FaithWorld

King Abdullah slaps down Saudi cleric criticial of co-ed university

kaust1 (Photo: Visitors view model of KAUST campus at opening, 23 Sept 2009/Susan Baaghil)

Well, that didn’t take long.

Last week, a senior Saudi Islamic cleric criticised the country’s first mixed-gender university, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), and suggested an Islamic committee to make sure it followed Islamic principled and didn’t teach “alien ideologies” such as evolution.

Late on Sunday, the state news agency SPA reported that King Abdullah had removed Sheikh Saad Al-Shithri from a top council of religious scholars.

okazAl-Shithri’s comments sparked angry reactions from liberals who saw the new university as a beacon for research that will eventually produce Saudi scientists, spearheading modernity in the conservative Islamic State. For those of you who read Arabic, here’s a sample of several op-ed pieces that ran in the daily Okaz.

“This is a strategy for the conservatives to control the university. Or at least to have a major say in it. This is the old trick for them to have the upper hand to sabotage reforms,” said Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of Alwatan daily newspaper, about the clerics comments on the university.

Swine flu fears hit religious tourism to Saudi Arabia

mecca-boymecca-minaretsStanding behind a wall of pearls and prayer beads in a shop in Mecca, souvenir dealer Mohammad Hamdi says business has never been so bad.  Shops, hotels and tour operators in Islam’s holiest city in western Saudi Arabia are counting the losses as many pilgrims, worried about swine flu, stay at home.

The haj, one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, is still two months away but there has already been a marked fall in visitors for the minor pilgrimage known as umra, which can be done at any time of the year.

“In previous years people were buying a lot but now only a few come which is hitting sales,” said Hamdi, from Egypt. Hotel occupancy rates during the last ten days of the fasting month of Ramadan, when many perform umra, fell by more than a third to 55 percent compared to last year, said Walid Abu Sabaa, head of the tourism and hotels committee at the Mecca chamber of commerce.

Saudi co-ed university highlights need for education reform

kaust (Photo:KAUST under construction near Jeddah, 19 Oct 2008/Asma Alsharif)

Saudi Arabia is launching its first co-educational high-tech university, but unless clerical influence is removed the state education system will not move into the modern age, analysts say.  King Abdullah has invited heads of state, business leaders and Nobel laureates next week to the opening of a technology university which has attracted top scientists and is meant to produce Saudi scientists and engineers.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is the first institute in one of the world’s biggest oil exporters that is outside the reach of the education ministry, where clerics opposing cutting religious content have a strong say. Men and women will be able to mingle, a stark contrast to otherwise strict gender segregation in the Islamic kingdom.

Despite its immense financial resources, the parameters of Saudi school and university education are governed by religious strictures and many subjects are off-limits for women to study.

Saudi cleric says don’t pray for downfall of “infidels”

mosque-sermonMuslims should avoid prayers that call for the destruction of non-Muslims, an influential Saudi cleric has said.

“Praying for the ruin and the destruction of all infidels is not permitted because it goes against God’s law to call upon them … to take the righteous path,” Sheikh Salman al Awdah told Dubai-based MBC Television channel.

Many mosque imams and preachers in some Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, close their Friday sermons with prayers that call for the destruction of Islam’s enemies, especially Israel and its allies.

Saudi film festival cancelled in setback for reformers

saudi-film-festival1Saudi Arabia’s only film festival has been cancelled, dealing a blow to reformist hopes of an easing of clerical control over culture that had been raised by the low-key return of cinemas in December.  In a country where movie theatres had been banned for almost three decades, the annual Jeddah Film Festival — started in 2006 — presents aspiring Saudi film makers and actors with a rare opportunity to mingle with more experienced peers from other countries. (Photo: Jeddah Mayor Adel Fakieh speaks at Jeddah film festival, 18 July 2007/Susan Baaghil)

But the Jeddah governorate informed festival organisers late on Friday, just before its planned opening on Saturday,  that this year’s festival was cancelled “after it received instructions from official parties. We were not told why,” said Mamdouh Salem, one of its organisers.

Many religious conservatives in the kingdom believe films from more liberal Arab countries such as Egypt could violate religious taboos. Some also view cinema and acting, as a form of dissembling, as inconsistent with Islam.

GUESTVIEW: Obama speech not historic, but could become so

obama-speaks1 (Photo: President Obama speaks at Cairo University, 4 June 2009/Larry Downing)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, where he co-teaches a course on faith and globalization with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A native of Croatia and member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., he has been involved in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, most recently in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

By Miroslav Volf

I am tempted to say that in Cairo President Obama delivered an historic speech on relations between “the United States and Muslims around the world.” Speeches aren’t historic when they are delivered, however; they become historic after they’ve shaped history. What is certain even now, mere few hours after the speech, is that it was brilliant — visionary and practical, deeply human and political, moral and pragmatic, all at the same time. These wise words, beautifully crafted and compellingly delivered, have the potential of becoming seeds from which a new future will sprout and flourish.

The perspective that pervades the whole speech was signaled when the President recognized his own Christian faith, while at the same time noting that his father came from a family that includes generations of Muslims. Thus, in his own biography, the President embodies what his speech was ultimately about: relations between the United States and Muslims around the world should not be defined simply by “our differences” but by “overlaps” and “common principles” as well. This point is crucial. In encounter with others, if we see only differences, the result is exclusion; if we see only commonalities, the result is distortion. Only when we see both-undeniable differences that give others a peculiar character and commonalities that bind us together-are we able to honor both others and ourselves.

GUESTVIEW: Reflections on Jewish-Muslim Engagement

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

sheikh-and-rabbi-2 (Photo: Muslim sheikh and Jewish rabbi address interfaith meeting in Brussels, 4 Jan 2005/Thierry Roge)

By Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky

Jewish-Muslim engagement in an international context is inevitably more than interreligious dialogue. Muslim representatives, for the most part, do not come from countries that have a separation of mosque and state. Practically speaking, these dialogues are a form of second-tier diplomacy. In the United States, this is made apparent by fact the State Department sponsors Muslim visitors through its Foreign Leadership Visitor Program.

Can academia help Islam’s dialogue with the West?

Prince Alwaleed bin TalalSince 9/11, studying the relations between Islam and the West have become a growth field in academia. Among its leading proponents is Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars via his Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation creating study centres at leading universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. (Photo: Prince Alwaleed in Kabul, 18 March 2008/Ahmad Masood)

In the wake of the Islamist attacks in Mumbai last November, the foundation’s executive director, Muna AbuSulayman said recently, the organisation is keen to set up a centre in India and also to foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

A Mumbai Jewish community centre was seized and its rabbi and his wife killed during those attacks, in which 179 people were killed in a days-long rampage by members of a Pakistan-based militant group. “What has happened in India with the shooting was a wake up call,” she said. “India and Pakistan have a history, there’s a reason they separated. We want to help them minimise that.”

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

After cricket, an attack on a revered Sufi shrine in Pakistan

The bombing of the mausoleum of a renowned Pashto mystic poet outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar has darkened the mood further in a nation already numbed by the attack on cricket, its favourite sport, when the Sri Lankan team were targeted in Lahore.

Taliban militants are suspected of being behind the attack on the shrine of Abdul Rehman at the foot of the Khyber pass, where for centuries musicians and poets have gathered in honour of the 17th century messenger of peace and love.

The militants were angry that women had been visiting the shrine of the Rehman Baba as he was popularly known and so they planted explosives around the pillars of the tomb, to pull down the mausoleum in an echo of the Taliban bombing of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan back in 2001. The structure was damaged and the grave blown up, Dawn reported.

Religion and politics behind sharia drive in Swat

Pakistan has agreed to restore Islamic law in the turbulent Swat valley and neighbouring areas of the North-West Frontier Province. What does that mean? Sharia is understood and applied in such varied ways across the Muslim world that it is difficult to say exactly what it is. Will we soon see Saudi or Taliban-style hand-chopping for thieves and stonings for adulterers? Would it be open to appeal and overturn harsh verdicts, as the Federal Sharia Court in Islamabad has sometimes done? Or could it be that these details are secondary because sharia is more a political than a religious strategy here? (Photo: Swat Islamic leaders in Peshawar to negotiate sharia accord/16 Feb 2009/Ali Imam)

As is often the case in Pakistan, this issue has two sides — theory and practice. In theory, this looks like it should be a strict but not Taliban-style legal regime. As Zeeshan Haider in our Islamabad bureau put in in a Question&Answer list on sharia in Swat:

WHAT KIND OF ISLAMIC JUDICIAL SYSTEM IS SWAT GETTING?

Under Nizam-e-Adl or Islamic system of justice, all judicial laws contrary to Islamic teachings stand cancelled and the courts will decide the cases in line with Islamic injunctions.