'The Roar of the Word': Eulogy for Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold posters of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold posters of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on January 4, 2016, against Nimr's execution by Saudi authorities. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, its long-time regional rival, after angry demonstrators attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate following Nimr's execution. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI / AFP / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent days, a regime claiming to be a state representing the principles of the religion of Islam brutally executed a man for daring to challenge its legitimacy, just as it has done so many times before. I speak not of Daesh -- known better in English-language media as ISIS -- but of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government, which favors public beheading as a method of murdering its opponents, executed Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in the midst of a group of al-Qaeda affiliates. But Shaykh al-Nimr was hardly a sympathizer with al-Qaeda and its extremist views. Quite the opposite; in life, he was a prominent religious authority known for his uncompromising stances against oppression and injustice. He was a fierce proponent of the 2011 protests in eastern Saudi Arabia, calling for an end to decades of unjust imprisonment and torture of innocents, an immediate halt to the Saudi-backed violent suppression of protests in Bahrain, and other reforms. He was uncompromising in his denunciation of state-supported bloodshed, rape and pillage, regardless of which nation or religious group was responsible for it. And he was adamant that protesters employ "the roar of the word" over weapons of war.

It brings me no small amount of pain to be forced to bring light to yet another disgraceful and shameful act perpetrated in the name of Islam. But such barbarism must be dragged into the light, recognized for what it is, and immediately stopped.

As Professor Hossein Askari of the George Washington University has pointed out in his article "Slaying IS and its Unborn Offspring," the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has had a long history of advancing and providing material support to an extremist and supremacist ideology claiming to act in the name of Islam. This self-obsessed ideology, utterly dogmatic and desperate to convince the world of its authenticity, reduces the diverse traditions of Islam to a single form, employing terror and violence to wipe out all voices of dissent that might challenge its claims. It is unable to think critically about itself, displaying the highest degree of cowardice and pusillanimity.

It is critical that the Saudi regime, which holds captive the holy cities of Islam, fails in its religious aims. The creative spirit and diversity of Islamic traditions have given 14 centuries' worth of Muslims a powerful vehicle with which to interact with the world. Many of those Muslims have used the ethics and values of that vehicle to challenge the injustices of political bodies ruling over them. The names of such critics span the course of Islamic history. The Prophet Muhammad's own grandson, al-Husayn bin 'Ali, was killed by a Muslim ruler and his Muslim armies in the course of defying such a regime. In more contemporary times, the Iraqi religious authorities Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister Bint al-Huda were both tortured and murdered by the government of Saddam Hussein. Now, Shaykh al-Nimr has joined these ranks.

From what the Saudi government has done to Shaykh al-Nimr and so many others, it is clear that it is more than willing to kill those who question it. The regime's actions merit only a single response: complete and utter intolerance to this corporatized and brand-name form of Islam. Just as so much of the world has stood in rejection of Daesh and its monstrous behavior, so too must this ideology be fiercely opposed.

There can be no acceptance for the hatemongering, discrimination, and violence that taints such a regime. Yet in our own American political sphere -- theoretically founded on the virtues of liberty and justice for all -- we see figures across the spectrum (even at the highest stations) turning a blind eye to the injustices of Saudi Arabia. Even the nativist demagogue Donald Trump has chirped their praises in the not-so-distant past.

All of this must change. If it is to survive as a source of strength and meaning in our world today, Islam must become distanced from the Saudi government's interpretations, which are used to execute women for witchcraft and bring bloodshed and death to minority communities, amongst so much more. The so-called religious authorities of the country, who exist to prop up the regime, must be distrusted by Muslims the world over. The Prophet Muhammad himself warned against scholars who sit too close to rulers. Muslims would do well to listen to him.

Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr once delivered a sermon centered upon another tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, which goes as follows: "The most beloved struggle is a word of truth spoken to an unjust ruler." I can do no justice to Shaykh al-Nimr's thought and eloquence in this brief piece, but Muslims must pay close attention to this tradition which he so emphasized. Its relevance in our day is no small thing. Now, as Shaykh al-Nimr's memory is carried forward by those he inspired, that relevance must be given its due.

Today, we remember Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr and his tenacious fight against tyranny, which ended with his murder. Let him be honored by allowing the values he embodied to live on in our hearts, our deeds, and in the "roar of the word."