JEDDAH // A hardline member of the Saudi religious police sparked anger among Saudi clerics recently after he eased his views on ikhtilat, the mixing and interaction of unmarried and non-blood-related men and women. The change of heart from Sheikh Ahmed al Ghamdi, the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in the Mecca region follows the firing, by the Saudi king, of a senior cleric in October for criticising co-education at the research university launched personally by King Abdullah.
Sheikh al Ghamdi, who oversees moral conduct in Jeddah and Mecca, announced his full support of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust). He argued in a lengthy interview with Okaz, a Saudi daily newspaper, last week that ikhtilat is a recent adoption that was unknown to the early scholars and has a weak basis in Islam. The change came as a surprise to observers because Sheikh al Ghamdi was responsible for detaining scores of men and women in recent years on charges of interaction with members of the opposite sex who were not their blood relative.
The religious police did not issue any statement on Sheikh al Ghamdi's comments, but hardline clerics criticised him because his views have shaken the role of the police in society. "The word in its contemporary meaning has entered customary jurisprudential terminology from outside," Sheikh al Ghamdi told the newspaper. "Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah [Islamic nation] and its societies.
"Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction, as every fair-minded Muslim should follow Sharia judgments without excess or negligence. "In many Muslim houses - even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram - you can find female servants working around unrelated males," he said. "Those who prohibit ikhtilat cling to weak hadith [sayings of the Prophet], while the correct hadith prove that mixing is permissible, contrary to what they claim," Sheikh al Ghamdi said.
Ikhtilat is an established concept in Sunni thought and embraced by the Wahhabi doctrine. Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyya, a prominent 14th-century scholar whose work is admired by Wahhabis, wrote in his book Al Turuq Al Hukmiyyah: "There is no doubt that enabling women to mix freely [ikhtilat] with men is the root of every calamity and evil. Free mixing between men and women is also the reason for increase in immorality and illegal sexual intercourse.
"Had the rulers known what corruption it causes in worldly affairs and the society, before the hereafter, they would have been the strictest in stopping it," he argued. Ikhtilat moved to the centre of religious debate after King Abdullah removed Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al Shithri after his statements opposing gender mixing at the kingdom's first co-educational university. Sheikh al Shithri, a son of a leading scholar who is close to the king, appeared on Al Majd Islamic satellite channel in October and lashed out at the newly opened Kaust, which the king launched as a step to turn oil-dependent Saudi Arabia into a knowledge-based economy.
Sheikh al Shithri's views on ikhtilat at the university in particular were opposed by some leading members of the religious establishment including Sheikh al Ghamdi and the Saudi justice minister, Mohammed al Issa. In the interview last week, Sheikh al Ghamdi praised the king's move to launch Kaust and described the university as an "extraordinary move" for Saudi Arabia. Sheikh al Ghamdi and Mr al Issa were criticised by Saudi hardline clerics for easing their views on ikhtilat, but none of the criticism came from the council of senior scholars, the supreme religious body in the kingdom.
On Friday, a senior cleric, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Attram, appeared on Al Majd criticising Sheikh al Ghamdi for describing ikhtilat as a new concept and warning that many scholars are confusing people on its prohibition. Sheikh al Attram described Sheikh al Ghamdi as a mohtasib, a volunteer in the religious police, although Sheikh al Ghamdi is one of its leading members. Sheikh al Attram said Sheikh al Ghamdi included many hadith without clarifying the context in which they were said, and rejected views that all senior scholars have agreed on. "We don't need someone to come and bury alive our experiment and say that co-education is permissible," he said.
The change in Sheikh al Ghamdi's views also came as a shock to observers who questioned the reasons for his change of thought. Adhwan al Ahmari, a journalist who specialises in religious police news, wrote in an e-mailed statement that he had been surprised to find Sheikh al Ghamdi had changed his views on ikhtilat. "We salute Sheikh al Ghamdi for his boldness, which leads us to an important question: what about the religious police attempts and long battles against ikhtilat all those past years and when it detained people in the last Saudi book fair on the basis of ikhtilat?"
At the international book fair this year in Riyadh, religious police prevented a female writer, Halima Muzafar, from signing books for male readers and arrested two novelists for approaching her to receive their signed copies. "If ikhtilat is an invented term in Islam and has no position, then I wish to see a transformation in the way the police treat this issue which was and still is a major concern for them," al Ahmari wrote.
After Sheikh al Shithri was fired, many scholars debated the issue of ikhtilat and co-education. Sheikh Yousef al Qaradhawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, and Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, who in October described Kaust as an "edifice of science", both gave support to co-education. "Islam does not forbid the mixing of the sexes as long as it is conducted according to Sharia," Sheikh al Qaradhawi told Al Madina newspaper in October. He said the term ikhtilat is new to Islamic religious teachings.
In an interview with Okaz in October, Mr Gomaa explained there is no harm in co-education within Sharia and within a learning environment. firstname.lastname@example.org