Shi’ism in Egypt

Published: May 01, 2013

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Shi’ism in Egypt — a topic of intense, growing interest inside the country and in the broader Arab region — has not received adequate attention from researchers.  This seventy-seventh volume from Al-Mesbar Center aims to change that: It is a collection of studies on the country’s Shi’ites, the first of its kind, offering a foundation on which more detailed and comprehensive work on the subject can be based.

We publish this volume at a time of lethal Shi’ite-Sunni strife in Arab lands.  More than in the past, many of the region’s scholars of religion feel compelled to pick a side in the ongoing conflict, and as a result, the tone and substance of their writing is often emotionally and politically inflected.  Rather than attempt to steer clear of such work, Al-Mesbar Center has decided to acknowledge and embrace it: The papers in this volume were penned by Shi’ites as well as Sunnis, several baldly advocating their ideological and political views along the way.  We treaded lightly in editing their work, striving to achieve a larger balance by publishing material from both sects and diverse perspectives.  The book also contains scholarly work that truly rises above the fray, approaching this delicate subject as close to dispassionately as any vested party can.  Viewed as a whole, this collection is not only a rare source of information and reporting on Shi’ism in Egypt but also an intellectual barometer of how Egyptians across the doctrinal spectrum relate to the tensions in their society today.

First, some context: The aftermath of the January 2011 Egyptian revolution saw new steps toward a historic rapprochement between Sunni-majority Egypt and the Shi’ite Islamist Republic of Iran.  But widespread worry ensued among Egyptians that as a result of the improving relations, Iran could gain greater influence in the country.  Alarms were raised in the public discussion about an alleged Shi’ite expansion nationwide; it was a backlash of sorts against the attempt at rapprochement with Iran.  By consequence, some of Egypt’s longtime advocates of bridge-building between Sunnis and Shi’ites came to feel that their efforts were futile.  Others, meanwhile, persisted in trying to foster dialogue between the faiths, as this book will show.

But is Shi’ism really expanding in the country, and if so, is it a source of danger as some believe? What is the extent of the expansion, and what are the means by which it occurs?  How do the religious scholars of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s premier institution of Islamic learning and leadership, view the matter? Where do the various Salafi groups and Sufi orders stand? How do these and other local groups envision the future of Shi’ism in Egypt?  Our researchers have taken on these and other questions from a variety of angles.

The book opens with a study by Ahmed Abd al-Rahim, Director of the Renaissance Center for Cultural Understanding in Sudan, which is premised on the notion that conversion to Shi’ism in Egypt today needs to be understood in its historical context.  The paper begins with a tour of the sectarian history of the Al-Azhar mosque: At its inception, Al-Azhar served as a religious stronghold for Shi’ites, but after the fall of the Shi’ite Fatimid empire, under which the institution was built, Al-Azhar passed into the hands of Sunnis.  With present-day concerns in mind, Abd al-Rahim segues from pre-modern history to Azhari perspectives on Shi’ism today — with a particular focus on the question of Shi’ite-Sunni rapprochement.

Among Egypt’s historic champions of Shi’ism was 19th century scholar and cleric Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.  In the past, some scholars speculated that Afghani had embraced Shi’ism himself.  The list of those who did includes such luminaries as Al-Afghani’s disciple, Muhammad Abduh; and the twenty-fifth Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Salim al-Bishri.  Abd al-Rahim presents reasoned skepticism about such claims.  He also questions an influential book first published in 1913, Muraja’at [“Studies”], which makes the case that Bishri, too, was a secret convert to Shi’ism.  (Muraja’at has been published in English under the title The Right Path.) The claim in Muraja’at is based on a questionable interpretation, in the researcher’s view, of correspondence between Bishri and the author of the book, leading Shi’ite cleric Sharaf al-Din al-Musawi. Who if any among Egypt’s leading clerics may have secretly embraced Shi’ism is the subject of a fierce debate in the country now; Abd al-Rahim’s sober examination of the matters offer a means by which to go beyond acrimonious disputes, perhaps to foster a more constructive dialogue instead.

The paper goes on to explore attitudes among Al-Azhar’s leading scholars toward attempts at trans-sectarian bridge-building, particularly over the past few decades.  He finds that Al-Azhar never reached consensus about whether to support such efforts.  Instead, there was an internal tug of war — and a long series of steps forward followed by steps backward.  Sometimes, such shifts were a function of shifting political circumstances.  At other times, they were simply a reaction to statements and actions taken by Iran’s government of clerics in pursuit of their regional ambitions.  Discomfort with Iran, shared by some of Al-Azhar’s leading scholars, also delayed the decision to accept “Ja’afarism” as a legitimate Islamic legal doctrine alongside the four traditional Sunni doctrines.  Eventually, fatwas issued during the Nasser years by then-Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mahmud Shaltout, as well as others like him, did permit worship in Egypt according to Ja’afari legal tradition.  Such fatwas generally played down differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

The study continues into the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution: Abd al-Rahim takes stock of views on Shi’ism by the current Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyib; as well as the more strident Egyptian Salafis, outspoken in their opposition to attempts at converting Egyptians to Shi’ism.  The researcher also examines the landmark visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Egypt in spring 2013, arguing that its impact was on the whole negative: The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar used it as an occasion to subtly criticize the Shi’ite doctrine — arousing, in turn, the resentment of Tehran.

Khalid Mohammed Abduh, a researcher at the Dal Center for Research Studies and Media Production, takes a favorable view of efforts at Sunni-Shi’ite rapprochement.  His paper cites noted philosophers and others calling for rapprochement as an essential component of the principle of pluralism.  He finds echoes of these ideas, moreover, in the convictions of at least some of Al-Azhar’s senior scholars.

Maher Farghali, a scholar specializing in Islamic affairs, examines the most important Shi’ite political parties, associations, and organizations in Egypt, noting their history, goals, and the circumstances of their establishment.  He delves as well into these groups’ founders and leaders.  Conveying discomfort, he charges that Shi’ite groups exploit the innate religiosity of the Egyptian people, insinuating their ideas into the society through cultural and economic means.  Despite the fact that the myriad Shi’ite organizations in Egypt appear to share the same goals, Farghali has also uncovered behind-the-scenes tensions and conflicts within their ranks.  Additionally, Farghali maps the physical installations of Shi’ites in Egypt: their mosques, schools, publishing houses, and so on, providing salient details about each.  Capping his study, Farghali asserts that he has indeed found evidence of Shi’ite “expansion” within Egyptian society, and expresses his fear that it will threaten civil peace.

Fatima Hafiz, a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University of Cairo,  contributes a paper on sectarianism in the country’s official fatwas, as well as the country’s Salafi groups.  She examines rulings on Shi’ites in particular, both before and after the 2011 revolution.  A very large number of fatwas on Shi’ism were issued by the Dar al-Ifta — that is, the office of the Grand Mufti of Egypt — since its inception in the reign of the Ottoman viceroy Abbas Hilmi in 1895.  But moving forward in time, Hafiz finds no fatwas concerning the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, or Sunni-Shi’ite rapprochement.  There is one partial exception: The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq (d. 1996 ) once issued a fatwa citing Shi’ite scholars as authorizing, in principle, a truce between Shi’ite leaders and their non-Muslim enemies.  Yet Gad al-Haq’s fatwa transmits the Shi’ite ruling without explaining or expounding on it in any way.

Hafiz demonstrates next that Egyptian fatwas concerning Shi’ism had not been particularly strident in the first half of the twentieth century but subsequently grew more so, probably owing to political reasons.  A portion of her paper concerns the present Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, who worked persistently to foster bridge-building with Shi’ites until the 2011 revolution, then altered his position.

From high-level, official fatwas, the researcher moves on to those of myriad Salafi groups in present-day Egypt.  Salafis unanimously reject Shi’ism as a doctrine, dubbing it misguided and wrong.  But there is some variety, Hafez notes, in the positions Salafi groups take on Shi’ite-Sunni rapprochement.  On the one hand, Sheikh Muhammad Ismail al-Muqaddam, one of the leading clerics of the “Da’wah al-Salafiya” movement in Alexandria, does not see any way to bridge the gap between the two sects.  This view is shared by another Salafi group, Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiya. On the other hand, the hardline Salafi “Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya” draws a distinction between doctrine and political considerations with respect to Shi’ites: While firmly opposed to Shi’ite theology, the movement voiced support for the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah in the Hezbollah-Israeli war of July 2006 — the only Salafi group in Egypt to do so.  The Iranian government, it should be mentioned, has named a street in Tehran after Egypt’s Khalid Islambouli, a member of Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya himself, who assassinated Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.

The author of the next study, Egyptian national Salem al-Sabbagh, is both a researcher on Islamic issues and a Shiite convert himself.  Among the papers in this book, Sabbagh’s is the most enthusiastic about bridge-building efforts.  To persuade readers of his position, Sabbagh argues that Shi’ite-Sunni rapprochement may actually stem the growing tide of Egyptian conversion to Shi’ism by reducing clashes between the two sects on satellite television.  The author also expresses his belief that the real enemy is not Iran but Israel.  He defends the Iranian position on the present civil war in Syria, alleging that Western powers have armed the opposition in order to break up the country into sectarian mini-states that only serve what he calls the “Zionist entity.”  Building on this logic, he goes on to opine that Al-Azhar is serving as a tool for America in its regional strategies.  And he claims that the success of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, now the country’s ruling power, is largely due to its alliance with Iran — an alliance the author approves of as a counterweight to the “American Zionist project,” in his words.

This volume also features two studies about the interplay of Shi’ism and Sufism in Egypt.  Sufism, the mystical strand in Islam, has a long and distinguished history in the country.

The first of the two, which puts the topic in a historical perspective, was penned by Mohammed Hilmi Abd al-Wahhab, a researcher at the German Institute for Oriental Studies.  Training his eye on the early, formative period of Islamic history, the author gives cause to question the longstanding view that Shi’ism and Sufism were extensively interrelated from the start.

The second of the two papers on Sufism and Shi’ism in Egypt comes to us from Bilal Mu’min, a specialist in Islamic mystical studies.  Mu’min surveys the spectrum of Egypt’s Sufi orders and Shi’ite groups with contemporary politics in mind.  On the one hand, he shows that most Sufis and Shi’ites share an extensive tradition of religious pilgrimage to the tombs and shrines of saints — in and of itself a strong basis for rapprochement.  On the other hand, there are strong doctrinal differences, and degrees of tolerance for the other among Shi’ites and Sufis vary considerably.  Among Sufi groups that advocate for outreach to Shi’ites, moreover, they appear to do so for different reasons: Mu’min notes that the Muhammadiyah Sufi clan has a tradition of calling for a transcendent Muslim unity that has little to do with contemporary Egyptian politics vis a vis Iran.  By contrast, the Al-Aza’im Sufi Sheikhs, also proponents of trans-sectarian bridge-building, publicly visit Iran and maintain relations with its clerical community.

Next, we hear from journalist and Iranian affairs specialist Mahmoud Jaber, another Egyptian convert to Shi’ism.  Jaber takes us back to Shi’ism’s beginnings in Egypt — arguably, the years 656-661 CE, when the country was a province of the fourth Islamic caliph, Ali bin Abi Talib.  This was the period of Ali’s historic dispute with Mu’awiya, who went on to succeed Ali after the latter was assassinated — the formative schism that crystallized and defined the essence of Shi’ism as we know it today.  Jaber takes us on to the period of the Fatimid caliphate in the tenth century CE, when Shi’ism flourished.  Following the fall of the Fatimids, Shi’ism waned in Egypt.  Only pockets of Shi’ism survived into the modern period, when the Egyptian state dealt a series of further blows to them.  The author notes that in recent decades, the government would expose and disband organizations proselytizing for Shi’ism in Egypt — an illegal practice — while at the same time pursuing cultural rapprochement and cooperation with Iran in various ways.  Jaber points out that however small the presence of Shi’ites in Egypt may be, they have not achieved important rights to which they are entitled — notably, the right to establish political parties to represent them.

The book also contains a dialogue with one of the most prominent Shi’ites in Egypt, Muhammad al-Dirini, conducted by Mohammed Hilmi Abd al-Wahhab.  We have also seen fit to include the field report on Shi’ism in Africa which was recently issued by the Fact-Finding Committee for the Board of Trustees for the World Federation of Muslim Scholars, courtesy of the Nima Center for Research and Studies. Both these items contain information and reporting of great value to the study of Shi’ism in Egypt and the region today.

Al-Mesbar Center would like to thank the diverse community of researchers who made this book possible — as well as single out the invaluable contribution of Mohammed Hilmi Abd al-Wahhab, who oversaw the project from beginning to end.