Saudi Arabia has been accused of promoting a radical form of Islam in recent years, especially since 9/11.
It is hard to deny that the Wahabi style of Islam promotes a value system that suppresses some of the basic elements of human liberties, such as freedom of religion. In addition, it promotes suppression of women in different ways.
I raised the issue in a recent column that the progressive elements within Saudi Arabia need to use the power of the religion itself to promote values of freedom and liberty as the Muslim on the street needs to have religious justification for these values to adopt them. I was both happy and surprised to see the Saudi system apply this principle to use religion to bring the Muslim world to modernity.
For years, the religious police in Saudi Arabia advocated separating men and women in education and daily life activities. Many other parts of the Muslim world and Islamic societies gradually adopted the same gender separation approach.
But a most unexpected thing occurred recently, when Sheikh Ahmed Bin Qassim al-Ghamdi, who heads the religious police in Mecca who used to punish people for mixing with the other gender, has announced that mixing between males and females is completely Islamic and permissible.
The sheikh actually criticized those who promote a complete separation between different genders in education and in normal life activities for lack of correct knowledge about the true Islam.
It is important in this context to mention that, in traditional Islam, a male relative or a husband can be called mahram and a male stranger is called non-mahram. A Muslim man and woman can mix together only if he was a mahram for her. This was the main Islamic theological reason for separating men and women.
Al-Ghamdi provided theological evidence to support his view that Muslim women can mix with non-Mahram men, basing his contentions on the following points:
1. Women (not men!) used to clean Prophet Muhammad's hair.
2. The hadith(s) (non-Quranic words of Prophet Muhammad) that forbids women from shaking hands with men or prevent mixing between men and women are weak — i.e. neither accurate nor binding to Muslims.
3. Prophet Muhammad’s disciples used to allow women to ride and sit with them on the back of the same horse or donkey. This can be extended today to riding with a different gender on the same motor bike or a bike.
4. Any slave girl used to hold hands with the Prophet Muhammad and take him to where she wished.
5. Accurate hadith supports the idea that it is permitted for Muslim women to look at men
(Note: In these examples, men were considered non-mahram to the women.)
Al-Ghamdi's revolutionary views are available at the Al-Arabia News
To understand the significance and the difficulty of making such a change in the Saudi society it is important to remember that Saudi Arabia's religious police stopped school girls from leaving a blazing building in March 2002 because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers.
This novel approach — to allow the mixing of Muslim females and males — by some of the leading Saudi scholars gives evidence that Saudi Arabia is currently leading a gradual and progressive form of reformation of the Muslim world via providing fresh theology.
Two other Saudi Arabian steps that must be applauded are King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's interfaith initiative and his courageous decision to start the first university in the country that does not segregate students based on sex. They ultimately can lead to a desperately needed reform in the Muslim world.
I hope we will see more progressive steps from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries in the same direction of reform, freedom, and modernity.
Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." A former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida), he now is a reformer of Islam. For information, visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.
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