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December 27, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 311

Debate over the Status of Shi'ites in Egypt

December 27, 2006 | By L. Azuri
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 311

Recent statements in Cairo by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi sparked public debate over the status of the Shi'ites in Egypt. Al-Qaradhawi said that the increasing infiltration of Shi'ite Islam into Egypt, which is predominantly Sunni, may lead to a civil war like the one in Iraq. This statement was denounced by Egyptian Shi'ites, as well as by the religious establishment in Egypt and by columnists in the Egyptian press. Conversely, there were some who supported Al-Qaradhawi's position, saying that the spread of Shi'ism constituted a threat to Egypt and to the region as a whole.

Introduction: The Status of the Shi'ites in Egypt

There are no official statistics on the number of Shi'ites in Egypt. The Ibn Khaldun Research Center in Cairo estimated in January 2005 that the Shi'ites make up about 1% of the country's Muslim population, which in turn constitutes approximately 90% of Egypt's overall population of 73 million. According to this estimate, Egypt has some 657,000 Shi'ite citizens. [1] Leaders of the Shi'ite community in Egypt explain that the exact number of Shi'ites in the country is hard to estimate because many of them practice takiyya - i.e. hide their sectarian identity in order to avoid persecution. [2] Egyptian human rights organizations report that the country's Shi'ite citizens are denied basic human rights like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and are persecuted by the security apparatuses. [3]

Muhammad Al-Darini, a Sunni who converted to Shi'ism and now serves as chairman of the Higher Council for the Protection of Ahl Al-Bayt in Egypt, [4] said that, according to the estimate of the Egyptian security apparatuses, there are about one million Shi'ites in Egypt, hiding behind 76 Sufi orders, [5] while he himself believes that their number is closer to 1.5 million. [6]

In an interview for the website www.alarabiya.net, Al-Darini said, "The large number of Shi'ites [in Egypt] today stems from [the fact that] many Egyptian Sunnis are converting to Shi'ism. This is due to the information, technology, and Internet revolution, to the many [new] books pouring [into Egypt], and to [the activities of] the Higher Council for the Protection of Ahl Al-Bayt which has been operating for eight years and publishing the paper Sawt Ahl Al-Bayt..." Al-Darini added that the Shi'ite community does not expose itself "because it fears the persecution which has been the Shi'ites' lot in the past 25 years. Suffice it to mention [all] the [Shi'ites] who were arrested and tortured [in Egypt] in 1988-1989, 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2002-2004... [as well as] the hostility that is being spread by thousands of shari'a associations that endorse wahhabi Islam, and the violent groups that come out against the Shi'ites with all their might..."

Al-Darini told the website that he had been arrested and imprisoned for a year and a half for spreading Shi'ite propaganda. In prison, he reported, there were "[special] sessions for Shi'ite prisoners, aimed at converting them back to the Sunna in return for their release... [These Shi'ite prisoners] were arrested [simply] for belonging to the Shi'ite [community]. After six months of negotiations, the [authorities] agreed to release them on condition that they return to the Sunna, and they succumbed to these pressures..." Al-Darani added that he had refused to accept these terms, and said: "[The authorities] said they would release me [only] if I stopped the activities of the Higher Council for the Protection of Ahl Al-Bayt... They also prevented me from publishing our newspaper... I am the only prisoner in Egypt who has [ever] been labeled 'especially dangerous.' Even Sadat's assassins did not receive such a label... The Ministry of Religious Endowments is still holding the Council's property, including computers, papers and documents... even personal documents like birth certificates." [7]

Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi: Shi'ite Infiltration of Egypt Will Ignite a Blaze That Will Destroy Everything in Its Path

Most of the debate regarding the status of the Shi'ites in Egypt was sparked by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi's statement which warned against the infiltration of Shi'ite Islam into Sunni countries, and vice versa. In an August 2006 speech to the Egyptian Journalists' Union, delivered in Cairo immediately after the end of the Lebanon war, Al-Qaradhawi said that there was need for rapprochement between Shi'ites and Sunnis. He stressed, however, that "this rapprochement [must not be] a pretext for Shi'ite infiltration of the Sunni countries. [Such infiltration] will ignite a blaze that will destroy everything [in its path], and what has happened in Iraqbetween Shi'ite and Sunnis will [repeat itself] in all other countries... Rapprochement between the [two] sects requires that each of them refrain from [conducting] missionary activities in countries that adhere to the other." [8]

According to the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Al-Qaradhawi "warned against Shi'ite infiltration of Egypt," and said that the Shi'ites "are trying to spread their beliefs in Egypt owing to its love for Ahl Al-Bayt, and because Egypt has [many places holy to the Shi'a], such as the tomb of Hussein and Zaynab." According to the daily, Al-Qaradhawi also stated that "the Shi'ites use Sufism as a bridge to Shi'ism, and have been exploiting it in recent years to infiltrate Egypt..." [9]

Al-Qaradhawi's statements drew criticism from Sunnis and Shi'ites alike. This prompted the International Council of Muslim Clerics, which Al-Qaradhawi heads, to issue a clarification saying that "the statements that have been attributed to Al-Qaradhawi... [were part of] an answer to a question that had been posed to him, and his answer was influenced by the context and phrasing of the question. Al-Qaradhawi's words were not meant as an accusation against the Sufis or against Sufism as such, [contrary to what was] understood by some conference participants and by some who read the [subsequent] reports... [Al-Qaradhawi] believes in the need for national unity. [He believes] that Twelver Shi'ism is one of the [legitimate] sects of Islam and that the Ja'fari school of thought is a respected Islamic school of thought... [In speaking against Shi'ites who attempt to convert Sunnis], Al-Qaradhawi was referring to the irresponsible attempts of certain individuals who sow division and civil strife among the Muslims by spreading Shi'ism in countries that are mostly Sunni, or by trying to spread [various] Sunni denominations in countries whose population is mostly Shi'ite..." [10]

Egyptian Shi'ites Denounce Al-Qaradhawi's Statements

Dr. Ahmad Rasem Al-Nafis, a former Sunni who converted to Shi'ism and was arrested for it in 1987 and in 1989, came out strongly against Al-Qaradhawi's statements. [11] In an editorial published in the Egyptian Culture Ministry weekly Al-Kahira, he wrote: "Alas, it turns out that [Egypt] is the land [of the Sunnis] and not our land, and that whoever has converted to Shi'ism and who follows the ways of the Shi'a should give up his Egyptian citizenship out of his own free will.... before Al-Qaradhawi's Taliban state takes it away from him... Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi felt no qualms about [uttering words of] sectarian incitement when he warned against the spread of Shi'ism in Egypt... Then he went on to incite against Sufism... How has Shi'ism [come to be seen as] opposed to the love of Ahl Al-Bayt? What proof and confirmation does [Al-Qaradhawi] have for this nonsense, and who gave him the right to judge [our] intentions and examine our [aims]?... We would like to bring it to [the Sheikh's] attention that the Shi'ites in Egypt have no militia... so there is no cause to fear them. [On the contrary], it is others who inspire fear: those armed with an immense arsenal of fatwas accusing [others] of heresy..." [12]

Al-Darini also criticized Al-Qaradhawi's remarks. He told the website www.alarabiya.net: "Al-Qaradhawi's statements constitute clear and blatant incitement against Ahl Al-Bayt in Egypt, since they go hand in hand with [certain] practical steps taken by the government, which, among other things, has instructed the preachers in the mosques to incite against Ahl Al-Bayt in general, and against the Shi'ites in particular... How is it that we constantly speak of freedom and its implications, while at the same time, we disregard the fact that the foundation of this freedom, and of international rules and customs, is respect for the individual's [freedom] to worship God in his own unique manner? Why raise the issue of [a person's] Shi'ite or Sunni [identity]? No man - be he Sunni, Shi'ite or anything else - is a viceroy of Allah who can judge [people] for their beliefs in this world..." [13]

Al-Darini also said: "We Egyptian Shi'ites suffer from [the fact that] many accuse us of having ties with Iran. We are not spreading Iran's word, and these fears have no grounding in reality... It has become a habit with the Sunni Muslims that whenever a Shi'ite is mentioned, Iran is [also] mentioned. We receive no support and no assistance from Iran... It has no influence over us. [On the contrary], Iran has criticized us harshly for some of the statements we have made..." [14]

Egypt's Religious Establishment Calls for Sunni-Shi'ite Rapprochement

The Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments and Al-Azhar University also took part in the debate. In an interview for the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq said: "Egypt is among the leading countries in terms of rapprochement between religious sects... Al-Azhar University teaches some doctrines of Shi'ite scholars alongside those of Sunni scholars. It is always said that the Egyptians are among those who feel the greatest love for Ahl Al-Bayt, even though they are not Shi'ite. Egypt is a country of tolerance and acceptance of others..." [15]

The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, said to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "We have said again and again that the dispute between the Sunna and the Shi'a is a dispute over details, not over the tenets of the faith. Anyone who proclaims that there is no God but Allah is a believing Muslim. We support any call for rapprochement between the Muslim sects. Al-Azhar made this call a long time ago, and it is time, I think, for those who take care of the Muslims' affairs around the world to endorse this call, in order to preserve Muslim unity and prevent disintegration..." [16]

As part of its efforts towards Sunni-Shi'ite rapprochement, Al-Azhar is examining the possibility of forming a rapprochement committee in partnership with Iran. Sheikh Mahmoud 'Ashur of the Academy for Islamic Studies said to the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Al-Azhar has contacted several Iranian figures, including Sheikh Abdallah Al-Qummi, with the aim of re-establishing the Committee for Rapprochement Between the Islamic Sects, which was closed down after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. He added that "all [activities on this front] are conducted with the knowledge of the senior Al-Azhar [scholars], and especially [with the knowledge of] its Sheikh, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi..." [17]

At the same time, however, Al-Azhar is cooperating with the security apparatuses in their attempts to shut down the paper Ahl Al Bayt, which has a Twelver Shi'ite orientation, claiming that it "denies many tenets of the Sunni faith, attacks the companions of the Prophet,... tries to inculcate Shi'ite thought in Egypt, and generates confusion." [18] The Egyptian press reports that the Shi'ites in Egypt are trying to launch five additional papers, at a total cost of some $10 million, but that the state authorities will probably refuse to license their publication. [19]

Egyptian Journalist Critical of Al-Qaradhawi's Statements: "No One Political View is Shared by All Shi'ites"

Among the Egyptian journalists who criticized Al-Qaradhawi's remarks was Osama Al-Ghazouli, who wrote in the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef: "Al-Qaradhawi's statements [run counter to] Egypt's national culture, which cannot be reduced to the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood and to its political views regarding [various] faiths. The mindset of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is [the mindset] reflected by Al-Qaradhawi's [statement], is based on dualism. Everything seen in terms of two opposing camps: Humanity [consists of] Muslims and infidels; the Muslims [are divided into] Sunnis and Shi'ites, and the Sunnis [are divided into those who support] the [Muslim] Brotherhood versus the enemies [of the Muslim Brotherhood]. The two camps [must] fight until one or both of them perish. This dichotomous view of the world is also shared by two [other] gentlemen who cause trouble and embarrassment in the world: Osama bin Laden and George Bush...

"But reality [shows] that there is no one political view that is shared by all the Shi'ites [who live in] different countries, with different languages and different circumstances... The Muslims - Shi'ite and Sunni [alike] - must pursue the path of parliamentary democracy, each people according to the methods that it wishes to adopt and which suit its national agenda..." [20]

Muhammad Foda, former editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Masaa, wrote in his daily column: "What is it that compels [us Egyptians] to become so preoccupied with marginal issues that we ignore the essential issues?... Suddenly the issue of the Sunna and the Shi'a has come up... Why is that? The Sunna and the Shi'a have existed for over 1,000 years. Egypt follows the Sunni denomination, but that does not preclude the existence of a Shi'ite minority. So why does this issue have to burst open now? Who benefits from these arguments? In other words, is there some external force that, unbeknownst to us, compels us to blow our society apart from within?..." [21]

Egyptian Journalists Supporting Al-Qaradhawi's Position

*Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim: Iran is Trying to Impose Shi'ism upon the Entire Region

Other Egyptian columnists endorsed Al-Qaradhawi's position and warned of the spread of Shi'ism in Egypt. Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, chief editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, wrote: "Iran has recently set out on a religious-political campaign to convert Sunnis to Shi'ism, [exploiting] the wave of sympathy for Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in his war against Israel..." Ibrahim added that Iran has chosen Syria as the starting point of this campaign, owing to Syria's geographic proximity to Iran, and since it is ruled by an 'Alawi minority which, in his opinion, will not oppose an attempt to convert the Syrian population to Shi'ism. "Iran," he wrote, "gives $200 a month to Sunni citizens [who agree to convert]. It chooses these citizens carefully. First of all, they must be imams of Sunni mosques. Secondly, they must have at least three children. And thirdly, [they must be individuals] who wish to make a pilgrimage to the Ka'ba in Mecca, or to perform the 'umra [pilgrimage to Mecca not during the Hajj] but lack the financial means to do so...

"However, there is no doubt that Egypt, citadel of the Sunna, is still in fairly good condition... We wish to expose the grave [phenomenon] of exploiting the religious sects for political purposes, and to warn against a Shi'ite takeover of the Arab media... Iran is now marketing to the Arab world the notion of 'political salvation' through adoption of the Shi'a. At this stage, [offering] this political salvation to the Arab world is a primary goal of Iran's. However, this is not [Iran's] real goal. Its real, secret [goal] is to completely eliminate the Sunni community, from the ocean to the Gulf..." [22]

*Mahmoud 'Amer: "We Must Be More Wary of the Shi'ites Than of the Jews"

In an article published in the weekly Roz Al-Yousef, Mahmoud 'Amer wrote that the Shi'a poses a religious and security threat that could undermine the Egyptian regime: "When the official religious establishment in Egypt publishes announcements in support of the Shi'ites and declares that the Shi'ite denomination is equal [in status] to the Sunni, this is a serious religious and security threat. In religious terms, the tenets of the Iranian Shi'ite school of thought are not identical to the tenets of the school that we Egyptian Sunnis [follow]. [So] our disagreement with the Shi'a is a disagreement over principles, not details... As for the security risk, it stems from the fact that the followers of Shi'ism recognize only a government [that is associated] with their faith. Therefore, those who convert to Shi'ism in Egypt are loyal to Iran, and only to Iran... The flag of Shi'ism has [now] been raised in Egypt, 700 years after Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi managed [to cast it down]. Who stands to gain from this?...

"Imagine a [community] in Egypt that does not recognize the leadership of the imam Caliph Abu Bakar, companion of the Prophet Muhammad... [23] Will [these people] recognize the leadership of [Egyptian] President Mubarak? The security [apparatuses] must therefore be aware that the loyalty of every Shi'ite... is given to Tehran, Qom, and Najaf. In other words, his loyalty lies with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah, rather than with President Mubarak, since hakimiyya [the rule of God], or imamiyya [the rule of an imam descended from 'Ali], is the most important tenet of their faith, and the dream of every Egyptian who has converted to Shi'ism is [to witness in Egypt] a revolution similar to Khomeini's [Islamic Revolution in Iran]...

"Iranian Twelver Shi'ism agreed with the Hawarij [24] in accusing the companions of the Prophet of heresy and in [waging] an armed struggle against the [Muslim] leaders. We must be more wary of the Shi'ites than of the Jews, because the matter of the Jews is well known, and their deceitful deeds are known from the Koran and the Sunna, as well as from modern history... But as for the Shi'a, it may influence people through lies and deceit, under the pretense of protecting Ahl Al-Bayt - because most Egyptians have a particular affection for Ahl Al-Bayt, and this makes it easy to influence them and thus introduce Shi'ism into Egyptian homes.

"In time, Egypt will turn into another Iraq, especially since Iran has hopes regarding Al-Azhar, which was originally established by the Fatimides to disseminate Batinite Shi'ism [whose adherents believe in seeking the hidden meanings of the Koranic text], until Salah Al-Ayyubi purged it of Shi'ism, [replacing it with] Sunni denominations..." [25]

A Third Option - Islam Without Shi'a and Sunna

Egyptian author and intellectual Salah Al-Wardani is the founder of an association called "New Discourse," which advocates a universal Islam and the elimination of the Sunni-Shi'ite distinction. Al-Wardani was born to a Sunni family, but in 1985, when he was in his twenties, he converted to Shi'ism and subsequently wrote a great deal in praise of Shi'ism and against Sunni Islam. Twenty-one years later, he declared that he no longer belonged to either sect. In an interview for Al-Masri Al-Yawm, he called on intellectuals to join his association. [26] In explaining his position, he said: "I have now emerged from both circles (Shi'ite and Sunni Islam) into a new circle, or a third tier... I call for a new Islamic discourse based on the Koran and on reason, which transcends the old mindset that is [still] dominant among the Muslims today... I call [to rely on] modern reason... Islam is not meant to have sects..." [27]

*L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] http://annabaa.org/nbanews/44/093.htm.

[2] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), October 19, 2006.

[3] http://www.eipr.org/reports/04/rep2.htm ;http://www.hrinfo.org/hotcase/04/pr040420.shtml.

[4] Ahl Al-Bayt ("the descendents of the Prophet Muhammad") are revered in Islam in general, but have a special status in the Shi'a, which regards them as the only legitimate heirs of the Prophet. The Higher Council for the Protection of Ahl Al-Bayt in Egypt is a body that includes representatives of the sharifs (the descendants of the Prophet), and of the Sufis and of the Shi'ites.

[5] http://www.wikalah.net/news/906/23_egypt.htm, September 23, 2006.

[6] Al-Arabiyya (Egypt), September 26, 2006.

[7] Al-Arabiyya (Egypt), September 26, 2006.

[8] http://www.qardawi.net, September 2, 2006.

[9] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 2, 2006.

[10] http://www.iumsonline.net, September 4, 2006.

[11] For more information about Al-Nafis, see http://www.14masom.com/leqaa/47/47.htm.

[12] Al-Kahira (Egypt), September 12, 2006.

[13] Al-Arabiyya (Egypt), September 5, 2006.

[14] Al-Arabiyya (Egypt), September 26, 2006.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 21, 2006.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 2, 2006.

[17] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 20, 2006.

[18] 'Aqidati (Egypt), November 28, 2006.

[19] Al-Misriyyun (Egypt), November 24, 2006.

[20] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), September 15, 2006.

[21] Al-Masaa (Egypt), October 29, 2006.

[22] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), October 26, 2006.

[23] The Shi'ites believe that the rightful religious leader of the Muslims must be descended from the Prophet's son-in law 'Ali.

[24] The Hawarij were a Muslim sect which split off from the camp of the Fourth Caliph 'Ali ibn 'Abi Taleb, whom the Shi'ites regard as a saint. The members of this sect held that any pious Muslim, not only a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, can be a Caliph.

[25] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), October 17, 2006.

[26] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 2, 2006.

[27] Al-Misriyyun (Egypt), October 31, 2006.

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