Obituary: Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz

ABDUL AZIZ bin Baz was the Grand Mufti and head of the Council of Ulema (Islamic scholars) in Saudi Arabia from 1962.

His views and fatwas (religious rulings) were controversial, condemned by militants, liberals and progressives alike, though applauded by conservatives and Salafyyien - those who return to Islam's origins for knowledge rather than encouraging contemporary interpretation.

He ruled that: "The laws that Allah has laid down for His servants and has made clear in His Noble Book [the Koran] or upon the tongue of His Messenger [the Prophet Mohamed] may not be opposed or changed by anyone as they have been laid down to be applied for this Nation for the time of the Prophet." He often condemned those who called for Ijtihad, namely using your own mind to understand the Koran.

Bin Baz was born in 1912 and went blind at the age of 15 after contracting a disease. His opinions remained unchanged from the time he was made an Islamic Judge in 1938, a post he held until 1952 when he became a teacher in the Religious Institute in Riyadh. The following year he became a lecturer in Islamic Law at Riyadh University, and 10 years later he was appointed to head the Council of Ulema and as Chief Mufti.

Bin Baz wielded much power in Saudi Arabia, a conservative state which applies Islamic law and is home to two of Islam's holiest shrines. He ruled on many social aspects of daily life in the kingdom and had the final say on religious issues.

Because Saudi Arabia is a theocratic state, bin Baz's fatwas carried the weight of the law and covered a wide range of issues, from recently giving permission for Muslim men to use the impotence drug Viagra, "providing it doesn't contain substances banned by Islam", to forbidding the newly oil-rich Muslim families from employing non-Muslim maids in their houses: "Hiring disbelieving men and women is very dangerous for Muslims, their faith, their behaviour and the upbringing of their children." In his ruling bin Baz quoted a 13th-century sheikh who called for the expulsion of all non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula.

Women in Saudi Arabia generally appear in public only with a black cloak and a head scarf. Thus bin Baz's banning of the imports of women's veils that were "too short to cover their faces" is comparable to the Archbishop of Canterbury ruling against English women wearing mini skirts in public. Many believe that it was bin Baz who was behind the government's continuing ban on women driving their own cars - despite calls by economic planners to save the country millions of dollars spent in hiring foreign men to chauffeur women around.

Bin Baz held conservative views and often made a strong stance on sticking to the puritan and non-compromising traditions of the Wahabi sect of Islam. Yet even this was not draconian enough for people like Osama bin Laden - the Afghanistan-based terrorist mastermind who is wanted in 20 countries including the United States for organising the bombing of US embassies in Africa last year. Bin Laden, who was stripped of his Saudi nationality after falling out with the Saudi Royal family, condemned bin Baz for "his weakness and flexibility and the ease of influencing him with the various means which the interior ministry practices".

Ironically, bin Laden's views are shared by groups at the other end of the political spectrum for different reasons; modernisers held bin Baz responsible for promoting views that prevent Saudi Arabia from progressing into the 20th century. Taking a verse in the Koran literally rather than symbolically, as is done by the majority of Muslim scholars, bin Baz in 1976 ruled that the Earth was flat and that it was a great blasphemy to suggest otherwise. His critics often dust off this fatwa in their call for change in the conservative kingdom.

In the 1970s and 1980s, with the growing influence of Saudi Arabia thanks to its massive oil wealth, bin Baz's rulings and powers reached far beyond the countries boundaries. In 1984 he was behind the banning of the first Arabic magazine to specialise in film, theatre and entertainment, which was issued in London. Qamar Arbaatasher ("A maiden like a full moon on the 14th day of the month") was launched by Saudi Research and Marketing, the first of many Saudi-backed publishing houses that have mushroomed in London since the 1970s.

Bin Baz, being blind, had to be read out the interviews with many Egyptian female stars, songstresses and dancers. He ordered that the magazine should be banned. Although the publishers were, in theory, independent investors, they pulled the issue from the market. A month later, they relaunched the magazine under the title Video-14; bin Baz went straight to King Fahd demanding that the publishers apologise for insulting "the white hairs of decades of learning" on his beard. His intervention resulted in the first Arab journalists' redundancy list on Fleet Street. The magazine was shut down.

His views also had influence on the way neighbouring Gulf countries treated women and foreign workers. Some of his fatwas were welcomed widely, such as his ruling that consulting fortune tellers and practising witchcraft was forbidden in Islam, and equating death by reckless driving as tantamount to committing suicide. Islam condemns suicide.

Despite opposition claims, his relationship with the Saudi Royal family was ambiguous, thanks in part to his defence of two dissident sheikhs, Safar and Salman, who were jailed by the Saudi police for airing anti- government views. He compared the incident to the biblical imprisonment of Joseph in Egypt. While the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Prince Bander bin Sultan, accused the two sheikhs of trying to take Saudi Arabia backwards nine centuries, bin Baz claimed that such statements could only be made by hypocrites and enemies of Islam. On the other hand, in 1997 bin Baz praised the efforts of Prince Nayef Ibn Abdul Aziz, the Minister of the Interior, for safeguarding the security of Saudi Arabia.

Bin Baz had been suffering from cancer for some time, but he refused an offer by the government to pay for a trip to the United States for treatment. He is survived by two wives.

Adel Darwish

Abdul Aziz Abdulah Bin Baz, Islamic cleric: born Riyadh 1912; General Mufti of Saudi Arabia 1962-99; married; died Riyadh 13 May 1999.

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