The Role of Religion in Saudi Arabia

Woman in Egypt casting a vote, which is not an option for the women in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Reuters

AMIR BEN SHABATMore than any country in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is identified with Islam. Islam is the state religion, the source of political legitimacy as it shapes state policies and activities and serves as the moral and legal code of society. This code is known as Sharia Law, derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna, which denotes the practice of Prophet Muhammad that he taught and instituted as a teacher of the sharī‘ah. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “Sharia developed several hundred years after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 C.E. as the Islamic empire expanded to the edge of North Africa in the West and to China in the East.” Since the Prophet Mohammed was considered the most pious of all believers, his life and ways became a model for all other Muslims.

Since Saudi Arabia is the place of birth of Islam, it is not surprising that the country follows the strictest interpretations of the Qur’an and implements such teachings throughout the Kingdom. Rule of law, as political scientists interpret it, is defined by the UN as “individuals, persons and government that shall submit to, obey and be regulated by law, and not arbitrary action by an individual or a group of individuals.” This is not in effect in the Kingdom. According to the long-standing oath between the al-Saud and al-Wahhab patriarchs in the 18th century, the Saudi state must adhere to Islamic principles. The state’s law thus follows, according to Christian Debater of Muslim Hope, “the strict principles of Wahhabi Islam, the conservative Sunni sect.”

What by western interpretations are considered petty crimes are punishable with severe penalties. The concept of retribution exists and governs the land. It is more commonly referred to as the “eye for an eye” ideology. Other common punishments, according to Bismillahi ar-Rahmani ar-Raheem, are “hand amputations for theft; whipping of one-hundred stripes for having intercourse if not married; public stoning for apostasy; 40 stripes for alcohol possession;  public execution for homosexuality and the denial of women to drive and to be in public alone.” These punishments are enforced by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, informally known as the religious police, which, according to BBC News, “is a semi-autonomous police force connected to the religious establishment.” They have been known to be brutal, seeking out and arresting violators for flogging, imprisonment, or death by beheading.Another entity missing in the country is the appearance of fair, frequent elections. Since the country is a monarchy, top officials are not chosen. For the officials that are chosen (in the recent municipal elections) the majority is not properly represented when the women cannot even voice their opinions. Any reform would also be difficult to bring about, since the successors of the Saudi family have already been selected, and anyone who has attempted to bring about change have been arrested.One may wonder why there is no public outcry from other Islamic countries or from the individuals themselves in the Kingdom regarding the role of religion in Saudi politics. In fact, many Muslims, including those born and raised in America, respect Saudi Arabia for what it is, and believe it is an example of what a true Islamic society should be, as the Muslims see their religion and government being ordained by Allah. It is within their conviction that Islam is intended to be the religion of all mankind.

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