In a blow to Islamic freedom of thought, the Saudi king has ordered that all public fatwas must be approved by himself
Last week, the king of Saudi Arabia issued a royal order decreeing that the only Islamic scholars allowed to issue fatwas will be those approved by himself.
The move has been welcomed by some as an attempt to impose discipline on the chaotic business of fatwa-issuing and also put a stop to “strange” fatwas, like the recent one on breast-feeding adult men in order to overcome the kingdom’s strict rules on gender segregation.
In a sermon on Friday, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca praised the king’s decree, saying it would protect sharia law “from infringements of unqualified people who deviate from the path of the Prophet”, adding: “The king is determined to stop any transgression against approved religious establishments.”
The decree applies only to public fatwas, not those issued privately to individuals for personal guidance.
But there are a couple of problems with this. The first is the practical question of enforcing it. “All those who violate this order subject themselves to accountability and punishment, whoever they are, because the interests of the religion and the nation are above anything else,” the king said in his decree. It is unclear how, exactly, they will be punished but in an age when all kinds of “Islamic scholars” – some of them with dubious qualifications – are accustomed to making their views known over the internet or satellite television, there is likely to be stiff resistance from some quarters.
The second problem is one of principle. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to express opinions, no matter how ridiculous, without the king’s approval?
Let’s suppose that instead of tackling fatwas, the king had complained about some “strange” columns appearing in the newspapers and decreed that henceforth all columnists would have to be vetted by him first. That would be seen as an attack on free speech and deservedly condemned. Are fatwas really any different?
One argument in favour of restrictions put forward by a senior (and royally approved) Saudi scholar is that “anomalous” fatwas “cause confusion in the society”. Similarly, the kingdom’s grand mufti says the aim is to prevent fatwas that “deviate from the consensus opinion and start forbidding some matters and making others permissible without proof”.
What this really means is that they don’t want real religious debate. But it is only through allowing deviation from the consensus that new ideas can emerge – which is essential for Islam (and any other religion, for that matter) to adapt to changing conditions.
Underlying it, too, is a patronising and over-protective attitude towards ordinary Muslims: they must be shielded from anything that might cause “confusion” in their heads. Again, though, that is not they way forward.
In the same way that the internet is gradually teaching people they shouldn’t believe everything they read on screen or in print, crazy fatwas serve a useful purpose. They demonstrate that there is no such thing as a single “correct” interpretation of scripture, and force people who have never been accustomed to doing so to start sorting the wheat from the chaff.
In Saudi Arabia, though, allowing space for free religious debate is not really possible under the present system. The laws of the state are based on religious law (the sharia) – or at least the official Wahhabi interpretation of it. This assumes there is a consensus about what religious law says, and a free market for fatwas would undermine the whole edifice.