Islam in Saudi Arabia
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Islam in Saudi Arabia is the 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, 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. The eastern regions are mostly populated by Twelver Shias, while the Southern regions of Saudi Arabia are largely populated by Zaydi Shias. 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.
The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was born in Mecca in about 571. From the early 7th century, Muhammad united the various tribes of the peninsula and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge swathes of territory. Although Arabia soon became a politically peripheral region as the focus shifted to the more developed conquered lands, Mecca and Medina remained the spiritually most important places in the Muslim world. The Qu'ran requires every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, as one of the five pillars of Islam, to make a pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah at least once in his or her lifetime. The Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in Mecca is the location of the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, and the Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet's Mosque) in Medina is the location of Muhammad tomb; as a result, from the 7th century, Mecca and Medina became the pilgrimage destinations for large numbers of Muslims from across the Islamic world.
From the 9th century, a number of Shia sects developed particularly in the eastern part of Arabia. These included the Qarmatians, a millenarian Ismaili sect led by Abū-Tāhir Al-Jannābī who attacked and sacked Mecca in 930.
Role in the state and society
Islam plays a central role in Saudi society. It has been said that Islam is more than a religion, it is a way of life in Saudi Arabia, and, as a result, the influence of the ulema, the religious establishment, is all-pervasive. Specifically, Saudi Arabia is almost unique in giving the ulema a direct involvement in government, the only other example being Iran. Not only is the succession to the throne subject to the approval of the ulema, but so are all new laws (royal decrees). The ulema have also been a key influence in major government decisions, have a significant role in the judicial and education systems and a monopoly of authority in the sphere of religious and social morals.
Daily life in Saudi Arabia is dominated by Islamic observance. Five times each day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques scattered throughout the country. Because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims, the weekend begins on Thursday. In accordance with Salafi doctrine, only two religious holidays are publicly recognized, ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā. Celebration of other Islamic holidays, such as the Prophet’s birthday and ʿĀshūrāʾ (an important holiday for Shīʿites), are tolerated only when celebrated locally and on a small scale. Public observance of non-Islamic religious holidays is prohibited, with the exception of 23 September, which commemorates the unification of the kingdom.
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. The Saudi courts impose a number of severe physical punishments. The death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences including murder, rape, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery and can be carried out by beheading with a sword, stoning or firing squad, followed by crucifixion.
The official and dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is often called Wahhabism among its opponents (a name which its proponents consider derogatory, preferring the term Salafiyya) is often described as 'puritanical', 'intolerant' or 'ultra-conservative'. However, proponents consider that its teachings seek to purify the practise of Islam of any innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and his companions Approximately 40% of Saudi nationals consider themselves Salafis.
The Salafi movement claims to adhere to the correct understanding of the general Islamic doctrine of Tawhid, on the "uniqueness" and "unity" of God, shared by the majority of Islamic sects, but with an emphasis on following of the Athari school of thought only. Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, a major representative of the salafi movement in Saud Arabia, was influenced by the writings of Ibn Taymiyya and questioned the philosophical interpretations of Islam within the Ash'ari and Maturidi schools, claiming to rely on the Qur'an and the Hadith without speculative philosophy so as to not transgress beyond the limits of the early Muslims known as the Salaf. He attacked a "perceived moral decline and political weakness" in the Arabian Peninsula and condemned what he perceived as idolatry, the popular cult of saints, and shrine and tomb visitation.
Approximately 10-15 percent of citizens in Saudi Arabia are Shia Muslims, most of whom are adherents to Twelver Shia Islam. Twelvers are predominantly represented by the Baharna community living in the Eastern Province, with the largest concentrations in Qatif, Al-Hasa, and Dammam. In addition there is a small Twelver Shia minority in Medina (called the Nakhawila). Sizable Zaydi and Isma'ili communities also live in Najran along the border with Yemen.
In the Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia there are Shia courts who deal with cases such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. Shia demonstrations in Qatif have sometimes led to conflict with Sunni Saudi religious authorities who disapprove of Shia commemorations marking the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali by the Sunni Caliph Yazid I. There also Shias living in Southern Saudi Arabia, who are mostly from the Zaydi branch.
Islamic heritage sites and pilgrimage
Saudi Arabia, and specifically the Hejaz, as the cradle of Islam, has many of the most significant historic Muslim sites including the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina. One of the King's titles is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the two mosques being Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, which contains Islam's most sacred place, the Kaaba, and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina which contains Muhammad's tomb.
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.
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.
Islam and politics
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. 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. But also many Saudis who did not necessarily support the Islamist terrorists were deeply unhappy with the government stance. 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.
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.
Fractures between the government and this younger generation deepened in May 2003, when Riyadh fired or suspended thousands of them. 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.
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. 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.
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