Saudi Arabia is poised to overhaul the five-decade regulations of the duties and rights of mosque imams and preachers to bring them more in line with modern times.
“The move by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs seeks to incorporate people with better religious competencies and knowledge,” Abdul Rahman Bin Ali Al Askar, a consultant at the ministry, said.
“In the past, there were not enough university graduates in the field, and the ministry was compelled to recruit imams and preachers without university-level degrees. However, now, the situation is different.”
A major problem faced by the ministry was that some imams did not comply fully with its instructions, relied on their own interpretations or bowed to “negative” pressure from some worshippers, he added, Saudi daily Okaz reported on Thursday.
Under the new rules, an imam cannot deputise another person to deliver the Friday sermon on his behalf unless the ministry is duly informed.
No person is allowed to address worshippers even after the prayers unless he is duly accredited by the ministry.
The regulations, published by Okaz, also stipulate that imams should not allow anyone to conduct any fund-raising activity at the mosques regardless of the cause or to plaster pamphlets on the walls of the mosques.
Imams must never resort to hostile expressions in their speeches, criticise any country or any person, or take up political or tribal issues.
Actions against imams who do not comply with the instructions of the ministry will start with a warning if the violation is not severe, to be followed by an official blame.
Imams could also have their financial perks reduced and, in some cases, they could be dismissed.
However, no action will be taken against any imam without giving him the opportunity to explain his attitude or action.
According to Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, an imam should address social issues and help correct misconceptions while promoting positive values.
“They should also comply fully with the instructions of the ministry which should advise and direct them on all important issues,” he said.
In the past, Saudi newspapers and social media often reported cases of imams who abused their standings and waded into controversy.
In one instance, an imam used the Friday sermon to attack the principal of a school who was carrying out instructions from the education ministry. Her brother informed the authorities and the imam was summoned for his public hostility against an innocent woman.
In another case, an imam was so upset with a prominent actor that he attacked him in his weekly sermon, prompting the authorities to step in and suspend him.
Another imam transgressed social norms by criticizing in his sermon a visit made a by a group of students from a girls’ school to a public institution, accusing them of illegal mixing. He too was summoned for disturbing social peace.
In another case, an imam was summoned by the authorities after he compared worshippers to animals and criticised the care by the state about ruins and history.
One imam was suspended from leading prayers and delivering sermons after he used the mosque to host a Eid reception during which a man’s sword dance was held and worshippers were urged to join it.
In Makkah, an imam was suspended after a video clip that went viral on social media showed him allowing pilgrims from an Asian country bow in front of him.