RIYADH Saudi King Abdullah on Thursday ordered that public religious edicts, or public fatwas, be issued only by clerics he appoints, in the boldest measure the ageing monarch has taken to organise the religious field.
Timid efforts by the absolute monarchy to modernise the deeply conservative country have led to a profusion in fatwas from scholars and mosque imams in the country, who use the Internet to publicise them as they fight what they perceive as the westernisation of the country.
This abundance depicted growing divisions among pro-reformist clerics and more conservative clerics, a trend which diplomats say was bound to worry Saudi authorities seeking to fight militancy and the ideology that breeds it.
Because Saudi Arabia hosts Islam's holiest shrines, fatwas from the Saudi clerics are often revered and followed by clerics in other parts of the Muslim world.
"We have noticed some excesses that we can't tolerate, and it is our legal duty to stand up to these with strength and resolve to preserve the religion, the dearest of our belongings," the monarch said in a royal order sent to the kingdom's Grand Mufti.
"We urge you ... to limit fatwas to the members of the High Scholars Authority and to advise on those among them who are wholly...eligible to be involved in the duty of fatwa so that we allow them to carry out fatwas," he added.
The Permanent Committee of Scholarly Research and Ifta', which is affiliated to the scholars authority, can also be used as a pool for the selection of scholars authorized to issue public fatwas, the king added.
The royal order, a copy of which was sent to the interior and justice ministers, did not explain how authorities would prevent other scholars from issuing public fatwas on the Internet.
The order excludes however personal fatwas. These refer to requests by Muslims for advice from a scholar about personal or religious matters.
The High Scholars Authority comprises 20 members who are appointed by the king. One of these members was dismissed last year by King Abdullah for criticising the opening of the kingdom's first co-ed university.
The kingdom, a major U.S. ally, is ruled by Al Saud family in alliance with clerics from the austere Wahhabi school of Islam who oversee mosques, the judiciary and education, as well as run their own coercive apparatus, the morals police.
The rulers of the world's top oil exporting country have wrestled with the issue of whether to moderate Wahhabism since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 on U.S. landmarks, carried out by mostly Saudi nationals, and the emergence of al Qaeda militancy against the Saudi government in 2003.
King Abdullah is seen as favouring reforms that water down some Wahhabism tenets such as the ban on women driving and women being accompanied only by male relatives.
Analysts and diplomats say he is opposed by other senior princes who are closely allied to the powerful religious establishment.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)
(For more news on Reuters India, click in.reuters.com)