In the Name of God: The Extremely and Eternally Loving and Caring

The headline of the article caused me a double-take: “A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began.” Then I began to read about this cleric in Saudi Arabia who has caused shockwaves in the ultra-conservative Arabian kingdom:

For most of his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices.


For years, Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.

There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.


Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured.

The reaction to him was very upsetting. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, but it is quite another to call for someone’s harm; especially if he or she is challenging the confabulation of cultural practice with religious doctrine. Too many people – abroad and at home – cannot disagree without being violently disagreeable.

Yet, Mr. Ghamdi’s challenge of the religiosity of cultural practices is wildly overdue, and rather than be ostracized, he should be commended. The article seems to hint at why the reaction to him was so ferocious:

It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.

If this is truly the case, this is even more enraging. Only God is in control, and while religious scholars do deserve respect for the knowledge they have, they are not God or His Messenger. Their words should not be taken as divine law. Ever.

Now, of course, the reforms Mr. Ghamdi is calling for are likely still too conservative for many Muslims who clamor for reform in the faith. Still, in a country like Saudi Arabia, it is a big and important step. I commend Mr. Ghamdi for his courage to speak out and purge our faith from the baggage of cultural practice, and I pray he is given the respect, safety, and audience that he deserves.



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