Got news? Top Saudi religious leader says Sunni Muslims can pray in churches, synagogues and Shiite mosques

Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman al-Manea of Saudi Arabia is one of the kingdom’s high-ranking religious scholars and a specialist in Islamic banking, as defined by sharia, or Islamic religious law. Given his many top-level finance industry positions, one has to assume he’s also close to the Saudi royal family, without whose blessing nothing of real consequence happens in the kingdom.

If you're not familiar with al-Manea, as I suspect most GetReligion readers are, take a moment to read his professional bio. It’s a dazzler.

Given his prominence, you’d think Western media -- or at least those that take international news seriously -- would have jumped on a fatwa, or religious ruling, he recently issued permitting Sunni Muslims to pray in Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and even Shiite mosques.

That’s significant stuff for the Arab and Muslim world, where conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims and between Muslim movements is often a given. Here’s a bit of how it was covered in a few Arab and Muslim English-language news publications.

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This one’s from Arab News, one of the largest Arab-produced, English language-news sites around. I noticed that the piece also ran in Pakistan Defense, which focuses on security and military news.

Another version of the story was published by StepFeed. The news site bills itself as “devoted to shaping a modern Arab world” by appealing to “Arab millennials.”

Here’ the heart of the Arab News story:

Al-Manea gave a fatwa (religious advisory opinion), reported by Al-Anba’ Kuwaiti newspaper, stating that Muslims may pray in Shiite or Sufi mosques, churches or synagogues. He noted that all lands belong to God, and cited the Prophet’s words: “The earth has been made a place of prostration and a means of purification for me.”
Al-Manea said that Islam is a religion of coexistence not of violence, and noted that Muslims cannot have differences in the basic principles of Aqidah (creed) of Islam, but they may differ in the branches.
Concerning dealing with non-Muslims, Al-Manea cited an occasion when the Prophet received a delegation of Christians from Najran in his mosques, and he allowed them to perform their own prayer facing Jerusalem. Al-Manea also cited other sayings of the Prophet which reflected his kindness and mercy with non-Muslims.
Al-Manea stressed that Islam spread in many countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, because of the good manners of Muslim merchants, which attracted the citizens of these countries to embrace Islam.
Al-Manea stated that the Prophet explained all aspects of good and warned of everything evil. Al-Manea called upon Muslims to be thankful to God for the blessing of faith and warned against rushing into giving fatwas.

Keep in mind that Islam has no system of overall religious leadership akin to, say, the Roman Catholic Church, for which the pope, in theory, sets official policy for all Catholics -- not that all Catholics follow all papal dictates.

I note this because it means that only Muslims who regard al-Manea as one of their personal religious teachers are likely to respect his pronouncements, which are exceptionally progressive within a Saudi Islamic context.

Also keep in mind that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, holder of the second most powerful post in the absolute monarchy behind the king, is in the midst of what’s been labeled an anti-corruption campaign as part of an effort to liberalize his nation.

If you need to catch up on the political goings-on (upheaval is probably a better way to describe it) in Saudi Arabia, this Washington Post opinion piece will bring you up to speed.

Of course liberalizing is a relative term. What might seem “liberal” in a Saudi context will probably appear to most Westerners as still oppressively “conservative.”

Likewise, an anti-corruption campaign in Saudi Arabia can also be interpreted as a political crack-down -- given the wariness that so many Westerners, including me, have about Saudi ulterior motives. Arresting political rivals keeps them from making trouble as the young crown prince imposes his will prior to his father, the king, abdicating his throne so his 32-year-old son can take his place. (I've seen reports saying that change could come as soon as this week.)

Liberalizing Saudi Islamic conventions, rooted in the austere and ultra-conservative Wahhabi movement, has also been on the crown prince’s public agenda.

I interpret Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman al-Manea’s fatwa about Sunni Muslims praying in churches, synagogues and Shiite mosques as part of the crown prince’s strategy. I make that link because I am convinced, as stated earlier, of al-Manea’s close relationship with the royal House of Saud.

Most of the attention in this regard has focused on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s decision to allow Saudi women to obtain, for the first  time, drivers’ licenses. The crown Prince has said that process will begin in earnest in March 2018.

The driving issue has been a point of contention for Westerners, who have used it repeatedly to illustrate how backward Saudi society remains. For image reasons alone, allowing Saudi women to drive cars themselves, as opposed to having to be chauffeured everywhere in the kingdom by a male driver, seems a smart move on the part of the crown prince.

But the loosening of gender restrictions around driving is not the only advancement for Saudi women of late. Last month, Saudi Gazette ran a story about the first women selected to run one of the nation’s sport federations.

Note that the sheikh also runs a national sport federation. His charge is Olympics-style  handball; she leads community sports. Also note that she’s a member of the royal family, no surprise there, and that she’s pictured with her face uncovered.

It's clear that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is instigating some major changes in Saudi religious culture. Yet my web search this week for Western media coverage of Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman al-Manea’s fatwa turned up zilch..

I find that surprising, and a missed opportunity for quality journalism.

The only Western coverage I did find was this piece posted on the website of the Clarion Project, which is by no means a news site. Rather, it's a Washington-based advocacy group that defines its purpose as “challenging radical Islam.” Critics say it promotes Islamophobia.

This turn of events, Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman al-Manea’s fatwa, deserves real elite media investigation. Something big is happening in Saudi Arabia.

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