Dr Yousuf Al Ahmad, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at the Imam Mohammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, recently suggested that the Grand Mosque in Makkah be demolished and rebuilt to prevent the mingling of men and women on the premises as they go about performing their religious obligations.
Speaking to the press, Dr Al Ahmad elaborated: "Mingling of sexes is not allowed in the Grand Mosque and outside the mosque according to the Sharia. There are two types of mingling of sexes; mingling that takes place casually in the passages and at the Jamrat in Mina; and permanent mingling that takes place during tawaf causing congestion and harm to women."
He continued: "This engineering solution will give women privacy and keep them away from cameras that project them and show them on satellite channels. Is it not the right of women not to battle with men during tawaf? Is it not their right to have one or two floors to perform tawaf? What is wrong in reconstructing the mosque for this purpose?"
In view of some of the more outrageous fatwas that we have been accustomed to hearing lately, this bizarre suggestion borders on the extreme. While it was summarily dismissed by Dr Mohammad Al Sahli, the standing imam and khateeb at Al Jowhara Mosque in Makkah, the simple fact that a professor at a religious university in the capital city of Saudi Arabia can issue such a statement about the mingling of men and women in the holiest place of worship to Muslims is an affront to those of us who use the premises to bring us closer to Allah.
It is indeed offensive to assume that men who come to perform their religious duties at the Grand Mosque have other motives.
What is also inherently dangerous is that when a religious scholar and a university professor at that issues such statements, he is also unwittingly encouraging extremist elements among students and in our society to band together against what they perceive as the steady decay of Islamic mores, perhaps leading some to take matters into their own hands and more often than not through violent acts.
Over the last two decades, Saudi Arabia has witnessed the evil and violent effects of extremism, and such edicts tend to inflame and further polarise society.
I wonder if such statements prompt other scholars to call for further segregation. Would the national airline be targeted by a suggestion that there should be segregation of sexes on flights? Would hospitals and nurses come under fire for catering to both sexes? Would restaurants and shopping malls be next?
Social scientists argue that segregation often leads to the breaking down of respect between the sexes, instead of the desired opposite effect.
Preposterous as it may seem, such pronouncements could lead to a perilous divide within society. University officials should have taken swift action and publicly censured this professor to discourage other scholars from endorsing his ideas.
Along the same lines, a surprise move by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) had left many of us worried about the absurd depths some minds have sunk to. Not long ago, it was stated that the chamber had decided to designate different arrival and leaving times for its male and female employees to ensure they do not mix.
A decision by the chamber's board recently stated that the working hours for women employees would be from 8am to 4pm, while the male counterparts were to arrive at 8.30am and leave at 4.30pm. Before this, all employees used to come to work at 9am and leave at 5 pm. "By this new change in working hours, men and women will not mix on arrival or departure when they have to sign in and sign off," the JCCI said.
Now what if a husband and wife work together at the chamber? In a society where women are not allowed to drive, where does that leave them? And does the board consider all men working there to be lecherous? Did the women working there ask for it, or was it one of those high-handed decrees to appease a minority within Saudi society?
And indeed if there are some annoying Romeos among the males, shouldn't they simply be singled out and booted out for good? Just what is the message that the board is trying to pass on to the community? That the separation of the sexes is an agenda of the commercial organisation?
Countries around the region with a sizeable Islamic population do not seem to have the same problems or face similar issues. And yet they mingle.
Is Saudi Arabia different?
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.