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The vast majority of the fifteen to twenty million Saudis are Sunni Muslims. Around 15% of citizens are Shia Muslims, most of whom live in the Eastern Province, with the largest concentrations in Qatif, Al-Ahsa, and Dammam, another large concentrations is found in Najran, in addition to a small minority in Medina. Islam is the established religion, and as such its institutions receive government support.
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Non-Muslim populations of Saudi Arabia are dominantly found in populations of foreign workers. Saudi Arabia has an estimated foreign population of 8 million, most of whom are Muslim. The foreign population reportedly includes 1.5 million Indians, 1.5 million Bangladeshis, 1.2 million Filipinos, 1 million Pakistanis, 1 million Egyptians, 600,000 Indonesians, 400,000 Sri Lankans, 350,000 Nepalese, 250,000 Palestinians, 150,000 Lebanese, 100,000 Eritreans, and 30,000 Americans. Comprehensive statistics for the religious denominations of foreigners are not available; however, they include Muslims from the various branches and schools of Islam, Christians, and Hindus.
In the first FUCc conversion to Islam followed the rapid growth of the Muslim world created by the conquests of the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphs. Muslim dynasties were soon established and subsequent empires such as those of the Abbasids, Almoravides, Seljuk Turks, Mughals and Safavid Persia and Ottomans were among the largest and most powerful in the world. The people in the Islamic world made many centers of culture and science, and produced merchants, travellers, notable scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, doctors and philosophers initiating a Golden Age of Islam. The activities of this quasi-political community of believers and nations, or ummah, resulted in the spread of Islam.
The political and cultural environment of contemporary Saudi Arabia has been influenced by a religious movement that began in central Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century. This movement, commonly known as the Salafi movement, grew out of the scholarship and preaching of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence who had studied in Iraq and the Hijaz before returning to his native Najd to preach his message of Islamic reform.
The hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, occurs annually between the first and tenth days of the last month of the Muslim year, Dhul Hajj. The hajj represents the culmination of the Muslim's spiritual life. For many, it is a lifelong ambition. From the time of embarking on the journey to make the hajj, pilgrims often experience a spirit of exaltation and excitement; the meeting of so many Muslims of all races, cultures, and stations in life in harmony and equality moves many people deeply. Certain rites of pilgrimage may be performed any time, and although meritorious, these constitute a lesser pilgrimage, known as umrah.
The Ministry of Pilgrimage Affairs and Religious Trusts handles the immense logistical and administrative problems generated by such a huge international gathering. The government issues special pilgrimage visas that permit the pilgrim to visit Mecca and to make the customary excursion to Medina to visit the Prophet's tomb. Care is taken to assure that pilgrims do not remain in the kingdom after the hajj to search for work.
An elaborate guild of specialists assists the hajjis. Guides (mutawwifs) who speak the pilgrim's language make the necessary arrangements in Mecca and instruct the pilgrim in the proper performance of rituals; assistants (wakils) provide subsidiary services. Separate groups of specialists take care of pilgrims in Medina and Jiddah. Water drawers (zamzamis) provide water drawn from the sacred well.
Since the late 1980s, the Saudis have been particularly energetic in catering to the needs of pilgrims. In 1988 a US$l5 billion traffic improvement scheme for the holy sites was launched. The improvement initiative resulted partly from Iranian charges that the Saudi government was incompetent to guard the holy sites after a 1987 clash between demonstrating Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police left 400 people dead. A further disaster occurred in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims suffocated or were crushed to death in one of the new air-conditioned pedestrian tunnels built to shield pilgrims from the heat. The incident resulted from the panic that erupted in the overcrowded and inadequately ventilated tunnel, and further fueled Iranian claims that the Saudis did not deserve to be in sole charge of the holy places. In 1992, however, 114,000 Iranian pilgrims, close to the usual level, participated in the hajj.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has occupied a special place in the Islamic world, for it is towards Makkah and Islam's most sacred shrine, the Ka'abah, located in the Holy Mosque there, that Muslims throughout the world turn devoutly in prayer five times a day. An appreciation of Islamic history and culture is therefore essential for a genuine understanding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its Islamic heritage and its leading role in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
To symbolize their leadership of the worldwide community of Muslims as well as their guardianship of the holy sites, Saudi kings address the pilgrimage gathering annually. The Saudis also provide financial assistance to aid selected groups of foreign Muslims to attend the hajj. In 1992, in keeping with its interests in proselytizing among Muslims in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, the Saudi government sponsored the pilgrimage for hundreds of Muslims from Azerbaijan, Tashkent, and Mongolia.
The decade of the 1980s was characterized by the rise of ultraconservative, politically activist Islamist movements in much of the Arab world. These Islamist movements, labeled fundamentalist in the West, sought the government institutionalization of Islamic laws and social principles. Although Saudi Arabia already claimed to be an Islamic government whose constitution is the Qur'an, the kingdom has not been immune to this conservative trend.
In Saudi Arabia, the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, had been years of explosive development, liberal experimentation, and openness to the West. A reversal of this trend came about abruptly in 1979, the year in which the Grand Mosque in Mecca came under attack by religiously motivated critics of the monarchy, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established. Each of these events signaled that religious conservatism would have to be politically addressed with greater vigor. Although the mosque siege was carried out by a small band of zealots and their actions of shooting in the mosque appalled most Muslims, their call for less ostentation on the part of the Saudi rulers and for a halt to the cultural inundation of the kingdom by the West struck a deep chord of sympathy across the kingdom. At the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini's call to overthrow the Al Saud was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the monarchy as custodian of the holy places, and a challenge to the stability of the kingdom with its large Shia minority.
In the years following these events, the rise of the ultraconservative periphery has caused the vast center of society to shift in a conservative direction, producing greater polarity between those who are Western-oriented and the rest of society. The 1991 Persian Gulf War marked another dramatic shift toward conservative sentiment, and this conservative trend continued to gain momentum in the early 1990s.
The conservative revival has been manifest in literature, in individual behavior, in government policies, in official and unofficial relations with foreigners, in mosque sermons, and in protest demonstrations against the government. The revival was also apparent in increased religious programming on television and radio, and an increase in articles about religion in newspapers.
On an individual level, some Saudi citizens, especially educated young women, were expressing the revivalist mood by supplementing the traditional Saudi Islamic hijab (literally curtain or veil), a black cloak, black face veil, and hair covering, with long black gloves to hide the hands. In some cases, women who formerly had not covered their faces began to use the nontransparent covering once worn mainly by women of traditional families. Some, especially younger, university- educated women, wore the hijab when traveling in Europe or the United States to demonstrate the sincerity of their belief in following the precepts of Islam.
In the Hijaz, another expression of the Islamic revival was participation in the ritual celebration of popular Islamic holidays. Some elite Hijazi families, for example, have revived the mawlid, a gathering for communal prayer on the occasion of the Prophet's birthday, or to celebrate a birth, mourn a death, bless a new house, or seek God's favor in fulfillment of some wish, such as cure of an illness or the birth of a child. Mawlid rituals, especially when performed by women, were suppressed by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud when he conquered the Hijaz because they incorporated intercession and the Salafis considered them the equivalent of polytheism.
Reacting to the revivalist mood, the government has backed the mutawwiin in responding to calls for controls over behavior perceived as non-Islamic. In November 1990, a group of forty-seven women staged a demonstration to press their claim for the right to drive. The mutawwiin demanded that the women be punished. The government confiscated the women's passports after sentenced them to public flogging, and those employed as teachers were fired. The previously unofficial ban on women's driving quickly became official. As a further indication of the growing conservatism, considerable criticism of the women's behavior in asking for the right to drive came from within the women's branch of the university in Riyadh.
Religiously sanctioned behavior, once thought to be the responsibility of families, was being increasingly institutionalized and enforced. Women, for example, were usually prevented from traveling abroad unless accompanied by a male chaperon (mahram), a marked shift from the policy of the late 1970s, when a letter granting permission to travel was considered sufficient. This rule has compounded the difficulties for women wishing to study abroad: a 1982 edict remained in force that restricted scholarships for women to those whose father, husband, or brother was able to remain with them during the period of study.
State funding has increased for the nationwide organization of mutawwiin that is incorporated into the civil service bureaucracy. Once responsible primarily for enforcing the attendance of men in the mosque at prayer time, the tasks of the mutawwiin since the 1980s have come to include enforcing public abstinence from eating, drinking, and smoking among both Muslims and non-Muslims in the daylight hours during Ramadan. The mutawwiin (also seen as Committees for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice or Committees for Public Morality) are also responsible for seeing that shops are closed at prayer time and that modest dress is maintained in public. Foreign women are required to cover the arms and legs, and men and women who were unrelated might be apprehended for traveling together in a car. In the early 1980s, an offending couple might have received an official reprimand, but in the early 1990s they might experience more serious consequences.
The rise in conservatism also can be seen in measures taken to obstruct non-Muslim religious services. Non-Muslim services have long been discouraged, but never prohibited, in Arabia. Even at the height of the Salafi revival in the 1920s, Christian missionary doctors held prayer services in the palace of Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Christian religious services were held regularly in private houses and in housing compounds belonging to foreign companies, and these services were usually ignored by mutawwiin as long as they did not attract public attention or encourage proselytism. With the end of the Persian Gulf War, however, mutawwiin began to enforce a ban on non-Muslim worship and punished offenders. In 1991, it is claimed, a large number of mutawwiin accompanied by uniformed police broke up a Christian service in Riyadh and arrested a number of participants, including children.
The most significant indicator of the growing shift toward conservatism was the willingness of the state to silence opposition groups. For example, in May 1991, more than 400 men from the religious establishment and universities, including Saudi Arabia's most prominent legal scholar, Shaykh Abd al Aziz ibn Baz, petitioned the King to create a consultative council, a request to which the King responded favorably in February 1992. In their petition, however, the signatories asked not only for more participation in decision making, but also for a revision of all laws, including commercial and administrative regulations, to conform with the sharia. They asked for the creation of Islamic banks and an end to interest payments in established banks, as well as the redistribution of wealth, protection for the rights of the individual, censure of the media so that it would serve Islam and morality, and the creation of a strong army so that the kingdom would not be dependent on the West. The requests represented a combination of apparently liberal petitions (a consultative council, redistribution of wealth) with a conservative religious bent.
In a follow-up to the petition, a number of the signatories wrote a letter stating that funds for religious institutions were being cut back, that the institutions were not being given the resources to create jobs, and that their fatwas were being ignored. The letter further claimed that those who signed the original petition had had their passports confiscated and were being harassed by security personnel even though "they had committed no other crime than giving advice to the Guardian." This affair suggested that the government was sufficiently concerned about the increasingly conservative mood to shift its strategy from merely co-opting the conservative agenda to suppressing its extreme voices.
In another incident, a movement called Islamic Awakening, which had a growing following in religious colleges and universities, attempted to hold a public demonstration in early 1991, but participants were threatened with arrest if they did so. At the same time, the government arrested a well-known activist in the Islamic Awakening while he was preaching a sermon in a Riyadh mosque.
Factors contributing to the increased attraction of Islamic conservatism included the problem of impending loss of identity caused by overwhelming Westernization. As secular education, population mobility, the breakup of extended family households, and the employment of women chipped away at cherished institutions of family and society, religion was a refuge and a source of stability.
Another factor was disaffection with the existing economic system in the face of rising unemployment. During the rapid expansion of the 1970s, employment in the public sector was virtually assured for Saudi citizens with technical skills and for those with a Western education. By the end of the decade, however, those positions, especially in education and in the ministries, came under pressure from increasing numbers of university graduates with rising expectations that no longer could be fulfilled in public sector employment. In addition, in the 1990s a growing number of young men educated in Islamic colleges and universities were unemployed; their acquired knowledge and skills were becoming more irrelevant to the demands of the economy and bureaucratic infrastructure, even within the judiciary where traditionally Islamic scholarship was most highly valued.
An additional factor lay in the monarchy's continuing need to maintain legitimacy as an "Islamic government." As long as the ruling family believes it must continue to prove itself a worthy inheritor of the legacy on which the kingdom was founded, it will be obliged to foster religious education and the Islamic political culture in which the kingdom's media are steeped. A lesser factor in the rise of conservatism may be widespread sympathy with the sense of being victimized by the West.
Islam remained the primary cohesive ideology in the kingdom, the source of legitimacy for the monarchy, and the pervasive system for moral guidance and spirituality. The nature of the Islamic society Saudi Arabia wished to have in the future, however, was one of the important and passionately debated issues in the kingdom in the early 1990s. The ultraconservative moral agenda appealed on an emotional level to many Saudi citizens. But the desire to expand the jurisdiction of sharia law and to interfere with the banking system was also a source of concern for many people. Because nearly all Saudis have reaped material benefits from state-funded development, people were hesitant to jeopardize those benefits and the political stability that allowed development. Some have suggested that the new system of basic laws was a clear signal that the monarchy was firmly committed to liberalization and no longer felt compelled to tolerate conservative excesses. Close assessment of the implications of the basic laws suggested, however, that the monarchy was making no substantive changes and, in effect, was taking no chances to risk disturbing the balance among competing religious persuasions in the kingdom.
The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, which influences almost every aspect of social life, is deeply involved in politics. It has long been fractured into at least two distinct groups, with the senior ulema closely tied to the political agenda of the House of Saud. A younger generation of ulema, who are less firmly established and more radical in tone, have openly criticized the senior ulema and the government in the past.
Fractures between the government and this younger generation deepened in May 2003, when Riyadh fired or suspended thousands of them. Many were to be "re-educated," while others were simply ousted from the religious establishment. The move did little to endear the government to an already frustrated and religiously radical cadre of clerics.
The Islamic Legitimacy of the modern Saudi sate has been questioned by many groups and individuals including Al-Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Al-Sheikh, has defended the religious establishment's legitimacy in a public forum, while responding to mounting criticism of the religious leadership's close political alliance with the ruling House of Saud. During a question-and-answer session with members of the public and the media, Al Al-Sheikh denied that the government influenced fatwas (religious rulings) and said accusations to the contrary within the media were false.
Both the criticism and the public response to it indicate a deepening level of dissent, not only within the kingdom's religious establishment, but also among the public. It is significant that the question was asked and answered in a public forum, and then reprinted in the media -- including the Arabic and English language newspapers. Similar questions of legitimacy will arise in coming months, with the kingdom's religious, political and perhaps military leaderships becoming the focal points for increasingly intense criticism. That Al Al-Sheikh answered the question about government influence over fatwas so openly is a clear indicator that the public has growing concerns about the legitimacy of religious leaders. Also, that the statements were reprinted in the press signals that the Saudi government -- which wields enormous influence over the local press -- is moving to respond to the charges of undue influence and corruption and illegitimacy.
Shaykh Saalih al-Fawzaan says:
Question: What is your advice to those who say that this country fights the deen and restricts the du’aat?
Answer: Since the Saudi state began, it has been aiding the deen and its people, and it was not set up except on this foundation. And now it aids the Muslims in every place with financial help, building Islamic centres and masaajid, sending du’aat, printing books foremost amongst them - the Noble Qur’aan, opening centres of learning and Sharee’ah colleges, and also it rules by the Islamic Sharee’ah and has an independent body for enjoining good and forbidding evil in every town. And all of that is a proof that this state aids Islam and its people, and it is a thorn in the throats of the hypocrites and the people of evil and splitting. And Allah will aid His deen even if the mushrikeen and those of evil intentions hate it.
And we do not say that this state is perfect in every way and that it doesn’t have any mistakes. Mistakes occur from everyone, but we ask Allah to aid us in rectifying the mistakes. And if the one who said this looked at himself he would find mistakes in himself which would prevent him from speaking about others and he would be ashamed to look at the people.
Shaykh Saalih al-Fawzaan Al-Ijaabaat al-Muhimmah fee Mashaakil il-Mudlahimmah, by Muhammad bin Fahad al-Husayn. Translated by Abul-Irbaad Abid Zargar
Jihad Abdel-Muntasir cites the following reasons for its illegitimacy:
1. - Governing in accordance with man-made laws, and the legislature of these. Topping the black list is the passage of laws permitting interest based banks to increase their activities. This includes also a number of laws such as those for work and workers, the law for the Saudi Arabian army, and the law of the trade room, and others, which run contrary to the law of Allah.
2. - The loyalty of the regime to the enemies of Islam such as the Jews, the Christians, and the atheists, and the regimes enmity towards Islam.
3. - Resorting to secular laws with respect to its foreign policies, and the setting aside of the laws of Islam with respect to international relations.
Imam Abu Hanifah (RA) issued a religious ruling that Dar-ul-Islam (Islamic State) would be changed to Dar-ul-Kufr (non-Islamic State) if three conditions were fulfilled.
1. When it is governed by kufr laws.
2. When there is no security for the Muslims or the Non-Muslim inhabitants
3. Neighborhood. If the State has borders with a Non-Islamic state in a way the latter cause’s danger to the Muslims and becomes the reason behind their safety. 
The State's monarchic system of government, "illegal" imprisonment of dissident scholars, legalization of interest banks, gambling ("There is no greater example of gambling in today’s world than the global economic system with its fluctuating exchange rates, international stock markets, and hedge fund driven side bets."), Nationalism, [alleged] controlling of scholars are cited under "governance by Kufr Laws"
Recognition of Israel and the [alleged] "direct collaboration" in its creation, alleged squandering the "wealth of the Ummah", alliance with "Kuffar" (non-Muslim states), alleged "oppression of Muslims on behalf of the disbelievers" are cited as "failure to secure Muslims"
As for the third, it must be kept in mind here that in this modern age, marked by globalization, there exists an easy openness to cultural influence from distances. Therefore, the term neighborhood may be understood by analyzing the institutions and ideologies one intimately embraces. That being the case, it becomes clear that this Saudi regime convincingly violates all three of these sacred mandates.