Much of the fight in the past week has focused on a fatwa endorsing music issued by Adel al-Kalbani, a Riyadh cleric famed as the first black imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
Kalbani, popular for his soulful baritone delivery of Koranic readings, said he found nothing in Islamic scripture that makes music “haram”, or forbidden.
But, aside from some folk music, public music performance is banned in Saudi Arabia, and some ultra-conservatives say it is forbidden even in the home.
“There is no clear text or ruling in Islam that singing and music are haram,” Kalbani said.
Also in recent weeks, a much more senior cleric, Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeikan, raised hackles with two of his opinions.
First, he endorsed the idea that a grown man could be considered like a son of a woman if she breast-feeds him.
The issue is seen by some as a way of getting around the Saudi religious ban on mixing by unrelated men and women.
It brought ridicule and condemnation from women activists and Saudi critics around the world.
But Obeikan, a top advisor in the court of King Abdullah, who is believed to be supportive of less severe rules in his kingdom, also angered ultra-conservatives when he said the compulsory midday and mid-afternoon prayer sessions could be combined to help worshippers skirt the intense heat of summer.
While the choice is allowed for individuals in certain circumstances, conservatives say such a broad ruling for everyone is wrong.
The comments by Obeikan and Kalbani brought rebukes from top-level clerics in a debate that has erupted into freewheeling public discussions in the media and on the Internet.
In his Friday sermon at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the influential Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais lashed out at what he labelled “fraudulent” fatwas, likening their originators to market vendors selling fake or spoiled goods.
The effect, he said, goes so far as to undermine the country’s security.
Meanwhile, the country’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, warned of a crackdown.
“Those who offer abnormal fatwas which have no support from the Koran should be halted,” he said on Al-Majd television on Sunday.
“If a person comes out (with fatwas) and he is not qualified, we will stop him,” he said, comparing such a person to a quack doctor allowed to treat patients.
Crucially, the government is also moving to build a consistency in the sharia law-based legal system, where judges are all clerics for whom fatwas play a crucial role.
The government wants only one body, controlled by the powerful Council of High Ulema, to issue fatwas, which other clerics must accept. Some people want fatwas more attuned to modern life.
“The people are governed by old ideas,” historian and columnist Mohammad al-Zulfa said.
“People are forming a new mentality. (Many) have been waiting for such fatwas for a long time,” he said about Kalbani.
“We are part of the world. We have to develop the legal system to meet the needs of the modern time,” he added.
Earlier this year there was an embarrassing fight over the apparently free-thinking head of Mecca’s religious police, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, who shocked many by endorsing mixing by men and women.
He was fired, and then reinstated, in a behind-the-scenes skirmish between conservatives and progressives.
Hamad al-Qadi, a member of the Saudi Shura Council, called the fatwa fight this week “chaos”.
“The Islamic world follows whatever comes out of our country and its scholars concerning Islam,” he said, according to Al-Hayat newspaper.
For his part, Kalbani said he was open to discussion on the issue.
“The problem is that there are some who do not accept debate at all,” he said.
He clarified that he was not endorsing all music, using two often risque Lebanese pop singers as examples.
“I am talking about decent singing, which contains decent words, and supports morality,” he told the online newspaper Sabq.org.
“I am definitely not talking about the songs of Nancy Ajram or Haifa Wehbe or other indecent songs.”
However, “if Nancy Ajram sang a song with a positive message, then she would be within my fatwa.”