Signs of Saudi shift to ‘moderate’ Islam emerging at home and abroad

A senior religious scholar recently said that women were not under religious obligation to wear the abaya.
Sunday 18/02/2018
A florist prepares a Valentine’s Day bouquet of flowers for a customer at a flower shop in Jeddah, on February 14.  (AFP)
Changing times. A florist prepares a Valentine’s Day bouquet of flowers for a customer in Jeddah, on February 14. (AFP)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia is increasing efforts to promote a “moderate” form of Islam, a promise made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to help move the kingdom into the modern era.

A member of the kingdom’s Council of Senior Scholars, considered the country’s chief religious body, recently stated that women were not under religious obligation to wear the abaya, the traditional loose-fitting black robe worn by Muslim women in the Gulf region.

During a question-and-answer session on a Mecca radio station, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq said Muslim women should dress modestly but that the abaya was not a religious requirement.

“More than 90% of committed Muslim women in the Islamic world do not wear the abaya,” Mutlaq said. “We see them in Mecca and Medina. They are women who, may God bless them, are committed and memorise the Quran and preach for God but they do not wear abayas. For this reason, my friends, we do not oblige [women] to wear abaya.”

On the same programme, Mutlaq said long fingernails were frowned upon in Islam.

Mutlaq’s comments, which carry significant weight in religious circles, led to fierce debates and the creation of the Twitter hashtag #Al-Mutlaq_theabaya_not necessary.

“Those who trade in religion know that the life the Muslim Brotherhood has grown accustomed to in the past 40 years is over and these hypocrites must a find a different path instead of using religion to control people’s lives,” wrote Twitter user @OmrRian.

Other reactions were less supportive.

“Even if 100 fatwas have been issued, I swear to God I will never leave my abaya. Over my dead body. Girls, do not listen to the fatwas,” wrote Twitter user @Kooshe90.

As home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long been defined culturally by its role and place in the religion. However, in a post 9/11 world, the kingdom has also been accused of supporting an intolerant form of Islam.

“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. Saudi Arabia and the entire region saw the proliferation of al-Sahwa [Awakening] project after 1979 for many reasons,” Crown Prince Mohammed said last October.

Crown Prince Mohammed was referencing the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the siege of Mecca by terrorists, events in 1979 that inspired a generation of militants such as al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.

“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe,” the crown prince said. “Frankly speaking, we cannot spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today and immediately.”

Saudi analysts said Crown Prince Mohammed’s call to tackle extremism could have significant effects.

“It’s the first time that a government official — let alone a senior government official — called them out by name,” Saudi analyst Mohammed Alyahya told the Wall Street Journal last October with regards to the crown prince calling out the Islamic Awakening movement. “The new leadership called their bluff and showed that they are a paper tiger.”

Saudi Arabia has relinquished control of Belgium’s largest mosque, which had been under its control since 1969. This coincided with a Saudi initiative to stop the international funding of mosques and religious schools accused of spreading radical ideas, Western officials told Thomson Reuters, although the Saudis are yet to make that initiative public.

An official from the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL), which was running the Brussels mosque, denounced Holocaust denial. MWL Secretary-General Mohammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, wrote to the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, describing the event as “among the worst human atrocities ever.”

“True Islam is against these crimes. It classifies them in the highest degree of penal sanctions and among the worst human atrocities ever,” Issa wrote. “One would ask, who in his right mind would accept, sympathise or even diminish the extent of this brutal crime?”

In another sign of changing times, a Saudi cleric endorsed Valentine’s Day.

“It is a positive social event and congratulating people for it is not against sharia (Islamic law),” Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television.

“It is an act of kindness to share greetings on Western national and social holidays, including Valentine’s Day. Exchange red roses with others, as long as it is towards peaceful people who do not share animosity or are being at war with Muslims,” said Ghamdi, the former head of the religious police in Mecca.

Such comments would have been considered unfathomable a year ago when religious police were tasked with cracking down on non-Islamic celebrations.