May 26, 2010
Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 613

Son of Former Saudi Mufti Expresses Liberal Views

By: Y. Admon*

Introduction

Islamic affairs researcher Sheikh Ahmad bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz, who is a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan and son of the former Saudi mufti, conservative Wahhabi Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz (1912-1999), recently gave some interviews to the Saudi media in which he expressed liberal views starkly opposed to those of his father. He discussed controversial issues in Saudi Arabia, such as the mixing of men and women in public places, the policy of the religious police, public prayer hours, and the issue of women driving. In a recent Al-Watan interview, ibn Baz called for legislation to limit the birth rate in the kingdom, and for equality between men and women and permitting gender mixing in public. He said that the Saudi religious establishment was in crisis, that the religious police harmed individual freedoms, and that religious laws, such as the one prohibiting women from driving, were outmoded and needed to be changed to suit the modern age.[1]

Responses to ibn Baz's statements were mixed. Some columnists praised him as a young cleric who is unafraid of addressing sensitive subjects. Others expressed reservations about his views, claiming that the subjects he raised should not be debated or challenged. This article will present ibn Baz's views and some of the responses to them.

The Saudi Religious Establishment Is In Crisis

In an interview on Al-Arabiya TV, ibn Baz claimed the Saudi religious establishment was in a crisis due to the "fatwa anarchy" created by Saudi clerics, and added that the situation, if it continued, would spell the end of this establishment.[2] He said that in order to overcome this crisis, the religious establishment would need to be tolerant towards the various Islamic schools of thought and to reexamine religious law in light of current reality. He added that freedom of expression and an expanded sphere of discourse in Saudi society were necessary conditions for overcoming extremist ideology.

In the interview, ibn Baz also rejected criticism leveled at him by Islamist elements who claimed he was influenced by the liberal movement in Saudi Arabia: "...Those who say I have fallen into the hands of the secularists and liberals are shallow people who lack the jurisprudential and intellectual aptitudes necessary for constructive criticism and dialogue. They know only how to use the weapon of labeling [people] with trite accusations and stereotypes..."[3]

We Must Renounce Obsolete Ideas

Ibn Baz added that the Muslims were still guided by obsolete ideas that had no place in the modern world: "We are still guided by expressions and terms which are not hallowed, and which were established hundreds of years ago and are inapplicable today. It is difficult to see how terms such as... 'the Muslim State,' the 'Polytheist State,' [and] 'the State of Islam' could be relevant in the modern age...

"We must shape new jurisprudential perspectives on issues of state, homeland, nationality, international relations, and global organizations of a political, social, ideological, and legal nature. Scientific and ideological revolutions are essential, as is the launching of debate and the establishment of long-term think tanks and symposia. The universities carry the greatest responsibility for shaping modern jurisprudential perspectives suited to the many successive developments and revolutions of the modern [age]..."[4]

Legislation to Limit Birth Rate and Allow Gender Mixing

Ibn Baz expressed further liberal views in an interview for the Saudi daily Al-Watan, in which he called for legislation to limit the birth rate. He said: "We are experiencing a population explosion, and many of our clerics remain silent about this." He also supported the views expressed by Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, head of the religious police in Mecca, that gender mixing was natural and legitimate in modern social life, and that it is not forbidden for a man and a woman to be together in public.[5] Ibn Baz also said that in today's world accepting the other and mending relations with the West were crucially important.[6]

Questioning Set Prayer Hours

Another topic ibn Baz has addressed is that of public prayer. In an Al-Watan article titled "Prayer Hours and the Obligation to Observe Them," he questioned the necessity of enforcing strict prayer hours in mosques: "Is it fair to obligate people to pray at specific times, to the point of punishing those who fail to attend at the appointed hour and labeling them criminals? Is this in line with the Sunna, or does it contradict it? Is it forbidden to conduct a second [round] of public prayers, even though the Prophet [himself] prayed [only] once at the beginning [of the day] and once at the end, and sometimes even postponed the evening prayer until the second or last watch of the night?... These are questions for religious police chief Sheikh Dr. 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Humain, because this is an issue that concerns the public, which has to face this [issue] five times during the day and night."[7]

Ibn Baz also said that Saudi society attributes too much importance to issues like the hijab, gender mixing, and strict prayer hours. He pointed out that the religious police considered anyone who missed prayers to be a criminal, and that anyone who dared to raise this matter for debate was immediately suspected of impiety.[8]

Religious Police Violate Individual Freedoms

In response to criticism over his statements in this article, ibn Baz told Alarabiya.net: "Firstly, it is the people's obligation to pray, and encouraging this is a blessed thing... The problem lies in forcing [people to pray at specific times], and that is what the article addressed. Secondly, for more than seven years now, I have written numerous articles about the religious police, and this is not the first time that I have been accused of confronting it. It is no secret that some of its actions clash with public freedoms and with its reputation. [These actions] must be raised whenever possible..."[9]

Fatwa Against Women Drivers No Longer Relevant

Ibn Baz also addressed issues of women's rights. In an Al-Watan article, he wrote that freedom of movement was one of the rights that Islam gave to women, and that consequently, they should be permitted to drive. He called to grant women the legitimate human rights to which they were entitled according to Islam.[10]

Ibn Baz reiterated his support for women's driving in an interview with Alarabiya.net, in which he renounced a fatwa his father, former Saudi mufti 'Abdallah ibn Baz, had issued in 1990 forbidding women from driving. He said that the fatwa, issued during the Gulf War due to political and defense considerations, was no longer valid, because the reality in Saudi Arabia had changed: "The reality can change with the time and place and with the people and circumstances [involved]. Therefore, fatwas can change with the times... I am not saying that my father's fatwas were deficient... I [only] mean to say that my father issued a fatwa for a specific person in specific circumstances, and this fatwa does not necessarily apply to another person just because there is some similarity [between the two cases]. I mean to say that the circumstances and times may be different, so one cannot extrapolate [from one case to another]... "[11]

Islam Does Not Really Grant Women Their Rights

In another Al-Watan article, ibn Baz discussed the problems caused by the religious scholars' different interpretations of the shari'a: "If you open a book or ask a cleric about the laws of purchase and sale, he will tell you 'Allah permitted purchase but forbade interest.' This is a general statement that applies to both men and women. However, in practice a woman cannot even sell women's clothing to women, much less open a store in a commercial center, but only [a stall in] the street… We are tired of hearing that Islam grants a woman her rights and guards her honor. Do we [in fact] grant [women their rights]? The situation is similar regarding other controversial issues… We need political resolutions in many matters of dispute..."[12]

Saudi Columnist: Ibn Baz Expresses the Views of the Younger Generation

Saudi columnist Muhammad Al-'Athim expressed support for ibn Baz's views. In an article in the Saudi daily 'Okaz, he claimed that ibn Baz belonged to the younger generation of clerics and was therefore trying to solve problems by applying modern interpretations of Islamic law: "Ibn Baz is one of the members of the new generation… who are engaged in religious studies and searching for new and more tolerant interpretations – that differentiate between religious law and traditions portrayed as religion which are passed down from one generation to the next, and which are irreconcilable with modern times.

"Because Ahmad ibn Baz is the son of one of the most senior and renowned jurisprudents in the Muslim world, Sheik 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz, the conservatives wish for Ahmad and all the youth of his generation to follow the footsteps of their fathers, who lived in different times… They [believe] that in his general statements he is ruling against his father. [But this belief] is false. In fact, Ahmad ibn Baz is not ruling [at all], but expressing his religious opinion on various controversial matters germane to [Saudi] society and to women, who deserve protection according to tradition.

"This point of view... is shared by an army of clerics, young and old. [Ibn Baz] is expressing his point of view regarding matters such as limiting the birth rate and women driving... The conservatives believe that these matters have boundaries which must be preserved, and these are not controversial social issues that can change with the times... [But] Ahmad ibn Baz, like the rest of the youth of his generation, is unable to turn back time, and undo cultural and scientific achievements so as to return to the world of the primitive village, merely to satisfy a group of people unwilling to change its traditions..."[13]

Kuwaiti Columnist: Ibn Baz Is Raising Issues that Are Not Open to Debate

In an article in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan, columnist Hamid Salam Al-Muri claimed that issues such as gender mixing and arriving at the mosque on time were not subject to debate: "...Ibn Baz exaggerated when he said that Saudi society faced many problems, such as the hijab and public prayer laws, and called these matters 'controversial.' Unbelievable! Since when are the issues like the hijab and public prayer subject to debate? I have several questions that I want Sheikh Ahmad ibn Baz to clarify. Perhaps [then] I will support his fatwa, or else he will change his mind.

"Do you truly support unnecessary [gender] mixing? If so, when did you [first] endorse this [view]? Was it while your father was Mufti of Saudi Arabia? Did you consult with him as a man of greater knowledge and wisdom than you? If you did consult with him, what was his response? I know that he issued rulings in accordance with the Koran and the Sunna, and that he would forbid unnecessary [gender] mixing. Or did your fatwa come after the government permitted the mixing [of genders] at King 'Abdallah University? What evidence did you bring from the Koran and the Sunna proving there is no ban on [gender] mixing?

"What do you mean [when you say that] Muslims must not continue to be guided by old and rigid interpretations...? Do you mean that the ban on unnecessary gender mixing is part of old and rigid interpretations, [just] because they contradict the customs of the infidel West...? Or did you mean that the interpretations of the Prophet's Companions... [regarding the hijab] are rigid interpretations that need to be changed? [Do you want] the hijab to be [a mere] piece of cloth that a woman places on her head while exposing her face to men as is done in the infidel West in the name of progress? Did you mean to say that men's prayers at mosque are the product of rigid interpretations, because the youth of today are occupied with games and parties and have no time to pray in the mosque?.., so we must therefore make it easier for them...? "[14]

Ibn Baz's liberal views were also criticized by Saudi religious scholar Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman bin Rashed Al-Wahhabi. In an article on the website islamlight.net, he too said that ibn Baz was discussing matters not open to debate, and ignoring hadiths and jurisprudential texts that refuted his claims. He also said that when his father was alive, ibn Baz had upheld the former Mufti's views, and that only now, after his death, was he disputing them. [15]

*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2769, "Son of Former Saudi Mufti: Women Should Be Allowed to Drive," January 26, 2010, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3929.htm and MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 402, " The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving," http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/2443.htm        .

[2] The term "fatwa anarchy" refers to the proliferation of fatwas issued in an unsupervised manner and gaining widespread distribution in the media and over the Internet. Many of these fatwas are Islamist in nature and harm the image of Islam and Muslims throughout the world. Lately, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been attempting to limit this phenomenon by regulating the issue of fatwas.

[3] www.alarabiya.net, January 24, 2010.

[4] www.alarabiya.net, January 24, 2010. Ibn Baz made similar statements in an article in the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat titled "Obsolete Terms" (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, June 28, 2003), as well as in an Al-Watan interview, in which he said: "The problem [lies in] misunderstanding the texts of Muslim law. We are guided by textual interpretations that have become outdated." Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, February 13, 2010.

[5] Al-Ghamdi made statements to this effect in a September 9, 2009 interview for the Saudi government daily 'Okaz.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 13, 2010.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 25, 2009.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 13, 2010.

[9] www.alarabiya.net, January 24, 2010.

[10] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 15, 2010. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2769, "Son of Former Saudi Mufti: Women Should Be Allowed to Drive," January 26, 2010, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3929.htm.

[11] www.alarabiya.net, January 23, 2010. Ibn Baz made similar statements in a September 2008 interview in which he argued that rulings should be sensitive to particular circumstances, and that every case should be addressed by its own specific fatwa, particularly cases which could not be decided based on the Koran and the Sunna. Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, September 12, 2008.

[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 16, 2010. In his February 13 Al-Watan interview, Ibn Baz stated that women and men were equal, and that a man could not claim guardianship over a woman, other than regarding the marriage contract. Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, February 13, 2010.

[13] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 21, 2010.

[14] Al-Watan (Kuwait), February 18, 2010.

[15]  www.islamlight.net, February 15, 2010.


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