Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia
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|Beliefs and practices|
|Current Branches of Shi'ism|
An estimated 15% to 25% of the approximately 16 million natives of Saudi Arabia are Shia Muslims. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—formed in 1932—was formed as an alliance between the House of Saud and followers of strict Sunni Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab—often referred to as the "Wahhabi movement" or "Wahhabi mission". Followers of the Wahhabi mission—who dominate religious institutions, courts and education of the kingdom —believe Muslims should return to the interpretation of Islam found in the classical texts, the Quran and the Sunnah. They also believe that self-proclaimed Muslims who seek intercession from holy men—such as the Imams Shia revere and pray to—are not true Muslims.  While attempts to force conversion of Shia have been infrequent, Shia have alleged severe discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities, on the other hand, have suspected that the Islamic Republic of Iran—a Shia power close to Saudi oil fields—has encouraged Saudi Shia to rise up and work for the overthrow of the royal family.
Most Shi'i Muslims belong to the Twelver sect and live in the oil-rich areas of the Eastern Province, with the largest concentrations in oasis of Qatif and Al-Hasa. There is also a Twelver minority in Medina called the Nakhawila, and some Shia have even migrated to the large urban area of Riyadh. Smaller Zaydi and Isma'ili communities also live in Najran along the border with Yemen.
- 1 History
- 2 Community structure, political and religious authority
- 3 Restrictions and persecutions
- 4 Ismaili
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
While Saudi Arabia has only been a country since 1932, an earlier Al Saud state (Emirate of Diriyah) clashed with the Shia. Ibn Abdul-Wahhab believed that Shia "imported into Islam" the practice of building mosques on graves, a practice he considered un-Islamic. He referred to Shia as Rafida (rejecters), a name his followers have continued to use.
In 1802, the Saud-Wahhabi alliance waged jihad (or at least qital, i.e. war) on the Shia holy city of Karbala. There, according to a Wahhabi chronicler `Uthman b. `Abdullah b. Bishr:
Muslims [Wahhabis referred to themselves as Muslims, not believing Shia to be Muslims] scaled the walls, entered the city ... and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes. [They] destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn [and took] whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings ... the grille surrounding the tomb which was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and other jewels ... different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qur'an."
The main Shia area of what is now Saudi Arabia -- al-Hasa -- was conquered by Saudi forces in 1913. The initial treatment of Shia was harsh, with Shia religious leaders compelled to vow to "cease observance of their religious holidays, to shut down their special places of worship and to stop pilgrimages to holy sites in Iraq." Wahhabi ulama also "ordered the demolition of several Shiite mosques" and took "over teaching and preaching duties at the remaining mosques in order to convert the population."  However within a year, Al-Saud emir Ibn Saud permitted the Shia to expel the Wahhabi preachers and to hold private Shiite religious ceremonies led by the Shiite religious establishment "without interference."
Saudi authorities have however acted on Wahhabi desires to eliminate "vestiges of Shiite religiosity" in and around Medina. In 1926, the Al-Baqi' mausoleum—which included the tombs of the second, forth, fifth, and six Shia Imams—was destroyed by Ibn Saud. In 1975, the tomb of a Shia imam (Ismail ibn Ja'far al-Sadiq) was reportedly destroyed, and a year later an ancient palm tree that legend had it had been planted under the direction of the Prophet Muhammad, and visited by Shiite pilgrims for generations, was cut down on orders of a high ranking Wahhabi shiekh.
In 1979, the Iranian Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran, replacing a pro-Western monarchy with an anti-Western revolutionary Islamic republic. Iran is larger than Saudi Arabia and relatively close to Saudi Arabia's oil fields—which is also where most Saudi Shia traditionally lived. It was eager to export its revolution, and ideologically opposed to both monarchical systems of government and any state allied with the West. Leaflets, radio broadcasts and tape cassettes from Iran targeted Saudi Shia and attacked Al Saud for corruption and hypocrisy. That November, Shia celebrated Ashura (illegally) for the first time in many years. In February demonstrations were held on the one year anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran. Saud officials responded with both "sticks and carrots", arresting activists but also promising more schools, hospitals and infrastructure for the Shia region.
In 1987, following the deaths of over 300 during a demonstration by Iranian pilgrims at hajj, Khomeini "denounced the House of Saud as murderers and called on all loyal Shia in the Kingdom to rise up and overthrow them", further alarming Saudi officials.  After oil pipelines were bombed in 1988, the Saudi government accused Shia of sabotage executed several. In collective punishment restrictions were placed on their freedoms and Shia were further marginalized economically. Wahabi ulama were given the green light to sanction violence against Shia. Fatwas were passed by the country’s leading cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz denouncing Shia as apostates from Islam.
After the 1991 Gulf war ended, weakening Iran's mortal foe Saddam Hussien and exhibiting the strength of Saudi ally the United States, "there was a noticeable thaw in relations between the two countries." In 1993, the Saudi government announced a general amnesty resulting in various Shiite leaders being released from jail or returning from exile. "Hundreds of young Shiites" were provided with jobs in the governmental and private sectors. The anti-Shia Imam of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina was even sacked after he attacked Shiism in a Friday sermon in the presence of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In 2003, the political direction turned again, and a series of "National Dialogues" were initiated that included Shiites (as well as Sufis, liberal reformers, and professional women), to the strong disapproval of Wahhabi purists. In late 2003, "450 Shiite academics, businessmen, writers, and women" presented a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah demanding a greater rights including the right for Shiites to be referred to "their own religious courts as Sunni courts do not recognize testimonies by Shiites."
As of 2006, more militant Saudi Wahhabi clerics were circulating a petition calling for an intensification of sectarian violence against the Shiites, while the official religious establishment was calling for Shiites renounce their “fallacious” beliefs voluntarily and embrace “the right path” of Islam, rather than be killed, expelled, or converted by violence.
In modern day Saudi Arabia, the Sunni rulers limit Shia political participation to "notables", according to scholar Vali Nasr. These notables benefit from their ties to power, and in return are expected to control their community. Much political activity takes place outside these parameters. Since 1979, hundreds of Saudi Shiites have been jailed, executed, and exiled.
According to Ondrej Beranek of Brandeis University, Shiite opposition in Saudi Arabia has "undergone various stages of developmental." Saudi Shiites found Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution a "political inspiration", but a "important ideological source" was the organization Harakat al-risaliyin al-tala‘i‘ (literally “the Movement of Vanguards’ Missionaries”), established in 1968 not in Iran but in the Iraqi city of Karbala under the auspices of marja‘ al- taqlid (religious authority) Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al- Shirazi. Other organizations include Munazzamat al-thawra ‘l-islamiyya (Organization of Islamic Revolution) -- established after the Intifada of 1979. Focusing on peaceful change it changed its name to al-Haraka ‘l-islahiyya (Reform Movement).
In response to this change, King Fahd, met several of al-Saffar's followers and in October 1993 a pact was signed. Fahd promised to work towards improving conditions for Shiites in Saudi Arabia -- ordering the elimination of derogatory terms for Shiites from textbooks, removing certain other forms of explicit discrimination, allowing many Saudi Shiite exiles to return to Saudi Arabia, and other acts. In return, al-Haraka ‘l-islahiyya was dissolved and its members formally agreed to dissociate themselves from foreign groups and movements.
As of 2009, the main spokesman and representative of the Saudi Shiite movement in its more moderate incarnation has been Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar (b. 1958). Al-Saffar represents one of the few voices publicly calling for moderate, pragmatic action, tolerance and reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis, and a political system based on civil society, free elections and freedom of speech.
At the other end of the Shia political spectrum is the Saudi Hizballah or Hezbollah Al-Hejaz. Established in 1987, it supports the overthrow of the royal government. In 1988 and 1989, Saudi Hizballah led a couple of attacks on oil infrastructure and also murdered Saudi diplomats in Ankara, Bangkok, and Karachi. In 1996 bombed bombing in the Saudi city of al-Khubar. Some of its members went through training in Iran. THe group also is thought to use Iranian training camps in the Biqa‘ valley in Lebanon.
In addition to these two fractions, there are also smaller groups of traditionalists who look at the Saudi regime with suspicion and do not intend to become part of any reconciliation talks.
(The American embassy in Saudi Arabia (as revealed by wikileaks), refers to these two political groupings of Shia in the Eastern Province as Islahiyyah (the Shirazis) and Hezbollah Al-Hejaz (Saudi Hezbollah))
Following the 9/11 attacks and 2003 Riyadh compound bombings, Saudi Arabia seemed determined to stop the brutal campaign against its Shia community, which in previous decades had resulted in hundreds of Shiites being jailed, executed, and exiled. Such a liberal move, however, could easily be understood as merely part of a new campaign aimed at improving the image of Saudi Arabia in the West.
Restrictions and persecutions
In 1988 fatwas passed by the country’s leading cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz denounced the Shias as apostates. Another by Abdul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama is on record as saying
"Some people say that the rejectionists (Rafidha, i.e. Shia) are Muslims because they believe in God and his prophet, pray and fast. But I say they are heretics. They are the most vicious enemy of Muslims, who should be wary of their plots. They should be boycotted and expelled so that Muslims spared their evil."
According to Vali Nasr, al-Jibrin's sanctioning of the killing of Shia was reiterated in Wahhabi religious literature as late as 2002.
Saudi Arabia has no Shia cabinet ministers, mayors or police chiefs, according to another source, Vali Nasr, unlike other countries with sizable Shia populations (such as Iraq and Lebanon) . Shia are kept out of "critical jobs" in the armed forces and the security services, and not one of the three hundred Shia girls’ schools in the Eastern Province has a Shia principal.
Pakistani columnist Mohammad Taqi has written that "the Saudi regime is also acutely aware that, in the final analysis, the Shiite grievances ... stem from socioeconomic deprivation, as a result of religious repression and political marginalization bordering on apartheid."
"Saudi Arabia is a glaring example of religious apartheid. The religious institutions from government clerics to judges, to religious curriculums, and all religious instructions in media are restricted to the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, adhered to by less than 40% of the population. The Saudi government communized Islam, through its monopoly of both religious thoughts and practice. Wahhabi Islam is imposed and enforced on all Saudis regardless of their religious orientations. The Wahhabi sect does not tolerate other religious or ideological beliefs, Muslim or not. Religious symbols by Muslims, Christians, Jewish and other believers are all banned. The Saudi embassy in Washington is a living example of religious apartheid. In its 50 years, there has not been a single non-Sunni Muslim diplomat in the embassy. The branch of Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University in Fairfax, Virginia instructs its students that Shia Islam is a Jewish conspiracy."
Suppression of religious practice
The Saudi government has refused to allow Shia teachers and students exemption from school to partake in activities for the Day of Ashura, one of the most important religious days for Shia Muslims which commemorates the martyrdom of Muhammad's grandson, Husayn bin Ali). In 2009, during Ashura commencements, Shia religious and community leaders were arrested protesting against govt and chanting slogans against Wahhabis
Shiites are often banned from building mosques and other religious centers, and sometimes perform Friday prayers in various homes (Al-Hassan). In the Eastern city of Al-Khobar, whose population is predominately Shia, mosques and prayer centers were closed for sometime due to the political activities, beginning in July 2008 but they are now opened. Presently there are 81 Shia mosques in Al Khobar. Saudi Arabia's religious police mandate prayers and all those in public buildings during prayer time are required to stop what they are doing to pray. Because there are minor differences between the way that Shiites and Sunnis pray and between prayer times, Shiites are forced to either pray the Sunni way or take a break from work.
In 2009 a group of Shiites on their way to perform hajj pilgrimage (one of the five pillars of Islam that all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform once in their lives) in Mecca were arrested by Saudi religious police due to the involvement in a protest against Saudi govt. A fifteen-year-old pilgrim was shot in the chest and an unknown assailant stabbed a Shiite sheikh who played the major role in sparking up the clash between pilgrim and security forces in the back, shouting “Kill the rejectionist [Shia]”.
Religious police have arrested Shia Women in the Eastern Province for matters as trivial as organizing classes for Quranic studies and selling clothing for religious ceremonies as they were involved in political activities which are not allowed in KSA.
In the eastern city of Dammam where three quarters of the 400,000 residents are Shia, there are over 81 large mosques and few hundreds Mussallas, limited Shia call to prayer broadcast, couple of cemeteries for Shia.
Shiite pilgrims go to Jannat al Baqi mainly to visit the grave of Fatima and Ahl al-Bayt who are buried in the cemetery of Jannat al-Baqi' but no visit of other great Sahabas in Islam. Many incidences of not following the rules of the place happened by Shiites in this region specifically resulting in the arrest which most of the times were released later. Shias and Sunni Hanafi Wahhabi Sha'afis Barelvis, and Dawoodi Bohra Ismailis usually pray near graves of Ahl al-Bayt but in Wahhabism this act is considered as Shirk. In Saudi Arabia, most of the people follow an interpretation of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, which does not allow practices like praying near graves of Ahl al-Bayt in Jannat al Baqi.
Early 2009, several Shiites attacked into the grave of Fatima (who is daughter of Muhammad and the wife of Ali) and grabbed stones, sand and in order to make turbahs out of them which is totally not permissible according certain interpretations of Sunni Islam, like Wahhabism.
Late 2011, a Shiite citizen was charged for not following the law and involved with blasphemy and sentenced to 500 lashes and 2 years in jail; the latter sentence was later reduced. Also late 2011, a prominent Shiite Canadian cleric, Usama al-Attar, was arrested as he insulted the great Sahabi and Khalifa Uthman ibn Affan ra and for criticizing the kingdom's handling of uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain. He was released on the same day, declaring the arrest entirely unprovoked.
Discrimination in education
Much of education in Saudi Arabia is based on Wahhabi religious material. From a very young age, students are taught that Shiites are not Muslims and that Shiism is a conspiracy hatched by the Jews, and so Shiites are worthy of death. Government Wahhabi scholars, such as Abdulqader Shaibat al-Hamd, have proclaimed on state radio that Sunni Muslims must not “eat their [Shia] food, marry from them, or bury their dead in Muslims' graveyards”.
The government has restricted the names that Shias can use for their children in an attempt to discourage them from showing their identity. Saudi textbooks are hostile to Shiism, often characterizing the faith as a form of heresy worse than Christianity and Judaism.
Because anti-Shia attitudes are engrained from an early age, they are passed down from generation to generation. This prejudice is found not only in textbooks (often characterizing the faith as a form of heresy worse than Christianity and Judaism), but also within the teachers in the classroom, and even in the university setting. (Wahhabi) teachers frequently tell classrooms full of young Shia schoolchildren that they are heretics. Teachers who proclaim that Shiites are atheists and deserve death have faced no repercussions for their actions, barely even receiving punishment. At a seminar about the internet, held in King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, professor Dr. Bader Hmood Albader explained how the internet was beneficial to society, but at the same time there were many Shia websites proclaiming to be Muslim websites, which needed to be stopped.
Discrimination in the Workforce
Much discrimination occurs in the Saudi workforce as well. Shiites are prohibited from becoming teachers of religious subjects, which constitute about half of the courses in secondary education. Shiites cannot become principals of schools. Some Shiites have become university professors but often face harassment from students and faculty alike. Shiites are disqualified as witnesses in court, as Saudi Sunni sources cite the Shi'a practise of 'Taqiyya'- wherein it is permissible to lie while they are in fear or at risk of significant persecution. Shia cannot serve as judges in ordinary court, and are banned from gaining admission to military academies, and from high-ranking government or security posts, including becoming pilots in Saudi Airlines.
Amir Taheri quotes a Shi'ite businessman from Dhahran as saying "It is not normal that there are no Shi'ite army officers, ministers, governors, mayors and ambassadors in this kingdom. This form of religious apartheid is as intolerable as was apartheid based on race." 
Human Rights Watch reports that Shiites want to be treated as equals and desire to be free from discrimination (Human Rights Watch). King Abdullah has attempted to bring Sunnis and Shiites together and advance towards religious tolerance. However, the country as whole has not moved forward and the Shia minority is still marginalized on a large scale.
The much smaller Ismāʿīlī minority—also known as Seveners -- differ from the Twelver Shia in their acceptance of Isma'il ibn Jafar as the appointed spiritual successor (Imām), rather than Moosa Al Kazim. There are an estimated 100,000 of them living in the southern region of Najran next to Yemen. They also have been subject to what Human Rights Watch calls "official discrimination," encompassing "government employment, religious practices, and the justice system".
Following the clashes in April 2000, Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.
In 1997 the director of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs opened an office in Najran for the purpose of propagating Wahhabi doctrine to the local Isma'ilis. Saudi official Sheik Ali Khursan declared Ismaelis to be infidels because they did not follow the Sunna and do not believe that the Qur'an is complete, stating `We don't eat their food, we don't intermarry with them, we should not pray for their dead or allow them to be buried in our cemeteries.` In 1997 the Governor Prince Mish'al ordered police to prevent Ismaelis from performing prayers during the post-Ramadan Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr. "Anti-Ismaeli campaigns resulted in many arrests and flogging." In April 2000, responding to an Amnesty International campaign publicizing lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, Ismaelis in Najran openly celebrated Ashura for the first time in many years. Shortly thereafter Saudi religious police "stormed a major Ismaeli mosque, seized many of its religious texts and arrested three clerics". Local Ismaelis, who are often armed, retaliated, firing on security forces and burning some of their vehicles. Approximately 40 people were killed and many more injured. Saudi Army reinforcements swept the area and made many arrests. 
Hundreds of Ismaeli government employees were transferred away from Najran. Sometime after August 2000, four Ismaeli high school student were "sentenced to two to four years in prison and 500 to 800 lashes for fighting with a Wahhabi teacher, who openly insulted their religious beliefs in front of other students in the classroom."
- Saudi Arabia's Shia press for rights| bbc|by Anees al-Qudaihi | 24 March 2009
- Council on Foreign Relations| Author: Lionel Beehner| June 16, 2006
- Nasr, Shia Revival, (2006) p. 236
- "Demography of Religion in the Gulf". Mehrdad Izady. 2013.
- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. pp. 155–6. "Within Saudi Arabia, official religious institutions under Wahhabi control multiplied at the same time that ulama maintained their hold on religious law courts, presided over the creation of Islamic universities and ensured that children in public schools received a heavy dose of religious instruction."
- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. pp. 155–6. "Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab ... insisted that invoking and making vows to holy men indeed constituted major idolatry and that it was proper to deem as infidels anyone who failed to view such practices as idolatry. ... He then stated that if one admits that these practices are major idolatry, then fighting is a duty as part of the prophetic mission to destroy idols. Thus, the idolater who call upon a saint for help must repent, If he does so, his repentance is accepted. If not, he is to be killed."
- Ibn Ghannam, Hussien (1961). Tarikh najd. Cairo. p. 438.
- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 16.
- "Deviant Groups \Raafidhah". fatwa-online.com. "They are called the Raafidhah because they rejected the leadership of Zayd ibn 'Alee ibn al-Husayn, ..."
- Wahhabism - A Critical Essay: Chapter 2
- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 211.
- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. "... The Ikwan insisted that in domestic affairs their religious views should prevail, including the forced conversion of al-Hasa's Shiites. To implement that decision, Shiite religious leaders gathered before the Wahhabi qadi and vowed to cease observance of their religious holidays, to shut down their special places of worship and to stop pilgrimages to holy sites in Iraq. .... Wahhabi ulama ordered the demolition of several Shiite mosques and took over teaching and preaching duties at the remaining mosques in order to convert the population. .... some Shiites emigrated to Bahrain and Iraq."
- Commins, David, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, p.170
- Ende, Werner, "The Nakhawila, a Shiite community in Medina past and present." Die Welt des Islams, xxxvii/3 (1997), p.294, n.109
- David Commins may be mistaken as there appears to be no Imam named Ismail ibn Ja'far al-Sadiq. Ja'far al-Sadiq was the 6th Imam and Ismail ibn Ja'far al-Sadiq may have been the son of Ja'far al-Sadiq.
- Ende, Werner, "The Nakhawila, a Shiite community in Medina past and present." Die Welt des Islams, xxxvii/3 (1997), p.297, n.128
- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 171. "Tehran's efforts to export the revolution through leaflets, radio broadcasts and tape cassettes castigating Al Saud for corruption and hypocrisy found a receptive audience in the Eastern Province. On 28 November, Saudi Shiites summoned the courage to break the taboo on public religious expression by holding processions to celebrate the Shiite holy day of Ashura ...
" ... on 1 February, the one-year anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran, violent demonstrations again erupted. Crowds attacked banks and vehicles and hoisted placards with Khomeini's picture. The government responded to the February protests with a mix of coercion and cooptation. On the one hand, leading Shiite activists were arrested. On the other, a high official from the Interior Minister met with Shiite representatives and acknowledged that Riyadh had neglected the region's development needs. ... extend the electricity network ... more schools and hospitals and improve sewage disposal."
- Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. p. 102. "In August 1987 the Iranian demonstrations on the pilgrimage escalated one further and fatal step. Excited Iranians paraded through Mecca proclaiming `God is great! Khomeini is leader!` violating Islamic tradition by carrying knives and sticks beneath their pilgrim towels, according to Egyptian pilgrims who managed to escape the massacre that followed. A total of 275 Iranians, 85 Saudis, and 42 pilgrims of other nationalities were killed, most of them trampled to death in the pileup that resulted from the attempts by the Ministry of the Interior Special Forces to check the demonstration, which had been called by Mehdi Karrubi, Ayatollah Khomeini's personal representative in Mecca. The Saudi government refused to condemn their soldiers' actions. .... Khomeini responded with fury. He denounced the House of Saud as murderers and called on all loyal Shia in the Kingdom to rise up and overthrow them."
- In the 1990s, leading Wahhabi clerics like Ibn Baz and Abd Allah ibn Jibrin reiterated the customary view that Shiites were infidels. (source: Ende, Werner, "The Nakhawila, a Shiite community in Medina past and present." Die Welt des Islams, xxxvii/3 (1997), p.335)
- Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Palgrave. pp. 82–3.
- Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 6. "... members of Al Saud decided it might be time to trim Wahhabism's domination by holding a series of National Dialogues that included Shiites, Sufis, liberal reformers, and professional women. At present, the indications are not good for true believers in Wahhabi doctrine. But as its history demonstrates, the doctrine has survived crises before."
- Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Palgrave. p. 84.
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- Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2006) p. 84
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- Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Macmillan. pp. 73–5.
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