Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia

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Shī‘a terms

Approximately 10-15 percent[1][2] of citizens in Saudi Arabia are Shia Muslims. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, formed in 1932, is based on the belief that [Muslims] should return to the interpretation of [Islam] found in the classical texts, the [Quran] and the Sunnah. A scholar named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (Encyclopædia Britannica) is widely regarded for his efforts in reviving this view.

Due to this difference, the Shia minority have been at odds with the Kingdom, which is a Sunni majority, amid allegations of discrimination against the minority, and suspicions that Iran, a Shia power, supports the Saudi Shia for its own political gain at the expense of the Kingdom.

Most Shi'i Muslims are Twelver Bahrani people in the Eastern Province with the largest concentrations in Qatif, Al-Hasa. There is also a Twelver minority in Medina called the Nakhawila). Sizable Zaydi and Isma'ili communities also live in Najran along the border with Yemen.

Community structure[edit]

Two of the main political groupings of Shia in the Eastern Province are Islahiyyah (the Shirazis) and Hezbollah Al-Hejaz (Saudi Hezbollah).[3]

Political inspiration and religious authority[edit]

Although the Saudi Shiites acknowledged Ayatollah Khomeini as a political inspiration, many of them did not consider him to be a religious authority. They found an important ideological source in an organization called Harakat al-risaliyin al-tala‘i‘ (literally “the Movement of Vanguards’ Missionaries”), which was established in 1968 in the Iraqi city of Karbala under the auspices of marja‘ al- taqlid (religious authority) Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al- Shirazi.[4]

The main spokesman and representative of the Saudi Shiite movement in its current, more moderate incarnation has been Sheikh Hasan al-Saffar (b. 1958), who was able to a large degree to assuage the more radical fractions.13 In 1990, he published a book called al-Ta‘addudiyya wa ‘l-hurriyya fi ‘l-islam (Pluralism and Freedom in Islam), which substantially influenced the future discourse of the Shiites. He supports the idea of reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis and calls for a shift from the revolutionary rhetoric of Khomeini to moderate action and a pragmatic stance. Today, al-Saffar represents one of the few voices publicly calling for tolerance, and propagating civil society and a political system based on free elections and freedom of speech.[4]

In spite of al-Saffar’s efforts, however, the Shiite community is not unified. Although al-Saffar’s camp may represent the majority view, on the other end of the spectrum stands Saudi Hizballah, established in 1987. 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 its adherents participated in the bombing in the Saudi city of al-Khubar. Some of its members went through training in Iran, and also in 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.[4]

At the beginning of the 21st century, 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.[4]

Restrictions and persecutions[edit]

In modern day Saudi Arabia, the Sunni rulers limit Shia political participation to a game of notables. These notables benefit from their ties to power and in turn, are expected to control their community.[5] Saudi Shias are a minority comprising 10-15% of the some 16 million Saudi citizens.[6] Although some live in Medina, Mecca, and even Riyadh, the majority are concentrated in the oases of al-Hasa and Qatif in the oil-rich areas of the Eastern Province.[citation needed] They have usually been denounced as heretics, traitors, and non-Muslims.[citation needed] Shias were accused of sabotage, most notably for bombing oil pipelines in 1988. A number of Shias were even executed. In response to Iran’s militancy, the Saudi government collectively punished the Shia community in Saudi Arabia by placing restrictions on their freedoms and marginalizing them economically.[citation needed] Wahabi ulama were given the green light to sanction violence against the Shia. What followed were fatwas passed by the country’s leading cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz which denounced the Shias as apostates. Another by Adul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama even sanctioned the killing of Shias.[citation needed] This call was reiterated in Wahabi religious literature as late as 2002.[6]

According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Shia citizens in Saudi Arabia "face systematic discrimination in religion, education, justice, and employment".[7] According to another source, Vali Nasr, unlike other countries with sizable Shia populations (such as Iraq and Lebanon) Saudi Arabia has no Shia cabinet ministers, mayors or police chiefs. 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.[6]

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. Teachers frequently tell classrooms full of young Shia schoolchildren that they are heretics.[8][citation needed]

There is only one mosque for the city's Shias. The Saudi government has often been viewed as an active oppressor of Shias because of the funding of the sunni ideology which denounces the Shia faith.[9]

Mohammad Taqi has written that "the Saudi regime is also acutely aware that, in the final analysis, the Shiite grievances are not merely doctrinal issues but stem from socioeconomic deprivation, as a result of religious repression and political marginalization bordering on apartheid."[10] 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." [11]

Testifying before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Ali al-Ahmed, Director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, stated "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."[12]

Religious Discrimination[edit]

The Day of Ashura is a commemoration made by Shia Muslims to remember the martyrdom of Muhammad's grandson, Husayn bin Ali.[13] As one of the most important religious days, Shia Muslims remember the occasion with many somber events. However, the Wahhabi government has refused to allow Shia teachers and students exemption from school to partake in the activities. In 2009, during Ashura commencements, Shia religious and community leaders were arrested.[14]

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, beginning in July 2008.[14] 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 face much discrimination.

One of the five pillars of Islam requires all able-bodied Muslims to visit the holy city of Mecca and perform Hajj once in their lives. While this is supposed to be a time of immense spirituality, in 2009 when a group of Shiites went to perform their pilgrimage they were arrested by Sunni religious police.[14] A fifteen-year-old pilgrim was shot in the chest and an unknown civilian stabbed a Shiite sheikh in the back, shouting “Kill the rejectionist [Shia]”.[14]

Religious police even mandate the smallest[according to whom?] things that the Shia community partakes in. Women were arrested in the Eastern Province for organizing classes for Quranic studies and those selling clothing for religious ceremonies were arrested as well.[14]

Discrimination in Schools[edit]

Education in Saudi Arabia forms much of its base from religious material based on Wahhabi teachings. From a very young age, students are taught that Shiites are not Muslims and that Shiism is a conspiracy from the Jews, and so Shiites are worthy of death [according to whom?] (Al-Hassan). This hatred towards Shiites runs so deep that government scholars, such as Abdulqader Shaibat Alhamd, went on public radio proclaiming that Sunni Muslims should not “eat their [Shia] food, marry from them, or bury their dead in Muslims' graveyards”[according to whom?] (Al-Hassan). Furthermore, scholars proclaim that there is no hope for any kind of harmony amongst Shiites and Sunnis, because they are heretics and deviants.[according to whom?] Another religious scholar, Abdulla Ibn Jareen called for Jihad against Shiites, to prevent them from spreading or practicing their polytheist faith (Al-Hassan).[according to whom?]

Because this attitude is engrained from the beginning, it follows people from childhood to adulthood. This prejudice is found not only in textbooks, but also within the teachers in the classroom, who continue to pass down this idea from generation to generation (Al-Hassan).[according to whom?] Teachers who proclaim that Shiites are atheists and deserve death face no repercussions for their actions, barely even receiving punishment (Al-Hassan). [according to whom?] Even in the university setting, there is still ignorance and hatred against Shiites present. 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 (Al-Hassan). [according to whom?]

Discrimination in the Workforce[edit]

In addition to the discrimination found in schools, much discrimination occurs in the workforce as well. Shiites are prohibited from becoming teachers of religious subjects, which constitute for about half of the courses in secondary education (Al-Hassan). Furthermore, Shiites are discriminated against further in schools, and cannot even become principles (Al-Hassan). Shiite professors in universities often face harassment from students and faculty alike (Al-Hassan). Shiites are disqualified as witnesses in court, as Saudi Sunni sources cite the Shi'a practise of 'taqiyyah'- wherein it is permissible to lie in any circumstance against non-Shi'as, cannot serve as judges in ordinary court, and are banned from high-ranking government or security posts, including becoming pilots in Saudi Airlines (Business Week). Shiites are also banned from gaining admission to military academies (Human Rights Watch).


Shiites today face much discrimination both in schools and in the workforce. 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 (Human Rights Watch).


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'. Many incidences of offences by Shiites in this region specifically have been reported, most often resulting in the arrest then release of the accused Shiites. Shias and Barelvi 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 Wahhabism, So they do not allow Shias to pray near graves of Ahl al-Bayt in Jannat al Baqi.

Early 2009, several Shiites jumped into the grave of Fatima (who is daughter of Muhammad and the wife of Ali) and grabbed handfuls of sand in order to make turbahs out of them, in what was deemed 'an attack' on Jannat al-Baqi'.[15] Religious police were criticized for being late in taking action. Late 2011, a Shiite Australian citizen was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to 500 lashes and 2 years in jail; the latter sentence was later reduced.[16] Also late 2011, a prominent Shiite Canadian cleric, Usama al-Attar, was arrested on grounds that he insulted Uthman ibn Affan.[17] He was released on the same day, declaring the arrest entirely unprovoked.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Saudi Arabia's Shia press for rights
  2. ^ Council on Foreign Relations
  3. ^ Gfoeller, Michael (2008-08-23). Meeting with controversial Shi'a sheikh Nimr. WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks cable:08RIYADH1283. Archived from the original on 2012-01-23. Retrieved 2012-01-23. 
  4. ^ a b c d Beranek, Ondrej (January 2009). "Divided We Survive: A Landscape of Fragmentation in Saudi Arabia". Middle East Brief 33: 1–7. Retrieved April 15, 2012. 
  5. ^ Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2006) p. 84
  6. ^ a b c Nasr(2006) p. 236
  7. ^ Saudi Arabia: Treat Shia Equally|| 2009/09/02
  8. ^ Nasr(2006)p. 237
  9. ^ Nasr(2006) p. 237
  10. ^ Mohammad Taqi, "Saudi Arabia: the prized domino" March 10, 2011, Daily Times (Pakistan)
  11. ^ Taheri, Amir. Apartheid, Saudi Style, New York Post, May 22, 2003.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica
  14. ^ a b c d e Human Rights Watch
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^

"Saudi Arabia". Encyclopædia Britannica. 

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"Battle of Karbala' (Islamic History) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. <>.

"King Fahd Causeway (Bahrain Causeway)." SAMIRAD (Saudi Arabia Market Information Resource). Web. <>.

Meyer, Henry. "Saudi Arabia Risks Shiite Unrest in Wake of Bahrain Turmoil - Businessweek." Businessweek - Business News, Stock Market & Financial Advice. 20 Feb. 2011. Web. <>.

"Saudi Arabia -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. <>.

"Saudi Arabia Police Open Fire at Protest in Qatif." BBC. 10 Mar. 2011. Web.

"Saudi Arabia: Treat Shia Equally | Human Rights Watch." Human Rights Watch | Defending Human Rights Worldwide. 3 Sept. 2009. Web. <>.

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