Religion in Saudi Arabia

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and its law requires that all citizens should 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]

Freedom of religion

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocracy. Religious minorities do not have the right to practice their religion. Non-Muslim propagation is banned, and conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death as apostasy.[5] Proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal. In late 2014 a law was promulgated calling for the death penalty for anyone bringing into the country "publications that have a prejudice to any other religious beliefs other than Islam" (thought to include non-Muslim religious books).[6][7][8]

Religious groups


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, 85-95% of Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims, 10-15% are Shia.[9] (More than 30% of the population is made up of foreign workers[9] who are predominantly but not entirely Muslim.) It is unknown how many Ahmadi Muslims there are in the country.[10] The 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.[11][12]


The large number of foreign workers living in Saudi Arabia (8 million expatriates out of a total population of 27 million[13]) includes non-Muslims.

For non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-religious, "freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law" and Saudi "government policies continued to place severe restrictions on religious freedom", according to the 2013 International Religious Freedom Report of the US State Department.[14]

According to Human Rights Watch, the Shia Muslim minority face systematic discrimination from the Saudi government in education, the justice system and especially religious freedom.[15] Shias also face discrimination in employment and restrictions are imposed on the public celebration of Shia festivals such as Ashura and on the Shia taking part in communal public worship.[16][17]

As no faith other than Islam is permitted to be practiced, no churches, temples, or other non-Muslim houses of worship are permitted in the country although there are nearly a million Christians as well as Hindus and Buddhists—nearly all foreign workers—in Saudi Arabia.[18][19] Private prayer services are suppressed and the Saudi religious police reportedly regularly search the homes of Christians.[18] Foreign workers are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter.[18] In 2007, Human Rights Watch requested that King Abdullah stop a campaign to round up and deport foreign followers of the Ahmadiyya faith.[20]

Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal,[19] and conversion by Muslims to another religion (apostasy) carries the death penalty, (although there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years).[19] Religious inequality extends to compensation awards in court cases. Once fault is determined, a Muslim receives all of the amount of compensation determined, a Jew or Christian half, and all others a sixteenth.[18] Saudi Arabia has officially identified atheists as terrorists.[21] Saudis or foreign residents who call "into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based" may be subject to as much as 20 years in prison.[22]

Policy of exclusion

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 Muhammad 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.[23]

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.[24]


According to one estimate there are about 1,000,000 Christians in Saudi Arabia, almost all foreign workers.[25] 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.[26] 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."[27]


As of 2001, there were an estimated 1,500,000 Indian nationals in Saudi Arabia,[28] 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.[29][30]


Disbelief in God is a capital offense in the kingdom.[31] Traditionally, influential conservative clerics have used the label ‘atheist’ to apply not to those who profess to believe that God does not exist, but to "those who question their strict interpretations of Islamic scriptures or express doubts about" Wahhabism.[31] Examples of those so condemned (but not executed) are

In February/March 2014, a series of new anti-terrorism laws were decreed. Article 1 of the law also conflated atheism and religious dissent, outlawing "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".[34][35]

According to "anecdotal, but persistent" evidence, since sometime around 2010, the number of atheists in the kingdom has been growing.[31] According to some estimates, Saudi Arabia is claimed to have 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.[36][37] News agencies such as Alhurra,[38] Saurress[39] and the American performance-management consulting company Gallup[40] 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.[41] According to some, the growth of atheism and irreligion in the kingdom, may explain why the Saudi government issued an edict equating atheism to terrorism and subjecting atheists to punishments set for terrorism, including execution.[42][43][44]

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.[45] 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.[46]


  1. 1 2 "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. Sheen J. Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report. (Routledge, 1997) p.452.
  6. "Saudi Arabia imposes death sentence for Bible smuggling". deathpenaltynews. November 30, 2014. Retrieved 20 May 2015.
  7. "Saudi Arabia's New Law Imposes Death Sentence for Bible Smugglers?". Christian Post. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  9. 1 2 "The World Factbook". 2012. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
  10. "Saudi Arabia: 2 Years Behind Bars on Apostasy Accusation". Human Rights Watch. May 15, 2014. Retrieved June 2, 2014.
  11. (Sir Richard Burton in 1853) The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian world| By Dane KENNEDY, Dane Keith Kennedy| Harvard University Press|
  12. (Ludovico di Barthema in 1503) The Arabian Nights: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1001 Nights ...) edited by Richard F. Burton
  13. "New plan to nab illegals revealed". Arab News. 16 April 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  14. "Saudi Arabia: International Religious Freedom Report 2013". U.S. State Department. 17 November 2013. Retrieved 14 October 2014.
  15. Human Rights Watch (2009). Denied dignity: systematic discrimination and hostility toward Saudi Shia citizens. p. 1. ISBN 1-56432-535-0.
  16. Human Rights Watch (2009). Denied dignity: systematic discrimination and hostility toward Saudi Shia citizens. pp. 2, 8–10. ISBN 1-56432-535-0.
  17. Islamic Political Culture, Democracy, and Human Rights: A Comparative Study, p 93 Daniel E. Price – 1999
  18. 1 2 3 4 Owen, Richard (17 March 2008). "Saudi Arabia extends hand of friendship to Pope". The Times. London. Retrieved 27 July 2011.
  19. 1 2 3 "Saudi Arabia: International Religious Freedom Report 2010". U.S. State Department. 17 November 2010. Retrieved 27 July 2011.
  20. "Saudi Arabia: 2 Years Behind Bars on Apostasy Accusation". Human Rights Watch. May 15, 2014. Retrieved June 4, 2014.
  21. , Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents, The Independent, 04 March 2014
  22. , Saudi Arabia declares atheists terrorists under new laws targeting citizens who 'call for secular thought in any form', Main Online, 01 April 2014
  23. Lewis, Bernard (November–December 1998). "License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin's Declaration of Jihad". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
  24. "Foreign travel advice. Saudi Arabia.Local laws and customs". Gov.UK. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
  25. House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 235.
  26. Shea, Nina (February 8, 2012). "Persecuted for Praying to God in Saudi Arabia". National Review. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
  27. "Catholic priest arrested and expelled from Riyadh", Asia News, Italy, 10 April 2006.
  28. Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora. Countries of the Gulf Region
  29. 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)
  30. Hindus in the Middle East| BY: Gautam Raja(June 2001) Belief Net
  31. 1 2 3 4 Murphy, Caryle (June 12, 2014). "Atheism explodes in Saudi Arabia, despite state-enforced ban". GlobalPost. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  32. Jamjoom, Mohammed (May 7, 2014). "Saudi activist sentenced to 10 years, 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam". CNN International. Retrieved 8 May 2014.
  33. Jamjoom, Mohammed; Payne, Ed (1 August 2013). "Saudi activist receives 7-year sentence, 600 lashes for insulting Islam". CNN International. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  34. Withnall, Adam (1 April 2014). "Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents". The Independent. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  35. "Saudi Arabia: New Terrorism Regulations Assault Rights". Human Rights Watch. March 20, 2014. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  36. el-Sayyed, Alaaeddin الإلحاد في السعودية هو الأعلى عربيًّا. (in Arabic). Retrieved September 5, 2014.
  37. al-Sarami, Nasser الإلحاد في السعودية.. هل يعقل هذا..؟! . Al Arabiya. June 4, 2013. Retrieved September 5, 2014.
  38. (in Arabic) نسبة الملحدين في السعودية تتراوح بين 5 و 9 بالمئة. Alhurra. April 9, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  39. "الإلحاد معنا" (in Arabic). Sauress. April 14, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014
  40. "سعورس : فرانس 24: نسبة الإلحاد مرتفعة في السعودية والسلطات تعتبره إرهابا". سعورس. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  41. Al-Durais, Khalid Mansoor هل اقترب عدد الملحدين السعوديين من «المليون»؟. (in Arabic) August 14, 2014. Retrieved September 5, 2014
  42. نسبة الإلحاد مرتفعة في السعودية والسلطات تعتبره إرهابا (in Arabic). France 24. April 7, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014/
  43. "The rise of atheism in Saudi Arabia, where talking about atheism is illegal". Global Post. June 10, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014
  44. GuardianLv. April 2, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  45. "Call to arrest atheist bloggers". Gulf News. August 17, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  46. " السعودية: إغلاق 850 موقعاً إلحادياً خلال 16 شهراً" (in Arabic). Al-Seyassah August 14, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
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