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International Alliance for Advanced Judicial Studies (IAAJS)

Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Saudi Arabia)


The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, abbreviated CPVPV and colloquially termed hai’a (committee), is a Saudi government religious authority charged with implementing the Islamic doctrine of hisbah. It traces its modern origin to a revival of the pre-modern official function of muhtasib (market inspector) by the first Saudi state (1745–1818). The committee was established in 1976 in its current form, with the main goal of supervising markets and public morality. It has been assisted by volunteers, and often described as Islamic religious police. It has been called mutawa, mutaween and by other similar names in English-language sources, with various translations.

The committee's rationale is based on the classical Islamic doctrine of hisba, which is associated with the Quranic injunction of enjoining good and forbidding wrong, and refers to the duty of Muslims to promote moral rectitude and intervene when another Muslim is acting wrongly. In pre-modern Islamic history, its legal implementation was entrusted to a public official called muhtasib (market inspector), who was charged with preventing fraud, disturbance of public order and infractions against public morality. This office disappeared in the modern era everywhere in the Muslim world, including Arabia, but it was revived by the first Saudi state (1745–1818) and continued to play a role in the second (1823–87), due to its importance within Wahhabi doctrine. Under the third Saudi state, the most zealous followers of Ibn Sa'ud were appointed as muhtasibs, but their severity caused conflict with the local population and foreign pilgrims. In response, committees were established in Riyadh and Mecca in 1932 to check their excesses. In 1976 the committees were united under an official of ministerial rank, acting under direct royal command. The unified Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is mainly responsible for supervising markets and public order. It has been assisted by volunteers, who enforce attendance of daily prayers and gender segregation in public places.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice enforces traditional Islamic morality by arresting or helping to secure the arrest of people who engage in conduct that violates Islamic principles and values. They are tasked with enforcing conservative Islamic norms of behavior defined by Saudi authorities. They monitor observance of the dress code and ensure that shops are closed during prayer times. In some instances, they broke into private homes on suspicion of untoward behavior, though this attracted criticism from the public and the government.

In 2010, a 27-year-old Saudi man was sentenced to five years in prison, 500 lashes of the whip, and a SR50,000 fine after appearing in an amateur gay video online allegedly taken inside a Jeddah prison. According to an unnamed government source, “The District Court sentenced the accused in a homosexuality case that was referred to it by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a) in Jeddah before he was tried for impersonating a security man and behaving shamefully and with conduct violating the Islamic teachings.” The case started when the Hai’a’s staff arrested the man under charges of practicing homosexuality. He was referred to the Bureau for Investigation and Prosecution, which referred him to the District Court.

In December 2010 it was reported by Arab News that the Hai'a had launched a massive campaign against "sorcery" or "black magic" in the Kingdom. The prohibition includes "fortune tellers or faith healers". (Some people executed for sorcery following the announcement include a man from Najran province in June 2012, a Saudi woman in the province of Jawf, in December 2019, and a Sudanese man executed in September 2019. A Lebanese television presenter of a popular fortune-telling programme was arrested while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and sentenced to death, though after pressure from the Lebanese government and human rights groups, he was freed by the Saudi Supreme Court.

The offices of Saudi Aramco, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and foreign embassies are off limits to mutaween. Not off limits are personnel of Saudi government agencies. Hai’a have been known to detain government officials, (A male government employee minder of American journalist Karen Elliott House was detained for mixing of the sexes, causing her to wonder that "a government employee following the instructions of his ministry runs afoul of that same government's religious police.).

In September 2013 the entrance of a Saudi religious police building "was intentionally set on fire by assailants", according to the Hai'a. No one was hurt and no further information was provided by the police. In early 2014, the head of Hai'a, Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh was quoted in the Okaz daily newspaper as saying that Óthere are advocates of sedition within the Commission" for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and promised to remove them.

Another instance when the CPVPV has opposed the Saudi government came in 2005 when the Minister of Labor announced a policy of staffing lingerie shops with women. The policy was intended to give employment to some of the millions of adult Saudi women unhappily stuck at home (only 14.6% of Saudi women work in the public and private sectors in the Kingdom), and to prevent mixing of the sexes in public (ikhtilat), between male clerks and women customers. Conservative Saudis opposed the policy maintaining that for a woman to work outside the house was against her fitrah (natural state). The few shops that employed women were "quickly closed" by the Hai'i who supported the conservative position.

In June 2007 the Saudi mutaween announced "the creation of a 'department of rules and regulations' to ensure the activities of commission members comply with the law, after coming under heavy pressure for the death of two people in its custody in less than two weeks". The governmental National Society for Human Rights criticised the behaviour of the religious police in May 2007 in its first report since its establishment in March 2004. In May 2006 the Interior Ministry issued a decree stating that "the role of the commission will end after it arrests the culprit or culprits and hands them over to police, who will then decide whether to refer them to the public prosecutor."


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