LONDON – Saudi Arabia is increasing efforts to promote a “moderate” form of Islam, a promise made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to help move the kingdom into the modern era.
A member of the kingdom’s Council of Senior Scholars, considered the country’s chief religious body, recently stated that women were not under religious obligation to wear the abaya, the traditional loose-fitting black robe worn by Muslim women in the Gulf region.
During a question-and-answer session on a Mecca radio station, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq said Muslim women should dress modestly but that the abaya was not a religious requirement.
“More than 90% of committed Muslim women in the Islamic world do not wear the abaya,” Mutlaq said. “We see them in Mecca and Medina. They are women who, may God bless them, are committed and memorise the Quran and preach for God but they do not wear abayas. For this reason, my friends, we do not oblige [women] to wear abaya.”
On the same programme, Mutlaq said long fingernails were frowned upon in Islam.
Mutlaq’s comments, which carry significant weight in religious circles, led to fierce debates and the creation of the Twitter hashtag #Al-Mutlaq_theabaya_not necessary.
“Those who trade in religion know that the life the Muslim Brotherhood has grown accustomed to in the past 40 years is over and these hypocrites must a find a different path instead of using religion to control people’s lives,” wrote Twitter user @OmrRian.
Other reactions were less supportive.
“Even if 100 fatwas have been issued, I swear to God I will never leave my abaya. Over my dead body. Girls, do not listen to the fatwas,” wrote Twitter user @Kooshe90.
As home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long been defined culturally by its role and place in the religion. However, in a post 9/11 world, the kingdom has also been accused of supporting an intolerant form of Islam.