The Rutherford Institute's

Handbook on Religious Liberty
Around the World

Saudi Arabia


A Brief Historical and Legal Description of Religious Liberty


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932, with the uniting of Hejaz and Nejd by King Ibn. It joined the United Nations in 1945. Led by King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the monarchy bases its government upon Sharia, or Islamic law, and advice from the Council of Ministers.1 The Kingdom has no written constitution. The King consults weekly with the Ulema, or religious advisers of the government-sanctioned interpretation of Islam, the Wahabi sect, who advise him in educational and judicial matters.2 The Ulema controls the mutawa'een, religious police, who, according to Political Risk Services, "enforce the call to prayer . . . and regulate other forms of Islamic public conduct."3

Religious law in Saudi Arabia is dominant, and the issue of religious freedom is rarely discussed there. The U.S. Department of State reports, "[f]reedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia.4 It explains, "[t]he concept of separation of church and state is foreign to Saudi society and governance. The legitimacy of the royal regime depends ... on its perceived adherence to the precepts of a puritanically conservative form of Islam."5 In addition, "[t]he legal system is based on Islamic religious law."6 It is estimated that 85% of Saudis are Sunni Muslims and 15% Shi'ite Muslims.7 However, these statistics mask the significant number of non-Muslims, including Christians, many of whom are expatriates and only temporarily reside in Saudi Arabia.

Not only does the government forbid its citizens to profess any faith other than Islam, but it also mandates the form of Islam practiced. According to the U.S. Department of State, citizens must follow the rules determined by the "Wahabi sect's interpretation of the Hanbali jurisprudential school of Islam."8 The Wahabi sect discourages actions such as the visiting by religious pilgrims of the graves of famous Muslims and the public practice of Shi'a prayer.9

Government-mandated religious homogeneity has destroyed the basis for a tolerant Saudi state. Human Rights Watch states, "Saudi citizens today have fewer civil and political rights than they had in 1926."10 The Shi'ite minority, in addition to non-Muslims who are virtually personas non gratis, faces government discrimination. In the past, the government has forbidden Shi'a from conducting public processions during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted the places where such processions can take place or where congregations can meet in major cities during other times of the year.11 The U.S. Department of State reports that "human rights problems include . . . prohibitions or severe restrictions on the freedoms of speech and press, peaceful assembly and association, and religion ... The Mutawa'een, Saudi Arabia's official proctors of proper moral behavior, and other religious zealots ... continued to harass and abuse Saudis and foreigners of both sexes."12 Human Rights Watch states that abuses are facilitated by the lack of scrutiny by an elected representative body, independent judiciary or a free press.13

The respect for human rights is declining. Human Rights Watch reports that 1994 witnessed "a new low in the dismal human rights record of the Kingdom" and that "harassment of non-Muslims and discrimination against the Shi'a continued unabated."14

Saudi Arabia is the only country which Christian Solidarity International places in the most severe category of suppression, describing it as committing "continuous very serious violations of basic religious liberties."15


Constitutional Provisions and Legislation Relating to Religious Liberty


Before March 1992, Saudi Arabia had no nationally codified law for law enforcement other than its adherence to Muslim Holy Texts. In March 1992, however, Saudi Arabia adopted the Basic System [of Government], the Provincial System and the System of the Majlis al-Shoura16. Even with the Basic System, however, the Saudi government holds that any law or decree that contradicts the Sharia, as interpreted by the Ulema, must be overthrown.

Article 1 of the Basic System expressly states that "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Arab and basic Islamic sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, and its constitution, the Holy Quran and the Prophet's Sunnah..." Article 7 states that "The rule in the Kingdom depends on the Holy Quran and the prophet's Sunnah" and Article 23 declares that "the State protects the Islamic creed, carries out its Sharia and undertakes its duty towards the Islamic call." Article 13 states that "Education aims at the implantation of the Islamic creed in new generations..."

The Kingdom, conspicuous in its refusal to ratify many international human rights agreements such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, acknowledged the existence of human rights for the first time in the Basic System. Article 26 directs that "the state shall protect human rights according to Shari'a."17 While this provision does not protect religious liberty to the extent that many human rights organizations feel is desirable (for instance, it does not ban discrimination on the basis of religious belief), it is significant that Saudi Arabia now recognizes the existence of human rights.

Saudi Arabia uses the Quran, the Islamic Bible, and the Shariah, Islamic Law, as its constitution. In Constitutions of the Countries of the World, Abdulmunim Shakir explains:

The Islamic law, Shariah, is based on five sources, the first of which, the Quran (Koran), is the book God revealed unto the prophet Muhammad. The second is the Sunnah, the words and the deeds of Muhammad complementing and explaining the teaching of the Quran. The third is the Qiyas, an analogy of the Quran and the Sunnah to new problems not specifically stated in either source. The fourth is Idjma, a consensus by the Ulama who are the learned Muslims in religious and juridical matters. The fifth is Idjtihad, the use of independent reason and enlightened judgment within the Islamic context on issues and problems which have no analogy in the Quran or the Sunnah.18

Shakir elaborates on the differences between traditional and moderate schools of Islamic interpretation. The former upholds the immutability of Islam, opposing all man-made laws, as they feel that such laws will undermine Islam.19 The latter holds that Islam and the Sharia are intended "to provide viable socio-political institutions which must fit and serve man at all times and in all places."20 Saudi Arabia's rulers, Shakir contends, are basically moderates who have been particularly adept at accommodating both traditional and moderate schools, accounting for the kingdom's political stability.21

Whether traditional or moderate, the Saudi government does not allow opposition. The Encyclopedia of Human Rights expands, "The religious law of Islam is the law of the land, and it is administered by religious courts headed by a chief judge who is also responsible for the Department of Shariah [Islamic law] affairs. There are no political parties."22

The government prohibits the practice of religions other than Islam in Saudi Arabia, upholding an injunction attributed to the Prophet Mohammed.23 The government punishes public apostasy by death, but did not execute anyone for this crime in 1994.24


Recent Reported Cases of Religious Intolerance



Because Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, the government prohibits both public and private non-Muslim religious activities. The government does not allow the existence of public non-Muslim places of worship, and it forces non-Muslims who are not citizens of Saudi Arabia to practice their religion in secret.25 Amnesty International reports there has been a marked increase in the persecution of religious minorities since the Gulf Crisis. They record that hundreds of individuals have been arrested and detained, most without charge or trial, purely for the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs, and that scores of these believers have been victims of torture, flogging and other cruel or inhuman treatment.26 The hopes raised by the passing of the 1992 Basic System have been disappointed by the Saudi government's persisting abuses of human rights.27

The building of churches is prohibited.28 Christians had to meet cautiously in private and there are numerous reports of police raids upon such meetings.29 During these raids religious materials are often confiscated. Possession of religious items frequently leads to arrest and the publication and distribution of literature which is incompatible with the Wahabi interpretation of Islam is strictly prohibited.30 Those wearing non-Muslim religious symbols in public are subject to arrest or harassment by the Mutawa'een, with government sanction.31

Persons who proselytize, form large gatherings or create large organizations are likely to be either imprisoned or expelled from the country. In January 1993, the government sentenced an Egyptian Christian guestworker to seven years in prison for "blaspheming Islam." He was accused, despite the fact that he was illiterate, of "reading sections of the Koran which fail to list Mohammed among the prophets of God."32 That same month, an Egyptian member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who had been charged with blasphemy and imprisoned since October 1992, was flogged 500 times before being released and deported.33 Two Filipino pastors were to be beheaded for blasphemy on Christmas Day in 1992.34 However the executions were finally halted following a public appeal from the President of the Philippines. In May 1993, the Mutawa'een, acting without a search warrant, raided the home of an American woman and her Filipino husband because they reportedly had a secret Bible study in their home.35 The man was jailed and later deported.36 As of November 1993, 329 Christians, mostly nationals of Asian countries, were known to have been arrested since August 1990.37

In 1994 the Mutawa'een forced their way into a house church and arrested eight of the fifty worshippers.38 The names and addresses of the other worshippers were recorded and they were warned not to attend another Christian service in Saudi Arabia.39 Bibles, hymn books, musical instruments and the day's offering were confiscated.40 Four of the arrested persons were released shortly afterwards, but four were detained for almost three months.41 They were released without sentencing or reports of beatings or molestations, although threats of such treatment were made.42



Shi'a Muslims, a religious minority in the predominantly Sunni state, endure government approved religious, social and economic discrimination. The government rarely allows the Shi'a to construct private mosques.43 Although the government offers to give the Shi'a public funds for the construction of state-supported mosques, the Shi'a usually refuse such offers as they would be prohibited from displaying Shi'a motifs in the mosques.44 The religious and political activities of Shi'a Muslims are closely monitored and are mainly prohibited.45 Shi'a Muslims are banned from performing rituals which are particular to their faith, and materials relating to non-Wahabi worship are prohibited.46 A number of fatwas which denigrate the Shi'a faith have been issued by the Ulema.47 There have been several reports of attempted forcible conversions of Shi'a Muslims to Wahabi Islam.48


Human Rights Watch reports that "[f]logging, amputations and beheading are [used] by the Saudi legal system for the punishment of . . . the expression of critical views of the government or the making of controversial statements on religious matters."49 In September 1991, the Ministry of the Interior authorized the beheading of Sadeq Abdel-Karim Mal-Al-lah, a Shi'a, in response to accusations that he "slander[ed] God, His Prophet and the Holy Quran." In January 1992, the Directorate of General Investigations arrested two university students after they participated in a debate in which they "disputed Wahabi views regarding the Shi'a faith."50 In October, the government arrested three other Shi'a for "propagating religious views contrary" to the officially accepted version of Islam.51 The government released one of the three, but held the other two at the end of 1992.52 At the end of 1993, the government responded to demands by the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights and released all known Shi'a Muslim prisoners.53

In addition to religious discrimination, the government also places economic and social restrictions on the Shi'a. It strongly discourages Shi'a from holding industrial jobs or jobs related to national security.54 It also limits Shi'a access to social services.55 Since the Iranian Revolution, the government limits Shi'a travel abroad.56

Since 1990, the government has moderated its policy regarding religion toward the Shi'a. In 1990, it reversed its prohibition of Shi'a public processions. It now allows marches on Ashura, a Shi'a holiday, if such marches occur without banners or public self-flagellation.57 King Fahd has even invited Shi'a residents abroad to return home, pardoning their past political activities.58



Saudi Arabia, home of Mecca, has faced difficulties with the 150,000 Muslim pilgrims that travel from Iran every year. The pilgrims have severely damaged Muslim holy places in past years.59 In 1988, Saudi Arabia limited the number of Iranians it would allow to enter Mecca, observing the Iranian government's positions that Muslims of the Baha'i sect are not true Muslims and thus not eligible to enter Saudi Arabia.60




1. "Sources of Power." Political Risk Services (July 1, 1993): LEXIS 9.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1994): 1279.

5. Ibid, 1273.

6. Ibid, 1274.

7. Edward H. Lawson, ed., The Encyclopedia of Human Rights (New York: Taylor & Francis, Inc., 1991): 1324.

8. U.S. Department of State (1993): 1279.

9. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights for 1994 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1995): 170.


10. Human Rights Watch 1993: The Events of 1992 (New York: Human Rights Watch, Inc., 1993): 334.

11. U.S. Department of State (1993): 1279.

12. ibid, 1274.

13. Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1995 (New York: Human Rights Watch, Inc., 1995): 301.

14. ibid, 299-300.

15. Christian Solidarity International, Suppression of Religious Liberty around the World, (Geneva: Christian Solidarity International, 1994).

16. Human Rights Watch 1993, 331.

17. ibid, 331.

18. Abdulmunim Shakir, "Saudi Arabia," in Albert P. Blaustein and Gisbert H. Flanz, eds., Constitutions of the Countries of the World (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1988): 1.

19. ibid, 1-2.

20. ibid, 2.

21. ibid.

22. Lawson, 1324.

23. U.S. Department of State (1994): 1169.

24. U.S. Department of State (1994): 1170.

25. Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia, Religious Intolerance: The arrest, detention and torture of Christian worshippers and Shiá Muslims (New York Amnesty International U.S.A., 1993): 8.

26. ibid, 1.

27. Human Rights Watch 1995, 300.

28. Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia, Religious Intolerance: The arrest, detention and torture of Christian Worshippers and Shia´ Muslims, 8.

29. ibid.

30. ibid.

31. U.S. Department of State (1993): 1279.

32. "Saudi Arabia." News Network International: Special Edition (January 29, 1993): 5.

33. Amnesty International Report 1994 (Amnesty International Publications: London, 1994).


34. Amnesty International, Saudia Arabia, Religious Intolerance: The arrest, detention and torture of Christian worshippers and Shi'a Muslims, 11.

35. U.S. Department of State (1993): 1279.

36. ibid.

37. "Arrests Increase After Gulf War." Christianity Today,Vol. 37, No. 14 (November 23, 1993): 52 and

Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia, Religious Intolerance: The arrest, detention and torture of Christian worshippers and Shi'a Muslims, 10.

38. Barbara Baker, "Four Filipino Christians Remain in Custody after Church Raid." News Network International (October 4, 1994): 17.

39. ibid.

40. ibid.

41. ibid, 18.

42. Barbara Baker, "Filipino Christian Describes Riyadh Imprisonment." News Network International (December 21, 1994): 13.

43. U.S. Department of State (1994): 1170.

44. U.S. Department of State (1993): 1279.

45. Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia, Religious Intolerance: The arrest, detention and torture of Christian worshippers and Shi'a Muslims, 13.

46. ibid.

47. ibid.

48. Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia, Religious Intolerance: The arrest, detention and torture of Christian worshippers and Shi'a Muslims, 13-14.

49. Human Rights Watch 1993, 332-333.

50. ibid, 333.

51. ibid.

52. ibid.

53. ibid.

54. U.S. Department of State (1993): 1172.

55. ibid.

56. ibid, 1282.


57. U.S. Department of State (1994): 1170.

58. U.S. Department of State (1993): 1279.

59. Lawson, 1324.

60. ibid.

Source: Handbook on Religious Liberty Around the World, Pedro C. Moreno, Editor. Charlottesville, VA: The Rutherford Institute. This report is reprinted here by special arrangement with the Rutherford Institute and may not be reproduced or mirrored on another webside without written permission of the Rutherford Institute.

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