in private.
Non-Islamic religions of Saudi Arabia have adherents almost exclusively among expats. They include a small number of Roman Catholics and Hindus.
Religious Reforms: Reducing the Power of the Clergy
Mohammed Bin Salman, who is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and effective ruler of the country, has enacted a number of reforms in recent times. The reforms have eased some of the heaviest restrictions, most notably in regard to the status of women.
Modernizing influence of the reforms has been noted worldwide. Earlier this year, a law ordered that mosque loudspeakers limit their volume and do not broadcast full sermons out of concern over noise pollution.
The End of the Feared Religious Police
Up until recently, religious police could arrest people suspected of not adhering to the tenets of Islam. It was not uncommon for religious police patrols to appear at shopping malls to send people home to pray or admonish people who showed an indecent familiarity with members of the opposite sex. As a part of the Crown Prince liberal reforms, the power of the religious police to arrest people was taken away from this once feared law enforcement agency.
Women Were Allowed to Drive
Among the more publicized reforms was the government’s decision to lift the ban on women driving. Cinemas were allowed to reopen, further relaxing the existing restrictions imposed on the population. Nevertheless, the kingdom’s clerical establishment was highly critical of some of the reforms, but those close to the royal house backed the Crown Prince’s modernization program.
What Is Life Like for Women in Saudi Arabia?
The desert kingdom enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most conservative countries. The status of women in Saudi Arabia has long been a controversial issue. The government practice of imposing sharia law is viewed by many as being particularly strict for women due to a number of restrictions that limit their freedom.
Muslim Women: Strict Job, Travel, and Marriage Regulations
Law requires Saudi women to have a male guardian. Women were not allowed to go out of their homes without a male escort. A father or brother served as a guardian to an unmarried woman and could make decisions on her behalf.
Husbands acted as guardians if the woman was married. Getting a job, traveling abroad, and getting married required permission from the male guardian until legislation enacted this year allowed women to live alone, travel, and seek employment without asking for permission from their male guardians.
The Rise of Educated Saudi Women
Despite the restrictions on their social mobility, young Saudi women tend to be more educated than anywhere else in the Muslim world. Around 35 percent of Saudi women aged 25 to 34 hold postsecondary degrees, research in 2010 found. Saudi Arabia has a bigger percentage of women with higher education compared to Egypt and Iran.
Islam as Both a Religion and a Way of Life
A set of unique historical circumstances has made Islam much more than a religion for the people of the desert kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s religion, Islam, also represents a way of life.
As such, it has decisively shaped the social, political, and economic processes in the country. Saudi Arabia is both the heartland of Islam and the cradle of Islamic civilization that spread from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Indonesia in the east.
Islam Is Inseparable From Saudi History
Saudi Arabia seeks to preserve the traditions of Islam in ‘all areas of government and society. Since the times of Muhammad, the history of the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia and the whole Arabian peninsula has been synonymous with the history of Islam and Islamic civilization as a whole.
A Nation Build on Religion
Islam made no distinction based on race, ethnicity, or class. It enabled the various ethnically diverse peoples of the Arabian Peninsula to unite and build a new civilization. Without Islam, the modern nation of Saudi Arabia would probably not exist.
The Future of Islam in the ‘Desert Kingdom’
With an overwhelming majority of Saudis among its adherents, a unique way of life, and a long and complex tradition dating back to the 7th century AD, Islam is bound to remain at the cornerstone of Saudi identity for many years to come. Islam’s interaction with the modern world will decisively shape the future of the nation.
Saudi Arabia is the homeland of Islam and continues to be one of the most influential Muslim countries globally. The influence of Islamic teachings and doctrines can be felt in all aspects of life.
Here is what we learned about Saudi Arabia major religion:
- Up to 95 percent of Saudi people are Muslim
- Sunni Islam is the dominant branch, but there are also adherents of the Shiite branch
- Islam is the official religion, and its holy book, the Quran, serves as the nation’s constitution
- Sharia law forms the basis of the legal system
- Men and women are required to dress modestly and live in accordance with Muslim teaching
- The government has eased many of the religious-based restrictions in recent years
As the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia has made an invaluable contribution to the world’s religious and cultural heritage.