But criticism on social media prompts Sheikh Abduallah Al Mutlaq to issue clarification
Saudi cleric receives support for abaya comments
A senior Saudi cleric received support on Sunday for his statement that women should have the choice to wear the abaya.
Sheikh Abduallah Al Mutlaq, a member of Saudi Arabia's Council of Senior Scholars, said on Friday that Muslim women should dress modestly, but that this did not necessitate wearing the full-body covering.
"More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas," Sheikh Al Mutlaq said during his television programme. "So we should not force people to wear abayas."
However, the statement sparked criticism on social media, prompting Sheikh Al Mutlaq to issue a denial on Sunday that his comments were an invitation for women to appear in public uncovered.
“I was surprised to see that people have interpreted my words incorrectly," he said. "My statement said that Muslim women around the world are not obliged to wear the headscarf, as long as what they wear does not violate the conditions of the Islamic veil.”
Although Sheikh Al Mutlaq's statement does not necessarily signal a change in Saudi law, which requires women to wear an abaya in public, it was the first of its kind from a senior religious figure.
“A Muslim woman’s commitment to wearing the Islamic hijab is a sign of obedience to God and a means of propagating chastity,” Sheikh Al Mutlaq said.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Mousa, another senior Saudi cleric, said on Twitter that "chastity and morality should not be tied to a piece of cloth.”
Fahad Al Orabi Al Harthi, president of the Saudi Asbar think tank, also spoke out in defence of Sheikh Al Mutlaq.
"The cleric didn't say to take off the abaya, he said to dress modestly," Mr Al Harthi said. "Saudi women have the ability to differentiate between provocative and modest garments."
The kingdom has seen an expansion in women's rights recently, including the lifting of a ban on women driving. Women are now also allowed to attend mixed public sporting events.