Religion is a core aspect of everyday life in Saudi Arabia. It plays a dominant role in the country’s governance and legal system, deeply influences culture and daily life. The official religion is Islam, with the majority of Saudi citizens being Sunni Muslims (roughly 90%), typically following the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. It is estimated a further 10% of Saudi citizens are Shi’a Muslims.1,2 There is also a large community of various faiths, both Muslims and non-Muslim.
The Saudi population is generally highly religious and devout. For example, the idea of a ‘non-practising Muslim’ is quite unusual in Saudi Arabia – everyone is expected to practise the religion to some degree. Older Saudis are likely to be more religiously strict and conservative than those belonging to the younger generation. The Sunni ‘ulamāʾ (clerics) of Saudi Arabia have traditionally followed a very conservative interpretation of Islam (see Wahhabism below). However, in recent years, many traditional positions on socio-religious issues have been challenged. Ultimately, levels of conservatism vary on an individual basis.
Islam in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s history and national identity is deeply tied to Islam. The country is home to two of the holiest cities: Mecca (where the Prophet Muhammad was born) and Medina (where the Prophet was buried). Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca where they visit the Kaaba shrine. This is the most sacred site in Islam, considered to be the ‘House of God’. All Muslims are expected to face towards Kaaba when they pray, no matter where they are in the world.
Saudi Arabia’s history and nationhood is closely tied to the Wahhabi movement. Wahhabism is named after Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, a religious scholar whose alliance with the Ibn Sa’ud family led to the establishment of what is essentially the Saudi Arabian state today (see National Formation and Identity in Core Concepts). The ‘ulamā’ (religious clerics) of Saudi Arabia have traditionally promoted a Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, leading it to be a major social, judicial and political force. However, not all Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia are Wahhabis.
Wahhabism represents the conservative end of the spectrum of Islamic belief. It is centred around the concept of looking back to a prior historical period in an effort to understand how the contemporary world should be ordered. Wahhabism is aimed at purifying the practice of Islam by eliminating any modern religious innovations that deviate from the sixth to seventh-century teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.3 Wahhabis oppose many popular Islamic religious practices such as worship of any idol (including the Prophet Muhammad), the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, most core Shi’ite traditions, and some practices associated with the mystical teachings of Sufism.4 However, many founding Saudi religious traditions have been affected by modernisation and socio-political changes. Some religious clerics have been pushing boundaries in the re-interpretations of social religious issues (notwithstanding intense criticism from others).5 Ultimately, there remains a strong political and social pressure to abide by the state-sanctioned version of Islam.
Governance and Law
The Saudi government has relied on the country’s ties to Islam and its interpretation and enforcement of Islamic law to establish much of its political legitimacy. The Qur’an and the Sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad are declared to be the nation's Constitution. Meanwhile, the legal system is based on shari’a rulings (specifically, the Sunni Hanbali school). This means that certain behaviours that do not abide by Islamic principles are criminalised in law. (riddah), blasphemy and conversion from Islam to another religion are all considered serious criminal offences that can be punishable by imprisonment, lashings or death. Any Muslim who questions the validity of Islam or the holiness of the Prophet can be considered guilty of .
Until 2016, Islamic ideals of social behaviour could be strongly enforced by the religious police (Mutawwa'in) – who were especially strict in the capital city. However, the Saudi government has made certain changes to reform and soften religious rules of behaviour to reflect socio-political changes.6 This has included almost completely reducing the religious police’s authority. Today, they are mostly only seen patrolling the streets to urge businesses to pull down their shutters and that men attend prayers during prayer times (if seen at all).7
Saudi Arabia is also host to a substantial Shi’a Muslim community and multiple different non-Muslim faiths. Tolerance and acceptance of religious diversity in Saudi Arabia has improved in recent years, especially among the younger generation who are generally more open and understanding of different lifestyles. However, the law strongly curbs non-Muslim worship or practices. Therefore, religious freedoms may be denied to those who do not adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Islam.
Approximately 10% of Saudi citizens are Shi’a Muslims. The majority of Shi’ites live in the Eastern Province, with some smaller sects residing near the Yemen border and in Medina. Sunnis and Shi’as differ on the question of who is the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Although Shi’a practices are not officially endorsed by the Sunni ‘ulamā’ (clerics), Shi’a Muslims are generally free to practise their religion in Saudi Arabia. The Shi’a have a separate legal tradition, with two courts established in the Eastern Province. There has been some Sunni-Shi’a tension over the years that has occasionally escalated to violence. However, these isolated circumstances generally do not affect the religious practice of Shi’a Muslims on a day-to-day basis.
Saudi Arabia has a large community of various faiths. There are many foreign workers living in the country who are non-Muslim, including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. For example, most Filipino workers are Christian.8 Non-Muslims are prohibited from publicly worshipping or and are not permitted to have public places of worship. However, the government states that its policy is to allow non-Muslims to worship privately.9
Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.