Islamic religious police

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The Islamic religious police (Arabic: مطوعmuṭawwiʿ, plural مطوعون muṭawwiʿūn – derived from classical Arabic: mutaṭawwiʿa/muṭṭawwiʿa)[1] is the official vice squad of some Islamic states, who on behalf of the state, enforces Sharia law in respect to religious behavior (morality),[2][3] or the precepts of Wahhabism.[3] The establishment of a religious police is considered justified with the Quran doctrine, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong or promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.[2][3] Some controversy, though, exists and opinions are divided on the function or purpose of religious police;[2][3] for example, in Iran and Saudi Arabia some see them as limiting secularization, while some foreign Islamic imams see them as an outdated over-conservative annoyance.[3]


The word mutaween (Arabic: المطوعين‎, translit. muṭawwiʿīn; variant English spellings: mutawwain, ''muttawa", mutawallees, mutawa’ah, mutawi’, mutawwa') most literally means "volunteers" in the Arabic language,[4] and is commonly used as a casual term for the government-authorized or government-recognized religious police (or clerical police) of Saudi Arabia. The term is derived from the Semitic root ṭ-w-ʿ, relating to "obedience." It was originally a casual synonym for the religious police of Saudi Arabia. The formal short term for the Saudi religious police is هيئة "hay'ah".

More recently the term has gained use as an umbrella term outside the Arabic-speaking world to indicate religious-policing organizations with at least some government recognition or deference which enforce varied interpretations of Sharia law. The concept is thought to have originated from Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia .[5] However, the use of religious police was prevalent during Taliban rule as a means to promote their fundamentalist interpretation of Deobandi Islam.

Activities by country[edit]


A Guidance Patrol Delica van parked in front of Mellat Park, Tehran

Guidance Patrol (Persian: گشت ارشاد‎, Gašt-e Eršād; also known as Guidance Patrol[6]) is the main Islamic religious police, or vice squad in the Law Enforcement Force of Islamic Republic of Iran, established in 2005[7] (succeeding previously defunct institutions with the same task) with the task to impose Islamic dress codes and norms of conduct in public, particularity regarding the hijab of women (but also some men)[8] who are deemed improperly dressed according to the dress code. In addition, the patrol also enforces Islamic codes of conduct in public, such as preventing the mingling of unrelated men and women without a male guardian (mahram) for the latter, and preventing other types of behavior that are un-Islamic.

Saudi Arabia[edit]

Seal of the CPVPV

The Mutaween in Saudi Arabia are tasked with enforcing Sharia as defined by the government, specifically by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). The Mutaween of the CPVPV consists of “more than 3,500 officers in addition to thousands of volunteers... often accompanied by a police escort.”[citation needed] They had the power to arrest unrelated males and females caught socializing, anyone engaged in homosexual behavior or prostitution; to enforce Islamic dress-codes, and store closures during the prayer time. They enforced Muslim dietary laws, prohibited the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages and pork, and seized banned consumer products and media regarded as anti-Islamic (such as CDs/DVDs of various Western musical groups,[who?][citation needed] television shows and film which has material contrary to Sharia law or Islam itself). Additionally, they actively prevented the practice or proselytizing of other religions within Saudi Arabia, where they are banned.[9][10] In April 2016 however, the Saudi Arabian cabinet removed the Mutaween power to arrest, limiting them merely to the role of reporting violators to police or drug squad officers.[11]

Among the things the Mutaween have been criticized or ridiculed for include the use of flogging to punish violators,[12][13] banning Valentines Day gifts,[14][15] arresting priests for saying Mass,[16] and being staffed by “ex-convicts whose only job qualification was that they had memorized the Qur'an in order to reduce their sentences”.[17]

Perhaps the most serious and widely criticized incident attributed to them occurred on March 11, 2002, when they prevented schoolgirls from escaping a burning school in Mecca, because the girls were not wearing headscarves and abayas (black robes), and not accompanied by a male guardian. The firemen who arrived on to help, were also males. Fifteen girls died and fifty were injured as a result. Widespread public criticism followed, both internationally and within Saudi Arabia.[18]

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".[19]


Kabul, 2001, image obtained by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan showing a religious policing member responsible for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice enforcing Sharia rules on a woman for removing her burqa headpiece in public.
Taliban police in a pickup truck patrolling a street in Herat, in July 2001.

Afghanistan's Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was first instituted by the 1992 Rabbani regime, and adopted by the Taliban when they took power in 1996.[20] It was closed when the Taliban was ousted, but the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan reinstated it in 2003.[21] In 2006 the Karzai regime submitted draft legislation to create a new department, under the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs, devoted to the "Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice".[20] Radio Free Europe quoted many Afghans who greeted news of the draft with alarm.

Other countries[edit]

Other less prominent Islamic religious police forces include:

Syrian Rebels[edit]

A religious police called al-Hisba operates in Idlib, which is ruled by Syrian rebels linked and allied to Al-Qaeda.[23]


The militant group ISIL has employed the use of religious police in areas under its control, commonly known as the Hisbah.[24]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition. Brill, Leiden. Vol. 7, p. 776
  2. ^ a b c Sultan, Sohaib (2004). The Koran For Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, Inc. pp. 238–40, 246. ISBN 9780764555817. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Cordesman, Anthony H. (2003). Saudi Arabia Enters the Twenty-first Century: The military and international security dimensions. 1. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. pp. 294–96, 298. ISBN 9780275980917. 
  4. ^ Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic by Hans Wehr, edited by J. M. Cowan, 4th edition (1994, ISBN 0-87950-003-4), p. 670.
  5. ^ Rashid, Ahmed (2001). Taliban (1st Pan ed.). London: Pan Books. p. 105. ISBN 0-330-49221-7. 
  6. ^ Who are Islamic 'morality police'?
  7. ^ Erdbrink, Thomas (7 May 2014). "When Freedom Is the Right to Stay Under Wraps". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 August 2016. 
  8. ^ Sharafedin, Bozorgmehr (20 April 2016). "Rouhani clashes with Iranian police over undercover hijab agents". Reuters. Retrieved 12 August 2016. 
  9. ^ "SAUDI ARABIA Catholic priest arrested and expelled from Riyadh – Asia News". Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  10. ^ "BBC NEWS – Middle East – Saudi minister rebukes religious police". Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  11. ^ "Saudi Arabia strips religious police of arresting power". Retrieved 2016-04-16. 
  12. ^ "The Saudi Media Debates Flogging by the Saudi Religious Police". MEMRI – The Middle East Media Research Institute. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  13. ^ Saudi Arabia: Gross human rights abuses against women.
  14. ^ "Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia by Stephen Schwartz & Irfan al-Alawir 03/05/2007, Volume 012, Issue 24". Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  15. ^ ‘200 Arrested in Mina for Celebrating Valentine's Day’, Arab News, February 18, 2004
  16. ^ Catholic priest arrested and expelled from Riyadh, April 10, 2006 , Asia News
  17. ^ Wright, Lawrence, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, NY, Knopf, 2006, p. 149
  18. ^ "Saudi police 'stopped' fire rescue", BBC, 15 March 2002
  19. ^ "Morality Police under Pressure", Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2007.
  20. ^ a b Golnaz Esfandiari (18 July 2006). "Afghanistan: Proposed Morality Department Recalls Taliban Times". Radio Free Europe. Archived from the original on 28 October 2008. Retrieved 28 October 2008. 
  21. ^ Claudio Franco (7 December 2004). "Despite Karzai election, Afghan conservatives soldier on". Eurasianet. Archived from the original on 4 August 2008. Retrieved 4 August 2008. 
  22. ^ Packer, George (11 September 2006). "The Moderate Martyr". The New Yorker. Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  23. ^ McKernan, Bethan (16 February 2017). "Syrian schoolgirl arrested by religious police for 'inappropriate clothing' freed after classmate protest". The Independent. Beirut. 
  24. ^ "Life Under ISIS Religious Police is Brutal and Merciless". August 2014. Retrieved 2015.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)

External links[edit]