Haifa Al Dosari

Haifa Al Dosari

Journalist

Saudi senior scholar calls for the appointment of female Muftis

Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, is calling on the Kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah Al-Sheikh, to appoint female Muftis (Muslim legal experts who hold official power to give rulings on religious matters).

Al-Mutlaq made this rather bold call during a TV appearance on Monday, June 11, arguing that women were most qualified and capable to make rulings and decisions on affairs related to their lives – and equally, that there are many Saudi women who were equipped with the Islamic knowledge and competence to make authoritative rulings known as “fatwas”.

“I call on His Eminence, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah Al-Sheikh to employ women of our nation from universities such as the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University, Umm Al-Qura University and others, who are currently specializing in Islamic law. Without a doubt, Saudi women are most knowledgeable and capable in regulating affairs of women and womanhood. Women trust and confide in other women first and most when it comes to matters of religion. They know that they can express themselves and ask questions freely in the presence of their female peers,” said Al-Mutlaq during his appearance.

Many barriers compromise male Muftis’ religious jurisprudence on women’s affairs, Al-Mutlaq added. He stressed on the need for Saudi’s Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Iftaa – the committee tasked with conducting religious research and issuing fatwas on personal affairs under governmental and other entities – to address and overcome some of these barriers with male fatwa scholars. “My daughter and wives are heavily involved in fatwa decisions, and have consistently supported me and alleviated pressure in religious rulings pertaining to women’s state of affairs and daily lives. There is a great deal of reluctance by women to openly address matters of their religious private lives. Women confide in and open up a lot more to other women than they would to a male Mufti,” he said.

Even if not on a full-time responsibility basis, women can be contracted and qualified as Muftis on an official status and title, Al-Mutlaq clarified, adding: “Before, when there were few women in the field of Islamic law and religious jurisprudence, their inclusion was more challenging. Today, there is an abundance of religious and Sharia expertise among our sisters and daughters [that qualify them to be Muftis].”

The official workarounds

Sheikh Al-Mutlaq’s call is a rare and rather bold statement, particularly coming from a high-echelon member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, the highest and ultimate religious authority in Saudi Arabia on Fatwa issuance and religious rulings and affairs.

Saudi women had remained on the sidelines of Saudi religious institutions’ organizational structures for years. Still, some female figures partook in the religious education of other women on several occasions and in several areas.

Since its establishment in 1971, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars has not had any female members in its organization, and the same applies to the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Iftaa.

The Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance, which oversees the management and maintenance of Mosques, as well as Islamic preaching, has been rumored several times to be soon employing women across its structure. But so far, the rumors are yet to materialize.  

In previous press statements, several ministry officials said that the ministry was examining and assessing the possibility of a female workforce across its ranks. However, this possibility was never formalized, as affirmed the previous Minister of Islamic Affairs, Saleh Al-Shaikh. Last year, Al-Shaikh stated that while there were no official jobs in the ministry for women, the ministry closely but informally collaborated with female experts on a need and project basis.

Indeed, the ministry works with tens of women across the Kingdom, but indirectly so through third-party collaborative bodies and offices. These collaborations often center on Islamic preaching, and on the implementation of the ministry’s recruitment program among women across schools, universities and charity organizations. The ministry’s female project basis collaborators typically undergo training such work, but are not recognized for it with an official title.  

As a result, many female figures in the Islamic preaching field have been doing their work and holding religious conferences and Fatwa programs without an official authorization, and away from the scope of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Two years ago, Al Riyadh Saudi newspaper reported that, according to its sources, the ministry has not issued any official licenses for women practicing Islamic preaching in their peer circles, despite the abundance and popularity of their education programs among fellow women.

Change at the top

But over the years, women have played a central and sizeable role in The Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, the entity tasked with the management and supervision of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in Makkah.

Most recently, the presidency established the General Women’s Authority, headed by the Chief Advisor to the President for Women's Affairs, Dr. Fatima Bint Zaid Al-Rashoud. The authority comprises a spate of committees and sub-departments that are run by women and for women at The Two Holy Mosques.

The authority’s focal remit is on services and on-site organization, such as guidance and counseling for female pilgrims and visitors on Sharia-compliant prayer, and the prevention from violations to the mosques’ religious and logistical rules and regulations.

As such, the authority is tasked with organizing female visitors’ entry to women-only areas, as well as guarding and providing fully fledged services to these areas.

Its departments cover sub-departments for guidance and counseling, on-site, prayer organization, library and education, transport and fleet management, feedback and relationship management services.

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