JEDDAH, 6 January 2008 — It was only after Sheikh Salman Al-Odah spent five years in jail that he was able to reflect on his extreme ideology and puritanical stance. Imprisoned for opposing the presence of US troops in the Kingdom during the first Gulf War and supporting jihad against American troops in Iraq, the 52-year-old Saudi preacher — once described as Bin Laden’s mentor — left prison a reformed man.
Al-Odah, one of the Kingdom’s senior religious figures and general supervisor of www.islamtoday.net, told Arab News that his imprisonment was a self-awakening experience to reflect, contemplate and re-evaluate his positions in life.
His incarceration from 1994 until 1999, much of it spent reading, left an evident imprint on his mind. Al-Odah said he left prison to become more objective, lenient and well reasoned in his thoughts and approach. In prison he spent time reading science, technology, politics, economy, health, poetry and literature to complement the Islamic-related activities he later became involved in. In a radical shift in ideology, Al-Odah now says he believes that extremists stand between people and the beautiful message of religion.
When the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) was launched in 1991, Al-Odah opposed and condemned it. Since then his thinking has changed. Ironically, it was only recently that Al-Odah addressed Osama Bin Laden live on MBC, where he hosts live talk shows on Islamic and social issues.
“How much blood has been spilled? How many innocent children, women and old people have been killed, maimed and expelled from their homes in the name of Al-Qaeda?” said Al-Odah. “Are you happy to meet Allah with this heavy burden on your shoulders? It is indeed a weighty burden — hundreds of thousands of innocent people, if not millions. How could you wish for that?”
Al-Odah reaches out to people with a smile on his face, words that touch the heart, and verses of poetry and logic that respect and elevate the intellect of listeners. He not only mentions the ritualistic aspects of Islam, but also pays attention to social, psychological and moral issues.
Born in 1376 AH (1956) in Al-Basr, a quiet and rural farming village on the outskirts of Buraidah, Al-Odah says that the heart of the village was the mosque. People started their day after dawn prayers and retired to bed after night prayers.
Reminiscing about his childhood, Al-Odah says he sees himself today in his 16 children. He gazes at them while they are playing, fighting, sleeping or staining their innocent faces and new clothes with chocolate. He relates his childhood to theirs and keeps his pen and notebook at hand to learn from their innocent eyes.
“My children taught me that one shouldn’t carry the burden of anything in life. Children view all small details as unimportant and they don’t need self-development courses,” he said.
Al-Odah, who has more than one wife, owes his parenting skills to his father, an ordinary man who had a unique character that inspired him and taught him how to respect the differences of the younger generation.
“I remember my father now that I have 16 children. I rejoice when I talk about them... I express my opinion, give advice and carefully direct them.
“But I was never hesitant to give my children (both girls and boys) the freedom to choose and decide what they want to do in life,” said Al-Odah.
Al-Odah does not like to give his children rigid do-or-don’t orders. Instead, he gently advises them and provides alternatives. “My children are like stars, each has a different orb and path. Allah says in the Qur’an: ‘And everyone has a direction to which he should turn.’ However, they all agree on the importance of acquiring knowledge and giving back to society... My wish is that they continue to love Allah, believe in Him, and get closer to Him,” he said.
Al-Odah says that when he was growing up people were nurtured to lead emotionally fulfilled lives, socially integrate and have good morals. The media had not arrived at his village and so people entertained themselves by indulging in gossip. People shared everything new and challenging in a primitive manner.
Al-Odah spent his early years in the village, and then moved to Buraidah to study. As he matured, his passion for reading and comprehending the meaning of words grew stronger. He regularly visited the library at the Academic Institute in Buraidah and spent time reading books, magazines and novels. He says he became attached to iconic characters in the world of literature and poetry.
Among the writers who hugely influenced Al-Odah was Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti, who he describes as the “sheikh of all writers and poets.” He read “Al-Nazaraht,” Al-Manfaluti’s famous collection of articles, and his “Magdalene”. He also read Ali Al-Tantawi’s “Men in History” and “Stories from the Past.”
“I got to know the philosopher of Makkah Hamzah Shehatta through his novels and articles kept in the public library. I dealt delicately and respectably with books of religious preaching,” said Al-Odah. “I became acquainted with historical stories of Arabic heroism and works of famous poets. Reading aggravated my appetite to acquire more knowledge and to try harder. I fed myself information and language. If you can’t read you die. If you can write and you can’t talk you lose your eligibility,” he said.
After receiving a master’s degree and Ph.D. in the Sunnah, Al-Odah taught at various educational institutions.
Speaking about his daily routine, Al-Odah said: “I organize everything the way I like it.” His daily itinerary revolves around prayer times and meals. He dedicates 6 to 8 hours to sleep and rest, four hours to answering phone calls and queries, two hours to writing, two hours to spending quality time with his children and family, and three hours to meeting other people. He believes that balance is essential in everything in life.
“Balance is not just to distribute time evenly. It’s to give each part of your life what it deserves. To constantly criticize and review things, thoughts and people, and how they influence one’s balance,” he said.
Despite the shift in Al-Odah’s ideologies and expansion in knowledge, there are those who appreciate his efforts and enjoy his religious teachings, and those who voice their hatred of him.
“Knowing that someone will contradict you before you even say anything makes you sure that someone else will reap benefits from what you will say and there will be another who will criticize you justly and objectively... They validate the fact that your preaching is being heard and is influential. It encourages one to give more,” said Al-Odah.
Al-Odah says he has learned from both his friends and enemies different languages. Those who scream from a distance are agitated by what he says. Those who whisper to him enjoy what he talks about.
“I listen carefully to what both those who hate and support me say... I will continue to give and talk as much as my weak hands and my tongue bear,” he said. “As for their intentions it’s up to Allah. Allah says in the Qur’an, ‘Neither are you answerable for any reckoning of theirs, nor are they answerable for any reckoning of yours, so that you should drive them away and thus be of the unjust.’”
When asked about passion and emotions in religion, Al-Odah said that religious spirituality is the heart of Islam and emotions are a source of mercy for people. “Allah says in the Qur’an, ‘And We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds,’” he said. “Feelings are not a set of defined rules that could be implemented through teaching or learning. It’s a God-given blessing bestowed upon a Muslim when he loves others and feels mercy and compassion toward them,” Al-Odah said. “Emotional intelligence in Islam is for everyone; it’s not to criticize someone or symbolize a certain belief or faith.”
Although Al-Odah is in his fifties and has many obligations, he enrolled this summer at an institution in the United Arab Emirates to learn English. He says he enjoyed being able to discipline himself, sit in a classroom and become a student once more. His insatiable hunger for knowledge and success stems from his sense of individual responsibility that is embodied in the teachings of the Qur’an and Islamic thought.
“In order to solve the problems of the world, we have to start by rectifying ourselves as individuals. The first steps on the long road to reforming society are the steps we take to reform ourselves... These are the essential building blocks of society. A building is made of many individual bricks,” he said.