The Saudi domestic arena was recently witness to publicised differences of opinion on personal beliefs by none other than two renowned clerics, one the former head of the Makkah religious police and the other the kingdom’s appointed supreme mufti or cleric.

The controversy started when Shaikh Ahmad Bin Qassim Al Ghamdi, a former head of Makkah Province’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) appeared on television accompanied by his wife who had covered and veiled her hair but not her face, an unheard of practice among clerics and others who hold fast to the view that covering of the face is mandated in Islam.

With his wife alongside him, Shaikh Al Ghamdi spoke on a number of issues and said that it was permissible for women to reveal their faces in public and he fully supported the lifting of the ban which prevented women from driving in the country.

As he explained it, “People have also accused me of having a hidden agenda behind my fatwas (edicts) or that I said the right things at the wrong time. All that happened was a woman on Twitter asked me if it was allowed to post pictures of her face on social media and I said yes it is allowed. I am not saying anything different than what many scholars before me have said. The methods of by which the female face is exposed may have changed but the fatwa still applies.”

He added that “Hijab is not about wearing a piece of fabric on your face. It is about modesty. When my wife appeared on TV without a face veil, that did not make her any less chaste. I was disowned by other shaikhs in my area and that does not bother me. Their decision represents no one but themselves. If my tribe disowns me then I don’t want to belong to a tribe that is ignorant of its religion. I revealed many hypocrites and spoke of the true light of Islam. However, some members of our society want to constrict religion to growing beards and wearing sandals.”

Shaikh Ghamdi is no stranger to presenting the tolerant face of Islam. In 2008, religious extremists soundly denounced his fatwa stating that segregation between the sexes was not decreed by Islam as was being currently practiced. So powerful was the opposition that calls for his expulsion and repentance grew from the fundamentalists. This time around, he says that he has been receiving a steady stream of death threats on his social media sites, which he intends to turn over to the appropriate authorities for action. He does not plan to back down.

His appearance accompanied with his wife has brought in another sound objection and this time from none other than the country’s supreme religious authority, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh who was critical of Shaikh Al Ghamdi’s views and asked him to repent. He said that there are Quranic verses that say the head cover is obligatory for each and every Muslim woman and that women should cover their faces, as well.

Answering the assertion by some scholars who claim that it is permissible in Sharia for women to uncover their faces and that face covering is a habit dictated by tradition and not a religious obligation, the Grand Mufti said that “This is wrong! Face covering is compulsory in the Sharia. That’s why a man who proposes to a woman can only see her face during engagement. Some of our Muslim brothers, may Allah guide them to the right path, embarrass their wives in front of the public. This act reflects stubbornness on their part. It’s a dangerous thing. I pray to Allah to make them repent and guide everyone to the right path.”

Al Shaikh concluded with his message to Shaikh Al Ghamdi “to fear Allah and I ask him to repent to Allah and retract his statements before he meets Allah with such sins. I also ask whoever helps him to repent to Allah. They shouldn’t let their daughters and wives go on TV screen with their faces uncovered. I pray to Allah to lead Al Ghamdi to the right path.”

Perhaps the biggest argument raised in support of Shaikh Al Ghamdi is that God did not decree that women should cover their faces during the holiest of religious rituals which is during Haj or Umrah. Others were equally supportive. One summed it best saying: “I totally agree with Shaikh Al Ghamdi since most of the practices being done here in Saudi Arabia are culture-based and not religion-based. The Holy Quran teachings do not prohibit women from driving but the culture and traditions do not allow it. Exposing the face will never make a woman disrespectful unless the woman makes a move to be disrespected.”

It does not matter to what extent one goes to dress up or down. In the end it is the intention that matters. That is the Islam I grew up on. I wish my Christian readers a merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.