Saudi religious cop too liberal

2010-04-25 22:06

Riyadh - The head of Saudi Arabia's religious police on Sunday replaced a senior officer who outraged hardliners with calls to ease rules for prayer in mosques and to allow men and women to mix freely.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi was replaced as general manager of the Mecca branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in an announcement from the organisation's president, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain.

Despite rumours that the sacking was imminent, Humain gave no reason for the move, which included several other new appointments of senior officials of the religious police, popularly known as the muttawa.

But it came three days after Ghamdi was reportedly dressed down by the country's highest cleric for saying that Muslims are not necessarily required to pray inside a mosque with a group of other Muslims in daily prayers.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told Ghamdi he was getting involved in matters of Islamic shari’ah law that were outside his authority, the Al-Madinah newspaper reported on Friday.

Underscoring the point, Sheikh said in his sermon during Friday prayers that anyone suggesting that congregation prayer is not necessary is "leading people to hell," according to reports.

Ghamdi, who could not immediately be contacted, had denied on Wednesday reports that he had already been fired by Humain for making statements advocating free mixing of unrelated men and women.

Islamic scripture

His views contrasted with a key duty of the Saudi religious police, which is to enforce gender segregation and the closure of all shops and offices so that men will attend prayers together.

Ghamdi has argued that Islamic scripture does not support the strict segregation enforced by Saudi Arabia's ultra-strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.

"There is nothing in Islamic law about mixing," he said in interviews with Saudi newspapers.

In December he endorsed a new research university near Jeddah, where an international group of men and women scientists freely mix in their work.

That seemed to place him on the side of Saudi King Abdullah, for whom the new institution is named.

Just two months earlier Abdullah had sacked cleric Sa'ad al-Shethry from the powerful Council of Senior Ulema after he criticised mixing of the sexes at the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology.

Since then, religious conservatives have continued to blast Ghamdi's views.

In February, hardline cleric Abdulrahman al-Barrak called advocates of mixing "apostates" who should be executed.

And on a TV religious talk show last week, prominent Prince Khalid bin Talal accused Ghamdi of insulting the Prophet Muhammad with his arguments.