From Allah’s Lips to the King’s Ear
Here’s a fascinating dynamic, not only for the Muslim state, but the perspective that factions of the West might bring of it:
Now King Abdullah is moving to regain control over this abundance of fatwas. Under a royal decree issued in mid-August, only the official panel may issue the fatwas that answer every question of how pious Saudis should live their lives.
The result: In recent weeks, websites and a satellite station where clerics answered questions have been shut down or have voluntarily stopped issuing fatwas. One preacher was publicly reprimanded for urging a boycott of a supermarket chain for employing female cashiers.
One wonders by what religious claims the king grants himself authority to restrict those to whom the domestic society has imparted the role of interpreting and explaining religion. As the West can testify, this is the road along which religion crumbles, when worldly habits and political constructs begin to be overtly superimposed on claims that are supposed to be supernatural.
Some observers see such an outcome as in line with the natural (even supernatural) order of things:
The question on the minds of some Saudis is whether any of this points the way to a more liberal code. Saad Sowayan, a Saudi historian and columnist, thinks it does. “The state wants to take the lead in shaping public opinion and this serves the issue of secularism and modernity,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
That path, as the article goes on to explain, requires the king to stack the official religious council with increasingly tolerant clerics. But that would only undermine its claims to religious authority in favor of royal authority. In other words, the liberalization is entirely in the statist mode, rather than the classically liberal mode of freedom and balance between social institutions.
Of course, liberalizing Islam hasn’t been the inclination of the ruling class of Saudi Arabia, and the official fatwas are among the most hard line.