Men and women shop at the Al Yasmin mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (File) Image Credit: Bloomberg

One of the last remaining vestiges of the once feared Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), also known as Hai’a or religious police was their strict enforcement of closure of all shops and businesses during the five daily prayers.

Despite repeated attempts to overturn this ruling, it remained enforced and violators were immediately met with the full wrath of the Hai’a. Punishments included shop closures for an indefinite time while those caught working in them during prayers calls were subject to detention or deportation in the case of expatriate shop attendants.

With Saudi Arabia embarked on a new vision under a new leadership, fuelled by the determination of a young Crown Prince to move the country out of its malaise and boost ahead, this bizarre ruling of closures had no place in modern times.

It had no Islamic bearing supporting it, with the exception of Friday noon prayers but had become a burdensome habit placed on the residents of the country to great inconvenience.

Giving a hard time to public

Think for a moment the quick need for medication only to be met with a closed pharmacy door with a sign ‘closed for prayers.’ Or with your car low on fuel, and petrol stations forced to shut down because it was prayer time.

Last month when the Saudi legislative of Shoura Council decided to tackle the issue, there were great expectations that, just as other restrictions imposed by the religious police such as cinemas, women driving, and a host of other social activities, this once relic would be written off.

Unfortunately for some unexplained reason even till today, the Shoura Council cancelled the debate among its members barely two hours before it was set to begin. It certainly left a lot of people puzzled and wondering why.

And so, when the order to lift the restrictions on prayer time closures came a few days ago, it came in quietly and without much fanfare.

The Federation of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry released a circular to shops and commercial establishments that simply said “We hope you will continue to keep shops open and pursue commercial and economic activities throughout working hours, receiving shoppers and customers.”

They followed it by stating that the decision was ‘part of the precautionary measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, as well as to ensure the health and safety of shoppers and customers.’ It would also deal with the overcrowding of customers around the doors of shuttered establishments five times a day.

The head of the Saudi Chambers Ajlan Al-Ajlan added that “This is in an effort to improve the shopping experience and the level of services for shoppers and clients.”

It wasn’t a royal decree, nor a Shoura decision, but it was effective all the same. The barrier had fallen and Saudi Arabia was back on track.

Back on the track

A retired businessman says: The trend was more of a sociopolitical show than religious. Closing shops during prayer time became mandatory by law under influence of the “Sahwa” trend initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood using passages from Salafi doctrines to support the move.

Saudi Arabia was the leading Muslim country to enforce the move, not universally recognised as Islamic, and so proven at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) or the four Caliphs.

Another Saudi told Gulf News, “No great Muslim empire, whether in the west or the east, ever required shops to be closed during prayer times. Not the Ummayads, Abbasis, Andalus, Ottomans, or the Mughals of India. That’s part of why they were great. Perhaps now we can be great.”

Hadeel a barista owner and operator added, “We turn off the music. We don’t close taking orders. But we will close for Friday prayer no matter what!”

Today, with the receding influences of the once-dominant religious police, Saudi Arabia has become a more viable place to do business in.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena