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Newsletter for April 2011

 

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Egypt: Sunni but Shia inclined

by 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 hisfatwa 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 itsmoulids, 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.

The writer is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the People's Assembly.

 

 

 

 

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