Published on: Monday, 28 Rajab 1422 (15 October 2001)
Religious Freedom in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - Focus on Citizens
By Saudi Institute
Saudi Arabia this year witnessed many acts of religious intolerance by the government and several religious figures. The most prominent event was the attack on the main Ismaili mosque in the southern city of Najran, the closure of several Shia mosques and communty halls (husayniahs), the arrest of several Shia clerics, and the proliferation of hateful religious web sites that promote sectarian hatred. This report discusses the situation of Sunni and Shia religious minorities in Saudi Arabia and the limitations placed by the government on the free expression and exercise of their beliefs.
I. Minorities, an Overview:
Saudi Arabia has several religious minorities. The Hanbali sect, the official sect endorsed by the state, is dominant only in the Central region. The Shafey, Maliki and Hanafi sects dominate in the Western region of the country. The Shia Jafaris dominate the Eastern region with some Shafeis and Hanbalis. The Southern region has a mix of Shia Ismailis, Shia Zaidis and some Hanbalis.
The Official Hanbali Sect:
This sect is probably the largest of all sects in the country and the most powerful. It is the official sect of the state and the religious institution. Hanbalis are concentrated in the Central Province (Najd) and number in the millions. The Mufti and all judges are always selected among Hanbali sect. Although the government endorses the sect, it is subject to a tighter official control than any other sect.
1. The Shafey Sect:
The Shafey sect is one of the four major schools in Sunni Islam. Shafeis were the numerical majority in the kingdom until few decades ago. They constitute the majority in the Western Province (Hijaz). Their numbers are believed to be in the millions (1).
Shafey religious institutions have been slowly wiped out by the Najdi-dominated Hanbali sect. In the past, renowned Shafey clerics such as Zaini Dahlan attracted followers from around the Muslim world (2). Nowadays Hanbali zealots refer to Shafeis as Sufis. Sufism is banned in the country. Their numbers, especially in the Eastern province, have been diminished over the past years. Shafeis are not allowed to lead prayers in Makkah and Madina as they historically were. One of the Shafey prominent figures is the former information minister Dr. Mohamed Abdu Yamani.
The Maliki Sect:
Like Shafeis and Hanafis, they are concentrated in Hijaz especially in Makkah, where their leader Shaikh Mohamed Alawi AlMaliki resides. They also face attacks from Hanbali religious zealots. Several government-financed books were written by Hanbali clerics to attack Shaikh AlMaliki accusing him of Sufism and apostasy. Algerian-born Shaikh Abu Baker AlJazairi, who worked as a speaker at the Prophet's mosque and a teacher at the Islamic University in Madina, attacked Shaikh AlMaliki in several speeches and in at least one book (3). Shaikh Abdullah Bin Manee, a high ranking judge and a member of the Council of Senior Ulma, wrote a book calling AlMaliki an apostate and a religouse deviant. The late Grand Mufti, Shaikh AbdulAziz Bin Baz, wrote the book's forward (4).
When AlMaliki attempted to teach at the Grand Mosque in Makkah like his father and grandfather, the Council of Senior Ulma barred him (5). He doesn't have a mosque to pray and has to publish his books abroad, mainly in Egypt. Malikis are not allowed to lead prayers or give sermons in the Grand Mosque or the Prophet's Mosque in Madina as they historically were. One of the Maliki prominent figures is the former oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani.
3. The Hanafi Sect:
Hanafis are the smallest of the Sunni sects, and their religious institutions don't exist anymore. Because they share geographical and religious proximity to Shafey and Maliki sects, they tend to depend on them for religious instruction. There are no known Hanafi clerics.
1. Ismaili Sect
Shia Ismailis are concentrated in the Southern region of Najran. Almost the entire Yam tribe is Ismaili. Their present leader, known also as AlDayee, is Shaikh Hussain Bin Ismail AlMakrami. Their numbers vary from 200,000 to one million according to different sources. Discrimination against them has increased in the past few years after the oponitemnt of the current governor, Prince Mishaal Bin Saud (6). Ismailis are prevented from using their distinctive prayer call anywhere, including in their own mosques.
2. Jafari Sect:
Shia Jafaris constitute the majority in the Eastern Province. They also have big communities in Madina and Wadi Fatima and smaller communities in Jeddah and Riyadh. Their number is a matter of dispute, and range from 900,000 to 2 million. They are probably the most active minority in the country struggling with the government for their rights. Their situation receives most of the attention given to minorities in the Kingdom.
3. Zaidi Sect
They are concentrated in the southern cities of Asir, Najran, Jeddah and Yunbo. There are no known Zaidi mosques or any organized religious institutions; Saudi Zaidis rely on Yemeni Zaidis for spiritual guidance. Their number is not known and they tend to hide their faith in Sunni dominated cities. The government confiscated the Zaidi mosque in Najran three years ago, and installed a Hanbali Imam to lead prayers in it.
Extreme anti-Shia feelings and discrimination in predominantly -Sunni cities compels many Shia of all sects to hide their faith. The native Najdi Shia community in Riyadh is not known to residents of the city. I had the chance to meet a famous artist from that community.
Many Shia from Madina Asir and Najran live in Jeddah and other cities and don't declare their faith. This environment led to some conversions to the Sunni sect. There were also many reports of Sunnis converting to Shiasm secretly (7). A member of the royal family has secretly adopted Shiasm recently (8).
II. Government Control of Religious Institutions
The country has 37,850 mosques, according to the ministry of Endowments. The government builds most mosques. Mosques built by private citizens must be handed over to government control. The government has also financed the construction of over 1600 mosques around the world, including the United States (9).
Shia Ismailis, Jafaris, and Zaidis are not allowed to build mosques. Most of their existing mosques date back to the Turkish rule and are privately constructed. There are no Zaidi mosques. There are also no exclusively Shafey or Maliki mosques.
The government appoints the Imams in all Sunni mosques and controls most of their activities. It's believed that all sermons (kutbah) in Sunni mosques come from the ministry of Islamic affairs. The sermons in the two holy mosques (AlHaramain ASharefain) in Makkah and Madina also must be pre-approved by the Ministry of Islamic affairs (10).
Shaikh Saud AlShuraim, one of the Grand Mosque speakers, was suspended from delivering sermons after he criticized efforts to broaden tourism in the country. Also, Imams in Sunni mosques are obliged to pray for the king (11). This year a ban was enforced on Qonoot, lifting the hands during prayers, after many Imams were praying for Chechen victory against Russia.
Shia Jafaris in Madina, a substantial minority in the city, have no mosques. The government destroyed their mosque and husayniah (community center) decades ago. They maintain underground mosque(s)in the forest outside the city or pray in the basements of private homes (12).
Imam AlHussain mosque in AlBattalia in the Eastern Province was shut down in April. It's believed the mosque was built using a home permit. Most Shia mosques built since the foundation of Saudi Arabia were built as homes but slowly converted to mosques (13).
Shia Ismaili mosques are closed by police on Eid day whenever the Ismaili Eid differs from the government Eid. Ismailis use different methods than the official religious institution to determine Eid.
Husayniah is a Shia religious and social institution that performs the function of a community center. Religious sermons, weddings and funerals are usually held at husayniahs. They are illegal in the country and are usually built using home permits.
This year, seven husayniahs were closed in AlAhsa region during Muhharam commemorations. They include AlQaim and AlMojtaba in AlMubaraz, AlRassol Al-Adam in AlBatalia, AlMortada and Azzahhra in AlGarn, and AlAskari in AlAndalus (14). There were also several closures of home-based sermons in AlAhsa and AlJesh, and several homeowners were jailed for several months for holding these sermons at their homes. One example is Naser AlMorey from AlAhsa.
Wedding Halls and the Qudayh Tragedy
Wedding halls are widespread in Saudi cities and towns with one exception, Qateef city and the surrounding Shia areas. Also, Qateef strangely dosen't have any hotels. This is the result of a ban imposed by the minister of interior Prince Naif over 15 years ago to prevent Shia from using the halls to organize religious and communal gatherings, such as weddings.
The increasing population and dwindling number of husayniahs made large tents the only option available for wedding parties. This resulted in the largest tragedy in Saudi Arabia in the past several years, the tragedy of Qudayh.
On 28 July 1999, fire engulfed a wedding tent killing 76 women and children and injuring dozens at Qudayh city in Qateef region (15). Prince Mohamed Bin Fahd, the governor of the province who lives 20 minutes away did not visit the site of the tragedy or the families of the victims, as common around the world. In contrast, Prince Naïf visited the survivors and the site of an accidental explosion near Jeddah that killed four children on 29 July 2000(16). On the other hand, Crown Prince Abdullah sent a message of condolences to the families of the Qudayh victims. It was reported that he donated a plot of land to build the first wedding hall in Qateef.
The country had many shrines at the beginning of the 20th century, but most if not all have been demolished since the foundation of Saudi Arabia.
In 1925, government forces demolished the Baqee cemetery in Madina, which holds the graves of many historical Islamic figures and is holy to Shafey, Maliki and Shia sects. Late King Hussain visited the Baqee cemetery during his last trip to the city. Also, several Islamic sites were destroyed including the houses of Prophet Mohamed in Madina. In Makkah the shrine of the Prophet's first wife was also demolished.
Several columns in the Grand Mosque dating back to the 7th century were also removed. The government demolished the shrine of Prophet Elisha in AlAwjam west of Qateef decades ago.
Several clerics from various minority sects remain in jail. The longest held is Shaikh Saeed AlZuair, a Hanbali cleric, who is imprisoned at AlHair maximum-security prison outside of Riyadh. He was arrested six years ago.
Shaikh AbdulLatif Mohamed Ali, Shaikh Saeed AlBahaar, and Shaikh Habeeb Hamdah among other Shia clerics from the Eastern Province have been in jail four years without charge.
Shaikah Mohamed AlKhayat, an Ismaili cleric was arrested while teaching in AlMansorah mosque in Najran 23 April 2000, and accused of sorcery. His arrest triggered clashes between the Ismaili community and security forces that left at least six dead and 600 jailed. A report suggested that Shaikh AlKhayat was forced into confessing on tape to sorcery after his arrest (17).
Shaikh Hassan AlKhawildi, 40, a well-known Shia cleric from Safwa, was suspended in May after mentioning in his sermon the reprimand of some Shia women teachers who wore black to school on Ashura day. Traditionally, Shia women wear black during the months of Muhharam and Safar.
Other clerics who remain on suspension are Shaikh Ayed AlQarni, a Hanbali cleric from Riyadh who has been barred for several years. Shaikh Ali AbdulKarim AlAwwa, a Shia cleric from Awamia has been barred from any religious activities for more than 10 years. Also Shaikh Jafar AlMobarak from Safwa was banned from leading prayers or teaching religion to children and became a fisherman three years ago after his release from prison (18).
On 9 July 2000, Shaikh Safar AlHawali and Naser AlOmar, both Hanbalis, were allowed to start teaching purely religious texts again. Both were released from prison last year after five years of imprisonment for their political opinions. Naser AlOmar is the author of the anti-Shia memo (Waqe AlRafidah fe Belad Attawheed), the Rejectionists in the Land of Unitarianism. The memo was written in 1992 to the Council of Senior Ulma calling on the government to destroy all Shia husayniahs, arrest Shia clerics, and fire all Shia government employees(19).
Government Control of Education and Culture
The General Directory for Woman's Education is one of the most anti-Shia institutions in the country. Shia women teachers are not allowed to teach religious subjects or hold positions such as, school principals, guidance counselors, and university professors. The General Directory for Women's Education has rejected all Shia applications to build private girls schools.
Ahmed Al-Zahrani, a Sunni teacher at Yarmook boy elementary school in Safwa told Shia 5th and 6th graders that they worship stones instead of God. Parents called the principal but the teacher was not admonished. In April 2000, the department of education in the Shia-dominated Eastern Province nominated 47 guidance counselors, none where Shia.
The government prevents the teaching of non-Hanbali religious texts in schools and universities. Shafey, Maliki and Shia views are not represented in religious education. Non-Hanbali clerics are not allowed to teach their faith even in private. Most Shia Jafari clerics were educated abroad in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Syed Munaeer AlKhabaz, a Shia cleric from Qateef was arrested December 1999 and released after his return from Iran where he was studying (20).
There are eight universities in the country, three of which are predominantly religious. Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University in Riyadh and Islamic University in Madina refuse to admit Shia Jafari or Ismaili students or hire Shia faculty or staff. Naser AlQafari wrote his doctorate thesis at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud University on Shia Jafaris, and referred to them using the derogatory term Rafidah (rejectionists of religion). The thesis was later published using government funds (21).
The government controls religious education in public and private schools from first grade through university. All religious and history curriculums are written according to the Wahhabi interpretation of the Hanbali sect. No other Sunni or Shia opinions are infused in those texts. In the past years, textbooks referred to many religious practices by Shia, Shafeis and Malikis, such as celebrating the birthday of the Prophet, as innovation in religion (bedah). There are new textbooks for the coming school year but not yet available for our review.
King Endowment and Prizes:
King Fahd donates money to Hanbali religious institutions and mosques only. The king donated several million dollars this year to several religious projects and institutions inside and outside the country, like a religious university in Pakistan. There is no evidence of the king giving mone to Shafey, Maliki or Shia religious institutions or projects ever. (22)
The most prestigious prize in the country is the King Faisal Prize, which is awarded annually in several categories like service to Islam, medicine and literature. It has been awarded since 1979 to over 110 people from 31 countries, including the United States. There were no Shia winners ever in any category (23). There was only one Shia nominee, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the famed Islamic philosopher and professor at George Washington University in USA. He was notified of winning the prize in 1979 but later the prize was withdrawn with no explanation.
Prince Mohamed Bin Fahd, the governor of the Eastern Province awarded Dr. Manea Al-Jehani his first prize for charitable work. Dr. Al-Jehani is the head of World Muslim Youth Association (WAMY) and a member of the consultative council. WAMY publishes anti-Shia books that claim Shiasm to be a Jewish conspiracy against Islam. These books are published in several languages and distributed for free. (24) WAMY is financed by government funds and maintains an office in Washington.
The interior ministry controls citizen's names through the civil record administration. Names that are not suitable to the official religious institution are banned.
Many Shia citizens were forced to change their names, especially in the past few years. Names used exclusively by Shia, such as AbdulNabi, AbdulRassol, AbdulHussain, are all banned. Saudi Media also don't use these names such as the name of famouse Kuwaiti comedian AbdulHussain AbdulReda, whos named is changed to Hussain Redah.
In 1992 a new directive was issued restricting more names. This directive banned names derived from the Koran such as Iman and Sura and are commonly used by Shafey, Maliki, and Shia citizens (25).
Descendents of the Prophet Mohamed, commonly referred to as Sada or Ashraaf are banned from using their titles in identification cards or official documents. All neighboring countries allow them usage of these titles.
There is a ban on importing religious books that are not accepted by the official religious institution. Shia and Sufi religious books are banned and confiscated upon arrival. Fines, lashes or prison are possible punishments. Several Shia youths were arrested in Awamia city for selling Shia books from their homes. Ahmed AlHamad was identified among the detainees
Libraries of Saudi universities do not contain Shia books or books by Maliki clerics, like Shaikh Mohamed Alawi AlMaliki. He publishes his books secretly in the country or in Egypt or Lebanon, and distributes them himself because bookstores cannot legally sell them.
In contrast, anti-Shia books are available in the country and are sold legally and freely. Some are even printed by government institutions and distributed for free. All Saudi libraries stock anti-Shia books. Shaikh Hassan AlSaffar, a leading Shia cleric, was able to publish only one book. He also maintains a web site (26).
Religious songs applauding the Prophet Mohamed (Madeeh) and commonly used by Malikis and Shafeis in the Western Province and Egypt are banned. The family of the late famous Saudi singer Talal AlMadah worked in religious singing. Shia religious songs used during commemorations and known as Noha or Aza are also banned. There were many arrests of religious singers in the Eastern Province (Shayaleen) this year. The vice-governor Prince Saud Bin Naïf reportedly ordered these administrative arrests that lasted between two to six months (27).
The government recognizes only two holidays, Eid AlFitr (after Ramadan) and Eid Aladha (After Haj). Other religious holidays like Prophet Mohamed's birthday, celebrated by Shafey, Maliki and Shia sects are not allowed nor acknowledged by local media (28). Hijazi citizens celebrate the birthday of Prophet Mohamed (Mawled) in secret.
Shia holidays like Ashura and others commemorating the death of Prophet Mohamed, his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali are all officially banned. Skipping work or school to attend religious activities can lead to discipline or termination. Shia teachers are not allowed to take the day off work during Shia religious holidays. In Safwa, several teachers at the Fourth Middle School for girls (AlMatwasta AlRabiah) were reprimanded by the principal for wearing black and sent home to change (29) Also several boys were beaten by a teacher in Deraar Elementary School in Safwa, and were sent home to change. (30)
Ismailis are prevented from attending Eid prayers when their Eid day differs from the state-declared days. Police cars in Najran prevent the opining of any Ismaili mosques if the official Eid day was before or after the official Eid day. Shia Ismailis and Jafaris independently decide their own Eid days. Ismailis use astronomical calculations to determine their Eid day, while the official religious institution use moon sighting to decide the Eid.
Also banned is the traditional festivity known as (Grayqaan) and celebrated by both Shia and Sunnis in all Gulf countries. During the festival children knock on doors and collect treats while singing traditional songs and wearing traditional clothes.
King Abdul Aziz City for Science Technology regulates Internet access in the country, and blocks web sites for moral, political and religious reasons. Numerous religious Shia sites are blocked while anti-Shia sites propagating the murder and expulsion of Shia citizens are freely accessible. Such sites like (sahab.net and muslm.net) are full of derogatory terms that are used against Shia by some Hanbali religious zealots, such as Rafidah, (Rejectionist).
They also propagate accusations that Shiasm is a Jewish conspiracy, and that Shia hold sexual parties in husayniahs during Ashura commemorations.
Following a fatwa by the Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz AlShaikh permitting hacking "suspicious" web sites, a flurry of hackers attacked and disabled many Shia sites. (31) This has been referred to as "Cyber Jihad."
Examples of Shia sites hacked by Hanbali zealots:
Examples of blocked Shia sites:
Examples of sites promoting sectarian hatred which are accessible from the country:
IV. Discriminatory Laws and Legal Practices
Although Shia are a minority in the country, over 95% of prisoners held for political or religious reasons are Shia. The majority of those prisoners are Shia Ismailis, 500, followed by Shia Jafaris, 85. There are four Shia prisoners who have been missing since 1996. Several released Shia prisoners reported that belonging to the Shia sect was among the charges they faced. During interrogations, Shia and Sunni differences were discussed and prisoners were asked to become Sunni in exchange for reduced charges and sentences. Imprisoned clerics were asked to stop religious activities and seek other business.
Shaikh Jafar AlMobarak who was released in 1997 abandoned his religious role and became a fisherman due to repeated imprisonment. Discrimination against Shia was also obvious in prison. A former Shia prisoner said, "Sunni political prisoners were treated like guests and were not tortured, unlike Shia" (32).
All judges in the country are graduates of religious institutions like Imam Mohamed Bin Saud, and are Hanbalis. There are no Maliki, Shafey or Shia judges in the country. Judge Fuad AlMajid in Qateef, who sentenced Sadiq Mallallah to death for apostasy in 1993 following an argument remains in his position (33). The head of Najran court, Mohamed AlAskari, was reportedly behind the attack on AlMansorah Ismaili mosque on April 23. He was visited at his home by Prince Naïf, the interior minister in June. (34). The judge of Sharoorah city near Najran refused to approve marriage licenses for several Ismaili men to Sunni girls.
Sources estimate that over 6000 Shia in the Eastern Province and Madina are banned from leaving the country. Passports are seized without judicial process. Reasons for seizure vary from traveling to Iran to unknown causes, such as the case of Fatima AlJarash from Qateef. Numerous children were included in travel bans. Several hundred people got their passports back this year, again for unknown reasons (35).
On April 23, 2000, Najran witnessed the most violent attack on a religious minority this year. According to several Ismaili witnesses and news reports the incident started with an attack by the religious and secret police (Mabahith) supported by the religious police (Hay'a) on AlMansoorah mosque, the main Ismaili mosque in the city.
The attack was made to arrest Shaikh Mohamed AlKhayat, an Ismaili cleric from Yemen who was teaching some Ismaili citizens at the mosque. An exchange of fire occurred in front of the Holiday Inn after the local governor, Prince Mishael Bin Saud, refused to meet with the protesters who were demanding the release of Shaikh AlKhayat(36).
Four Ismaili citizens and two soldiers died in the clashes that lasted 30 hours. An army unit was deployed 10 hours after the incident and withdrew five days later. A teenage boy, Ibn Shqaih, and a deaf man, Ibn Natash were identified among the victims. Over 600 Ismailis were arrested following the clashes and 500 remain in jail (37).
In another incident, the body of Shia prayer caller Ali AlMalblab, 70, was returned to his family and buried one year after his death. AlMalblab was killed by religious police inside their headquarters November 1998 in AlJaffer (Eastern Province). His family wrote to Prince Naïf and Crown Prince Abdullah and got no response or compensation. The killers of AlMalblab were transferred to AlOyoon headquarters as punishment for the killing.
It seems that collective punishment is reserved to religious minorities and not used against tribal or regional groups. For example, hundreds of Shia Ismailis were demoted, fired and transferred from Najran after the clashes of April. At least 70 Ismaili teachers were transferred from Najran to the Northern Province August 9, 2000. No Ismaili students were accepted at military colleges this year, unlike the past years (38). Similary collective puishment isused against the Shia Jafaris.
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