Keeping Saudi Ultra-Conservatism Alive And Kicking: Meet Sheikh Awesome – Analysis


Meet Sheikh Assim Al-Hakeem, aka Sheikh Awesome, a multilingual, ultra-conservative, and charismatic Saudi cleric.

Mr. Al-Hakeem is more than just any Saudi Islamic scholar. An erstwhile Friday prayer imam of a mosque in Jeddah, Mr. Al-Hakeem articulates views that at times align with those of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but, at others, contradict the recasting of Saudi Arabia’s religious image projected by the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

“I do not consider myself as conservative or others as liberal. We have the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the sayings and deeds of Prophet Mohammed). All I teach is knowledge to enter heaven. It’s not rocket science. This is what God says in the Qur’an. It’s black and white,” Mr. Al-Hakeem said in an interview.

Describing himself as a “controversial” figure, Mr. Al-Hakeem initially declined to be interviewed for this article. His office said in an email that the cleric “is not authorized to talk about Saudi Arabia.” However, in a further exchange, he agreed to discuss his religious views.

In stark contrast to religious reformers like Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest and most moderate Indonesia-based Muslim civil society movement, Mr. Al-Hakeem last month appeared in an interview with popular Indonesian podcaster Dondy Tan to defend the inferior status of non-Muslims in Muslim society.

In 2019, a meeting of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued a fatwa eliminating the legal category of kafir or infidel in Sharia. It replaced it with the concept of citizens with equal rights irrespective of religious belief.

“In Islam, we are ordered to love for the sake of Allah and to hate for the sake of Allah…It means that if someone is in accordance with the teachings of Allah, the Almighty God, and he’s complying with his law, we love that individual… If there is someone who disbelieves in Allah and who also insults our religion, I cannot love this person… According to Islamic law, the Qur’an, and the Sunna, I’m obliged to hate him,” Mr. Al-Hakeem said.

“But hating him does not mean I should be violent, do him wrong, or oppress him. This is all unacceptable in my deen, my religion. So, what does it mean to hate him? Meaning, I hate his disbelief… I have a lot of Christian friends… They know me, and they visit me. They invite me, I invite them. Are we best of friends? Of course not… The moment they become Muslims, they become brothers, our brothers, and beloved ones to us,” Mr. Al-Hakeem added.

Sporting a flowing grey beard and an intricately woven white skullcap, the cleric defended imposing an extra tax on non-Muslim residents in a Muslim-majority country, even if Saudi Arabia has not implemented the Sharia rule.

“In return for what? In return, they live safely in our country or their country. And if there were an army to attack their country, they do not defend themselves. It’s the Muslim army, the Muslim nation, the Muslim people who are obliged to protect them, and they don’t even raise a hand,” Mr. Al-Hakeem said.

Mr. Al-Hakeem declined to comment on Nahdlatul Ulama’s approach in the interview.

Noting that Indonesia was not an Arab country, Mr. Al-Hakeem added, “They don’t speak native Arabic. Their scholars are not as well known as those from Medina and Cairo. I don’t know who qualifies as a scholar rather than someone trying to make an easy buck. I would need to meet them and hear from them to tell them what is right and wrong.”

To be sure, Mr. Al-Hakeem, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, is not the only ultra-conservative cleric whose views are at odds with Mr. Bin Salman’s projected image of Saudi Arabia as socially and religiously tolerant, engaged in inter-faith dialogue, forward-looking, and cutting edge.

However, most have chosen to remain silent or publicly endorse the crown prince’s policies to avoid arrest and preserve their relations with the government.

To be sure, while expressing ultra-conservative views on social mores, Mr. Al-Hakeem has shied away from openly criticizing Mr. Bin Salman or the government. That may be the trick.

“I represent Islam and speak about Islam. But we refrain from commenting whenever there is a conflict of interest with political opinion. They have their own people to comment without getting into trouble,” Mr. Al-Hakeem said in the interview.

Yet, with multiple religious proponents of more liberal reforms and ultra-conservatives behind bars, the question remains: why does Mr. Al-Hakeem feel free to express his controversial religious views in a country that cracks down harshly on freedom of expression?

In July, a Saudi human rights group on Twitter and Instagram reported that authorities arrested Saudi religious scholar Sheikh Badr Al-Meshari, an outspoken critic of Mr. Bin Salman’s promotion of a Western-style entertainment industry.

Mr. Al-Meshari last posted in February on his Twitter account with 550,000 followers. His tweets before that largely supported King Salman and the crown prince, and particularly the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.

In another incident, a Saudi court last year sentenced Salah al-Talib, former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, to 10 years in prison for insisting on a Muslim’s duty in Islam to speak out against evil in public.

Mr. Al-Talib, arrested in 2018, charged that Western-style events staged by the kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority violated Saudi Arabia’s religious and cultural norms.

“This…is not equivalent to a break between the Saudi state and religion or the religious establishment, but rather a comprehensive campaign against religious actors and narratives who reside outside of the official institutions and narratives directed by the regime,” said Middle East scholar Jon Hoffman.

In an interview with Fox News this week, Mr. Bin Salman potentially opened the door to easing the crackdown or, at least, an end to unjustifiable harsh sentences, even if the repression of freedom of expression remains in place.

Asked about the kingdom’s recent sentencing to death of Muhammad al-Ghamdi, a 54-year-old teacher and brother of a detained dissident Islamist scholar, for his activity on X, formerly known as Twitter, Mr. Bin Salman confirmed the verdict, expressed unhappiness about it, and asserted that laws would be changed.

However, he shied away from raising the possibility of pardoning Mr. Al-Ghamdi and suggested easing restrictions on freedom of expression was not an immediate priority.

“Shamely, it’s true. Something I don’t like. We are doing our best (to change) that. We already added a few laws. We already changed tens of laws in Saudi Arabia. The list has 1,000 items. In the Cabinet, I have only 150 lawyers. So, I am trying to prioritise the change day by day… But do we have bad laws? Yes. We are changing that, yes,” Mr. Bin Salman said.

One reason Mr. Bin Salman may be giving Mr. Al-Hakeem some rope is a possible willingness to appease, in a limited fashion, the kingdom’s once powerful ultra-conservative clergy that he has subjugated and bent to his will since coming to power in 2015. Thousands of clerics were forced to pledge not to criticize the government.

Another explanation could be that the crown prince’s tolerance of men like Mr. Al-Hakeem indicates a transactional approach towards social reform, embracing changes required by his effort to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and ensure the buy-in of its majority under-35 population.

In any case, Mr. Bin Salman’s indulgence of men like Mr. Al-Hakeem suggests a refusal to anchor his reforms in an overhaul of Islamic jurisprudence that would align Sharia law with the changes he is implementing.

A just-released Washington Institute for Near East Policy public opinion poll may help explain Mr. Salman’s approach. Religion emerged in the survey as a significant concern for Saudis.

Just under half of those surveyed, 48 per cent compared to 27 per cent in a 2017 poll, favoured a reinterpretation of their faith when presented with a choice between “the traditional view of Islam” and “those who are trying to interpret Islam in a more modern direction.”

The poll also lifted a veil on Saudi perceptions of the limitations of moderation.

Only three per cent of those polled said they would “permit Christian or Jewish tourists to have prayer meetings in designated places.” Similarly, a mere five per cent suggested “we should show more respect for the world’s Jews and improve our relations with them.”

Similarly, 46 per cent prioritised guarantees for Muslim rights at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, above securing Palestinian rights in any agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In the interview, Mr. Al-Hakeem dismissed the survey. “We don’t care about such surveys. We care about the word of God. Islam is still striving after 1500 years, no matter how vicious the attacks of our enemies are. Muslims are still the fastest-growing followers on earth. Who cares about such surveys?”

The survey was conducted as Saudi Arabia and the United States discussed potential terms for a Saudi-Israeli deal. Mr. Bin Salman has insisted that Israeli progress in resolving the Palestinian issue is a pre-condition.

At the same time, Mr. Bin Salman has sought to break with Mr. Al-Hakeem’s ultra-conservative and supremacist interpretation of Islam that has dominated Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932. This interpretations projected the kingdom as secretive, inward-looking, intolerant, misogynous, and in many ways out of touch with modernity.

Instead, Mr. Bin Salman has worked to create an image of a country that is open to the world, accepting of others, and supportive of women’s professional and personal opportunities.

In line with Muslim legal tradition, Mr. Bin Salman has ignored outdated or obsolete provisions of Islamic law rather than amending the Sharia.

That allows Mr. Al-Hakeem to project the kingdom in ways that are at odds with the crown prince’s imaging as long as those clauses remain on the books.

Mr. Al-Hakeem prides himself on having spent time in 2007 with controversial arch-conservative religious scholars such as fugitive Indian cleric Zakir Naik; Bilal Philips, a Jamaican-Canadian imam who was an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and American Muslim preacher Yusuf Estes.

Mr. Estes was barred entry into Singapore in 2017 because his “divisive views breed intolerance and exclusivist practices that will damage social harmony.”

Mr. Al-Hakeem said he had maintained those relationships over the years.

Mr. Al-Hakeem’s “popular style combined an uncanny familiarity with American culture and a conservative Salafi perspective firmly rooted within the religious world of Saudi Arabia” before Mr. Bin Salman’s rise, said Middle East scholar Thomas Maguire in a paper published in 2016.

“Sheikh Awesome hews closely to the politically quietist position that characterizes the vast majority of adherents to contemporary Salafism,” Mr. Maguire added.

He pointed to Mr. Al Hakeem’s statement during the 2011 popular Arab revolts that protests were only permissible if authorized by the government, peaceful, and gender segregated.

Mr. Maguire said he got to know Mr. Al-Hakeem when the two men co-hosted in 2005 a Ramadan fatwa call-in program on Huda TV, an English-language, Cairo-based Islamic satellite channel.

Mr. Al-Hakeem said he didn’t know or could not remember Mr. Maguire.

On social media, Mr. Al-Hakeem counsels his 388,000 Facebook followers and 390,000 on X on proper Islamic precepts adherence.

“Need marriage counseling? Or any other one-to-one live counseling via Skype, FaceTime, etc., by Sheikh Assim al Hakeem?” At a cost of US$100 per half-hour, Mr. Al-Hakeem is happy to oblige.

Mr. Al-Hakeem’s website notes that the cleric is open to invitations for lectures and seminars.

“Sheikh requires an official visa stating that he is going for lecturing, a business class ticket on Saudi Airlines or Qatar Airways, and hotel accommodation,” the website says.

Since its founding, Mr. Al-Hakeem has been associated with the Zad online Islamic studies academy and satellite tv, which has attracted 2.2 million followers on Facebook.

Co-founded by clerics who allegedly support the Muslim Brotherhood, the academy enrolls students free of charge. It is about to roll out an English-language curriculum alongside its Arabic programming. Mr. Al-Hakeem said he would teach English-language courses.

On YouTube videos and in textbooks, Zad Academy instructors advocate female circumcision, order women to walk on the side of the road so as not to crowd men in the middle, declare a woman’s face private, reject freedom of religion, endorse the death penalty for apostasy, and celebrate a Muslim’s superiority over a non-Muslim.

In 2021, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustur quoted a Zad Academy textbook as saying, “Enmity for God’s enemies requires several things, including hating disbelief and its people and harboring enmity towards them, not having infidels as friends, and keeping separate from them, even if they are relatives.”

Last year, Mr. Al-Hakeem echoed some of the academy’s conservative views on women, implicitly distancing himself from Mr. Bin Salman’s enhancement of women’s rights and loosening strict gender segregation.

Rejecting advocates of platonic relationships between men and women, Mr. Al-Hakeem insisted, “We cannot speak with such people… We find that free mixing is totally prohibited in Islam. We find that the Prophet said, may peace be upon Him, ‘No man would be alone with a woman in seclusion, except the third one with them would be Sheitan (the Devil).’ We find that Allah orders women to lower their gaze and not to soften their voices when speaking to the opposite gender.”

Mr. Al-Hakeem defined a woman who wears perfume in circumstances where an unrelated man could smell it as a “fornicator.”

However, speaking to Mr. Tan, Mr. Al-Hakeem appeared to distance himself from the call to sentence Muslims who abandon their faith to death.

“We say, those who leave Islam, they’re more than welcome. We don’t want them because they are a hindrance to us, and they are tarnishing our reputation,” Mr. Al-Hakeem said.

In the interview, Mr. Al-Hakeem said he shared the views of the Zad Academy instructors “with reservations,” particularly regarding female circumcision. He said his daughters had not been circumcised.

“I’m inclined to say it is not mandatory but recommended when there is a need. That is a decision for physicians to make. It may help some females in their sexual orientation,” Mr. Al-Hakeem said.

James M. Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog.

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