February 25, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 481

Recent Rise in Sunni–Shi'ite Tension (Part II): Anti-Shi'ite Statements by Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi

February 25, 2009 | By E. Glass*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 481

For several months now, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS), has been attacking the Shi'ites and Iran. In an interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, published September 8 and 9, 2008, he stressed the danger posed by the spread of the Shi'a in the Sunni countries.[1] Over the following weeks, he continued the campaign with additional interviews and communiqués in the Egyptian and Saudi press, in which he further condemned the Shi'a and also accused Iran of spreading it in order to realize its "imperialist aspirations."

Al-Qaradhawi's statements evoked numerous reactions in the Arab and Iranian press, most of them negative. Prominent Iranian and Shi'ite figures harshly criticized Al-Qaradhawi, and prominent Sunnis expressed only reserved support, tempered by concerns about possible exacerbation of the strife between Sunnis and Shi'ites. The Muslim Brotherhood movement was especially critical; although Al-Qaradhawi is regarded as one of its long-standing spiritual leaders, the movement leadership did not support his statements on the Shi'a and even explicitly renounced them.

Despite the criticism, and despite the fact that Iran offered to issue a formal apology for some of the harsh statements against him in response to his attacks, Al-Qaradhawi has refused to retract his statements against the Shi'a and Iran and to end the conflict with the Iranians.[2]

Al-Qaradhawi's Statements

Shi'ites Are Trying to Infiltrate Sunni Society

In his September 8-9, 2008 interview with Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Al-Qaradhawi was asked who posed a greater danger to Islam – the Wahhabis or the Shi'ites. He replied: "...The Shi'ites are Muslims, but they have strayed far [from the truth]. The danger they pose lies in their attempt to infiltrate Sunni society. They are [well] equipped for this [task], having great wealth, estimated in the billions [of dollars], as well as a legion of missionaries trained to spread the Shi'a in Sunni countries... I recently discovered to my sorrow [that there are] Shi'ite Egyptians. In past decades, the Shi'ites could not get even one Egyptian [to embrace the Shi'a]. From the days of Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyoubi [in the 12th century] to 20 years ago, there wasn't a single Shi'ite in Egypt. Today they write in the papers and appear on TV, and publicly profess their Shi'ism..."[3]

In response to criticism evoked by his statements, Al-Qaradhawi only reiterated his position. In a communiqué, he wrote: "I stand by my statements about the Shi'ite attempts to infiltrate Sunni societies. It is the duty [of the ulama] to come out against this – for if we fail to do so, we betray the role that has been entrusted to us and our obligation to the Muslim nation. My warnings about this invasion are intended to open the eyes of the nation to the dangers it is facing..."[4]

Sunni Society Must Wake Up to the Danger

In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Al-Qaradhawi stated that rapprochement between the Shi'a and Sunna was impossible and that the spreading of Shi'a in a Sunni country was tantamount to an invasion of that country and its society. He said: "If a [Sunni] society notices [attempts to] spread the Shi'a within it, it will react with opposition and hostility." About Iran, he said that it had imperialist aspirations which went back to the ancient Persian era and the Sassanid period, and that it spent millions or even billions on spreading the Shi'a. Consequently, he said, anyone who embraced the Shi'a became loyal to Iran rather than to his own country, like the Shi'ites in Lebanon, who felt closer to Iran than to their Lebanese brothers.

Al-Qaradhawi added that he was willing to conduct a dialogue with members of any faith, including polytheist faiths such as Buddhism, but not with "the oppressive Zionists or the Shi'ites, who sought to infiltrate [Egypt]." As for his warnings about the danger posed by the Shi'a, he said that they were meant "to prevent greater fitna [internal strife] in the future," and were made "out of foresight and in preparation for the future."[5]

In an interview with Al-Watan, he reiterated that Shi'ite activities in Sunni countries were backed by "a country with strategic goals, which was enlisting the [Shi'ite] faith in order to realize its desire to expand and enlarge its sphere of influence..." He added: "I want to cry out and warn my people and nation about the raging fire they may face unless they wake from their drunken slumber... Anyone who doubts my words need only look at what is happening in Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and in other Muslim countries in Africa and Asia, including even Palestine..."[6]

Iranian Reactions to Al-Qaradhawi's Statements

Iranian News Agency: Al-Qaradhawi is Speaking Like a Jewish Rabbi

Iran retaliated by attacking Al-Qaradhawi, focusing on the religious aspect of the debate and disregarding the political angle. The Iranian news agency Mehr stated that Al-Qaradhawi's warnings about the spread of the Shi'a were akin to the talk of Jewish rabbis, and were aimed at creating a rift among the Muslims and igniting sectarian strife. Mehr added that Al-Qaradhawi must abandon his extremist attitudes towards the Shi'a.[7]

Al-Qaradhawi's statements were also condemned by Shi'ite scholars, such as Lebanese cleric Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah and Iranian Ayatollah Ali Taskhiri, deputy secretary-general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, which Al-Qaradhawi heads. They objected to Al-Qaradhawi's use of the term 'missionary activity' to describe the spreading of the Shi'a in Sunni countries, since it is associated with Christian proselytism. Taskhiri contended that "Al-Qaradhawi's statements promoted strife and [therefore] contravened the aims of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, of which he is the head."[8] Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, member of the Iranian Assembly of Experts, said that Al-Qaradhawi had become a pawn in the hands of the Wahhabis, and called on him to repent and to retract his statements.[9]

The Iranian Apology, Subsequently Denied

In mid-October 2008, a high-ranking Iranian delegation attended a conference in Doha organized by the International Union for Muslim Scholars (which has both Shi'ite and Sunni members). According to a report in Al-Quds Al-'Arabi, the delegation, which included Khamenei's senior advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, submitted an official apology to Al-Qaradhawi, stating that "those who associate Al-Qaradhawi with Zionism are [only] the Zionists themselves." The delegation also explained to Al-Qaradhawi that Mehr's views did not represent those of official Iran.[10] Mehr, in turn, reported that the journalist who had attacked Al-Qaradhawi had been fired, and characterized his article – which, it claimed, had been posted without the knowledge of the management – as "contravening [the principle of] Islamic unity."[11]

Al-Qaradhawi rejected this attempt at appeasement, and refused to sign a joint statement with the Iranian delegation to the effect that the conflict between them had ended, unless the Iranians promised to cease spreading the Shi'a in the Sunni world and to eradicate the Shi'ite custom of cursing the Prophet's companions.[12] In response, the Iranian Embassy in Riyadh denied that an apology had ever been made, asserting that all reports to that effect were false.[13]

The International Union for Muslim Scholars concurred with Al-Qaradhawi's position regarding the spread of the Shi'a in Sunni countries, and required Tehran to apologize to him and to punish Mehr. The closing statement of the Doha conference stated, reflecting Al-Qaradhawi's position, that if a country followed a certain religious school of thought, it was forbidden to spread another in that country, for this jeopardized the unity of the [Muslim] nation.[14] This closing statement was adopted despite efforts by a minority group within the Council, headed by its secretary-general, Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa, to suggest a more moderate and less categorical phrasing.[15]

Shi'ites in Qatar Call to Revoke Al-Qaradhawi's Citizenship

Shi'ites in the Gulf states supported Iran's position. A group of Shi'ite lawyers even filed a lawsuit against Al-Qaradhawi in the Doha court, calling to revoke his Qatari citizenship and expel him from the country for instigating civil strife.[16]

Kuwait's most prominent Shi'ite cleric, Muhammad Al-Mahri, called Al-Qaradhawi various names implying that he was an apostate and an enemy of Ahl Al-Bayt.[17] Al-Mahri stated: "We openly announce that [Al-Qaradhawi] has become a nasibi [a term applied by Shi'ites to enemies of 'Ali bin 'Abu Talib and of Ahl Al-Bayt], and that we therefore demand that Al-Azhar divest him of his religious authority and prevent him from appearing in the media."[18]

Sunni Support for Al-Qaradhawi

Several Al-Azhar scholars expressed support for Al-Qaradhawi, characterizing Iran's statements against him as "foolish" and based on "blind extremism." However, some of these scholars also criticized Al-Qaradhawi, arguing that his position as head of the International Council of Muslim Clerics required him to promote unity in the Muslim world, rather than attack the Shi'a.[19]

The Egyptian organization Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya also supported Al-Qaradhawi in a communiqué that stated: "The Muslim ulama attained their exalted position only... by fulfilling their duty, which is to see dangers in advance and warn people [about them]..."[20]

A group of 5,000 Pakistani clerics likewise issued a communiqué expressing solidarity with Al-Qaradhawi and accusing Iran of "helping the imperialist powers to destroy Afghanistan and Iraq." The communiqué also accused Iran of "using the Shi'ite minorities in Sunni countries to promote its own national goals," and of "supporting – and even heading – murderous terrorist organizations that kill Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan."[21]

The Qatari organization "Supporters of the Sunna," as well as Salafi groups in Kuwait, also sided with Al-Qaradhawi, and condemned the Shi'ites in their countries and in Iran for attacking him.[22] Subsequently, a group of 29 Sunni ulama from several Arab countries demanded that Iran issue a formal apology to Al-Qaradhawi, warning that it would be responsible for any harm that might come to him as a result of the Shi'ite fatwas pronouncing it licit to kill him.[23]

The Muslim Brotherhood Renounces Al-Qaradhawi

Muslim Brotherhood Spiritual Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef initially refused to comment directly on the Al-Qaradhawi's statements. In reference to the affair, he only denied accusations that the Muslim Brotherhood had abandoned Al-Qaradhawi in his confrontation with the Shi'ite ulama,[24] and added: "[The Shi'ites] are Muslims [like us]. They have their own faith, but they worship Allah and follow the creed of the prophet Muhammad... [The conflict] between the Sunna and Shi'a, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, is nothing more than a political conflict which has nothing to do with Islam and its schools of thought... A guiding principle of the Muslim Brotherhood is rapprochement between [religious] streams..."[25] Later, sources in the Muslim Brotherhood leadership issued a more explicit response to Al-Qaradhawi's claims. They stated that the Office of the Supreme Guide renounced Al-Qaradhawi's views on Iran and the Shi'a.[26]

However, others in the Muslim Brotherhood movement – albeit not in the leadership – took a different view. A group of 40 Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, all of them from the media and academia, issued a communiqué titled "Statement to the Muslim Nation from Pupils of Imam Al-Qaradhawi and Ones Who Love Him," in which they expressed unreserved support for his views.[27]

Al-Qaradhawi's Son: I Am Proud to be Shi'ite

In the wake of Al-Qaradhawi's statements, there were reports in the media that his son, the poet 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Qaradhawi, had converted to the Shi'a, and that this was the motivation for the father's anti-Shi'ite campaign. These claims were denied by Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi as well as by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa, deputy secretary-general of the Council of Muslim Clerics. In an Al-Masri Al-Yawm interview, Al-Qaradhawi said that these rumors were "nonsense aimed at diverting attention from the main issue..." He added: "My son is indeed a great admirer of [Hizbullah Secretary-General] Hassan Nasrallah, emblem of the resistance. He has frequently been invited to South [Lebanon], and has dedicated a book of poems to the resistance [i.e. to Hizbullah] – but all this does not mean that he has become a Shi'ite..."[28]

Al-'Awa told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that he had met with 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Qaradhawi, and that the latter had categorically denied the rumors about his conversion, and had even said that he planned to sue the news agencies that spread this rumor.[29]

However, according to the Iranian website Jahan News, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Qaradhawi said at a conference in Lebanon that he was proud to be Shi'ite, and that the request he has recently received to convert back to the Sunna was nothing but an insult to Shi'ites.[30] Unlike previous reports, this report did not evoke a denial.

*E. Glass is a research fellow at MEMRI


[1] For information on the interview, 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.

[2] It should be noted that in late 2006, Qaradhawi made similar statements against the Shi'a, sparking a heated debate in Egypt. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 311, "Debate over the Status of Shi'ites in Egypt," December 27, 2006, Debate over the Status of Shi'ites in Egypt.

[3] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 8, 2008; September 9, 2008.

[4] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), September 18, 2008.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 25, 2008.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 10, 2008.

[7] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), September 13, 2008.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 19, 2008.

[9] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), September 22, 2008.

[10] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), October 14, 2008.

[11] Mehr (Iran), October 15, 2008.

[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 15, 2008.

[13]; Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), October 15, 2008.

[14] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 17, 2008.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 15, 2008.

[16], September 23, 2008.

[17] 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.

[18] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), October 11, 2008.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 19, 2008.

[20], September 20, 2008.

[21] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), October 13, 2008.

[22] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), October 14, 2008.

[23] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 2, 2008.

[24], September 25, 2008.

[25] Al-Dustour (Egypt), September 25, 2008.

[26] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), October 4, 2008.

[27] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), September 27, 2008.

[28] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 12, 2008.

[29] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 8, 2008

[30] Jahan News (Iran), November 22, 2008.

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