How Islamic is Saudi Arabia?

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

The levels of Islamism of Saudi Arabia have changed over the years since its “independence” and unification after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Afternoon Prayers

In general, Saudi Arabia (or Hejaz, the name of the region) is where Islam first began. Two of the three holiest sites in Islam are located in Saudi Arabia: the Kaaba (al-Haram al-Macci) and the Prophet’s Mosque (al-Masjid al-Nabawai).


In the 16th century, the Hejaz region was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. In 1916, with the support of Britain, fighting the Ottomans in WWI, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussain bin Ali, led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire to create a united Arab state and defect from the Turkish rule.


The Allied victory in World War I resulted in the end of Ottoman rule and control in Arabia and Hussain bin Ali became the King - King of Hejaz.


There were geographical and tribal conflicts pre-unification, but the united KSA was an official state in 1932. The new state relied on agriculture mostly, before reserves of oil were discovered along the Persian Gulf coast. Oil gave Saudi Arabia not only financial and monetary prosperity but also influence and leverage on the political level, especially in the Middle East.


While Saudi Arabia “claims” to have a legal system and laws stemming from the Sharia law (Islamic faith) - the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s traditions (Sunnah) - it has been trying to change the laws and regulations of “extremist” Wahabism to a more modern and moderate understanding of Islam.


The amount of influence that the Sharia scholars was great and had big impacts on decision-making, both nationally and internationally. However, their influence was diminishing year after year. In 2005, King Abdullah took steps to reduce their powers.


Modern-day Saudi Arabia is considered to have “defected” from Islamic views and regulations. After the rise of Muhammad bin Salman to the rule as Crown Prince (second-in-line to his father, King Salman), several “modernization” steps and plans were set up to make Saudi Arabia have a more Western and West-appeasing lifestyle. King Salman introduced a new Ministry (Ministry of Entertainment) in 2016, which aimed to transform tourism in the country and capitalize on profits in the Kingdom.


Prior to that, Saudi Arabia was considered the leading country of Islam, and the protector of Islamic viewpoints, being the Land of Haramain, or the Land of the Two Holy Sites. Since 2016 (and even before way before that), Saudi Arabia has become an antagonist in the viewpoint of worldwide Muslims (except a few, esp. in the Kingdom itself), and the host (alongside the United Arab Emirates and the United States) of terrorism and plotting against Muslim countries, and the supporter of oppressor Arab rulers, such as Egypt’s al-Sisi and Syria’s al-Assad.


Muhammad bin Salman (Reuters)

This, and the fact that Crown Prince bin Salman has begun an “entertainment and leisure” transformation, introducing many anti-Islamic reforms, which marked its beginning with the incarcerations of many Islamic scholars, politicians, journalists, and commentators. MBS has given permission to many events that do not go side-by-side with Islamic law, such as entertainment events comprising of sexual and liberal nature.

Al-Masjid al-Haraam, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

In short, how Islamic is Saudi Arabia is a controversial topic to discuss, especially when there is little information on the true intentions of its leaders. In general, Saudi Arabia has shifted from a strict, extremist understanding and interpretation of Islam (to the point where women where not allowed to drive, which has nothing to do with Islamic law) to a more conservative, moderately-influential religious leading, to (now) a liberal, rather anti-Islamic stance.


However, the King of Saudi Arabia is still called the “custodian of Holy Sites” or “Khadim al-Haramayn al-Shareefayn”.


The deterioration of Islamism and the influence of religious leaders (Aal-al-Shaykh) led to a more liberal and “realist” point of view that revolves around politics and regional control, as well as intra-governmental relations with the United States in particular, and other Western states. This gave Muhammad bin Salman (who is believed to be the sole ruler of Saudi Arabia, and has more jurisdiction than his father, the King) a tight grip on the Kingdom, stripping the Islamic veil that KSA has been wearing for decades, and introducing a totally new, revisionist lifestyle. It is however important to note that MbS is not “liked” by the other members of the royal family, especially after he plotted to take over the former Crown Prince, his cousin, Muhammad bin Nayef.

This post was shared as an answer to a similar question on Quora.com.

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