Thursday, December 23, 2010


Today I write from the vicinity of the inviolable place of worship in Makkah, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; as I punch the letters on the keyboard of my mini VAIO Sony Notebook I view the Ka’bah clearly from my room situated on the 21st floor of the Safwah Royale Orchid Hotel, Makkah; I see the wanders of this Ancient House from this vantage point; people going round the Ka’bah in their tawaaf as if beneath their feet is an electronic device that moves with them effortlessly in their circumambulation. But why would one that is so close to the Region of Security, the Holy Ka’bah be in a state of confusion?

On September 23, 2009, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud hosted more than 3,000 guests, foreign leaders, including President Umaru Musa ‘Yar’adua of Nigeria, and Nobel laureates, at the King Abdulaziz University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Inauguration Ceremony. According to its website ‘the KAUST community is situated in a unique Red Sea coastal location near the fishing village of Thuwal, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Jeddah – Saudi Arabia’s second largest city.  The total area of the self-contained community spans more than 36 million square meters, including a unique coral reef ecosystem that the University will preserve as a marine sanctuary.’ This world-class postgraduate research university is, as the king himself described it, the modern House of Wisdom, or Bayt Al-Hikmah, an intellectual landmark of the "Golden Age of Islam."  The King hoped that KAUST would become a bridge between cultures and nations.

My confusion arises from the reaction of Muslim scholars within Saudi Arabia and around the world to the fact that KAUST would be a coeducational institution with men and women researchers ‘dedicated to inspiring a new age of scientific achievement in the Kingdom that will also benefit the region and the world.’

The first shot with Saudi ulema came from Sheikh Sulaiman Al-Douish who said ‘coeducation is sedition and an absolute evil.’ Another scholar, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Torafi called ‘gender mixing at the campus an evil act, a war between the guardians of virtue and the agents of America.’

In a live television phone-in programme on Al-Majd channel, Sheikh Sa’ad Bin Nasser Al-Shithri, a member of the Board of Senior Ulema, was asked about gender segregation at KAUST. He responded ‘by describing such a thing as unacceptable and called for a Shari’ah Committee to look into the studies being conducted at the university and their compatibility with Shari’ah Law.’

In which world are these scholars living? They must be from Mars. I’m really bewildered! These ulema want to thwart the King’s dream of having a university that will be ‘a beacon of tolerance’ – carrying ‘out its noble humanitarian message in a pure and clean atmosphere, taking the help of God and then that of enlightened intellectuals all over the world, without any bias or discrimination.’

If mixing of sexes is haram as these scholars would want us to believe then we have to stop going to hospitals, shopping malls and even to prayers in the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. We would have to designate streets, airports, and markets that will be exclusively for women. It’s high time our scholars dismounted their camels to give fatwa according to the challenges of our time!

On October 4th, 2009, the Saudi Press Agency reported that Al-Shithri was out, sacked from the Council of Senior Scholars by King Abdullah. Was the sacking of this Sheikh a message to his colleagues reminding them of the fact that they “are employees of the state and therefore had better toe the line? I think it was. Because Sheikh Ahmed Al-Gamdi, head of the Hai’ah (religious police) – the Commission for the promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Saudia – spoke in support of ‘mixing of the sexes’ during an interview reported in the Saudi Gazette of December 11, 2009. Hear him: “Mixing was part of normal life for the Umma and its societies...”

Yaa Sheikh!  After decades of enforcing excessive segregation; we should’ve been told this years ago when you and your team made life miserable for your compatriots, and expatriates alike on the issue of the mixing of the sexes. How would you explain this new ‘revelation’ to the people? Is the Sheikh saying that all Saudi campuses should now allow social mixing? Well, it’s better late than never...

Sheikh Al-Gamdi continued, "Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction, as every fair-minded Muslim should follow Shari’ah judgments without excess or negligence. In many Muslim houses - even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram - you can find female servants working around unrelated males." Al-Ghamdi went on to praise KAUST as an "extraordinary move and huge accomplishment to be added to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's record and the history of the Islamic Ummah. It is a great step which the Ummah can look up to in recapturing its role in civilization and its scientific honor."  Really…?

Outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, many Muslim scholars spoke in support of coeducation, not the least, the head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi who said in an interview with Al-Madinah newspaper of October 17, 2009, “Islam does not forbid the mixing of the sexes as long as it is conducted according to Shari’ah...”

A week later, on October 24th, 2009 the grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Jum’ah granted interview to Saudi Gazette on KAUST and Gender Mixing. He said: “There is no harm in co-education between male and female students within Shari’ah rules and within learning environment. This is permissible according to Shariah.”

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