For a nation whose king calls himself “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, it’s probably not surprising that Saudi Arabia’s “superstars” of social media are clerics. Naturally, that fame does not come without controversy. So who are these prolific religious Tweeters whose followings compare to that of pop stars and world leaders? And what do they share online? The BBC series,Saudis on Social: Faith, Freedom and Fun, looks at four of the most popular Saudi accounts on Twitter.
Dubbed the “Brad Pitt” of Muslims clerics, Mohamed Al-Arifi is a leading religious figure in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world who is known for his charismatic personality. However, his views have also embroiled him in controversy.
Some of the most controversial have related to women. In 2007, during a TV show, Arifi stated that a man was allowed to “lightly beat” his wife if she disobeyed him. And in a series of tweets in 2012, Arifi opposed the idea of allowing women to work outside their homes.
Arifi is said to have a good relationship with the Saudi government and ruling family, although there have been a few hiccups. In 2014, Al-Arifi was arrested after he criticised a train network that links holy sites in the city of Mecca, which he described as “the worst in the world”.
But Arifi’s views are not limited to social matters. He also has a deep interest and involvement in the politics of the region. He is known for his strong views on Shia Islam and was accused of stirring sectarian tensions after reportedly saying that Shia were “nonbelievers who must be killed”.
And when it comes to jihadist groups, Arifi has given contradictory opinions.
In a sermon he gave in Egypt in 2013, Arifi called for jihad (holy war) against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was also forced to backtrack on comments he made in an interview in defence of al-Qaeda and its late leader, Osama Bin Laden.
The next year, he was banned from entering the United Kingdom because he was said to have preached at a mosque in Cardiff that was attended by three young Muslims who travelled to Syria to fight for so-called Islamic State (IS).
In response, Arifi denied that he might have contributed to their radicalisation and insisted that he was “vehemently opposed to the brutal methods” of IS.
If there was ever a “cool” Muslim preacher, Ahmed Al-Shugairi would be it.
He shot to fame after the launch of his TV programme more than a decade ago. Jet-setting from one country to another, Shugairi was filmed travelling around the world dressed in jeans and T-shirts speaking casually about Islam.
His views and style have won him millions of young fans, who relate to his modern approach.
And as young people moved away from TV sets and towards social platforms, Shugairi was one of the first to catch on, enabling him to build an influential digital presence.
Despite his reluctance to label himself as a cleric, Shugairi is seen as an influential moderate voice among Muslim preachers.
But some sceptics say that what really sets the 42-year-old apart from others is style rather than ideology.
Liberals worry that Shugairi is an influential force for Islamising the Arab world’s secular minds. Hardline clerics, however, have dismissed Shugairi as a lightweight who preaches “easy Islam”.
When it comes to extremism, Shugairi’s message is clear: Islam is not a religion of violence.
He believes the Saudi government’s efforts to rehabilitate extremists through its prison programme has been effective. “We’ve seen many examples of extremists successfully rehabilitated after going through the programme,” he told the BBC.