“Theatrical performance, whether it is a cinema or a song, would generally make an impression that is against Sharia. People need only those (art forms) that are useful to them to change their way of life (in an Islamic manner),” he decreed.
Last year the Grand Mufti issued an edict, in which he slammed Turkish soap operas like ‘Nour’ and ‘The Last Years,’ the hottest shows on Arab TV, describing them as “so much evil” that “they destroy people's ethics and are against our values.”
The mufti’s pronouncements are however a sign that Saudi society is increasingly split between a ruling establishment made up of very conservative clerics who espoused strict adherence to Islamic precepts and a broader group of more liberal-oriented young Saudis who want greater openness, more freedom for women and a greater range of entertainment.
Like young people across the Middle East young Saudis routinely go online which gives them access to US action movies, but they cannot go to the movies, an issue that is still taboo.
Yet the recent screening of a Saudi comedy, ‘Menahi’, in two movie theatres twice a day for eight days—with women dutifully seated in the balcony, and men in the stalls—was cheered by many Saudis.
“We put sound and visual equipment, we sold tickets for the first time in Saudi Arabia, and we even sold popcorn,” said Ayman Halawani, general manager of Rotana Studios, the production arm of a company owned by Waleed bin Talal, a financier and member of the royal family, who has become the target of ultra-conservatives for his liberal ideas and investments in the TV and show business.
Overall some 25,000 people actually saw the film.
Such desire for openness is in contrast with what the ruling class wants for Saudi society. For the old guard any overture to customs and traditions that are not strictly Islamic is a threat that must be opposed.
In his address to students at King Saud University, the grand mufti warned against playing chess because it “causes a man to lose his wealth and waste his time.”
Conversely “photography is one of the necessities of life” because it helps in “lectures, [. . .] religious activities [. . .] while maintaining public security.”
“Only the photography of sculptures and models is prohibited,” he said.
Remuneration for poets who attend festivals and cultural events is permissible if their words are good, faultless, without “abusive words or references.”
Finally, the mufti urged students to stay away from cigarettes and avoid reckless driving, especially at night or early morning.