Earlier this month, Saudi Shura Council ordered the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta to review fatwas posted on its website that contradict current reforms in the country. Other fatwas on the presidency’s website include some that Saudis consider “outdated” since they forbid practices that many take for granted. The order by the Shura Council challenges views that consider fatwas immutable and should not be revised or amended.
Fatwas Considered Outdated
There are a number of fatwas posted on the presidency’s website that contradict the lifestyle of Saudis today. One fatwa, for example, describes how it is “absolutely forbidden” in Islam to take photographs unless they are required for issuing a passport. Another fatwa argues that video recording is considered “haram” and any existing videos must be destroyed due to aniconism.
These fatwas are considered outdated to a population that enjoys posting photographs regularly on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Moreover, some religious figures who banned photography before can be seen nowadays posting photos of themselves while travelling or with friends.
أسال الله أن يرزقني الشهادة في سبيله على فراشي بعد عمر طويل. pic.twitter.com/OnIZ0DTYLW
— د. عائض القرني (@Dr_alqarnee) May 30, 2013
Saudis enjoy travelling for pleasure and study in and outside the Arab region. However, fatwas posted on the presidency’s website forbid visiting non-Muslim countries, arguing that travelling to “the land of infidels” for tourism or even for study has dire negative consequences on the faith and morality of Muslims.
Women’s attire used to be a highly debated topic during the rise of the sahwa era in the 1980s and 1990s. Religious scholars warned women against wearing pants, arguing that it can lead to fitnah. They even discouraged them from wearing pants in front of other women. Nowadays, this perspective is considered outdated among conservatives and non-conservatives alike.
Fatwas Contradicting Current Reforms
The General Authority for Entertainment was formed in May 2016 to generate events in a country that banned many forms of entertainment for decades. The authority was responsible for breaking many taboos by organizing musical concerts performed by national and international artists. This was a bold and unexpected step to many Saudis who were raised with the belief that music is strictly forbidden in Islam.
There are still many fatwas on the presidency’s website against listening to music or performing it. One fatwa, for example, forbids women from listening to music in weddings. Another fatwa urges against listening to music, even if it is meant to sooth a pregnant woman due to give birth. Another fatwa forbids women from performing on theater. This fatwa is contrary to recent reforms as women were allowed to perform on stage in front of a mixed audience for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has legalized cinemas for the first time in 35 years. However, religious scholars have always been firm about their rejection of opening cinemas in the country. A fatwa on the presidency’s website warns that opening cinemas will result in “great profanity and negative consequences”, arguing that banning cinemas is an important “prevention mechanism”.
The Ifta has also a number of fatwa on playing cards or any form of board games. They forbid playing cards because it distracts players from performing their religious duties. However, the General Sports Authority announced that it will host the first Baloot championship (a popular card game played in the Gulf region) in Riyadh this coming April.
Saudi Arabia announced in September 2017 the lifting of the driving ban on women. Women are expected to start driving in the summer of 2018. Fatwas against driving are still on the website arguing that allowing women to drive will have negative consequences on the society and that women are supposed to stay at home.
Fatwas Contradicting Possible Future Reforms
Saudi women are demanding their rights as equal citizens to men. They argue that the male guardianship system imposes shackles on them and does not allow them to travel, work and live independently. However, the male guardianship system is more of a cultural norm that has deep roots in a patriarchal society.
Yet, there are some fatwas that emphasize the importance of the male guardianship system and should be reviwed to allow for more reforms targeting women in the future. One fatwa forbids women from travelling by themselves ِ whereas another forbids them from travelling by plane without a male guardian, regardless of the distance. These fatwa can be attributed to the common practice of requesting a male guardianship approval for women wishing to travel alone.
A number of other fatwas can be found legalizing and emphasizing the importance of the male guardianship system on issues relating to women. A fatwa allowing child marriage is posted on the website along with other fatwas that talk in details about what is expected of women as wives, daughters and mothers.
The Problematic Presence of these Fatwas
The presence of these fatwas present a concrete example of the contradictions between current reforms and the non-tolerant religious views of the past that the current leadership is determined to eradicate. These fatwas also reinforce the current state of confusion among a faction of society that wants to change but is also wary of it. They also support the views of those opposing reforms due to religious reasons as they still find old fatwas reflective of puritanical Saudi Islam.
There are a number of fatwas that are built on a rigid interpretation of Islam but do not necessarily contradict Islamic teachings. Most of these fatwas are related to women and their empowerment. Reviewing these fatwas will allow for a more lenient understanding of religion and will open the door for more reforms in the future, especially for women.