A simmering controversy among religious scholars in Saudi Arabia on whether sex segregation is permissible in Islam spilled over into Egypt, where the countryâ€™s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa has thrust his voice behind moderates sanctioning mixed gender environments.
Gomaa argues that Islam does not prohibit the mingling of males and females in public places, including schools and universities, provided it is within limits of shared public decency norms.
"There is no problem in mingling if a woman abides by the rules of Islam," he said. "A woman is advised to wear clothes that are neither tight nor revealing."
The same, he added, applies to men "since Islam demands that both men and women stay away from anything that might instigate them into falling prey to sinful behaviors."
Gomaa’s statements came in response to a question asking his opinion on the issue of gender segregation, which has divided some prominent Muslim clerics in the neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Recently Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of Mecca’s branch of the religious police body known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, infuriated hardline religious scholars by sanctioning the mixing between men and women.
Ghamdi said that sex segregation is not part of Islamic teachings and challenged his opponents to show any text that promotes it.
He also cited several incidents in the history of Islam to prove that such a ban was not imposed during the time of the prophet.
"The problem is that people tend to generalize certain incidents of sex segregation in the history of Islamic society," he said. "Those who prohibit mingling did not study thoroughly the circumstances under which this prohibition was applied."
Some conservative scholars see mingling as a major source of sin and immorality. Sheikh Adul-Rahman al-Barrak went even father accusing those who promote mixed gender environment of apostasy.
In response, Ghamdi accused Barrak of seeking attention and wanting to stir public controversy.
"That is why I think there is no point in responding to his fatwa. This will just lead to endless arguments that will eventually boil down to nothing," Ghamdi told Al Arabiya in an earlier interview.
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)