Gender segregation: On second thought…

Guilt by association?

Some astounding things have been coming out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as of late. One of the most recent developments is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a high-tech university intended to promote international research which opened last Fall. What is most unique about this school, by Saudi standards, is that it is outside the influence of the Education Ministry and will have no separation of the sexes, being the first mixed-gender school in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, this has caused outrage among some conservative clerics. “Whoever allows this mixing … allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam … Either he retracts or he must be killed … because he disavows and does not observe the Sharia,” said Shaikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak on his website. Although al-Barrak does not hold a government position, chairman of the Interior Ministry’s religious advisers, Sheikh Muhammad al-Nujaimi, supported this fatwa. Another cleric, Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri, was sacked by King Abdullah because of his public comments against the co-education of KAUST.

Yet, stunningly, the head of the Meccan “religious police” – the very people who enforce gender segregation – Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi supported the mixing of genders at KAUST. In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Okaz, al-Ghamdi said:

“The term ‘ikhtilat’ [gender mixing] in this usage is a recent adoption that was unknown to the early people of knowledge…Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah and its societies…The word in its contemporary meaning has entered customary jurisprudential terminology from outside…Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction, as every fair-minded Muslim should follow Shariah judgments without excess or negligence…In many Muslim houses – even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram – you can find female servants working around unrelated males…Those who prohibit ikhtilat cling to weak Ahadeeth, while the correct Ahadeeth prove that mixing is permissible, contrary to what they claim.”

Such a view was also supported by the influential cleric Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, and none other than Sheikh Ali Al-Jum’ah, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

Indeed, this is a most welcome development to come out of Saudi Arabia, and one hopes much such “innovations” are forthcoming from the land of Mecca and Medina. Yet, this begs the question: if gender segregation, long established as “Islamic orthodoxy” for decades, is a “recent adoption that was unknown to the early people of knowledge”; if gender segregation is supported by “weak Ahadeeth, while the correct Ahadeeth prove that mixing is permissible”; if, as the Saudi Minister of Justice recently said, complete segregation of the sexes:

“…has ignored evidence from the Prophet’s Sunna and Khulafa and those after them, which differentiated between mixing in public with modesty and chasteness – with being wary of factors that could lead to what is prohibited, like women adorning themselves or wearing make up, close mingling, leniency and not lowering one’s gaze, – and mixing that in a way that is not.

Why are they saying this now? Why was this not revealed before? Were these “weak Ahadeeth” recently discovered? Why didn’t more scholars speak up? If the separation of sexes is more of a cultural issue and not religious, then why place a “stamp of religious approval” on the practice? Why, Sheikh Muhamad al-Nujaimi, who supported a fatwa calling for death to those who advocate mixing of the sexes, was shown mixing with women himself at a conference in Kuwait. Are their opinions good enough for the people, but not good enough for themselves?

I can’t help but ask: what will be next? On what other issue with the scholars say, “well…actually…it’s not really haram”? Aren’t these scholars concerned about this verse of the Qur’an:

…Who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from God, but God is not unmindful of what ye do! (2:140)

I specifically remember a speaker at an Islamic conference say that he told the youth that music was haram because the next year, the kids would be coming with boom boxes on their shoulders. I also remember a very prominent scholar (whose name I will not mention) say something to the effect of, “Before, I used to say that this is haram. But, as I have become older, I have become more lenient on this issue.” Is this an acceptable reason to make what is normally allowed be haram? If it is allowed now, why wasn’t it allowed back then? Do they not make themselves “lords beside God,” as the Qur’an asserts, when they do such a thing?

What about this verse of the Qur’an:

But say not – for any false thing that your tongue may put forth – “This is lawful, and this is forbidden,” so as to ascribe false things to God. For those who ascribe false things to God will never prosper. (16:116)

Does this verse not concern any of the scholars who have repeatedly asserted gender segregation as “Islamic doctrine”?

If something is permissible, then it should be permissible for all times and circumstances (except, perhaps, in some certain situations). If something is truly impermissible, then it should be so for all times and circumstances, excepting, again, specific situations in which necessity arises. Saying, “um…actually…it’s not really haram” does an enormous disservice to the faithful, who sincerely look to the scholars for guidance on how to live their lives according to the will of God. Does this not bother you, too?

(Photo: KAUST)

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen.


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