Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia
An estimated 10% to 15% of approximately 20 million natives of Saudi Arabia are Shia Muslims. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 by the House of Saud, who are followers of a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism or "the Wahhabite mission". Followers of the Wahhabite 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 Muslims who seek intercession from holy men, such as the imams revered by Shia, are not true Muslims. While attempts to force conversion of Shia have been infrequent, Shia have alleged severe discrimination in Saudi Arabia.
- 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 existed 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."
Al-Hasa, the main Shia area of what is now Saudi Arabia, 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 Shia 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 religious ceremonies led by the Shia religious establishment "without interference."
Saudi authorities have however acted on Wahhabi desires to eliminate "vestiges of Shia 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 Shia 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 more populated than Saudi Arabia and its borders are 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 commemorated 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 Shia leaders being released from jail or returning from exile. "Hundreds of young Shia" 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 Shia (as well as Sufis, liberal reformers, and professional women), to the strong disapproval of Wahhabi purists. In late 2003, "450 Shia academics, businessmen, writers, and women" presented a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah demanding a greater rights including the right for Shia to be referred to "their own religious courts as Sunni courts do not recognize testimonies by Shia."
As of 2006, more militant Saudi Wahhabi clerics were circulating a petition calling for an intensification of sectarian violence against the Shia, while the official religious establishment was calling for Shia to 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 Shia have been jailed, executed, and exiled.
According to Ondrej Beranek of Brandeis University, Shia opposition in Saudi Arabia has "undergone various stages of development." Saudi Shia found Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution a "political inspiration", but an "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 Shia in Saudi Arabia, ordering the elimination of derogatory terms for Shia from textbooks, removing certain other forms of explicit discrimination, allowing many Saudi Shia 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 Shia 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 Shia 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. They were also allegedly involved in 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. 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 factions, 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 Shia 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
The Saudi government has often been viewed as an active oppressor of Shias because of the funding of the Wahabbi ideology which denounces the Shia faith.
In 1988 fatwas passed by the country’s leading cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz denounced the Shias as apostates. Abdul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama sanctioned the killing on Shiites in 1994. According to Vali Nasr, this was still be reiterated in Wahhabi religious literature as late as 2002. By 2007 al-Jibrin wrote that [Shiites] "are the most vicious enemy of Muslims, who should be wary of their plots."
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 Shia 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."
While Saudi citizen circles blamed the Khawarij for the attack, claiming they wanted to start a civil war, a handful of articles in the Saudi press argued that the attack "had not come out of nowhere", that there was anti-Shi'ite incitement in the kingdom on the part of "the religious establishment, preachers, and even university lecturers – and that it was on the rise". The Saudi government/religious establishment, as well as the National media did not comment on the attack.
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 the government and chanting slogans against Wahhabis.
In 2009 a group of Shia 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 the Saudi government. A fifteen-year-old pilgrim was shot in the chest and an unknown assailant stabbed a Shia 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".
Shia 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 Shia in this region specifically resulting in the arrest which most of the times were released later. Shias and Sunni Hanafi, Shafi'is, 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 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 not permissible according certain interpretations of Sunni Islam, like Wahhabism.
Late 2011, a Shia 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 Shia Canadian cleric, Usama al-Attar, was arrested for unknown reasons but possibly because of his criticism of the kingdoms response to 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. 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.
Discrimination in the workforce
Much discrimination occurs in the Saudi workforce as well. Shia are prohibited from becoming teachers of religious subjects, which constitute about half of the courses in secondary education. Shia cannot become principals of schools. Some Shia have become university professors but often face harassment from students and faculty alike. Shia are disqualified as witnesses in court, as Saudi Sunni sources cite the Shi'a practise of Taqiyya wherein it is permissible to lie while one is 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 Shia want to be treated as equals and desire to be free from discrimination (Human Rights Watch). However, the Shia minority is still marginalized on a large scale.
The much smaller Sulaymani Ismāʿīlī minority, also known as the Seveners, differ from the Twelver Shia in their acceptance of Isma'il ibn Jafar as the appointed spiritual successor (Imam), rather than Musa al-Kazim. There are an estimated 100,000 of them living in the southern region of Najran bordering 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 commemorated 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 Shia. To implement that decision, Shia 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 Shia mosques and took over teaching and preaching duties at the remaining mosques in order to convert the population. [...] some Shia emigrated to Bahrain and Iraq.
- Commins, David, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, p.170
- Ende, Werner, "The Nakhawila, a Shia 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 Shia 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 Shia summoned the courage to break the taboo on public religious expression by holding processions to celebrate the Shia 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 Shia activists were arrested. On the other, a high official from the Interior Minister met with Shia 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 Shia were infidels. (source: Ende, Werner, "The Nakhawila, a Shia 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 Shia, 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.
- Beranek, Ondrej (January 2009). "Divided We Survive: A Landscape of Fragmentation in Saudi Arabia" (PDF). Middle East Brief 33: 1–7. Retrieved June 4, 2014.
- Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2006) p. 84
- Nasr, Vali (2007). The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 238.
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- With Neighbors Like These Iraq and the Arab States on Its Borders, edited by David Pollock, Washington Institute Policy Focus No 70, June 2007, p33.
This cited A Top Saudi Cleric Declares Shiites to Be Infidels, Calls on Sunnis to Drive Them Out, Associated Press, 22 January 2007.
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- Human Rights in Saudi Arabia: The Role of Women, Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Testimony of Ali Al-Ahmed, Director of the Saudi Institute, June 4, 2002.
- Coogle, Adam. "Dispatches: Killings of Saudi Shia a Wakeup Call". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
- "Saudi Columnists: There Is Anti-Shi'ite Incitement In Our Country". December 10, 2014. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
- "Saudi execution of Shia cleric sparks outrage in Middle East". The Guardian. 2 January 2016.
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- Australian faces lashes for blasphemy in Saudi Arabia| 7 December 2011 |bbc news
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- Saudi police release Canadian Shia imam| aljazeera.com| Last Modified: 31 Oct 2011
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- Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Macmillan. pp. 73–5. ISBN 9781403970770.
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