Ahmad Al Gamdi, former head of the Saudi religious police, appears on television with his wife. Image Credit: Source: YouTube

Manama: A religious controversy laced with a deep social issue has rapidly escalated in Saudi Arabia after the Grand Mufti joined the debate and said that Muslim women must cover their faces in public.

The storm was stirred by religious scholar Ahmad Al Ghamdi who said that women did not have to wear the niqab, the face-covering veil, an inevitable feature of the Saudi society.

“I received a question on my Twitter account by a woman who asked me if religion allowed me to post a picture of my face on a social network,” Al Ghamdi said. “I told her that it was allowed. My opinion was based on scholarly books and on the stance of well-known and highly respectable religious figures,” he said.

But as the reply by Al Gahmdi, a former head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police, in the Makkah region, went viral on the internet, thousands of people offered their comments and a heated debate ensued.

“I received more than 10,000 remarks within 12 hours of expressing my view. They were a mix of supporters and critics. But I am used to this. The onslaught years ago when I said that I did not oppose discrimination between sexes was more aggressive,” he said.

The debate gained a more dramatic dimension when Al Ghamdi appeared on a television talk show alongside his wife who was not wearing a niqab.

“I am aware of the onslaught [of] and the claims that some religious figures from my area are working on issuing a statement to distance themselves from me,” he said. “I am truly convinced about the fact that women do not have to cover their faces, and my wife, who is a cousin, is equally convinced about it. Some extremists have been putting pressure on me to adopt their ideology, but I have refused,” he said.

However, Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Al Aziz Al Shaikh said on Monday that Muslim women had a duty to wear full hijabs, which cover their faces.

“There are those who said that it was allright for women to show their faces to strangers and that the veil is a social tradition, and not a religious order. This is wrong because covering the face is a religious obligation,” he said in remarks published by local news site Sabq. “Some brothers even took the step to show their wives in public. This is a very dangerous thing. We pray to God to guide them to the true path and help them repent. My message to Al Ghamdi is to fear God and to repent,” he said.

Several comments sided with the Grand Mufti, stressing that he was right in insisting on the full face cover.

However, other comments said that the Grand Mufti was promoting a strict interpretation of the religion, arguing that most Muslim women in other countries did not wear the niqab and that they could not been considered as flouting Islamic rules.

One blogger said that three of the four major schools of thought in Islam did not support wearing the niqab.