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Many Sunnis regard this form of Islam as intolerant and extremist.
Sufism in particular represents a strain of Islam, long popular among Sunnis and Shia alike, that shares many practices with mainstream Shia Islam, such as veneration of the prophet’s family and local saints.
Other statements by Saudi religious scholars documented in this report do not rise to the level of hate speech or incitement to hatred or discrimination but nevertheless should be publicly repudiated and counteracted by Saudi authorities.
Given the influence and reach of these scholars, these public anti-Shia statements are instrumental in Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of a system of discrimination against Shia citizens.
The Iranians have become the backers of last resort for the Assad regime, leading to a massive strengthening of Shia influence in the country, even though non-Alawite Shia make up less than five per cent of the population.
Increasingly, the diplomatic clash across the region is led by Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
For example, in 2008, the government arrested prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer after he spoke out in a sermon against a statement signed by 22 prominent Saudi clerics in which they called Shia “an evil among the sects of the Islamic nation, and the greatest enemy and most deceptive to the Sunni people.” At the time the statement was issued, 11 of the 22 signatories were current government officials and 6 were former government officials.
This debate is beyond the scope of this report, but further reading on this topic can be found in the sources cited in the footnotes.
The Saudi-sponsored “purist” Islamic belief and practice has influenced Muslims across the globe, but it is by no means uncontested.
But on the ground, the war is between Hizbollah and similar Shia militias, and Al-Qaeda and other Sunni militants.
Governments choose between them - or find themselves caught between the two.