A Saudi columnist was forced to flee the country after his tweets about the prophet Muhammad angered prominent clerics and their supporters, who have called for his execution.

Hamza Kashgari, 23, who had been a columnist for the Jeddah-based al-Bilad daily, came under a barrage of criticism, with some people even calling for his death via Twitter, YouTube and email.

Ahead of the anniversary of the prophet Muhammad's birth, Kashgaryi wrote on Twitter:

  • "On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you've always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.
  • "On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
  • "On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more."

Within minutes of posting the comments, Kashgari was accused of blasphemy and there were calls for his death.

Despite removing the tweets and issuing an apology, the furore did not subside.

Cleric Nasser al-Omar posted a video on YouTube saying the young man should be tried in a sharia court for apostasy, which is considered a serious crime punishable by death.

Others vented their anger on Twitter, where one user offered a reward of 10,000 riyals (£1,700) to whoever killed Kashgari, while others said he was a "dead man walking".

Within a day the social network site was flooded with 30,000 tweets in response to Kashgari's original message.

Saudi newspapers reported King Abdullah had ordered for Kashgari to be arrested and investigated for blasphemy, though the information has yet to be verified.

The writer, who is thought to be in Southeast Asia, told The Daily Beast that he had not anticipated provoking such an angry response and ruled out the possibility of returning to the kingdom.

"It's impossible. No way," Kashgari said. "I'm afraid and I don't know where to go."