Riyadh–A move by Saudi Arabia to allow only clerics approved by King Abdullah to issue religious edicts is a signal that the absolute monarchy wants to rein in a conservative clergy that has sometimes stood in the way of political reforms.
The world's biggest oil exporting country, a close US ally, is ruled by the Al Saud family with influence from clerics who follow the austere Wahhabi school of Islam. Political freedom, including women's rights, is limited.
The move would help Saudi rulers push through education and justice reforms without having to contend with religious edicts, or fatwas, of politically driven conservative clerics opposed to modernization efforts.
Opposition from independent and establishment clerics has already limited the scope of changes aimed at modernizing a system that has historically focused more on religion than job skills.
Reforms are seen as needed urgently if the kingdom is to create jobs for a fast growing population and reduce its reliance on oil.
"The decree should give the king bigger room to maneuver in pushing reforms," Saudi political writer Khalid al-Dakhil said.
King Abdullah issued the decree this month demanding the Grand Mufti, the kingdom's top cleric, limit fatwas to members of the 20-cleric Senior Scholars Authority, which advises the king on religious issues, and an affiliated committee.
That step came after attempts to modernize Saudi Arabia led to a profusion in fatwas from scholars and mosque imams, spread on the Internet, often in opposition to what they see as the rampant Westernization in a country that is Islam's birthplace.
"The order is aimed at dealing with the pockets of radical clerics outside the official clergy. But the Senior Scholars Authority itself has some hardline clerics among its members," said Abdulaziz al-Qassem, a former Saudi judge.
"The difference is it can't meet or issue any recommendation without the king's approval," he added.
The king's order was specifically aimed at blocking religious decrees that hurt national security or "challenge knowledgeable clerics".
Riyadh, keen to curb Islamist militancy, has wrestled with the idea of diluting the sway of puritanical Wahhabism after the 11 Sept., 2001, attacks on US landmarks carried out by mostly Saudi militants, and after an al Qaeda campaign to oust the monarchy emerged in 2003.
But that has proved a tough sell in the kingdom, where Wahhabi clerics wield strong influence, overseeing mosques, the judiciary and education, and running a coercive morals police.
The move was not viewed as likely to herald an imminent political change although the ageing King Abdullah is seen to favor reforms that would water down some Wahhabi tenets such as the ban on women driving and gender mixing.
Saudi Arabia has undergone a rapid modernization brought by oil revenues and this has shaken the foundations of what used to be a deeply tribal and conservative society and caused a backlash among traditionalists.
Before the order, virtually anyone who memorized the Koran could issue fatwas, or religious opinions on matters that can range from how to conduct oneself in private family life to state politics.
Some have embarrassed the Senior Scholars Authority and a monarchy that prides itself for being the custodian of two of Islam's holiest shrines.
In one fatwa, a prominent scholar issued an edict calling for the execution of anyone who adamantly opposes strict gender segregation. The scholar who issued that fatwa, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, is a pillar of Wahhabism but not a member of the official religious establishment.
That fatwa followed a decision by the king to remove a member of the authority who demanded scholars vet the curriculum at Saudi Arabia's first mixed-gender university, which bears the name of the king.
"The past three decades have seen a mess in fatwas," said Lebanese author Redwan al-Sayyid.
Other fatwas that have disturbed the monarchy range from one calling for the execution of owners of Arab entertainment satellite television channels to another that sanctioned adult breastfeeding to get around strict gender segregation rules.
Prior to King Abdullah's order, Saudi authorities have rarely interfered in taming firebrand clerics so long as their edicts did not pose a direct threat to the state's security.
Former judge Qassem said the decree would end what he described as clerical anarchy on Islamic matters.
"It will silence the radical clerics like Barrak since violators will end up in courts," he said.