Saudi king’s fatwa on fatwas

Glut of edicts spurs ban on rulings issued outside official council of clerics

Men watch satellite TV in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in September. A 2008 fatwa issued by the chief of the country's top court said it would be permissible to kill the owners of satellite networks that show "immoral" content. He was removed as chief. (Associated Press)Men watch satellite TV in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in September. A 2008 fatwa issued by the chief of the country’s top court said it would be permissible to kill the owners of satellite networks that show “immoral” content. He was removed as chief. (Associated Press)
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CAIRO | 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.”

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. 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 voluntarily have stopped issuing fatwas. One preacher was reprimanded publicly 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 Associated Press.

However, 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 Qaeda‘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 also is 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 is permitted provided the lyrics don’t promote sin.

Saudi media have speculated that the king’s resolve may have been hardened by a recent fatwa that provoked particular public uproar. Sheik Abdul-Mohsen al-Obeikan ruled that if a woman needs to appear without her veil in front of an unrelated adult male, she has the option of breast-feeding him, because it establishes a mother-son bond in Islamic tradition. That reasoning has been heard in a few fatwas by other sheiks but is rejected by most scholars.

Saudi political analyst Turk al-Hamed says limiting fatwa rights to the official panel isn’t enough. “The state must intervene. The religious establishment enjoys complete freedom. This is not acceptable,” Mr. al-Hamad said in an interview.

He noted the council clerics’ rulings on jihad, some of which are vague enough to be interpreted on pro-al Qaeda websites as approval of violence in the cause of Islam.

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