Religion in Saudi Arabia

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Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and its law requires that all citizens be Muslims.[1] The government does not legally protect the freedom of religion.[1] Any overseas national attempting to acquire Saudi nationality must convert to Islam.[2] Saudi Arabia has been criticized for its implementation of Islamic law and its poor human rights record.[3][4]

Religious groups[edit]


Main article: Islam in Saudi Arabia

The official form of Islam is Sunni of the Hanbali school, in its Salafi version. According to official statistics, 85-90% of Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims, 10-15% are Shia.[5] (More than 30% of the population is made up of foreign workers[5] who are predominately but not entirely Muslim.) It is unknown how many Ahmadi Muslims there are in the country.[6] Two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia. For many reasons, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the holy cities although some Western non-Muslims have been able to enter, disguised as Muslims.[7][8]


The large number of foreign workers living in Saudi Arabia (8 million expatriates out of a total population of 27 million[9]) includes non-Muslims.

Policy of exclusion[edit]

According to scholar Bernard Lewis, the Saudi Arabian policy of excluding non-Muslim from permanent residence in the Arabian peninsula is a continuation of an old and widely accepted Muslim policy.

The classical Arabic historians tell us that in the year 20 after the hijra (Muhammad's move from Mecca to Medina), corresponding to 641 of the Christian calendar, the Caliph Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from Arabia to fulfill an injunction the Prophet uttered on his deathbed: "Let there not be two religions in Arabia." The people in question were the Jews of the oasis of Khaybar in the north and the Christians of Najran in the south.

[The hadith] was generally accepted as authentic, and Umar put it into effect. ... Compared with European expulsions, Umar's decree was both limited and compassionate. It did not include southern and southeastern Arabia, which were not seen as part of Islam's holy land. ... the Jews and Christians of Arabia were resettled on lands assigned to them -- the Jews in Syria, the Christians in Iraq. The process was also gradual rather than sudden, and there are reports of Jews and Christians remaining in Khaybar and Najran for some time after Umar's edict.

But the decree was final and irreversible, and from then until now the holy land of the Hijaz has been forbidden territory for non-Muslims. According to the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, accepted by both the Saudis and the declaration's signatories, for a non-Muslim even to set foot on the sacred soil is a major offense. In the rest of the kingdom, non-Muslims, while admitted as temporary visitors, were not permitted to establish residence or practice their religion.[10]

While Saudi Arabia does allow non-Muslims to live in Saudi Arabia to work, they may not practice religion publicly. According to the government of the United Kingdom

The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal; as is an intention to convert others. However, the Saudi authorities accept the private practice of religions other than Islam, and you can bring a Bible into the country as long as it is for your personal use. Importing larger quantities than this can carry severe penalties.[11]


According to one estimate there are about 1.5 million Christians in Saudi Arabia, almost all foreign workers.[12] Christians have complained of religious persecution by authorities. In one case in December 2012, 35 Ethiopian Christians working in Jeddah Saudi Arabia (six men and 29 women who held a weekly evangelical prayer meeting) were arrested and detained by the kingdom’s religious police for holding a private prayer gathering. While the official charge was “mixing with the opposite sex” — a crime for unrelated people in Saudi — the offenders complained they were arrested for praying as Christians.[13] A 2006 report in Asia News states that there are "at least one million" Roman Catholics in the kingdom. It states that they are being "denied pastoral care ... Catechism for their children – nearly 100,000 – is banned." It reports the arrest of a Catholic priest for saying mass in 2006. "Fr. George [Joshua] had just celebrated mass in a private house when seven religious policemen (muttawa) broke into the house together with two ordinary policemen. The police arrested the priest and another person."[14]


As of 2001, there were an estimated 1,500,000 Indian nationals in Saudi Arabia,[15] most of them Muslims, but some Hindus. Like other non-Muslim religions, Hindus are not permitted to worship publicly in Saudi Arabia. There have also been some complaints of destruction of Hindu religious items by Saudi authorities.[16][17]


Saudi Arabia has the highest rate of atheists in the Arab World and is the first Muslim-majority country to have its atheist population exceed five per cent.[18][19] News agencies such as Alhurra,[20] Saurress[21] and the American performance-management consulting company Gallup[22] have reported that 5-9% of the Saudi citizen population are atheists. If the 5% figure is taken into account, the numerical amount would imply that there are 'almost a million' Saudi atheists or 935,378 to be exact.[23] Due to the rapid growth of atheism and irreligion in the kingdom, the Saudi government issued an edict equating atheism to terrorism and subjecting atheists to punishments set for terrorism, including execution.[24][25][26]

A commission set up by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in 2014 to tackle 'cyber criminals' operating in the kingdom received reports of 2,734 cases of sites based in Saudi Arabia promulgating atheist sentiment.[27] A government official announced in that same year that 850 websites and social media pages espousing views deemed to be 'atheistic' in nature have been blocked in the country over a span of 16 months.[28]

Freedom of religion[edit]

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocracy, without protections on the rights of minorities to practice freedom of religion. Non-Muslim propagation is banned, and conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death as apostasy.[29]


  1. ^ a b "International Religious Freedom Report 2004". US Department of State. Retrieved 22 September 2012. 
  2. ^ Ministry of the Interior| dead link
  3. ^ Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013. Saudi Arabia.] Freedom of Expression, Belief, and Assembly.
  4. ^ Amnesty International, Annual Report 2013, Saudi Arabia, Discrimination – Shi’a minority
  5. ^ a b "The World Factbook". 2012. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 22 April 2014. 
  6. ^ "Saudi Arabia: 2 Years Behind Bars on Apostasy Accusation". Human Rights Watch. May 15, 2014. Retrieved June 2, 2014. 
  7. ^ (Sir Richard Burton in 1853) The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian world| By Dane KENNEDY, Dane Keith Kennedy| Harvard University Press|
  8. ^ (Ludovico di Barthema in 1503) The Arabian Nights: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1001 Nights ...) edited by Richard F. Burton
  9. ^ "New plan to nab illegals revealed". Arab News. 16 April 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2013. 
  10. ^ Lewis, Bernard (November–December 1998). "License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin's Declaration of Jihad". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  11. ^ "Foreign travel advice. Saudi Arabia.Local laws and customs". Gov.UK. Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  12. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 235. 
  13. ^ Shea, Nina (February 8, 2012). "Persecuted for Praying to God in Saudi Arabia". National Review. Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  14. ^ "Catholic priest arrested and expelled from Riyadh", Asia News, Italy, 10 April 2006.
  15. ^ Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora. Countries of the Gulf Region
  16. ^ On 24 March 2005, Saudi authorities destroyed religious items found in a raid on a makeshift Hindu shrine found in an apartment in Riyadh. (source: Marshall, Paul. Saudi Arabia's Religious Police Crack Down. Freedom House)
  17. ^ Hindus in the Middle East| BY: Gautam Raja| June 2001| Belief Net
  18. ^ el-Sayyed, Alaaeddin الإلحاد في السعودية هو الأعلى عربيًّا. (in Arabic). Retrieved September 5, 2014.
  19. ^ al-Sarami, Nasser الإلحاد في السعودية.. هل يعقل هذا..؟! . Al Arabiya. June 4, 2013. Retrieved September 5, 2014.
  20. ^ (in Arabic) نسبة الملحدين في السعودية تتراوح بين 5 و 9 بالمئة. Alhurra. April 9, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  21. ^ "الإلحاد معنا" (in Arabic). Sauress. April 14, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014
  22. ^ "فرانس 24: نسبة الإلحاد مرتفعة في السعودية والسلطات تعتبره إرهابا" (in Arabic). Sauress. April 8, 2014. Retrieved August 14, 2014
  23. ^ Al-Durais, Khalid Mansoor هل اقترب عدد الملحدين السعوديين من «المليون»؟. (in Arabic) August 14, 2014. Retrieved September 5, 2014
  24. ^ نسبة الإلحاد مرتفعة في السعودية والسلطات تعتبره إرهابا (in Arabic). France 24. April 7, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014/
  25. ^ "The rise of atheism in Saudi Arabia, where talking about atheism is illegal". Global Post. June 10, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014
  26. ^ GuardianLv. April 2, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  27. ^ "Call to arrest atheist bloggers". Gulf News. August 17, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  28. ^ " السعودية: إغلاق 850 موقعاً إلحادياً خلال 16 شهراً - See more at:" (in Arabic). Al-Seyassah August 14, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  29. ^ Sheen J. Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report. Routledge, 1997. p.452.