(CNN) — A prominent Saudi cleric has created a storm of controversy by appearing on a popular television show alongside his wife, whose face was uncovered, challenging a fundamental religious tradition in the conservative kingdom.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi once headed the religious police in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, but now says the full-face veil imposed on all women in the country is not imperative in Islam.
“No one is saying that it is not allowed for a woman to cover her face, but I am saying that it is not obligatory and I have evidence in jurisprudence of this,” al-Ghamdi told Badria al-Bishr, the female host of the television program.
He explained that people became confused about ancient texts that mentioned the head scarf and the robe that women were commanded to wear.
“Later, people confused the hijab, which was imposed only on the wives of the Prophet Mohammed, with what Allah imposed on Muslim women in general,” al-Ghamdi said.
The bold statements contest Saudi Arabia’s image as a nation of women clad in loose black garb known as abayas and peering through a face veil, or niqab, from behind the required male guardian.
“My message to Sheikh al-Ghamdi is to fear God,” Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh told the Saudi news site Sabq. “You should ask repentance from God, and to back away from this mistake before you meet God with these sins.”
Although the country’s laws do not require the niqab, women who appear in public with uncovered faces may face harassment from religious police or even bystanders for ignoring the custom.
“Happy now? Every mobile phone now has a picture of your wife, you pimp,” one outraged post on Twitter read.
On the show, Al-Ghamdi’s wife was dressed in a traditional black abaya, but also wore makeup, sported stylish sunglasses and carried a Michael Kors purse as she spoke about the struggles her family faced.
“This definitely affects us both positively and negatively,” said Jawaher bint Al-Sheikh Ali. “Our children sometimes complain that fellow students and even teachers challenge them and start arguing with them. Sometimes this affects them psychologically.”
In the past, the controversial cleric — who is despised by more conservative religious figures — has said that women may go out in public without a male guardian, wear makeup and even mingle with the opposite sex in appropriate environments, all violations of custom in Saudi Arabia.
“When Sheikh Al-Ghamdi and I put this episode on air, our aim was not to clash with social beliefs and established norms which were not discussed before but to create a balance in opinions within our society,” al-Bishr, the host of the program, told sister network Al Arabiya on Monday.
A photograph of al-Ghamdi sitting between his wife, who wore colored clothing, and a blonde woman in a sleeveless dress — which was allegedly snapped during a visit to Euorpe — spread on social media as critics tried to discredit the sheikh.
The longstanding debate plays out beyond the Gulf state and across the Islamic world, where most mainstream religious leaders argue that the face veil stems from tribal tradition rather than Sharia law. That’s also the view of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the highest seat of Sunni Islam scholarship.
“Some foolish people need to stop their accusations to senior Salafi scholars and describing them with ignorance,” Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, a former senior imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, said in a tweet defending the couple’s television appearance. “Choose what you want and hold your tongue.”
After online users shared the weekend interview widely, racking up over a million views on YouTube, al-Ghamdi told the newspaper al-Watan he has received death threats for his wife’s public appearance.
“For those who accuse me of wanting celebrity or fame, accuse me of worse than that, this is not the issue,” al-Ghamdi said to critics in the Saturday interview. “Keep your opinions, but do not judge me on them. Instead, debate me on my argument.”