Arab social media was abuzz last week not because of the events in Gaza, but because of a new directive by the Saudi government prohibiting the appearance of a popular Islamic scholar and preacher on local television channels.
While this isn’t the first time the kingdom has issued such orders, in the past they were directed against those considered to be extremists – as part of the campaign to combat religious “exaggeration” being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
This time, it seems that the prince – who has been lauded in the Western media for his liberal attitude – found it difficult to withstand the pressure of various traditional religious scholars who have demanded the removal of the “abomination.” They are angry at the preacher, Dr. Adnan Ibrahim, who they believe has started to sing a dangerous tune.
Ibrahim has said, for example, that wearing the hijab is not a religious commandment but rather a custom, and that inheritance laws according to Islam are unfair to women because, if in the past the husband was the main breadwinner, in the modern era women go to work and participate in supporting the family and should therefore not be shortchanged when it comes to inheritance.
He has also declared that Islam does not forbid engagement in the arts, including music, and that the Prophet Mohammed and his followers enjoyed listening to women’s singing.
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Of course, all of that could not pass without a reaction from the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars – the country's highest religious authority, which issued a decree to the effect that Ibrahim distorts the words of the leading interpreters of Islam, misleads believers and is even liable to cause a civil war.
It’s interesting that Ibrahim of all people – who recently praised the crown prince, saying he has brought about a revolution in the past two years, the likes of which the Muslim world hasn’t seen for 100 years – received a slap in the face from Saudi Arabia's erstwhile leader.
Ibrahim, 52, is very different from the “classic” TV preacher that media outlets in the West, and also Israel, tend to showcase in order to demonstrate the extremism of the Muslim world.
He was born in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and studied in UN Relief and Works Agency schools before moving to the former Yugoslavia, where he studied medicine.
The Balkans war forced Ibrahim to move to Vienna, where he continued his medical studies. He went on to study religion in Lebanon and then returned to Vienna, where he received a doctorate for his research in the realm of freedom and faith.
In Vienna, where he still lives, Ibrahim opened a center for intercultural encounters, after being ousted from his position as imam at a mosque where he had worked for some nine years.
The reason, according to his critics, is because he called upon Muslims to drop their illusions. Later, he began speaking out on TV networks, with his programs attracting millions of viewers.
His success also gave rise to strong opposition among conservative clerics, who accused him of becoming close to the Shia stream of Islam – a claim that is almost like an accusation of heresy.
The directive to discontinue his appearances on Saudi channels was accompanied by a coordinated campaign on social media, including a special Twitter account called “Stop Adnan Ibrahim’s program,” in which users demanded that owners of TV stations that allowed him to appear also be made to take responsibility. “He publicizes lies about the Prophet,” one tweeter posted.
However, the cleric's supporters have not remained silent. “Ibrahim did a favor to the ignorant nation, which loves its ignorance and is willing to accuse people of heresy solely because they are seeking the truth,” they wrote.
Egypt's coed choir
In fact, Ibrahim is not alone in the campaign to modernize Islam in the Middle East.
For example, the administration of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which is part of the supreme religious institution in the country, made a trailblazing decision recently: To create a mixed choir of men and women, which has already started to perform in song competitions and even won a prize.
The group includes eight women, appropriately dressed and wearing hijabs, and eight men in elegant suits and ties; 600 students had auditioned for the chorus. The musical director is one of Egypt’s leading musicians and conductors, and his singers perform the works of Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez and even the popular female singer Shadia, as well as classical songs.
Al-Azhar’s willingness to allocate a special hall for rehearsals and to underwrite the choir director's salary, and other expenses, makes it clear that creation of the coed singing group is not an ordinary move but a message of innovation.
Thus, Al-Azhar, which has a tense relationship with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, and has been widely criticized for not being willing to move with the times, is proving it can make decisions that affect not only what happens in Egypt but also in other Muslim countries – which see the Cairene institute as a role model and supreme religious instance.
Now all we can do is to wait for the next steps by the Saudi crown prince, who continues to diminish the role of religious scholars in his kingdom, and to watch the Egyptian president – who considers his battle against Islamic extremism to be an important component in the war against terror – in order to know whether their acts constitute a trend, or no more than marginal and symbolic steps.