Saudi religious leader says Muslims can celebrate Valentine's Day

RIYADH (Reuters) - A prominent Saudi sheikh told a newspaper on Thursday celebrating Valentine’s Day did not contradict Islamic teachings, defying the hardline position of the kingdom’s religious police on the holiday.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, the former head of the Mecca region’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, said in an interview with Arab News that Muslims could celebrate love on Feb. 14.

“Celebrating Valentine’s Day does not contradict Islamic teachings as it is a worldly, social matter just like celebrating the National Day and Mother’s Day,” he was quoted as saying.

The push for a more moderate Islam accompanies efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernize the kingdom. He has loosened social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious police and permitting public concerts. The government announced plans to allow women to drive this year.

Valentine’s Day has in the past been usually preceded by a clampdown from the religious police, ordering florists and other shopkeepers to remove items associated with the festival.

But last year, the force was barred from pursuing suspects or making arrests.

Florists said they easily sold red roses and bouquets on Wednesday and Thursday without getting into trouble.

“I didn’t expect this,” one flower seller laughed. “It’s not like past years, people are comfortable buying (red flowers).”

“That’s it, it’s over,” he added.

Sheikh al-Ghamdi is known for his liberal stances. He published a paper in 2009 questioning the legality of gender segregation in Islam, as enforced by the Commission.

He was sacked from his position but the decision was quickly reversed. In 2010, he said he did not consider it wrong for women to drive.

Al-Ghamdi resigned soon afterwards, going on to create uproar in 2014 when he said that while women should dress modestly, the full face veil was not necessary.

He appeared on television with his wife, she wearing the traditional black long robe and headscarf, but with her face uncovered.

Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; editing by Andrew Roche