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SAUDI ARABIA: Authorities tighten restrictions on clerical fatwas and sermons

August 27, 2010 |  7:01 am
Saudi cleric

Keep it short and to the point. And above all, don't embarrass the boss.

That's the message of a series of official Saudi directives restricting the activities of clerics who issue bizarre fatwas or deliver long-winded sermons, including some clergy accused of simply ripping off sermons from the Internet and reading them aloud.  

The kingdom's premier cleric ordered one preacher this week to shut up after he issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on the faithful to boycott a chain of supermarkets because it employs women as cashiers, according to an article posted Friday on the website of the pro-government Arab News.  

A royal decree has restricted the issuing of fatwas only to Saudi clergy approved by King Abdullah.


Saudi authorities are getting more and more fed up with clerics who embarrass the kingdom by issuing wacky, sexist or just bizarre religious edicts. The battle to silence the clerics may also be part of a broader attempt by King Abdullah to put the clergy in its place, like the battles between emerging European states and the Catholic church centuries ago.

Saudi-pandaA week ago, Saudi authorities pulled the plug on a television preacher who had earlier made international waves by issuing a fatwa allowing unrelated men and women to mingle in public so long as a woman allows the guy to drink her breast milk in order establish a maternal bond. 

The most recent clashes erupted after Youssef Ahmed had told Saudis to avoid the Panda supermarket chain because it allowed the mingling of female and male employees and customers. 

Some clergy dismissed Ahmed's ruling as against Islam. "Islam has never prevented women from education and work," said Muhammad Zulfah, according to Arab News. "Those who oppose the work of women should reeducate themselves." 

But the Ahmed must have angered some pretty rich and powerful people. Panda is a huge firm that employs more than 10,000 people in more than 100 branches around the Persian Gulf. The firm admitted it was forced to move 11 female employees this week but vowed to continue employing women in public areas of the stores. 

Since then, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abdul Aziz Asheik, Saudi's top cleric, publicly ordered Ahmed to stop issuing dumb religious rulings. 

Meanwhile Saudi's Ministry of Islamic Affairs has ordered clerics to keep their Friday sermons short and smart, according to a report published Friday by the Saudi Gazette. A ministry official warned clerics they would face punishments if they don't trim their speeches, including being forced to undergo training or having their paychecks docked. 

Azam Shewair, an official at the Ministry's Riyadh branch, said clergy needed to keep in mind that elderly or sick worshipers may not be able to handle sitting and listening to hourlong speeches filled with their words of wisdom. Another scholar told the Gazette speeches should be no more than 15 minutes. 

But in the comments by Saudi scholars the Gazette elicits, there is also a palpable contempt and dismissal of the junior clergy as a bunch of uneducated rabble who need to be leashed.

"The impact of the sermon is not measured by its length but by the eloquent, concise and precise wording," said Saleh Humaid, a ranking cleric. "Imams should refrain from flowery and bombastic language and delve directly into the core of their sermon."

Another scholar accused some clergy of copying and pasting Friday sermons from books or the Internet and reading them out loud without even understanding what they're saying.

The clerics, critics say, could also benefit from editing skills. 

"Some of them elaborate on the topic by repeating themselves and going around in circles," Ahmad Mawrai, a Saudi professor, told the Gazette. "In many cases they jump from one topic to another. This is why their sermons are tedious and boring."

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos, from top: A cleric preaches in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Saudi Minsitry of Islamic Affairs via Wikimedia Commons; detail from the website of the Panda supermarket chain. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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