Motorcycle Sheikh sparks Saudi controversy: Does the Koran approve?

October 31, 2012

Saudi Twitter users discuss Sheikh Salman al-Oud's motorcycle ride. (Screenshot from https://twitter.com/AlmajdChannels)

Prominent Saudi Arabian Islamic scholar Sheikh Salman al-Oud was caught last week navigating holy sites from the back of a small motorbike. It was after all the Hajj, a week-long holiday of religious pilgrimage to Islam's founding cities, and a busy time for any good sheikh. But it's become a minor controversy in the conservative nation, where even more eccentric religious figures like al-Oud are expected to adhere to ultra-traditionalist ways.

The drama began a week ago, when someone tweeted a photo of al-Oud sitting on the back of a motorbike, giving the cameraman a quizzical look. It ricocheted around Saudi Arabia's vibrant social media spheres, first generating media coverage, and now a more meta Saudi debate over the apparently dense Koranic ramifications.

The Guardian's Brian Whitaker picked the story up at his personal blog, writing, "True to form, this Islamic equivalent of the Trendy Vicar Syndrome has been causing a stir in the conservative kingdom." ("Trendy Vicar" is a Britishism for someone who tries too hard to be hip.) Whitaker also links to an English-language column by Saudi religious scholar Hamad al-Majid arguing that, yes, the Prophet Mohammed would probably be okay with this.

"This has aroused stark controversy amongst the social networkers, between those who view this as a form of overcompensation and unworthy of a religious scholar and student, and those who viewed this as normal activities," al-Majid writes a full week after the original photo, in a sign of just how long this controversy has lasted. He recounts a hadith, or piece of Koranic scripture, in which the prophet's wife challenged him to a race as evidence that al-Oud's motorbike ride would be acceptable.

To be fair, not everything to this debate is silly, and al-Majid uses the controversy to gently make a broader point. "Religious scholars and students are being embarrassed by some actions or behaviours that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not find embarrassing," he writes, hinting at exaggerated Saudi sensitivities around religion. "This includes some Islamic scholars being embarrassment to meet with representatives of other religions, from priests to rabbis." He reminds readers that Mohammed often met with other religious leaders. 

Alas, al-Majid laments that the refusal of "some Islamic scholars" to work with Christian and Jewish leaders has made it tougher for them to "fight homosexuality," among other things. This is, after all, Saudi Arabia.

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Max Fisher · October 31, 2012