Furore over separated tawaaf
A prominent Muslim academic has harshly criticized a public statement issued by a Wahhabi cleric from a Riyadh university this week, who has called for the segregation of men and women during the Tawaaf around the Holy Kaabah. Prof. Yusuf al-Ahmad, an expert in Shariah Law at the Imam Mohammad bin-Saud Islamic University, has labeled the ritual as a "dangerous innovation" and believes women should not be allowed to perform the rotation around the Kaabah, whilst men are present.
At the same time, the cleric insists the expansion of the Haram of Makkah should allocate a separate floor for women do conduct their Tawaaf or prayers. In an article entitled, "Saudi Arabia: Wahhabis vs. Women", Dr Irfan Al Alawi, International director at the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, has condemned the patriarchal ideologies, which continue to flourish within the Wahhabi social system.
"Among the internal contradictions Saudi Arabia faces are that its population is over-educated in areas such as the theocratic ideology of Wahhabism, the monarchy's official interpretation of Islam -- but that this education is of little use for gaining employment in a modern economy subject to the global financial cycle and fluctuations in energy pricing. The repression of women is a barrier the Wahhabi clerics believe they can reinforce against any step away from their own status as monitors of Saudi morals and customs," he writes.
Speaking exclusively to VOC's Drivetime on Thursday, the academic lashed out against the hardline approach adopted by the Wahhabis, saying a move to separate women from the Haram would negate the examples of gender equality reinforced by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
"This has never happened during the time of the Prophet (pbuh), his companions or during the Ottoman era. I think it is important that we realize this is a bid'ah (innovation) that the Wahhabis want to implement into the Haram to stop our women from going near the Kaabah," he said.
Along with the Medina Al-Munawarah University, the Imam Mohammad bin-Saud Islamic University is considered one of the most "radical" learning institutions in the Saudi Kingdom, where prominent Wahhabi clerics are known to have issued their fatwahs. Al Alawi said he was not surprised by the verdict, after a decision five years ago to construct an enclosure for women in the Haram, providing them with space to pray, separate from men. The six foot high wall was built and still exists, but has not been utilized after a law by the Saudi monarchy to legitimize this segregation was not passed.
Saudi women protested the move and sent a petition of 10 million signatures to King Abdullah bin Aziz Al Saud, insisting the proposed plan was "unjust" and did not occur during the Prophets (pbuh) time. "So many women come far across the world, whilst others spend their lives saving all their money to come see the Kaabah...to touch it and to cry for their Creator. If this law goes ahead, they will not even be able to get a glimpse of the Kaabah, because the wall is so high," he pointed out.
Various academics within Saudi have come out strongly against this opinion, with some lambasting the Wahhabi cleric's views as "radical" and "outrageous". Some scholars believe the best form of defense is to ignore his statements, but others insist that al-Ahmad and those academics that share in his opinion should be expelled from their positions.
However, Al Alawi said it must be understood that only a minority of academics believe that women should not be separated in the Haram, whilst the majority form the legal clerics - the "mutawiyin" (dubbed 'Shariah police') - who insist on upholding certain elitist and patriarchal values in Saudi society. There was therefore "no certainty" that such a law would not be approved, he added.
"The Saudi Wahhabi brain works over night....today they might say women can continue to perform Tawaaf, tomorrow they may just change their mind. We have a steel ring within the ulema of the Wahaabi regime, who decides how and when to implement certain laws and King Abdullah really does not have much power against them..."
King Abdullah has however attempted to reintegrate traditional sectors of Saudi Arabia into mainstream Islam. The ruler has reiterated over the years that the monarch must not be harassed by the 'Shari'ah police'.
Although there had been pressure over the past six years for the King not to open the Masjid-un-Nabawi (the Prophet's Mosque, situated in the city of Medina) for 24 hours, the leader ignored this pressure and even gave the nod of approval for women to visit the site at night. Last month, he also suggested that airport immigration officers need to be provided etiquette training, given their ill reputation of impoliteness and disrespect.
These initiatives prove that the King has identified a need for social reform and is willing to make "good changes", said Al Alawi. The main setback, he added, was the challenge posed by the Sufi scholars, who live within the Kingdom.
"We have many hard core clerics in Saudi that still have power and can influence the youth or the Wahhabi controlled media authorities. They can even shut down Masjid-un-Nabawi if they wanted to and keep women permanently away from the holy site. Within the Kingdom, no one will have the courage to speak out or to suggest anything, because they will be harassed or even arrested by the Shari'ah police," Al Alawi conceded.
"If we keep women away from the Kaabah and the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), how will they ever learn about the sacred places where he prayed, meditated and taught his companions?" he argued.
In conclusion, the academic acknowledged that societal values and norms within the Saudi Kingdom have changed over the past decades, but with little pace. Whilst views on certain Saudi policies may be expressed outside the country, many critics are silenced when inside the Kingdom. Al Alawi said these differing opinions were "dangerous" and if exploded, could result in a "civil war".