King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, in a dramatic step apparently aimed at reforming his powerful, strictly conservative religious community, has called on Islamic scholars to examine in a modern light the meaning of some of Islam's most fundamental laws and tenets.
At a meeting of Islamic scholars early last week in the holy city of Mecca, the king suggested that the practice of ijtihad, or new interpretation by religious scholars of the Prophet Mohammed's teachings, could be useful in reconciling Islamic law with modern life. The practice was effectively suspended by Moslem scholars of the Sunni sect at the end of the 9th century.
The king told the meeting, held under the auspices of the 43-nation, Saudi-led Islamic Conference Organization, that the Islamic world today faced "a multitude of new events and many unanswered questions and accumulated problems" that had to be dealt with.
"The problems are enormous and the responsibility we have before God is bigger than any one man's ijtihad of the events of life unless that ijtihad is acceptable to religious leaders who have thoroughly researched and examined old and new Islamic jurisprudence," he said.
The king, who currently presides over the Islamic conference, proposed holding an international conference of Islamic religious leaders and scholars to modernize the body of Islamic religious law, known as the sharia, governing daily behavior of the world's 800 million Moslems.
Such a conference, he said, had become "an imperative necessity" for the entire Islamic world.
"The challenges of modern life . . . require the mobilization of the efforts of Islamic scholars, religious leaders, wise men and thinkers of the Islamic world to find answers to the questions posed by these challenges," he added.
His speech has not yet been circulated widely or attracted much comment outside Saudi Arabia. But his proposal, if acted upon, contains the seeds of a veritable social revolution within the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia adheres strictly to a puritan brand of Islam known as Wahhabism after its early 18th century founder, Mohammed abd Wahhab, who opposed any innovations in religious thinking or customs. Moslems in Saudi Arabia are predominately from the Sunni sect.
The kingdom is by far the most conservative of the Arab countries and still bars women from working with men or even driving cars. The Moslem holy book, the Koran, serves as its constitution.
King Fahd's proposal is all the more interesting since he has begun his reign, now just a year old, by allowing his own religious leaders a free hand to enforce with even greater rigor the rigid codes of Wahhabism.
Hardly a month goes by without some new royal decree to remind Saudis and foreigners to respect the religious law. Recent ones have been aimed at tightening the segregation of women from men at work and in public and at assuring that government offices and private firms allow time off during work hours for their employes to pray.
In addition, the religious police have instituted a crackdown on the behavior of westerners to the point of forcing them out of restaurants at prayer time in the capital of Riyadh and women off even private beaches on the eastern coast for wearing "indecent" suits or mixing with men.
The religious police have also moved against foreign Christians they consider to be worshiping too visibly or in too large numbers. Last month, at least seven members of a Protestant group, the International Fellowship, were expelled for being too active in Riyadh and partly, too, for carrying out some proselytizing among Asian Moslems working in the kingdom.
The reasons for the king's allowing the religious police and religious leaders such a free hand has been the subject of much conjecture among foreigners living in the kingdom.
According to one theory, the monarch is reacting to criticism about his own lack of piety when he was younger and to daily propaganda blasts from the fundamentalist Islamic Shiite sect government in Iran about corruption and the extravagant living style of the Saudi royal family.
Another theory holds that the king is simply playing for time and will eventually move to curb the power of the religious establishment when he feels stronger. One way he could do this eventually is by establishing a consultative council dominated by laymen, which would act as a counterbalance to the powerful religious leaders.
Similarly, an international conference of theologians meeting to "modernize" Islam's religious law and customs could be another ploy by King Fahd to put pressure from outside the kingdom on the Wahhabi establishment to ease up on its strict view of life and society.
Before becoming king, Fahd was regarded as the leader of the "progressive" wing of the Saud family and a prime promoter of the rapid modernization the kingdom has experienced in the past decade.
For any Saudi monarch, dealing with the religious establishment is an extremely sensitive matter. The alliance between the ruling House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious leaders has been the foundation of the royal family's power and legitimacy for more than 200 years.
The overt opposition of the religious community to the king or his policies could easily become a serious political problem, although he is certain to have the support of the large western-educated middle class in any push for reform.
The question of religious reform also is delicate because Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, the burial ground of the prophet and the homeland of Islam's holiest shrine, the Kabbah in Mecca.
In this setting and these circumstances, King Fahd's proposal to reopen the door of interpretation on Islam's religious laws and customs is particularly bold and daring and not without risks.
At issue is not the Koran, which all Moslems regard as the word of God and therefore untouchable. But in addition, there exists a large body of the recorded deeds and sayings attributed to the prophet, which--together with the Koran--form the basis of all canon law codified in the sharia.
The sharia governs virtually every aspect of Moslem's daily life and covers criminal and civil law, social behavior, financial transactions and family relations.
Feuding among Sunni Islamic scholars during the first three centuries after Mohammed's death in 632 A.D. led to the rise of four competing schools of canonical law.
There has been little widely accepted innovation in applying the Koran's teaching since the Sunnis stopped the reinterpretation in the 9th century. Many scholars blame that prohibition for a decline of scientific and other innovation in the Moslem world since.
The contradictions this can cause are reflected in Saudi Arabia, where the latest technology--totally imported from the West and Japan--has been set down in a society governed by 9th century religious law.
It is this lack of adaptation to the modern world and of innovation by Moslem religious scholars that King Fahd is apparently trying to tackle by focusing, however gingerly, on the ijtihad.
In calling for an international conference, the Saudi monarch is seeking a wider acceptance of the idea as well as pan-Islamic agreement on any changes made. This would presumably help deflect any charges of heresy from his own fundamentalist Wahhabi supporters.
The meeting at Mecca June 6-8 was reported to have agreed to convoke an international conference of scholars and religious leaders from all Islamic sects within five months. However, whether that conference would agree to reopen such a potentially divisive religious debate, let alone succeed in coming to an agreement on any new interpretations, is far from certain.