Saudi Arabia politics: Fatwa central

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdelaziz al-Saud, has issued a royal decree outlawing the issue of religious edicts (fatwas) by anyone other than accredited members of the supreme council of ulema (religious scholars). His intervention has came following a spate of fatwas by obscure clerics, including some containing bizarre opinions, which have risked exposing the religious establishment and, by extension, the House of Saud to ridicule.

The king’s decree was foreshadowed in early August by an assertion by the most senior official Saudi cleric, the chairman of the Council of Senior Scholars, the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh, that all fatwas issued in the Kingdom should now be referred to either the ministry of religious affairs or to the Dar al-Ifta (General Presidency of Scholarly Research). However, it has already been suggested that clerics, official or otherwise, should refer to the religious authorities and even to the online guidance that Dar al-Ifta has provided since 2007, without the intended effect. Recently the council of ulema has been issuing clear statements on controversial issues such as terrorism and has reportedly been considering outlawing takfeeri judgments (declarations of apostasy). The changes are part of efforts to promote ongoing reforms which involve the codification of Shariah (religious law) and the creation of a framework for religious judgements by precedent rather than by jurisprudence.

The grand mufti stressed that his call was an attempt to allow the Kingdom to focus on serious issues including countering terrorism. This explicitly links the attempt to coordinate fatwas with state-led efforts to tackle religious arguments that underpin political extremism. The co-ordination of fatwa is also aimed at limiting the release of embarrassing and controversial opinions, following a series of recent outcries about religious judgements. Opinions from clerics have appeared risible in either their ultra-conservatism or in their attempts to find justifications for conservative stances. Furthermore unofficial or semi-official clerics can carry more popular weight and issue influential fatwa, such as encouraging armed action in neighbouring countries such as Iraq.
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