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April 27, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 511

Muslim Brotherhood Debates Its Position on the Shi'a

April 27, 2009 | By L. Azuri
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 511

Introduction

A pro-Shi'ite article by prominent Muslim Brotherhood official Yousef Nada has sparked a debate within the movement regarding its position on the Shi'a. In the article, which was published on the Muslim Brotherhood website, Nada argues that the Shi'a is not foreign to Islam, but constitutes a fifth religious school alongside the four Sunni schools. He also states that the conflict between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis is not religious but political in nature, and condemns Sunni Muslims who malign the Shi'a and its followers.

Nada's article evoked criticism within the Muslim Brotherhood. Mahmoud Ghazlan, member of the Supreme Guide's office, wrote that Nada's opinions contravened the standard Sunni doctrine, and did not reflect the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, but only his own personal views. However, the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide himself, Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef, intervened in the argument, stating that Nada's views are largely consistent with those of the movement, and that the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict is indeed political rather than religious.

The debate on the Shi'a within the Muslim Brotherhood may reflect an attempt by its leaders to prepare the ground for closer and more open ties with Iran. This view was taken by the editor of the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, 'Abdallah Kamal. He assessed that, through this debate, the Brotherhood was trying to legitimize a future alliance with Iran, which would suit its purposes in the present regional circumstances.

Following are excerpts from the articles by Yousef Nada, Mahmoud Ghazlan and 'Abdallah Kamal.

Pro-Shi'ite Article by MB Official: The Shi'ites - An Integral Part of the Muslim Nation

Yousef Nada, a businessman who resides in Europe and formerly served as the Muslim Brotherhood's foreign liaison, wrote in his article: "In order to delineate [the Sunnis'] religious and political relations with the Shi'ites, one must look at the geographical history [of the Muslim world]…, for the Shi'ites emerged and lived within the [homeland] of the Muslim nation, and they are still living within it. They did not come from outside it…

"One of the tenets of the Muslim Brotherhood's thinking is that Allah is the holy of holies, and that He bestowed of his sanctity upon our lord, His Messenger [the Prophet Muhammad], to whom He revealed His holy word. But other human beings… are not holy. [Even through men] are Allah's viceroys upon the Earth, [1] [some] of their statements, insights and interpretations should be accepted [while others should be] rejected. Even the [Rightly-Guided] Caliphs [Rashidun], [2] thanks to whom we received the faith of Islam and whom we are commanded to follow, differed in their opinions [on certain issues] and their interpretations and conclusions are not flawless. They were human beings, and [therefore] not holy. [Even] the family members of the Prophet, his companions and his wives, whom we honor and revere… they too were only human, and [thus] not holy."

'Ali Was Better than the Caliphs Who Succeeded Him, but He Too Was Not Holy

"Another basic tenet of the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology is that [the fourth Caliph] 'Ali Ibn 'Ali Talib [who is revered by the Shi'ites as the Prophet's true heir], was better and more pious than his successors, who turned the rightly-guided Caliphate into a violent kingdom. [3] This is well-documented history, and not an invention of the Muslim Brotherhood. [The same goes for other members of the Prophet's family, whom the Shi'ites revere, such as the Prophet's daughter] Fatima and [her daughter] Zainab. We have nothing but reverence, honor and admiration for their exemplary lifestyles, their words and their lineage. Our lord Hassan, ['Ali's son] was a giant in [terms of] his personality, his faith, his knowledge and his lineage. [Hassan's brother] Hussein was an honorable, great and pious man in his life, and in his death as a martyr he set the best [possible] example of defending the faith and sacrificing [one's life] for its sake. Nevertheless, all these people were human beings and were not holy…

"The Muslim Brotherhood is opposed to opinions and fatwas that describe the Shi'ites as extremists, as narrow-minded zealots, as conflict-mongers, as 'refusers' [al-rafidha], [4] or as ones who have introduced odious innovations [into Islam]. There have been heaps of books written attributing false traits to the Shi'ites - to the point that most Sunnis regard the inventions, lies and exaggerations... [presented] therein as actual fact. But the truth is that those who write and distribute these books are resentful, conformist ignoramuses, or else advantage-seeking politicians who have sold out their faith to please the regime - and the horrible fact is that they prefer the infidels or the People of the Book [i.e. Jews and Christians] to [the Shi'ites]. One of the gravest crimes is that of attributing the Shi'a to Ibn Saba, [5] though his very existence has never been historically proven, and he may [in fact] be a legend [invented with the aim of] attributing heresy to the Shi'ites...

The Shi'ite Form of Worship Is Legitimate

"There are some differences in ritual among the four Sunni schools, and between these schools and the Twelver Shi'a. A decent person must accept that a Muslim who follows one of these five schools cannot be regarded as an infidel or excommunicated...

"As for the extremist Shi'ite sects [ghoulat], one of the most prominent [Shi'ite] scholars and contemporary authorities of Ja'fari and Sunni jurisprudence, [6] Hadi Khosro Shahi, [former head of the Iranian interest office in Cairo], said in his analytical historical study... that the Shi'ite religious scholars did not only oppose the extremist Shi'ite sects, but cursed them and renounced them...

"[Also] basic to the Muslim Brotherhood's thinking is the recognition that [the Muslim schools] differ on minor jurisprudential issues - differences that, [unlike major controversies,] do not constitute grounds for excommunication. [For example,] the belief in the unity of God is a basic tenet of the faith, while [the ways of] obeying [Allah] and the Shari'a are jurisprudential details..."

The Conflict between the Shi'a and Sunna Is Political, Not Religious

"At the heart of the Shi'ite problem is the issue of loyalty to the Imams, rather than any [argument] about the tenets and fundaments of the faith. In other words, it is a political conflict that 'Ali [Ibn 'Ali Talib] and the [other] Rightly-Guided Caliphs managed to contain [during their lifetimes], but which later flared up again, intensified, and became a burning political [issue] during the wars of the Ummayad and Abbas [dynasties]... Hence we contend that this controversy, which began as a political controversy, must be settled by political means, not by hurling religious accusations and by excluding and excommunicating people. There is no choice but to accept that there are different opinions, as long as they are [all] based on authoritative sources and on historical facts that are not fabricated...

"Another fundamental [principle] of the Muslim Brotherhood's thinking is that Islam united the different peoples who accepted it, but did not obliterate [the differences between them, as stated in Koran 49:13]: 'We... have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another.' It does not say, 'so that you may detach one another from your [respective] roots.' Therefore, provoking Arab and Persian [chauvinism] in order to generate strife between the peoples [means] pushing the believers in a direction opposed to the will of the Creator - for [as the Prophet Muhammad said in his last sermon,] an Arab is no better than a Persian, unless it be through piety...

"I do not purport to be a theoretician or Imam, or a great jurisprudent or leader of the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement... I am [only] repeating what I have learned in my 60 years in the movement..." [7]

Mahmoud Ghazlan: Nada's Claims Are at Odds with Accepted Sunni Doctrine

Nada's article evoked criticism in the office of the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide. Office member Mahmoud Ghazlan wrote a response article that also appeared on the movement's website. In his article, Ghazlan alluded to statements made several months ago by prominent Sunni Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, against the spread of the Shi'a in Sunni countries. [8] Ghazlan said: "Though I agreed [with these statements by Al-Qaradhawi], we were angry at him because certain governments, parties and media outlets were able to exploit them in order to support the American-Zionist plan which presents Iran as the greatest threat facing [our] region... Now we have Mr. Yousef Nada, whose article defends the Shi'ite school and denies most of [its] flaws, which are a matter of consensus among Sunni scholars. [In fact, he sounds] as if he is urging [people] to join [the Shi'a], or at least [as though] he sees no distinction between the Shi'ite and Sunni schools...

"Had the article been published as [an expression of Nada's personal] opinion, it would have been a smaller matter. But [the fact is that] this article, from beginning to end, [purports to present] the Muslim Brotherhood's thinking and philosophy. Moreover, it appeared on the Muslim Brotherhood website, which causes us considerable harm, generates suspicion towards us, and turns many Sunnis against us... Therefore, as long as the website continues to present [the movement's views], I think that confusing articles [like Nada's] must be presented to a group [of movement officials] before posting, to assess whether their publication could cause any harm...

"Our political position [vis-à-vis Iran] must be assessed according to the yardstick of freedom, truth and justice. If [Iran's] positions correspond with [these values], we shall support them... and if they are at odds with [these values], we shall oppose and condemn them...

"As for our position on the Shi'a, our tendency is not to address this issue at all, and to stay out of the conflicts among the Muslim schools, out of a desire to preserve the nation's unity and to discourage anything that causes strife within it. We leave [this issue] to the religious scholars, who can conduct a fair and academic debate about it, and at the same time we privately condemn anything that harms the Sunni school and the status of the Prophet's honorable companions.

"This is our position - providing that the Shi'ites respect it and treat [us] in the same way. If they exploit our efforts [to preserve] unity, and our reluctance to engage in arguments, in order to spread their [faith], we will have no choice but to [respond] by clarifying the details of this conflict and the flaws [of the Shi'a]..." [9]

Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide: Nada's View Is Largely Consistent with the Movement's Position

Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef personally intervened in the debate sparked by Nada's article. In fact, reports in the Egyptian press stated that 'Akef was the one who had authorized the publication of this article on the movement's website, to the consternation of many members of his office. 'Akef supported Nada's view that the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict is political, rather than religious, stating: "The Sunnis have no religious problem with the Shi'a, for the Shi'ites believe in Allah, in His Messenger, and in the Koran. They have their own school [of thought], which we respect. The conflict between the Sunnis and Shi'ites was born of a political [struggle], and politics continue to play a role in it to this very day." 'Akef added that, even though Nada's article reflected his own personal opinions, it was largely consistent with the Muslim Brotherhood's position. [10]

'Akef also said recently that he welcomed the spread of the Shi'a in the region. He explained that there are 56 Sunni countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, but there is only one Shi'ite country in the entire world, namely Iran, and consequently there is no reason to fear this country. In fact, 'Akef said that he supported Iran's right to a nuclear program, even if this program is aimed at manufacturing an atomic bomb. [11] In an interview with Al-Jazeera TV, he said that the Shi'ites were divided into 36 different groups, and asked: "Why not launch a dialogue with them? Why do we oppose them just because they are Shi'ites?" [12] In an interview with a Turkish paper, he said: "Iran is a Shi'ite country. The Shi'a is not a religious school but a political [movement], and we therefore deal [with Iran] as a state, which is a political body and not a religious one. If one wants to talk about the [religious] schools [in Islam], let him turn to the jurisprudents. But we laymen talk about the reality and the interests of the nation, that is our task." 'Akef added: "Thirty years ago, Iran was poor, destitute, and crawling with corruption and tyranny, until Khomeini came and liberated it. He spurned the greatest power of the world [i.e. the U.S.], as no other Arab or Muslim country in the world has dared to do in the last 30 years. That is why we think that the question is political, not religious." [13]

'Akef told the government Egyptian weekly Al-Musawwar that, in making these statements about Iran, he meant to "urge the Egyptian regime to follow the example of Iran by holding real elections, [enabling] government turnover, [granting] freedoms and [engaging in] serious efforts towards a revival of the [Muslim] nation. He denied that there were direct contacts between the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, adding that he constantly received invitations to visit Tehran but declined them. [14]

Roz Al-Yousef: The Debate within the Muslim Brotherhood Is Meant to Sanction an Open Alliance with Iran

In an editorial in the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, chief editor 'Abdallah Kamal attributed much importance to Nada's article, stating that it indicates a significant shift in the Muslim Brotherhood's attitude towards the Shi'a. This shift, he argued, stems from the need to sanction a more open political alliance between the movement and Iran:

"There is no doubt that [Nada's] article indicates a real shift in the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are known to be extremists among the Sunnis. [The fact] that it was written by a [Muslim Brotherhood] leader whose function is more political than jurisprudential or ideological means that there has been a shift in the political relations between the movement and Iran. [This political shift] must be [complemented by] an ideological shift, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been quick to provide one and to give it prominence in order to impress its significance upon [the movement's] followers. This indicates that something significant is brewing in secret between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Persian state.

"Nada's article sparked much controversy within the Muslim Brotherhood. The responses it evoked indicate that there is real opposition within the movement to the ideological shift [that is occurring]. [These responses also indicate] that the movement meant to launch a public debate [on this issue], even though it knows that its followers will not be swayed [to change their beliefs]. [Nevertheless, the movement] wants to introduce this change and give it some sort of religious sanction, so that, in the [next] stage, there will at least be some willingness for coordination between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood...

"We are facing a real change in the thinking of this extremist movement, which may amount to a renunciation of its commitment to its ideas, not to say a renunciation of the [Sunni] school. This change will create an alarming rift and a great gap between the leading echelon - which constitutes a minority in the movement and is promoting this change for political reasons - and the majority of the members, who do not understand what is happening within the leading echelon..."

The Debate Indicates a Temporary "Pleasure Marriage" between the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran

"These public debates are nothing but a smokescreen to hide what we might call a "pleasure marriage" [15] between the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. This marriage may be long or short, but it seems to be required by the movement's [present] agenda and by the quickly changing regional [conditions], to which the movement desires to adapt...

"This is not the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood has introduced great politically[-motivated] changes in its principles, [because] this movement - regardless of its religious guise - is [geared at pursuing its own] benefit and interests. [This is reflected] even in the way it uses its slogan, ['Islam is the Solution'], which, more than it expresses [religious] faith, presents [Islam] as a means to attain the most important goal: taking power...

"This new trend within the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood does not flow out of the movement's own ideology, but belongs to another organization that operates under the Muslim Brotherhood's banner, namely Hamas, which has gone far in terms of its strategic and monetary ties with Iran... It is the actions [of Hamas] that are dictating certain positions of the Egyptian movement...

"For years, Iran has been establishing ties with a group of organizations in the region, and making use of them in its regional struggle. It has exploited the ideological appeal of its Islamic Revolution to attract not only Hizbullah in Lebanon and similar organizations in Iraq, but also a fair number of organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, when the funding channels [of the resistance movements] dried up... in the wake of 9/11, and the donations from the Sunni Gulf ceased, Iran stepped in to fill the empty space in the pockets of these organizations. In this manner, its positions became a decisive [factor] for these organizations, even more than [the positions] of the International Muslim Brotherhood itself...

"The alliance [under discussion] is unique, because it is an alliance between forces that are very different in nature... [This alliance], which I, at least, like to call a gang, comprises three countries and three organizations: a Shi'ite country, an 'Alawi country and a Sunni country - [namely] Iran, Syria and Qatar - as well as three organizations, one of them Shi'ite and two of them Sunni, namely Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It should be noted that the three countries make use of the three organizations to achieve their specific aims, [for] the organizations serve as their proxies. It should also be noticed that each of the three organizations seeks to become a state or take over a state... As part of this alliance, the Muslim Brotherhood has concentrated on Iran and Qatar, more than on Syria, since Iran is the actual leader of this alliance. [Iran] funds the alliance and remains committed to it, while Syria, it seems, may leave the alliance [in response to] American incentives..."

The Muslim Brotherhood Is Following in Hizbullah's Footprints

"The debate [within the Muslim Brotherhood regarding the Shi'a] sheds light on several other issues that the Muslim Brotherhood has been ignoring. They have kept silent about various Iranian-Persian-Shi'ite actions against the Sunnis inside Iran and in other parts of the Arab world... In my opinion, this silence reflects their positions more than any article... It is the silence of devils.

"The Muslim Brotherhood's intention is not to bring its followers closer to the Shi'a in terms of their faith, or even to encourage rapprochement with the Shi'ites. Its intention is to encourage acceptance of Iran's positions, and thus enable itself to establish tighter and more open relations with this country - [all] in preparation for the next step, which will take place under the slogan 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' [i.e. Iran, which is the enemy of the Egyptian regime, is a friend of the Muslim Brotherhood]. [At this stage], the simple folk who are followers of the Muslim Brotherhood will discover that their Sunni movement is following in the footsteps of the Shi'ite Hizbullah and is subordinate to [this organization's] leadership..." [16]

*L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI

Endnotes:

[1] This refers to Koran 2:30, in which Man is described as Allah's viceroy on Earth.

[2] The first four Caliphs of Islam, who ruled during the 30 years following death of the Prophet Muhammad (632-660 AD).

[3] The Rightly-Guided Caliphs were succeeded by the 'Umayyad dynasty (661-750), which is sometimes described by its detractors as "the violent kingdom."

[4] A derogatory term used by Sunnis to describe the Shi'ites. It alludes to the fact that the Shi'ites refuse to accept the legitimacy of the first three Caliphs, believing that 'Ali was the legitimate heir of the Prophet.

[5] 'Abdallah Ibn Saba is a figure associated with the early Shi'a. According to some accounts, he was a Yemeni Jew who converted to Islam and became one of 'Ali's greatest disciples.

[6] The Ja'fari school is the main school of Shi'ite jurisprudence.

[7] www.ikhwanonline.com, February 16, 2009

[8] On Al-Qaradhawi's statements about the Shi'a, and the storm they generated within the Muslim world, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2080, "Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi in Interview With Egyptian Daily: Mubarak Should Step Down and Should Not Pass Presidency to Gamal; The Spread of the Shi'a Is A Danger," October 16, 2008, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi in Interview With Egyptian Daily: Mubarak Should Step Down and Should Not Pass Presidency to Gamal; The Spread of the Shi'a Is A Danger ; Inquiry and Analysis No. 481, "Recent Rise in Sunni-Shi'ite Tension (Part II): Anti-Shi'ite Statements by Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi," December 16, 2008, Recent Rise in Sunni–Shi'ite Tension (Part II): Anti-Shi'ite Statements by Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi.

[9] www.ikhwanonline.com, February 25, 2009. Nada wrote a response to Ghazlan's article, in which he reiterated the opinions expressed in his first article. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 11, 2009. This triggered another response by Ghazlan, who wrote: "If Nada wants to become a Shi'ite, that's his business, but he must not present this as the general position of the Muslim Brotherhood." Ghazlan stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood supported Iran on certain issues - namely in the matter of its nuclear program, its struggle with the West and its support of the resistance movements in the region - but opposed Iran's support of extremist Shi'ites in Iraq and its declarations that Bahrain is part of Iran. www.islamonline.net, April 19, 2009.

[10] Al-YawmAl-Sabi' (Egypt), February 26, 2009.

[11] Al-Nahar (Kuwait), December 24, 2008.

[12] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), April 12, 2009.

[13] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 19, 2009.

[14] Al-Musawwar (Egypt), March 25, 2009.

[15] This is an allusion to muta' marriage - temporary marriage for pleasure - which is permitted in the Shi'a.

[16] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), February 28, 2009.

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