I have spent more than 10 years in Sheikh Faraj al-Omran Mosque in the city of al-Qatif
in eastern Saudi Arabia, which was recently targeted by jihadist groups. Like any kid and young man, I used to go there to pray and attend religious sermons and lessons. The mosque, located in an old neighborhood that is surrounded by houses, was popular with worshipers throughout al-Qatif and its surroundings.
Sheikh Hussein al-Omran – who inherited the religious leadership from his father, the late Sheikh Faraj – upon finishing his religious studies in Qom and Najaf, used to lead the people crowded in the vicinity of the mosque every Friday. He was popular among al-Qatif’s residents, rich or poor, and represented its social structure, with all its differences and contradictions.
Despite his temper and traditional speeches about modernism and civism, he attracted us and made us attend his daily jurisprudential lessons after evening prayers, and his weekly doctrinaire lesson. The stories and details he used to narrate about the Prophet Mohammad and the imams formed the core of our Shiite identity.
These religious and historical lessons were very useful, especially in the leap stage between traditional religiosity to political Islam, and believing in revolutionary ideas. It interested me personally when I started believing in secularism and liberalism, because it helped me understand the religion and speech practiced by Islamists, and empowered me to write, criticize and understand Islamic ideology professionally.
Society needs strength and courage to face jihadist groups that seek to sow discord, spread chaos, abolish the state structure, and set community members against each other
Sheikh Hussein, who was loyal to traditional teachings of Shiite ideology, has never given sectarian speeches against Sunni Muslims during his lessons and lectures. He has never used abusive language or insults toward those who disagree with him ideologically. Thus he was far from today’s popular sectarian practices of Sunnis and Shiites.
He represented the traditional Shiite model that wants to preserve ideology on the one hand, and the safety of the faithful on the other, so he avoided talking about politics. He has never addressed any security or doctrinal topic, or any idea that might endanger him or those praying with him.
This is why he was seen as outdated by some, including followers of the founder of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Supporters of Sheikh Hussein saw his critics as enthusiastic but inexperienced young men, driving themselves and the Shiite community of al-Qatif into problems and clashes with the Saudi government.
Despite all this intellectual conflict, Omran Mosque remained a destination for worshipers who trusted and were loyal to their imam, who remained firm and steady despite the many cultural and political changes witnessed by Shiites in the Eastern region. At a time when fundamentalist sectarian voices were rising, Sheikh Hussein shunned extremism and superstition.
However, differences emerged between our ideas and his, especially regarding life, doctrine and politics. The gap gradually widened, and we started to debate with his followers. We tried asking him unconventional questions, though we continued to pray with him, before we stopped going to his mosque. We chose other mosques and sheikhs that we believed were more learned, before seeing their negative side.
The suicide bombers who targeted Omran Mosque perished before injuring any worshipers. Sheikh Hussein stood firm against them, and continued his prayer despite the explosion. When he returned home, he received people. Just hours after the explosion, he returned to the mosque to perform the morning prayer, which he did until the end of Ramadan.
Society needs such strength and courage to face jihadist groups that seek to sow discord, spread chaos, abolish the state structure, and set community members against each other. The state and society no longer have a choice but to face these groups with patience, courage and wisdom. They should set goals and implement them.
The war on terror is long-lasting and should be faced on multiple fronts. It starts with the ideology that produced extremism, leading to those who promote sedition and those who finance it with money and weapons, all the way to those who execute operations, up to the networks working on recruiting young people.
Hassan al-Mustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters