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Saudi Arabia confirms Mecca and Medina broadcasts will continue after backlash over ban

Ministry of Islamic Affairs had announced ban on filming and broadcasting from mosques during holy month, sparking criticism
Muslim worshippers perform the evening Tarawih prayers during Ramadan at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on 9 May 2021 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has confirmed that it will continue to broadcast uninterrupted live footage from the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina after an announcement banning the filming of congregational prayers caused uproar online.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance announced that mosques in the country would not be allowed to film prayers or broadcast them to media channels during Ramadan, which begins on 1 April.

The comments were part of a wider statement issuing advice for mosque employees during the upcoming Muslim holy month. 

It urged staff “not to use cameras in mosques to photograph the imam and worshipers while performing prayers, and not to transmit prayers or broadcast them in the media of all kinds”. 

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It also encouraged worshippers to avoid bringing children who may be disruptive, and advised those planning to hold projects for iftar - the fast-breaking evening meal - that they needed to submit applications for prior approval from the ministry.

While much of the statement was innocuous, the guidance around filming and broadcasting from mosques caused confusion. 

During Ramadan, it is common for Muslims around the world to watch live footage from the Grand Mosque in Mecca, as worshippers walk around the Kaaba - the building at the centre of Mecca's Masjid al-Haram - and take part in daily prayers at Islam's holiest site. 

It is also common during the holy month to watch live broadcasts from Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet's Mosque), the second holiest site in Islam, in the western Saudi city of Medina.

The statement did not make specific reference to Mecca or Medina, raising initial doubts about whether they would be included. However, Haramain Sharifain, the official news publication for the two mosques, confirmed on Thursday that the coverage would continue 24 hours a day.  

It is not common for filming or broadcasting to take place at any other mosque in Saudi Arabia, which raises questions about the original motivation of the announcement.

Social media backlash

Several activists and social media users had criticised the move to ban public broadcasts of prayers. 

“Following on from invitations to Nicki Minaj, 'Giant' desert raves, bikini beaches, gutting Islamic education from curriculum, and banning loudspeakers for mosques, #SaudiArabia's [Crown Prince Mohammed] Bin Salman bans all media outlets from broadcasting prayers during the month of Ramadan,” tweeted MENA commentator Sami Hamdi, referring to several recent controversial initiatives in the kingdom.

Hamdi posted a thread claiming that this was yet another example of Saudi Arabia deliberately publishing a vague statement, monitoring the backlash, before backtracking. 

He cited an example from earlier this year, when the kingdom restricted the use of external loudspeakers in mosques, before later confirming that it would not apply to weekly Friday prayers. 

“Are you sure it’s [the Ministry of] Islamic Affairs, not the Crusades?!” remarked another user. 

https://twitter.com/basrova/status/1506755601577168896?s=20&t=WTLzy8Ov33OcFhXswGltWw 

Some critics believe that under the de-facto leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has veered away from its Islamic principles. 

In December, the kingdom came under criticism from conservatives after hosting the MDL Beast musical festival, which saw hundreds of thousands of men and women dancing together in what was described as a "giant rave". 

The crown prince caused a stir in April last year after he drew distinctions between different types of Islamic hadith (recorded narrations of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), and remarked on the relevance of renowned scholar and theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. 

In the mid-18th century, Wahhab formed an alliance with the emir of Dariyyah, Muhammad bin Saud, which helped bring about the establishment of the first Saudi state. The alliance and power-sharing arrangement between the two families has continued since.

Last month, Saudi Arabia launched a new “founding day”, which has been viewed by some as an attempt to diminish the role of Wahhabism.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.