JEDDAH: A wise man once told me, “If you want to ask a scholar a question whisper it in his ear to get an accurate answer. If you do it in public there is a chance you might get a different answer.”
Hadi Fakeeh, a journalist for Al-Hayat newspaper, recently asked Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Al-Obaikan, a prominent Saudi scholar, a question relating to the mixing of genders in Islam.
The question was asked on the sidelines of the Seventh National Dialogue.
Sheikh Al-Obaikan, who is also a member of the Kingdom’s Higher Religious Committee, replied that not every form of mixing is forbidden. Only if there is “fitna” (strife), citing that there is mixing at the Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah, and in the Kingdom’s malls.
He added that Shariah does not ban “intermingling,” it only bans “Khalwa,” which is when a man and a woman are in a state of isolation away from other people.
“In the workplace, if there is a number (of people, more than one) and the woman is wearing a Hijab, then this is not considered Khalwa,” said Sheikh Al-Obaikan.
Fakeeh reproduced the comments in an article. However, Sheikh Al-Obaikan retracted his comments calling the report a fabrication.
“Luckily for me, I taped the entire conversation,” Fakeeh told Arab News. He further provided a copy of the recording.
When asked why Sheikh Al-Obaikan retracted his comment, Fakeeh said this is something for the Sheikh to answer. “He needs to obtain the courage to do so,” he said, hinting that the sheikh may have been pressured to retract his comments.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Al-Obaikan gave a slightly different statement on mixing when he addressed the audience at the Seventh National Dialogue in April. He said Shariah does not prevent women from working, as long as they do not mix with unrelated men. “We have to understand that the basic duty of women is to remain at home and look after the children,” he said.
He further called for the establishment of separate women’s sections at companies and offices — a position shared by the majority of scholars here. When contacted by Arab News on the issue, Al-Obaikan stood by his retraction, adding that he has filed a lawsuit against Al-Hayat.
“It is forbidden for women to work with men in the workplace,” he said, adding that he has not retracted his comments.
Sheikh Al-Obaikan said that he previously issued three other religious edicts, which he stands by even though they attracted enormous public criticism. One was regarding the legality of using magic to undo spells when all other means do not work, the second fatwa was the legality of women traveling outside or inside the Kingdom without a legal guardian (mahram), the third was regarding the permissibility of insurance.
Speaking about the criticism his edicts have attracted, Sheikh Al-Obaikan said, “I see that I am right and they are wrong on this… I base my rulings on correct Shariah evidence.”
He added that there is nothing wrong with women working in the market and interacting with male customers because contact is for only a few minutes and in the eye of the public.
“But in modern workplaces, they interact for longer hours, something that results in fitna,” he said, adding that there are numerous examples that prove this. “Companies should follow banks in opening separate female sections,” he added.
In response to a question whether it was true that scholars reply differently when speaking in private, he said, “In some cases fatwas are better not mentioned in public. For example, those that deal with marriage have to discuss a personal issue, which is unsuitable for other listeners. It is suggested that they deal with these subjects on the side with the person concerned to avoid embarrassment.”
He added that fatwas are the same and do not change according to the number of people listening or where it is being given.
Commenting on the intermingling of the sexes, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a Saudi scholar who asked his full name not be published, said people in the Kingdom have lived with dignity and in happiness for centuries. “So what is the problem now? Countries are facing tremendous problems due to the mixing of the genders. The problems that we see today stem from allowing un-Islamic behavior to penetrate our societies,” he said.
When asked why a scholar may change a statement depending on whether he is speaking in public or private, Sheikh Abdul Aziz said, “It is the scholar’s duty to reply to questions, answers should be given from the Qur’an and Sunnah.”
He added that hospitals should avoid the mixing of men and women, and that there is no problem in opening women-only hospitals.
Mushari Al-Thayedi, an Islamic researcher and journalist with Arab News’ sister publication Asharq Al-Awsat, said, “Throughout Islamic history, some scholars in some cases have made different statements when speaking in public. They then say something else when speaking individually.” He added, “The change is due to several reasons — this includes wisdom to avoid misinterpretation, or fitna, or directives from the state.”
“In principle, a correct religious ruling is made for everyone. In public, sheikhs take into consideration the fact that they are speaking to a general audience, which includes the educated and non-educated. On a one-to-one basis, scholars are able to clarify issues to avoid misunderstandings by giving more explanations. It is not an organized process. It can be a whole different answer.”
Al-Thayedi believes Sheikh Al-Obaikan retracted his comment due to pressure from the general public and other religious scholars. “This is not the first case when a prominent scholar has backed out from a statement. Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq retracted a statement he had made two years ago when he said there was nothing wrong in a woman not covering her face,” said Al-Thayedi, adding that the sheikh retracted his statement due to public pressure