Page last updated at 19:05 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 20:05 UK

Saudi cleric urges prayer reform

By Magdi Abdelhadi
Arab affairs analyst, BBC News

Grand Mosque in Mecca
Saudi Arabia practises a conservative form of Sunni Islam

A leading Saudi cleric has called on Muslims not to pray for the destruction of unbelievers.

A supplication to that effect is often reiterated at the end of every Friday prayer in Arab countries, something critics say can radicalise youth.

Sheikh Salman al-Awda said such prayers were against Islamic sharia.

But he added they were permissible if the interests of Muslims were harmed, so his words may have little effect on radicals who oppose the US or Israel.

Reform issue

It is very common for the Friday prayer in Arab societies to end with the Imam calling for the destruction of the "kuffar", the un-believers, to which the worshippers respond "Amen".

Such public display of hostility to other cultures was picked up by critics as an example of how mainstream Islamic preaching contributes, perhaps inadvertently, to the radicalisation of Muslim youths.

The issue moved centre-stage in the debate about reform in Islam after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington eight years ago by 19 Muslim men, most of whom came from Saudi Arabia.

The question of reform is more urgent for Saudi society, where a puritanical interpretation of Islamic faith encourages hostility to other faiths, including even Muslim sects, such as the Shias, who complain of severe discrimination in the predominantly conservative Sunni kingdom.

Limited impact

Sheikh Salman is a respected cleric and a member of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, so his appeal should, at least in theory, should carry some weight.

He said praying for the destruction of the unbelievers runs against God's law, or Islamic sharia.

However, he added that praying for their destruction should be allowed only if they were harming the interests of Muslims.

But in a climate where Muslims are widely perceived to be under attack in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, Sheikh Salman's appeal will have little or no impact on those who think that jihad against the Americans or the Israelis is a perfectly legitimate exercise.

For them the problem is not Islamic preaching, but rather an unjust world where Muslims are oppressed by foreign powers.

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