By Thomas Maguire, University of Chicago

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Islam, Islamists, and the Media in a Changing Middle East workshop held at George Washington University on October 28, 2016.

On the second night of Ramadan in fall 2005, I hosted the inaugural broadcast of Ask Huda, a live call-in “fatwa” program on Huda TV, an English-language Islamic satellite channel based in Cairo. My cohost was Assim Alhakeem, a religious scholar and imam based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We appeared on screen every night of Ramadan to answer all manner of questions about faith, law, and contemporary issues. Sheikh Assim’s popular style combined an uncanny familiarity with American culture and a conservative Salafi perspective firmly rooted within the religious world of Saudi Arabia. Shortly after Ramadan of that year, I attended a program at the American embassy in Cairo celebrating the appointment of a new Director at the Egyptian-American Fulbright commission. One current fellow, an American journalist, recognized me from Huda TV and confessed that she and her boyfriend refer to Sheikh Assim as “Sheikh Awesome,” an apt recognition of his distinctive style. Since that time, Alhakeem’s popularity has continued to grow and he has built up a large following through Huda TV, social media, and other platforms.[1]

Sheikh Awesome hews closely to the politically quietist positon that characterizes the vast majority of adherents to contemporary Salafism. Indeed, across the theological and sectarian spectrum, political quietism carries strong scriptural and legal weight in Islam, but the study of quietism often takes a back seat to the more alluring phenomena of revolutionary and militant movements. Quietism is assumed, correctly in some cases, to represent either an official state effort to control religious discourse or a disinterested pietism. However, quietism is both deeply rooted in religious scholarship and actively engaged within contemporary political frameworks, discourses and institutions. Some recent scholarship examines the dynamics of quietism – i.e. quietism as active politics – within current social and political geographies.[2] This memo begins to explore the qualities, modes, and varieties of Salafi quietism in transnational media.

As an analytical term, quietism doesn’t precisely correspond to a specific concept or term among Muslims. From a strongly textualist Salafi position, the Quranic verses and hadith that underlie what we term quietism indicate a position of nonviolence and strong but conditional obedience to political authorities.[3] This gives us a starting point to define and evaluate the ultimate analytic value of the term. However, actual modes or qualities of quietism can and do vary according to numerous contextual and ideological factors. Beyond a strictly Salafi context, quietism could potentially refer to a wide range of political activities that operate within the legal limits of political institutions or the accepted social contracts between religious and political sectors of a society. Memos by Kocamaner, Floden, and Hoesterey in this volume all describe such phenomena. The particular quality of Salafi quietism in focus here is the tension embedded in the pragmatic textualism that undergirds Salafism as a whole. In the spirit of Yasmin Moll’s intellectual leadership in the study of Islamic media (as described in this volume and elsewhere), this examination employs an engaged and empathetic methodology to complicate two-dimensional analysis of contemporary religious phenomena.

This memo examines how one Muslim scholar, Assim Alhakeem, enacts and realizes quietism through global media, namely satellite television and Facebook. The transnational nature of these formats connects producers and audiences across various political formations. Alhakeem resides within a particular nation state that demands a specific actualization of quietism, but he inevitably addresses issues and individuals who exist within different political frameworks. This heterogeneity of mediated politics offers a rich avenue to explore varying modes of political subjectivity.

During my time at Huda TV, Alhakeem contributed to the channel’s own brand of quietism, which in most cases simply sought to avoid sensitive political topics. As a notable example: a viewer with jihadist sympathies submitted an email to Ask Huda to chastise me for interviewing a guest (on another program) who held an official position in the Egyptian government. As a jihadist diatribe, the letter never would have been read aloud on air or responded to openly. Instead, Alhakeem wrote directly to the questioner to advise him against adopting a takfiri approach toward the Egyptian government and its officials. I argue elsewhere that the climate of self-censorship in Mubarak-era Egypt led Huda TV to create a vacuum of political discourse, an unintended consequence of which might have been to allow both official state propaganda and extremist positions to flourish unchecked.[4] This earlier critique examines quietism as a passive approach to avoiding politics. It fails to consider the manner in which political quietism constitutes an active mode of expression for religious scholars. To that end, this memo turns to Assim Alhakeem’s politics after the Arab uprisings when the attendant sensitivities are both increasingly vocalized and unstable.

On February 28, 2011, Alhakeem responded to a question about the uprisings taking place across the Arab world with this response:

In his statement, Alhakeem follows a standard Salafi methodology by drawing primarily from Quran and hadith texts encouraging allegiance to the ruler while invoking pragmatism to navigate problematic or ambiguous cases. Of course, public morality is foregrounded as the paramount concern, trumping any other activist appeals to political or social reform. His quietism is also cast with a hue of wisdom, controlling against the heady optimism of rebellion and defending the virtues of stability and predictability. The ultimate verdict, guarded and concerned regarding Tunisia and Egypt, but supportive of rebellion in Libya, embodies the distinctively Salafi pragmatic textualism – acceptance of rulers as the default with revolt licensed only in specific circumstances and conditioned on realistic capability for success.[5] Obviously, this framework for quietism outlined in response to the Arab uprisings does not consider other political realities in which Muslims find themselves, such as minority citizens of secular nation states, or those living in eroding or failed states, which of course are the political contexts for segments of Alhakeem’s audiences.

Alhakeem’s Salafi quietism operates most naturally within a stable nation state whose government pays some degree of lip service to Islamic legitimacy. Saudi Arabia obviously qualifies in this regard and it constitutes the primary political framework in which he situates himself. On the August 8, 2016 episode of Ask Huda,[6] a resident of Saudi Arabia called to ask about the religious status of Al Ahli bank in Saudi Arabia. Al Ahlli, also known and the National Commercial Bank (NCB), presents itself as the First Saudi Bank[7] and is state-owned.[8] In this case, Alhakeem clearly believes that Al Ahli bank does not operate in accordance with Islamic principles but he is careful not to issue a direct condemnation of the institution. Instead, he speaks generally of how some institutions abuse the Islamic credentialing process (“shariah board in five star hotel”), and sets forth criteria with which to judge banks. He does explicitly recommend another financial institution, Al-Rajhi Bank, nothing that they operate with a dedicated shariah department rather than simply a shariah board. His measured critique subtly intervenes in official policy and challenges a state-owned institution. This approach represents a constructive and critical deployment of quietism. The mode of critique sets a standard for religious legitimacy but does not directly challenge the state. In other situations, however, Sheikh Assim also engages in more openly loyalist, and arguably less critical, expressions of quietism.

On the August 17, 2016, Sheikh Assim jumped to the defense of Saudi Arabia on Facebook after accusations by the UN of Saudi atrocities in Yemen. He writes:

In this loyalist statement, the mode of quietism shifts from the pragmatic textualism identified above into a voice of incredulous protest – not only asserting that the UN and international community operate with egregious double standards, but also invoking conspiratorial views that the UN directly oppresses Muslims and subverts Islamic values. The Salafi quietism of Alhakeem functions logically, perhaps even productively, within the Saudi national context. Beyond the Saudi framework, he is still quietist, to be sure, in the sense that he openly condemns most forms of political violence. However, the mode of quietism as incredulous protest is more concerned with provoking sensitivities rather than managing them. In this framework, the international community does not qualify as a legitimate sovereign and doesn’t seem to offer much opportunity for constructive pragmatism. Rather, it takes on the role of distant adversary. To consider further Alhakeem’s quietism in transnational frameworks, I will examine two specific areas of his political expression that reference wider transnational power dynamics: the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks and the Syrian conflict.

On September 8, 2016, Alhakeem posted the following commentary on the 9/11 attacks:

A few days later on September 11, he followed his original post with:

These statements illustrate a dramatic shift to incredulous protest as the mode of political expression. A combination of righteous indignation over the uneven valuing of human life mixes with conspiracy theory boilerplate about the 9/11 attacks. These positions constitute an ethical engagement with global politics through which Salafism adapts to recognizable expressions of protest, but Alhakeem’s conspiratorial epistemology also represents a qualitative deterioration of political discourse. His approach in this regard offers a dangerous foundation upon which Muslims in Alhakeem’s global audience might build their own political subjectivities.

A final example to consider is Alhakeem’s engagement with the Syrian conflict. Between the discrete national context of Saudi Arabia and more alien global powers, the immediately proximate Syrian crisis yields a more conflicted quietism, fluctuating between incredulous protest, cautious pragmatism, and enthusiasm for revolutionary change. Another former employee of Huda TV, Bilal Abdul Kareem (he was Program Director at Huda TV at the time of its first broadcast in fall 2005), currently runs an organization called On The Ground News that covers the conflict in Syria through televisual journalism distributed primarily via social media. Abdul Kareem was featured in international media in December 2016 when his videos from besieged Aleppo offered one of the only direct views of life in rebel-held sections of the city as the Assad regime and its international allies advanced. Abdul Kareem represents his work as independent journalism, but his sympathetic views of various Islamist factions have drawn the ire of other journalists and observers.[9] At a theoretical level, Abdul Kareem upholds a Salafi politics that aligns with the framework of quietism and revolution outlined by Alhakeem in his comments on the Arab uprisings. However, Abdul Kareem clearly sees the Syrian conflict as a righteous cause and legitimate, even necessary, rebellion against irredeemably corrupt leadership. If the various revolutionary groups fall short ethically in their conduct on the battlefield, according to Abdul Kareem, it is only due their lack of knowledge and the unwillingness of Muslim scholars to embrace and guide their cause. To this end, Abdul Kareem has publicly challenged Assim Alhakeem and other scholars to join the fight. In 2015, he posted on Facebook:

Alhakeem’s reply expressed skepticism towards this call to action based on several points: the groups fighting in Syria are extremists who would reject his support (in the mode of Sheikh Awesome, he declares, “I am neither Salahuddeen nor Rambo”); this conflict is driven by wishful thinking that has destroyed the lives of youth who have joined it; and Abdul Kareem lacks any real understanding of the situation on the ground.[10] Abdul Kareem replied in turn with a further challenge to Alhakeem and emphasized his own experience as a journalist in Syria.[11] This debate is noteworthy because both Abdul Kareem and Alhakeem operate within roughly the same Salafi framework. Alhakeem’s skepticism and Abdul Kareem’s activism are not distinguished by theory, but rather their particular methodologies of pragmatism and variant readings of current events. Their differences arise where Salafism merges with ancillary epistemologies that weigh significantly into their “religious” opinions about the conflict. Recognizing this blended methodology of religious judgement provides a novel direction for further analysis. Salafi pragmatism, in effect, must be understood not just as a doctrinal position, but perhaps more importantly as an analytical, even secular, framework with qualitatively divergent components. In the cases of Alhakeem and Abdul Kareem, Salafi quietism endures and erodes not so much within textualism but through these secondary levels of analysis.

The case of Assim Alhakeem provides a provisional, though far from exhaustive, typology of Salafi quietism. The incongruous relationship between transnational media and the particular Saudi context of Assim Alhakeem reveals the limits of his application of the textual pragmatism underling much Salafi thought. Where the ordinary reverence for state institutions is absent, the framework for textual pragmatism seems to erode and quietism itself transforms or even breaks down. A quietist orientation can allow a space of negotiated and informed dissent, and a framework for non-violent activism that crosses ideological boundaries. Conversely, conspiracy theories and facile readings of global power dynamics also take hold. These limited examples help us to identify trends and apparent patterns that may ultimately yield a richer appreciation of how Salafi quietist positions, and Salafi pragmatic textualism more broadly, operate in politically complex and disjointed spaces of global media.


[1] As of October 2016, Alhakeem had 77,545 followers on his personal Facebook page (facebook.com/assim.alhakeem), 69,717 followers on Twitter (twitter.com/assimalhakeem), and he continues to host a weekly episode of Ask Huda. His website, assimalhakeem.net, features a wide variety of media appearances, legal verdicts, and articles.

[2] For instance, Thomas Pierret examines a range of quietist approaches in Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Stephane Lacroix examines quietism—its conditions, dynamism, and occasional breakdown—in Awakening Islam: the politics of religious dissent in contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[3] For instance, see “Unlawfulness of Rebellion Against Muslim Ruler,” http://en.islamtoday.net/node/1404 (site managed by Saudi scholar Salman al-Oadah).

[4] “New Media and Islamism in the Arab Winter: A case study of Huda TV in Pre-Revolutionary Egypt,” Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research, December 2011, Volume 4:2-3, 231-246.

[5] Implicit is judgment of Qaddafi as an apostate from Islam, an important distinction that will continue to inform the analysis of other conflicts.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nuMVCQXLTE

[7] http://www.alahli.com/en-us/about-us/Pages/default.aspx

[8] The bank has been under fire from religious scholars for alleged violations of shariah: http://www.reuters.com/article/nationl-comml-bk-saudi-islam-idUSL6N0SF07820141020

[9] See: http://www.alternet.org/world/prominent-us-journalist-syria-serves-mouthpiece-violent-extremists

[10] In 2013, Alhakeem declared on Huda TV that the conflict in Syria is a legitimate jihad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCWvxFez7FM. On August 5, 2016, he wrote on Facebook, “What was taken by force must be regained by force! May Allah grant the Muslims victory over Iran, Russia and those who support them!” His position on the conflict can best be summarized as approval of the conflict as a legitimate jihad with skepticism about the intentions and conduct of various actors.

[11] The entire exchange can be viewed at : http://www.bilalabdulkareem.com/shaykhassim/

The Politics of Sheikh Awesome: Quietism in Transnational Media