A recent edict (fatwa) by a Saudi cleric calling for opponents of strict segregation of men and women to be put to death if they refuse to abandon their ideas has, un-surprisingly, created a storm of negative reactions in the past few days.
Shaikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak has decided that the mixing of genders at the workplace or in education "as advocated by modernizers" is prohibited because "Whoever allows this mixing ... allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam ... Either he retracts or he must be killed ... because he disavows and does not observe the Sharia," Barrak said, according to the Reuters news agency.
However, al-Barrak's 'fatwa' was criticized by a huge number of Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia and other countries; perhaps most prominently by the likes of Abdul Hamid al-Atrash, the former leading authority at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, who reportedly labeled the edict as an 'extremist's interpretation of Islam'.
Obviously, there was much worry that this 'fatwa' could be taken seriously and thus be understood as a 'Kill Bill': a 'carte-blanche' for extremists to start slaughtering people of both genders who dare attend 'mixed' schools or work-places.
The questions is: has shaikh al-Barrak considered what impact such a 'fatwa' could have?
I say this because I would have thought men of such authority should always predict what outcome could result of their actions or words.
Shaikh al-Barrak doesn't hold a government position in Saudi Arabia, yet as a cleric he has significant influence over people; who would be to blame if one of his followers decided to implement the fatwa literally?
There certainly will be blood - but what then?
Do we say a class of 6th graders deserved to die because they shared a biology lab together? Do we allow nurses, doctors and owners of hospitals to be killed because they dared to work under the same roof?
Scary questions, no doubt! But the most important question is: what are we doing about these 'un-carefully thought-through' (to say the least) fatwas?
Someone might say: 'ah... but Al-Azhar has criticized al-Barrak'.
Hold on! wasn't it Al-Azhar itself who had to discipline one of its own clerics back in 2007? Just a reminder: this was after he issued a decree allowing women to breastfeed their male colleagues, labeling it as a way around the imposing of segregation of the sexes at work as it (breastfeeding) is believed to establish a degree of maternal relation.
I have tremendous respect to al-Barrak and Al Azhar as religious authorities, however in recent years the 'fatwa industry' has banned everything from selling/buying roses on Valentine's Day to emoticons in internet chatting (and let us not forget the call for the death of Mickey Mouse)... this was all done in the sake of authority, I believe.
I am in no position nor do I claim to have enough religious knowledge to say what makes a good cleric and what doesn't, but logically religions were not (or shouldn't be believed to be)set in stone, as everything else... it is only fair to expect them to evolve.
Having said that, despite the little I know about Sharia I still think al-Barrak is wrong: apart from the many references to gender-mixing in Islamic history, I have one question to ask: if Muslims, males and females, go to pilgramage together and they are allowed to 'mix' at the Holy Mosque in Mecca - how could it possibly be religiously required for them to be seperated in class rooms or work-places?
I say this because I truly believe the problem isn't in the religion itself, the problem is that many of us forget that 'fatwas' are man-made ultimatums which 'Muftis' come up with in the absence of a clear position on the matter in the Quran or in the teachings of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
Many fatwas are useful, however we seem to forget that to err is to human and that shaikhs should be accountable at all times, perhaps more than anyone else.
All I can say is: think before you preach, my shaikh!
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