Middle East

Saudi website for fatwas closes

Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah
Image caption Salman al-Awdah is one of the most influential religious figures in Saudi Arabia

The popular Islam Today website, run by the Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah, has closed a section that contains thousands of Islamic religious rulings, or fatwas.

Several websites offering fatwas have recently been blocked, following a decree by King Abdullah.

The decree was seen as an attempt to reduce controversial fatwas issued by minor or ultra-conservative clerics.

Some of these have been a serious embarrassment to the Saudi authorities.

The Saudi newspaper, Arab News, said Islam Today had closed its fatwa pages in order to avoid closure of the website by the authorities.

Restrictions

The decree restricts the right to issue fatwas - usually translated as religious edicts, but sometimes carrying the status merely of advice - to members of an officially approved council of Islamic scholars.

King Abdullah is known to favour reform, but he has faced opposition from conservative clerics and some members of the Saudi ruling family allied with the religious establishment.

Ultra-conservative clerics have sometimes used fatwas to publicly oppose what they see as attempts to Westernise their society.

There have also been a number of controversial fatwas that have embarrassed Saudi reformers.

In one such instance, clerics suggested that the Saudi prohibition on mixing of the sexes could be overcome if a man were symbolically to become a woman's child by sucking on her breast or drinking her breast milk.

'Fatwa chaos'

In other cases, more liberal interpretations of Islam sparked counter-fatwas by conservatives, leading to what some commentators have described as fatwa chaos.

Islam Today gave no explanation for why it had closed its fatwa section. As of 1300 GMT on Thursday, the closure applied only to the website's more popular Arabic-language section and it was still possible to access the smaller fatwa archive in English.

Salman al-Awdah himself was once a controversial figure, a hardline cleric who was imprisoned in the 1990s for inciting opposition to the Saudi government.

He has since reinvented himself as a moderate figure and has become one of Saudi Arabia's most influential religious figures, with a wide following through the media although he has remained outside the government-backed religious establishment.

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