"No Longer Forbidden": Saudi Arabia's Reversed Fatwas

Wednesday 14 March 201808:11 pm
While checking her family photo album, Mounira Al-Hamad recalled when she had burned pictures of her late mother and siblings pursuant to a Fatwa stipulating that appearing in photos is sinful and entails afterlife torment. Al-Hamad, who is now in her 70s and lives in the Saudi Eastern Province city of Dhahran, is a mother of 9 and has 12 grandchildren. She has recent photos of all of them as the fatwa has been revoked, but she cannot retrieve the other precious memories wiped after older pictures turned to ashes. "What makes my pain more acute is that the Sheikh who released the Fatwa forbidding photos appears smiling in all newspapers and magazines," she said. "I cannot remember the features of my late brothers and sisters, I don't have photos of them to remind me what they looked like," she added while shelving the album. There were many similar things declared forbidden in Saudi Arabia in mid-20th century, a trend that was intensified in the 1980s and 1990s. Decades later, nonetheless, a lot of what was impermissible became permitted and might even be regarded as essential nowadays. Many might not believe that riding bicycles was prohibited in the 1950s by an official Fatwa that labeled bikes the "devil's horse", or that clerics vilified telegrams as some sort of sorcery. The tribal headgear known as shemagh as well as the traditional agal, the black cord that is doubled to fasten the shemagh, were both forbidden. Also, women were not allowed to watch TV without niqab, the face veil, out of belief that show hosts could see them through screens.

The Turning Point

The hard-line clerics believe that preempting wrongdoing is more important than achieving interests, an argument that "has largely repressed many people", according to Islamic preacher Fahd Al-Derei. Saudi society lived in relative moderation in the 1960s and 1970s. This was evident in southern and eastern Saudi Arabia as well as Al-Hijaz. Due to their locations, these areas enjoyed cultural exchanges with other countries, and did not enforce strict gender segregation policies. There are many testaments to the moderate Saudi lifestyle back then. Dar Al-Hanan School, which Princess Iffat Al-Thunayan founded in 1955 in Jeddah, bustled with girls who did not wear the veil. The school also hosted concerts on a regular basis. [caption id="attachment_71088" align="alignnone" width="300"] Fayza Kayal, a principal of Dar Al-Hanan School[/caption] There was a small cinema in Saudi Arabia's main port in Jeddah where Egyptian movies were screened. The local TV aired songs by Egyptian singers Umm Kulthum and Mohamed Abdo as well as Saudi female singers such as Etab, Touha and Ibtisam Lutfi. There was also a music institute. Saudi Arabia's transformation into an ultra-conservative state started in 1979, Al-Derei said. It was the same year when Ali Khamenei led the Iranian revolution that toppled Shah of Iran, and Juhayman Al-Otaybi's men seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Al-Derei told Raseef22 that Al-Otaybi was likely motivated by the Iranian revolution. "He might've wanted to trigger a Sunni counter revolution," he opined. Al-Derei believes that Al-Otaybi was a product of an extremely hard-line religious thinking that was also behind King Faisal's 1975 assassination at the hands of Prince Faisal bin Mosaad, who avenged the death of his brother. The prince's brother was killed by security personnel when he along with supporters sought to break into the TV building to halt the airing of songs in September 1965. Prince Khaled bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz, who was known for being pious, also died in the same incident. The government at the time did not want to confront hardliners and succumbed to their pressure, and hence restrictions on freedoms were imposed. The cinema was shut down, songs and concerts were banned and clerics became in charge of the female students' education. These developments gave a boost to the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose men enforced their strict version of the Sharia law more robustly, closing stores during prayer times, for instance.

The Rise of Hard-Line Preachers

For 40 years, ultra-conservative preachers took control of the religious rhetoric and rose to prominence. The sales of cassette tapes of their lectures competed with that of star singers. Typically characterized with high-pitched voices, the preachers in their tapes warn over wrongdoings that threat the society. Almost everything was declared forbidden: watching TV, using a camera phone, traveling for tourism, hanging out, getting close to a woman and even dedicating red roses to loved ones. The preachers also stated that novels, poems and the internet were sinful because they incite debauchery. Mohamed Al-Ateeq, who holds a PhD in sociology from King Saud University, described those preachers as hyperbolic, saying the whole society fell prey to their rhetoric. "Having a receiver was enough reason for someone to be called an apostate," he said. "Now, they [preachers] are racing each other to secure contracts with the large satellite channels they once forbade." "There is fear over anything new. We remember well the storms that came when satellite broadcasting and camera phones were first introduced," said Al-Ateeq, who also underscored the controversy that has always surrounded women's right to work in Saudi Arabia. "But things have changed now. The society is more aware and does not accept any fatwas without contemplation."

Questioning the Unquestionable

By time, a new generation of less hard-line preachers appeared, causing a shake-up of longstanding radical beliefs. For example, those born in the 1980s in Saudi Arabia were mostly sure that whoever listens to music will have melted iron poured into their ears in the afterlife. More recently, however, scholars Adil Al-Kalbani and Saleh Al-Maghamsi as well as preacher Ahmed bin Qassim Al-Ghamdi have stressed music is not prohibited in Islam. Less hard-line views surfaced in Saudi Arabia after the internet made the monarchy less isolated. Also, a desire to eradicate terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, fueled this trend. Today, people are doubtful about Fatwas that were once considered to be unquestionable. If asked five years ago whether a woman can walk around publicly with her face showing, a typical Saudi man would decisively say it was forbidden. Today, many people doubt this belief.

Reversed Fatwas

In light of these developments, new fatwas were issued to reverse old ones. Grand Mufti Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh once described calls to allow women to take part in local council elections as "evil", saying the demand aimed to "corrupt and westernize the society". After women were officially allowed to vote three weeks later, he said he found the decision acceptable "because Islam honors the woman" and makes her an integral part of the society. Many such changes have shocked the Saudi society, the most staggering of which was allowing women to drive, something that was unanimously vilified by clerics in the past. The mufti once said women's driving is a "dangerous thing that opens the door for evil acts", while fatwa number 2923 strictly barred women from getting behind the wheel. Even preacher Aid Al-Qarni who is deemed relatively moderate wrote a lengthy article explaining how dangerous and evil women's driving was. All these opinions were reversed when women were allowed to drive for the first time in Saudi Arabia last year. Al-Qarni said during an interview with Saudi 1 TV channel that "there is nothing wrong with a woman driving on her own". Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said Saudi women who drove abroad were still committed to public decency and morals in Saudi Arabia. [caption id="attachment_71090" align="alignnone" width="300"] Contradictory statements on women's driving in Saudi Arabia combined in one photo. "who do we believe?" Reads the caption next to the emojis.[/caption] The Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, headed by the Grand Mufti, justified the clerics' contradictory statements by saying that "all the scholars' [previous] fatwas on women's driving focused on interests and wrongdoings, and did not tackle driving per se". Aqeel Al-Aqeel, an Islamic Sharia researcher, echoed similar sentiments."Some people do not differentiate between peremptory teachings and judgments, and thus would accuse the Council of Senior Scholars of following orders when they change fatwas," he told Raseef22. "They [critics] ignore an important rule, which is a mufti can change his fatwa when time changes." However, many Saudis are convinced that fatwas change in accordance with official stances, which has caused them to lose their trust in religious figures. "Most preachers seek to preempt wrongdoing, so they disallowed things that are not forbidden out of fear that they could lead to sinful acts. Unfortunately, they have by far repressed Muslims who eventually reached a breaking point," scholar Saad Al-Dosari told Raseef22. Fahed Al-Hamdan, a Riyadh-based school principal, says he now prefers relying on his own religious interpretations to abiding by fatwas. "Beforehand, I was keen to abide by fatwas... now I gave up on this," he told Raseef22, adding that clerics' contradictory statements have "left me bewildered like many others."
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