Questioning the Faith in the Cradle of Islam

FP: JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al-Ghamdi’s long, bushy beard and red-checked headscarf are emblems of his conservative approach to Islam, which is no surprise for a man who once supervised the Saudi religious police in the holy city of Mecca.

But it was something surprising about Ghamdi that brought me to his apartment in a scruffy, low-income section of Jeddah in the sweltering summer of 2011. I wanted to know why he had announced that, after extensive research, he could find no Islamic basis for Saudi society’s most distinctive feature: its strict gender segregation.

As his wife, sister, and mother listened in with obvious pride, Ghamdi explained that he could no longer take “at face value” religious rulings that gender mixing is haram — that is, religiously prohibited. “I wanted to go to their underpinnings, so I began collecting all the texts relating to this matter from the Quran and the Sunna [examples from the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed],” he said. “My conclusion was that not a single text or verse in the Quran and Sunna specifically says that mixing is haram. The word ‘mixing’ is not even in the Quran.”

Instead, he said he found plenty of texts “that proved that mixing happened at the time of Prophet Mohammed” and that “it is just another part of normal life.”

Ghamdi’s declaration sparked weeks of impassioned national debate. It also got him fired from the religious police, which enforces the ban on mixing.

His story is but one example of how the religious landscape of Saudi Arabia — often regarded as fixed and monochromatic — is increasingly a landscape in flux.

We are not witnessing a Reformation in the birthplace of Islam. Mosque and state remain closely bound in Saudi Arabia, basic law is derived from sharia, and the king is known as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” a reference to the holy places of Mecca and Medina.

But the religious attitudes of ordinary people are changing, as is the relationship between the House of Saud and its clerical establishment. This evolving religious scene is marked by less clerical control of social behavior, increasing diversity of religious thought, and more polarization between progressive and extreme right-wing versions of Islam. These changes have already diminished the monarchy’s ability to use religion to enforce social conformity and political obedience. And as the kingdom struggles with questions over succession and the Middle East’s escalating mayhem, these changes will bring added challenges to the House of Saud’s grip on power.

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