Books By Jean Sasson

Saudi Arabian Government and Law


Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state and the law is based on the Shari'a, the Islamic code of law taken from the pages of the Koran and the Sunna, which are the traditions addressed by Prophet Mohammed. The Koran is the constitution of the country and provides guidance for legal judgements.

Executive and legislative authority are exercised by the King and the Council of Ministers. Their decisions are based on Shari'a law. All ministries and government agencies are responsible to the King.


The criminal laws of Saudi Arabia adhere to strict Islamic precepts. The word Islam means "Surrender to the will of God." The most important concept of Islam is the Shari'a, or the "path," which embraces the total way of life ordained by God. All people of the Islamic religion are expected to conduct their lives by the traditional values set by Mohammed, the Prophet of God, who was born in A.D. 570 and died in A.D. 632. It is difficult for most Westerners to understand the complete and total submission of Muslims to the laws of the Koran in every aspect of their daily life. The Koran, along with traditions set by Mohammed, is the law of the land in Saudi Arabia. While living in Saudi Arabia, I once asked a noted scholar of Islam, who made his living as an attorney, to describe the application of justice in Saudi Arabia that stems from the teachings of the Prophet. His explanations helped dispel my misunderstandings of Saudi law. Here is a portion of his written report to me that I thought might appeal to the reader's interest:

  1. There are four main sources of the Shari'a: the Koran, which is compiled of thousands of religious verses revealed by God through his Prophet, Mohammed; the Sunna, which are the traditions the Prophet addressed that are not recorded in the  Koran; the Ijma, which are the perceptions of the Ulema, or religious scholars; and the Qiyas, which is a method whereby known jurists agree upon new legal principles.

  2. The king of Saudi Arabia is not exempt from the regulations set forth by the Shari'a.

  3. The court system itself is complicated, but if a judgment is appealed, it is reviewed by the court of appeals. This court, usually consisting of three members, increases to five members if the sentence imposes death or mutilation. The king is the final arbitrator who serves as a final court of appeal and as a source of pardon.

  4. Crimes are classified into three divisions: Hudud, Tazir, and Qisas. Crimes of Hudud are crimes that are denounced by God; the punishment is made known in the Koran. Crimes of Tazir are given to the appropriate authority to determine punishment. Crimes of Qisas give the victim the right to retaliate.

  Crimes of Hudud

  Crimes of Hudud include theft, drinking of alcohol, defamation of Islam, fornication, and adultery. Persons found guilty of theft are punished by payment of fines, imprisonment, or amputation of the right hand. (The left hand is amputated if the right has already been amputated.) Persons found guilty of drinking, selling, or buying alcohol, sniffing drugs, taking injection of drugs, or stirring drugs into dough are punished by a sentence of eighty lashes. Persons found guilty of defamation of Islam are sentenced according to the circumstances. The harshness of the sentence varies depending on whether the person is a Muslim or a non-Muslim. Flogging is the general punishment for Muslims. Persons found guilty of fornication are flogged. Men are flogged while standing and women while sitting. The faces, heads, and vital organs of the guilty are protected. The usual number is forty lashes, but this number may vary according to the circumstances. Adultery is the most serious of crimes. If the guilty party is married, he or she is sentenced to death by stoning, beheading, or shooting. Stoning is the usual method of punishment. Proof of this crime must be established by confession or by four witnesses to the act.

  Crimes of Tazir

  The crimes of Tazir are similar to misdemeanor crimes in America. There is no set punishment, but each person is judged on an individual basis, according to the seriousness of the crime and the sorrow shown by the criminal.

  Crimes of Qisas

  If a person is found guilty of crimes against a victim or his family, the aggrieved family has the right to retaliate. The sentence is decided in private by the family and the actual punishment is carried out in private. If murder has been committed, the family has the right to kill the murderer in the same method their loved one was murdered, or in any method they choose. If a member of the family was accidentally killed (such as in an automobile accident), the family of the deceased may collect "blood money." In the past, camels were used as pay for blood money; today the rate of exchange is in currency. There are set damages according to the various circumstances: The payment can be anywhere from SR 120,000 to SR 300,000 ($45,000 to $80,000). If a woman is killed, the payment is one half that of a man. If a person cuts off another person's body part, the family or the victim may commit the same act upon the guilty party.

  Who May Testify in Criminal Proceedings

  The witness must be deemed sane, the age of an adult, and a Muslim. Non-Muslims may not testify in criminal court. Women may not testify unless it is a personal matter that did not occur in the sight of men. Actually, the testimony of a woman is not regarded as fact but rather as presumption. The court may decide whether the testimony is valid according to the circumstances.

 Why Women Are Forbidden to Testify in Criminal Proceedings

  There are four reasons given why women's testimony is not valid in a Saudi court:

  1. Women are much more emotional than men and will, as a result of their emotions, distort their testimony. 2. Women do not participate in public life, so they will not be capable of understanding what they observe. 3. Women are dominated completely by men, who by the grace of God are deemed superior; therefore, women will give testimony according to what the last man told them. 4. Women are forgetful and their testimony cannot be considered reliable.