It did not take long for those recent statements, which suggested that driving might negatively affect women's ovaries, for Saudi Shaikh Saleh Bin Saad al-Luhaydan to become the focus of news headlines around the world.
Al Arabiya English published an article on Saudi Shaikh Saleh Bin Saad al-Luhaydan's warning that driving can negatively affect women's ovaries. (Screengrabbed from Al Arabiya English)
There is no surprise that in an age where we are becoming more and more interconnected every day -- thanks to social media and modern technology -- each one of us may expect to become a celebrity overnight or be ridiculed on a global scale for something we may have intentionally or unintentionally said or done. While this applies to some extent to the average citizen, it goes without saying that this is certainly the case when it comes to public figures, officials or as in Shaikh al-Luhaydan's case, a renowned author and a well-known judicial and psychological consultant.
Sadly, many Muslim clerics have recently become a regular source of international mockery and there are even several websites dedicated to listing the wackiest fatwas (religious edicts) ever made. And even though al-Luhaydan has made it clear that he was making his statements from a scientific (rather than a religious) point of view, many western media outlets still mistakenly described what he said as a fatwa.
However, one cannot blame any western or even local journalist for such a mistake! Unfortunately, there have been so many ridiculous edicts in the past that anyone can be excused for believing that the Muslims actually think that driving may affect women's ovaries. After all, it was not long ago that a cleric in Saudi Arabia called for the head of Mickey Mouse after describing him as an "agent of Satan" and it was not long ago that an Egyptian sheikh issued a fatwa that a mixed working environment would only be "halal" after female staff members breast-feed their male colleagues!
Conditions for the issuance of fatwas
The list of astonishing edicts goes on to include prohibiting women from touching bananas, having sex (with their husbands, of course!) while being naked, plucking their eye-brows or wearing jeans.
As far as my understanding goes of how fatwas are issued, it would require a mufti or scholar to meet certain standards outlined in Islamic teachings before they could enlighten others with their views on matters which require verdicts that are not mentioned in the Holy Quran or in the teachings of Prophet Mohammad [PBUH].
These conditions are very significant, given that Muslims believe that apart from God and Prophet Mohammad [PBUH], anyone else is bound to make mistakes. This, by default, includes clerics. The only problem is that many of these sheikhs seem to think that they are somehow immune to misjudging matters, while the halo of respect and authority that comes with their religious duties to guide people to the righteous path does not make it any easier for them to admit mistakes upon making them.
Shaikh al-Luhaydan appeared on a popular Saudi television talk show a few days after his infamous statements, where he was confronted by an infertility specialist (one with an actually medical degree). Obviously, the specialist dismissed al-Luhaydan's theory as nonsense and demanded he present scientific proof to support his claim. Sadly, instead of apologizing and making it clear to the viewers that he might have simply got carried away or been misinformed, Shaikh al-Luhaydan's response to the doctor and all those who ridiculed his view was that it was THEM who ought to produce evidence, suggesting the opposite (that driving doesn't actually affect women's ovaries).
Indeed, the issue with many clerics is that they do become over-zealous and do not understand that admitting and apologizing for their mistakes only garners them more respect and this is where government, religious authorities and society need to interfere, particularly in countries like Saudi Arabia (home of two of Islam's holy shrines) and Egypt, which for centuries has been the most renowned centre of Islamic learning in the world.
Questioning the ridiculous edicts
In a 2010 royal decree, Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz restricted issuing fatwas to clerics associated with the Saudi Senior Council of Ulema (clerics). "We have noticed some excesses that we can't tolerate and it is our legal duty to stand up to these with strength and resolve to preserve the religion, the dearest of our belongings," the monarch had said in a royal order sent to the kingdom's Grand Mufti. "We urge you ... to limit fatwas to the members of the High Scholars Authority and to advise on those among them who are wholly ... eligible to be involved in the duty of fatwa so that we allow them to carry out fatwas," he added.
For their part, both the Saudi and regional press have been playing a vital role in pointing out and questioning ridiculous edicts. However, whenever there is a criticism of a certain fatwa, many of the clerics involved tend to go on the defensive and blame it on the "Westernized" members of society (most notably, journalists or columnists who write about such matters). What religious institutions need to understand is that just like they believe their role is to advise people on what is right and what is wrong, the press -- being the Fourth Estate -- also has the right to question them and hold them accountable.
We have seen a good, recent example of this during the unfortunate incident last month, when a car-chase conducted by members of the Saudi religious police caused the death of two young Saudis whose only crime seemed that they were out celebrating the Saudi National Day in a car with tinted windows. The head of the Saudi religious police went on a charm-offensive and granted interviews to the media, where he repeated that members of force were prohibited from undergoing car chases and urged everyone to wait for the results of the official investigation. It is now up to the judicial system to convict those members of the religious police. If found guilty, they need to be made an example of in the name of the religion that they have abused and helped tarnish the image.
Finally, what many Muslim clerics need to understand is that it is not only their views that often get criticized. They only need to get exposed to some of the coverage in the West on matters such as the Catholic church's position on things like using condoms to realize that it is only normal for a controversial statement to raise controversy and be challenged.
However, when a cleric feels so confident that he is comfortable in issuing not just religious edicts, but unproven scientific theories, then there is really nothing to tell him apart from a teaching attributed to Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] which advises Muslims to "Say something good, or say nothing at all."
This article was first published in Gulf News on Oct. 11, 2013.