04/27/2010 12:36


Head of the religious police in Mecca, men and women can pray together 


Ahmed al-Ghamdi says that the strict separation between the sexes that exists 
today did not exist at the time of Muhammad. Conservatives respond harshly: a 
fatwa says that he "must be killed." The official Saudi news agency reports his 
removal and a few hours later deletes the story. The issue also has economic 

Riyadh (AsiaNews) - The Saudi official news agency, SPA, had reported his 
dismissal only to delete all reports a few hours later, a fatwa says "he should 
be killed," the Grand Mufti has denied his authority to speak about Islamic 
law. He, Ahmed al Ghamdi (pictured), head of the religious police in Mecca, the 
first holy city of Islam, confirms his convictions: men and women can pray 
together and meet freely, even if only in public.

The episode has been strictly censored by Saudi Arabia, monitored by the 
Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the official 
name of the muttawa, the religious police. Of which Ghamdi is a senior official.

The question of the possibility of men and women "mixing" - in public, never in 
private - has for weeks been at the centre of a debate between scholars and 
politicians. Thus, the Saudi newspaper The National, has devoted a long article 
to the story, recalling the words of the Justice Minister Muhammad al Issa who 
warned against confusing public promiscuity, which he believes is allowed by 
Islam, with meetings in private between men and women who are neither married 
nor related by kinship, which is prohibited.

The problem is not merely one of religious tradition, it also has economic 
implications. The ban has in fact heavy negative influences on women's 
employment and foreign investment since it requires gender division even in the 
offices of international companies.

So, since December, when Ghamdi first spoke out on the issue, the question has 
occupied newspapers and television programs. A debate which is due to the 
climate of moderate reforms that King Abdullah is introducing into the country 
in an attempt to modernize it.

But the reaction of conservatives has been very hard. If Ghamdhi argues that 
the division did not exist at the time of Mohammed his opposers cry of 
violations of Sharia and apostasy. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Barrak has issued a 
fatwa which says that promiscuity "as supported by modernists" is prohibited 
because it allows "the sight of what is forbidden and prohibited conversations 
between men and women." Anyone who facilitates such promiscuity is an infidel", 
and if not retracted "should be killed".  And finally, anyone who allows his 
daughter, sister or wife to work with men or to attend a mixed school is guilty 
of "a kind of prostitution". 

On Sunday, the case seemed closed. The Commission's website published a 
statement from its Chairman Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain according to which 
Ghamdhi had been replaced. The statement was picked up and reported by SPA.  
Soon after, however, the agency wrote that the news was to be "deleted and not 

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