RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A conservative Saudi cleric was told to stop giving unauthorized edicts after he called for a boycott of a supermarket chain that employs women as cashiers, the office of the kingdom's most senior religious leader said Thursday.
The move is the first public reprimand of a prominent cleric following a royal decree that limits the issuance of fatwas to the country's most senior group of clerics. Fatwas are religious edicts that provide guidance in matters of everyday life to pious Muslims.
Sheik Youssef al-Ahmed had urged people not to shop at Panda Supermarket because women there work in jobs that allow for the mingling of the sexes, which the cleric said was a violation of Islamic law.
Saudi media reported that al-Ahmed's fatwa forced the supermarket management to reassign 11 of its women employees to other positions on Wednesday. The chain could not be reached for comment.
Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheik's office said Thursday he had summoned al-Ahmed and ordered the cleric to refrain from issuing unauthorized fatwas.
The office said it "received a pledge from al-Ahmed not to issue any fatwas" without approval.
Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islam and religious leaders have strong influence over policy making and social mores. Sexes are segregated in schools and public places. Women are not allowed to drive or vote, and physical education classes are banned in state-run girls' schools.
Saudi King Abdullah has been trying to clamp down on ultraconservative ideology, including allowing women to take up commercial jobs.
Earlier in August, Abdullah decreed that only the powerful government-sanctioned Council of Senior Islamic Scholars could issue fatwas. And last year, the king dismissed a hard-line cleric who criticized a newly inaugurated university for allowing men and women to take classes together.
But reining in the fatwas — or any learned scholar from providing them — may prove difficult as they are a way of life for observant Muslims who freely seek guidance from their local clerics.
In a call-in TV show on satellite channel al-Usra, which is Arabic for The Family, al-Ahmed defended his edict.
The fatwa has fueled campaigns on the Internet and through social networking groups. A group on Facebook had nearly 1,500 members supporting al-Ahmed.
Al-Ahmad said having women work as cashiers was a step "toward adopting a Westernized project."
"This is a project of the hypocrites that must be stopped, it's a violation of the country's laws," he said in the show.
In another example of the clash between fatwas and state policy, a senior cleric recently said women should not participate in international or local equestrian competitions because it violates rules of modesty and causes them to "mingle with men."
The edict went against the kingdom's decision to send young female competitor Dalma Malhas to the Youth Olympics in Singapore.
Malhas, 18, won a bronze metal on Tuesday in the first ever Saudi female participation in international sports events, according to the English language Arab News daily.
But Sheik Saud al-Funiasan claimed in comments on a Saudi website that women in equestrian events are "defiant public violators" of Islamic law.
"Authorities must prevent that. Only an impertinent ... would accept or praise such an act," said al-Funiasan, according to the Ijaz website.