12 Feb 2011

Conversions Rise

Iran money converting Egypt to Shia Faith

Shiite Expansion in Egypt: A Red Line

by Dr. Hamad Al-Majid - 17/09/2008

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, chairman of the International union of Muslim Scholars, recently made statements to the Al-Misri al-Yawm newspaper that included frank and daring warnings against the Shiite expansion in the Sunni states. Had the statements been made by someone else other than al-Qardawi, it would not have caused such an impact, not only because of his clerical status and fame in the Arab and Islamic worlds, but because al-Qardawi represents a tolerant school of thought which brought him a great deal of criticism, which at times reached the point of slander. Thus do the frank views of the "tolerant" al-Qardawi mean that the Sunni redlines have been invaded by the Shiite thought and that the Shiite knife has reached the bones?

Those who read the recent statements made by al-Qardawi will realize that what "provoked" Sheikh al-Qardawi to make these transparent statements was the fact that a number of Sunni Egyptians have converted to Shiites. Statistics in Egypt a few years ago show that the Egyptian Muslims were 100 per cent Sunnis. Shiite ideology could not penetrate Egypt even under the Shiite Fatimid rule. Recently, the intensive Shiite preaching efforts, sponsored by Iran and its religious leaders, have borne fruit and Egyptians amounting to thousands and perhaps dozens of thousands have converted into Shiites. The new converts are disguised in more than 76 Sufi groups. This was confirmed to the al-Arabiya News channel by a leader of the Egyptian Shiites, Muhammad al-Darini.

The problem here is that a number of Shiite references and teachings are contradictory. Shiites occasionally call for unity among Muslims, for the pooling of ranks against the common enemy, and for overlooking differences. They severely criticize some Sunni leanings and efforts to revive sectarianism, especially when they speak about the doctrinal distinction between the two sects that are two Muslim groups with no difference between them on the questions of principle. But on other occasions, the Shiites use their ideological and intellectual network in countries which are purely Sunnis. This effort is supported by huge financial budgets aimed at laying an ideological foothold paving the way for further influence in the future. Had it been true that those who are behind the Shiite preaching efforts in Egypt viewed the Egyptians as truly Muslim people, they would not have devoted their Shiite preaching efforts to this Muslim country and would have focused such efforts on the infidels, atheists and the followers of other religions in the various parts of the world.

I can recall that I met in London with a Tunisian intellectual who is viewed as one of the leaders of the Tunisian Islamic Movement. He was sympathetic with the Khomeini revolution to the point he thought of Khomeini as one of the reformers of this century. He told me that in the midst of the enthusiastic meetings between the representatives of the Iranian revolution and the leaders of his movement for the purpose of mobilizing efforts against the joint enemy, he noticed that there was hidden exploitation of these contacts, i.e. the Iranians began to sow the seeds of Schism in a purely Sunni country like Tunisia, and that he told the Iranians in a firm and decisive language: we have received this heritage from our clerics and predecessors and we can never relinquish it or bargain over it.

Shiite clerics, leaders and wise men should understand that marketing the Shiite doctrine in purely Sunni Islamic states is tantamount to a bid to promote problems and to sow the seeds of sedition. We already had enough problems in the countries where Shiites live along Sunnis, such as Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. Extremists of the two sects spark the fire of sectarian conflict. In fact, whenever the fire of sectarian conflict is started, it would only aggravate the situation and make it worse. The wise men of the Shiites should stop the Shiite preaching efforts in the Islamic states. The Shiites will be the first beneficiary of this because the Shiite competition of the Sunnis in areas where the Shiites do not exist, in the first place, creates a feeling of bitterness against them. Moreover, such an atmosphere paves the way for the creation of a fertile soil of animosity of a sect which in the final analysis constitutes only 10 percent of the Muslims. Moreover, It is a situation where the tolerant and moderate voices would be lost and no longer heeded, as exactly was the case with Sheikh al-Qardawi who was accused of being a sectarian because he frankly criticized the attempts to convert his country into Schism - a country known throughout history to be totally affiliated with the Sunni sect.


Iran invites Egypt Sunni university into Shiite heartland

(AFP) – Aug 7, 2008

CAIRO - Despite Egypt-Iran tensions, the Shiite-dominated Islamic republic has made an unprecedented request for Cairo's Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, to open a branch in Tehran.

The overture has, however, sparked speculation in Egypt that Iran, increasingly embattled over its controversial nuclear programme, is merely seeking Arab support in its standoff with the West.

"We have asked officially, but so far we have had no response," said Karim Azizi, spokesman at the Iranian interests section in Cairo where there has been no Iranian embassy since diplomatic relations were cut almost 30 years ago.

Azizi told AFP the request to Al-Azhar -- founded in 975 AD -- was aimed at "reinforcing Iranian-Egyptian relations and bringing closer together the different Islamic confessions, especially Sunnis and Shiites."

The surprise move comes amid anger in Sunni-majority Egypt after Iranian television screened a film reportedly calling assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a traitor and hailing his executed killer as a martyr.

After "Assassination of a Pharaoh" was shown, Egypt in July cancelled a football match, summoned Iran's envoy in Cairo and closed an Iranian satellite TV channel's office.

Officially Iran has sought to distance itself from the broadcast, saying it does not represent Tehran's position and instead hailing relations between the two Middle East heavyweights as "based on friendship and brotherhood."

In a region increasingly riven with Sunni-Shiite tensions and amid fears of a so-called Shiite crescent running from Beirut to Tehran, Egypt's soured relations with Iran have little to do with sectarianism, however.

Diplomatic ties were severed in 1980 a year after Iran's Islamic revolution in protest at Egypt recognising Israel, hosting the deposed shah and supporting Baghdad during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Relations warmed recently, with both states signalling a willingness to restore ties. In January, President Hosni Mubarak met Iran's parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hada Adel, the first such high-level talks in almost three decades.

Sheikh Ali Abdel Baqi, the head of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Centre, said the Iranian request for a university or faculty was unofficial and came from Iran's five-million-strong Sunni minority, most of whom are members of ethnic minority groups living in the country's borderlands.

He said Iranian Sunnis want to "teach their children the Sunnism that's taught at Al-Azhar because it is moderate and open, and this is Al-Azhar's message all over the world."

In the wake of the Sadat film, the Egyptian press has increasingly reported what it calls a covert Shiite invasion.

"We won't allow the existence of a Shiite tide in Egyptian mosques," Minister of Waqf (religious endowments) Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq told the independent Al-Masri al-Youm last month.

Former Al-Azhar professor Adbel Moneim al-Berri said that Egyptian Shiite experts, including himself, have been asked to educate state security officers about "Shiite ideology and plans to break through the Sunni countries."

But Abdel Baqi insists: "We are not afraid of Shiites... There is no tension between Al-Azhar and other sects."

While Iran's Azizi suggested that an Al-Azhar presence in Iran could lead to an exchange of religious teachers, Abdel Baqi says Egypt would be unlikely to reciprocate.

"We don't need to open Shiite institutions in Egypt because all Egyptians are Sunnis," he said, adding that no Shiites study at Al-Azhar and there are "between 50,000 and 60,000 Shiites in Egypt, Iraqis who have come to seek a life in security."

However, Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says that many Shiites in Egypt are converts from Sunni Islam whom the state tries to coerce into converting back, using arrest, interrogation and torture.

Security forces "have even summoned scholars from Al-Azhar to meet defendants to talk them out of their conversion," Bahgat charged.

"It is not in the interest of Muslims in Egypt that the Shiite sect spreads among them because I think it is somewhat harsh and differs from the virtues and manners that we believe in," said Abdel Baqi, who has never been to Iran and has no wish to go.

Mohammed Sayed Said, editor of the independent Al-Badil newspaper, described the Iranian initiative as "a very smart move. Iran keeps reaching out to Egypt and Mubarak's Egypt is not responsive and has not been for the past 10 years.

"It's political. It's not even diplomatic because I don't think it will be approved by the state," he said.

"The general feeling at the moment is that we (Muslims) are the target of destruction, so we should do whatever is necessary to restore unity."

Middle East commentator Reza Zia-Ebrahimi called the request "very odd."

"Not only do Iranian theologians boast about (the Iranian religious city of) Qom's greater open-mindedness, but Al-Azhar and Qom are attended by two very different breeds of Muslim theologian," he told AFP.

Abdel Baqi refuses to be drawn on whether the Iranian request is a genuine religious outreach or ultimately aimed at improving its image among Arab leaders, many of whom -- Mubarak included -- are staunch US allies.

"If there is a political background to this request we are not aware of it," Abdel Baqi said. "We do not read what is in the heart -- we listen to what the tongue says."


Egypt: Sunni but Shia inclined

Mustafa El Feki, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the People's Assembly

Al-Ahraam weekly 25-31 May 2006

Though Sunni, Egypt by history is founded on a Shia base, confounding agitators who want to drive a confessional wedge into the heart of Islam, writes Mustafa El-Feki

Much of the anger and criticism sparked by President Hosni Mubarak's recent statements on Arab Shia was the result of them being taken out of context and misinterpreted. In the interests of restoring calm and objectivity, I believe it would be useful to set those statements and their regretful effects to the side for a moment and take a look at how Egypt really stands towards Shia Islam and its adherents.

Egypt is a Sunni country but with strong Shia leanings. It is the country that gave refuge to the descendants of the Prophet Mohamed in the first century AH and continues to venerate them today. Its venerable Al-Azhar University is one of the few Sunni academic institutions to teach Shia Jaafari jurisprudence alongside the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. This is of no small import given the historical and symbolic significance of Al-Azhar. In addition, Egypt was the first officially Shia state which, founded in the mid-10th century AH, did more than its predecessors to shape the traditions and values of Egyptian society.

Many are unaware that the conversion of Egyptian society to Islam did not take place overnight. Indeed, Egypt remained predominantly Christian (Coptic) for a full two centuries after the Islamic conquest and it was only with the arrival of the Shia Fatimids and the founding of their new capital in Cairo -- Al-Qahira, "The Victorious" -- that the ratio shifted in the other direction. So intent were some Fatimid rulers upon collecting taxes and the heavier jizya, or head tax, from non-Muslims that huge sectors of the non- Muslim populace converted to Islam as a means of reducing the financial burden.

Nor should we forget that the Fatimids established Al-Azhar as a bastion of Shia jurisprudence and a theological centre in general. Fatimid rulers were open, however, to other religious influences and drew heavily on the expertise of non-Muslims, both Christian and Jewish. This was the state, after all, in which the Jewish Maimonides rose to power as vizier. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that this was the epoch to which we can date the homogenisation of Egyptian society and therefore, also, many characteristics of Egyptian religious rites: fervent veneration for the descendants of Ali Ibn Abu Taleb expelled by the Ummayid rulers, worship at a plethora of sacred tombs and pilgrimage destinations, moulid celebrations commemorating the anniversaries of Muslim holy men and women, and any number of daily religious rituals. This was also the era in which Egypt became fully culturalised as an Arabic speaking society, for it was around this time that the churches adopted Arabic alongside Coptic as a liturgical language.

Concrete testimony to the enduring influence of Shia Islam on Egyptian society is to be found in the "saints'" tombs dating from the Fatimid era. The widely venerated Sidi Abul-Hassan Al-Shazli, Al-Sayed Badawi, Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas and Ibrahim Al-Dessouqi all hailed from Fatimid North Africa. In fact, on the outskirts of Damanhour -- the city I have the honour of representing in parliament -- you will find the tomb of Abu Hasira. We had originally thought that this was the tomb of a Muslim holy man. It turns out, however, that it is of a Jewish holy man and, hence, a source of some intermittent difficulties in Egyptian-Israeli relations because of the desire of some Israelis to make a pilgrimage to this tomb. I believe Abu Hasira was one of the North African Jews who came to Egypt when the Fatimid state opened its doors to immigrants of all religious persuasions, in keeping with this country's long tradition of religious and cultural tolerance and openness.

Egyptian Muslims, whether rightly or wrongly, must vie with the Shia in their adoration of the descendants of the prophet. We, thus, find further tangible evidence of our Shia leanings in the millions of pounds that worshippers leave yearly as offerings in the donation boxes at the tombs of Hussein, Sayeda Zeinab and Sayeda Aisha. The Ayyubids may have overthrown the Fatimid caliphate and Sunni rites of worship and codes of jurisprudence may have supplanted Shia rites and jurisprudence in mosques and in courts, but popular faith has clung to some Shia ways.

Even official Sunni Islam in Egypt could not turn its back on Shia Islam forever. In the early 1960s, the Imam Mahmoud Shaltout went down in Islamic history for his fatwa declaring that Sunnis and Shias were equal in the eyes of Islam. The famous Al-Azhar grand sheikh declared that the sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia Islam were secondary and that both were fully in keeping with the essence of the creed and Islamic law. Immediately afterwards, Al-Azhar scored the precedent for an Islamic centre of learning by entering Jaafari jurisprudence into its curriculum on equal footing with the other schools of Islamic jurisprudence. We should also note that for many years Cairo was the location for a Muslim ecumenical bureau. Its activities were overseen by a Shia sheikh, the Imam Al-Qumi, who was assisted by a number of Sunni imams, among whom was Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Eissa, who became minister of Al-Azhar affairs in the 1970s.

Egypt, thus, has always taken the lead in offering its Sunni hand in friendship and respect to its Shia brothers. What better event can serve to illustrate this than the marriage, in the early 1940s, of Princess Fawzya, daughter of King Fouad and sister of King Farouk, to the young Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the emperor of Shia Iran. The marriage, joyfully celebrated by the peoples of both countries, symbolised not only the joining of the two thrones but the unity of Islam. I should add, here, that the Iranian people continue to harbour great affection and respect for the Egyptian people, sentiments that I experienced personally during my visit to Tehran several years ago. I also cannot forget the famous remark by former Iranian president Rafsanjani who told Egypt's celebrated journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal that he was looking forward to the day when he could visit "the noble Al-Azhar" and pay tribute to that great Islamic institution which had emerged from the fold of the Fatimid Shia state.
This brief survey of Egypt's position with respect to Shia Islam represents an effort to offset attempts to fan the flames of discord between Sunni and Shia Islam. Such incendiary agitation is alien to our faith and lending ourselves to it benefits no one but the West. Indeed, it has been suggested that the US is currently working to place the Shia in power in Iraq in order to counteract the effects of Britain's championing of the Iraqi Sunnis when, during the monarchical period, the British Foreign Office installed the descendants of the Sherif Hussein on the throne in Baghdad. In all events, we, in Egypt, see the situation in Iraq much differently. Iraq is an indivisible whole. There is no difference between Shia and Sunni, Kurd and Arab, Muslim and Christian. Iraq is for the Iraqi people regardless of their diverse ethnic or religious affiliations and this national affiliation should remain the only criterion for citizenship and citizenship rights.

In fact, we in Egypt do not give much thought to the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, if only because the differences are not visibly there to remark upon. At the same time, the Egyptians have much to offer by way of testimony to their esteem and fondness for Shia Iran, not least of which are the famous royal union mentioned above and the fact that Egypt offered itself as the last refuge for the shah of Iran, who, in spite of his sins, was a former ruler of a major Islamic nation and who now lies in peace in the capital city founded by Muezeddin Al-Fatimi, the Shia ruler and founder of Al-Azhar.
All told, the excessive criticism being levelled at Egypt by our fellow Arabs who belong to the Shia sect comes as something of a surprise to me. After all, Egypt, with its many Fatimid minarets, domes and tombs, with its moulids, Ramadan rites and Shia holy men, and with its particular social character, is far from hostile to Shia Islam. This highly homogenous Sunni nation has a solidly Shia quality in its core.


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