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Saudi king tightening up religious rulings

King Abdullah
King Abdullah

Non-government clerics issuing glut of fatwas

CAIRO, Egypt – The ideology that reigns in Saudi Arabia comes into plain view on the website of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, where boys and girls sharing a swimming pool causes “mischief and evil” and bringing flowers to a hospital patient is to be discouraged because it’s a foreign custom that “imitates Allah’s adversaries.”

And those fatwas, or religious rulings, come from the government-appointed body of clerics who are the guardians of the kingdom’s ultraconservative Wahhabi school of Islam. But there’s also a whole other world of independent clerics issuing their own interpretations, often contradictory, through the Web, TV stations and text messages.

Now King Abdullah is moving to regain control over this abundance of fatwas. Under a royal decree issued in mid-August, only the official panel may issue the fatwas that answer every question of how pious Saudis should live their lives.

The result: In recent weeks, websites and a satellite station where clerics answered questions have been shut down or have voluntarily stopped issuing fatwas. One preacher was publicly reprimanded for urging a boycott of a supermarket chain for employing female cashiers.

The question on the minds of some Saudis is whether any of this points the way to a more liberal code. Saad Sowayan, a Saudi historian and columnist, thinks it does. “The state wants to take the lead in shaping public opinion and this serves the issue of secularism and modernity,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

But many of the powerful clerics on the 21-member council are themselves hard-liners. Beyond strict edicts on morality, they reinforce a worldview whereby non-Muslims and even liberal or Shiite Muslims are considered infidels, and their stances on jihad, or holy war, at times differ only in nuances from al-Qaida’s.

The website has thousands of fatwas, some dating back more than a decade, and dozens more are added each month.

A far stricter interpretation than is followed in most Muslim countries, Wahhabism is known most for its near obsessive segregation of the sexes, its insistence on ideological purity and its harsh punishments of beheadings and hand amputations for some crimes. It is also the law in Saudi Arabia, where clerics sit as judges in courts, religious police prevent unmarried or unrelated men and women from mixing, and women are banned from driving.

King Abdullah has taken a few incremental steps toward modernization. In a move last year that angered some Wahhabis, for example, he inaugurated the first university where male and female students share classes.

But tinkering with the system is risky, because of the grand trade-off that lies at the heart of modern Saudi Arabia: The governing Al Saud family supports the clerics, and the clerics support the family’s rule.

Theoretically at least, the council’s new fatwa monopoly could help Abdullah if his aim is to enact further reforms by seeding the commission with clerics who are more liberal and are willing to give him religious cover. The king seemed to give a hint of that last year when for the first time he appointed four clerics from non-Wahhabi schools of Islam, including one Sufi – a notable step given Wahhabi hatred of the Sufi movement.

On the other hand, some of the now-barred independent sheiks have issued fatwas that are more moderate than those of official clerics – men like Sheik Adel al-Kalbani, who challenged the Wahhabi ban on music by saying it was permitted provided the lyrics didn’t promote sin.

Islamic clerics around the world issue opinions regularly. They can vary widely, and individuals can choose which ones to follow. Fatwas from other parts of the Middle East tend to be more moderate, but the Saudi council is influential, as the kingdom is home to Islam’s holiest sites and its oil wealth amplifies its voice.


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