Heated debates swept Saudi religious circles as one cleric ruled that music was not un-Islamic while another supported adult breastfeeding and mixed-gender prayers.
Religious scholars, judges and clerics from both the hardline and progressive camps in Saudi Arabia argued last weeks about setting the rules that should govern the conservative kingdom in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence.
Much of the debate has focused on a fatwa issued by Adel al-Kalbani, a cleric from Riyadh, noting that Islam does not forbid music or singing.
Kalbani, the first black imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, is distinguished by his resonant voice and the soulful intensity of his Qur'anic recitation.
"There is no clear text or ruling in Islam that singing and music are prohibited," Kalbani said.
All kinds of music, with the exception of folk music and in very specific occasions, are banned in Saudi Arabia. Conservatives argue that music and singing are forbidden in Islam and that this not only applies to public performances, but even inside homes.
Kalbani defended his position by saying that the kind of music he endorses is absolutely devoid of any indecency that might violate Islamic laws.
"I am talking about decent singing, which contains decent words, and supports morality," he told the online newspaper Sabq.org.
Kalbani said he is willing to discuss the issue, yet complained that some people do not accept to engage in debates in the first place.
There is no clear text or ruling in Islam that singing and music are prohibited
Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani
Breastfeeding and prayer combination
Another two fatwas that sparked anger among hardliners were issued by Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeikan, a top advisor in the court of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
In the first fatwa, Obeikan said an adult man is considered a woman’s son if she breastfeeds him. So, if gender mixing is to be allowed in Islam women should breastfeed men to create a family-like environment and minimize chances of unauthorized sexual relations.
The issue of adult breastfeeding, loosely based on a story from the early Islamic era, has infuriated both conservatives and liberals alike and was also condemned by women rights activists. The fatwa was also seen as a way of getting around the ban on mixing of unrelated men and women.
Obeikan, who is known for promoting a milder approach to religion, also angered conservatives when he said that noon and afternoon prayers can be combined together at times of scathing heat. Temperature in the kingdom exceeds 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.
Conservatives argued that combining prayers could only be done under very specific circumstances such as travelling and insisted that they were against issuing such a general rule that applies to everyone.
Those who offer abnormal fatwas which have no support from the Quran should be halted
Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh
Conservatives slam fatwas
As the religious debate reached the internet and several media outlets and as the fatwas of Kablani and Obeikan were seen to cause confusion amongst Saudis, conservative clerics decided to contain the chaos.
Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais slammed in his Friday sermon what he described as “fraudulent” fatwas and compared those who issue them to vendors who sell fake goods. These fatwas, he added, undermine the security of the country.
Meanwhile, Saudi's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh, warned the originators of such fatwas that serious measures could be taken against them.
"Those who offer abnormal fatwas which have no support from the Quran should be halted," he said on al-Majd television Sunday.
Al al-Sheikh added that the issuers of those fatwas are not qualified and compared allowing them to promote those ideas to allowing fake doctors to treat patients.
The controversy highlighted the necessity of unifying sources of fatwa in the kingdom. The government is in favor of establishing one single body that would be in charge of issuing religious edicts under the supervision of the Senior Scholars Council.
Hamad al-Qadi, member of the Saudi Shura Council, called the fatwa fight "chaos" and said that the entire Muslim world looks to Saudi Arabia as far as Islamic laws are concerned.
"The Islamic world follows whatever comes out of our country and its scholars concerning Islam," he said, according to al-Hayat newspaper.
Journalist Dawood al-Shirian said fatwas are not a source of entertainment, but constitute a power the defines an entire society.
“Fatwas create conservatism or promote moderation,” he wrote in al-Hayat newspaper. “They are the real power.”
Another fatwa battle ensued earlier this year when Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of the Mecca branch of the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, shocked conservatives by endorsing the mingling of the sexes. Ghamdi was dismissed then reinstated.