Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustur (The Constitution) reports that a fifth person has died after a crowd attack on Sunday on a house in the Giza village of Zawyat Abu Musalam where Shiʿa leader Hassan Shahata was conducting religious services. Shahata was one of the victims (warning: graphic photo). Reportedly, local fundamentalist Sunni Salafi clerics provoked the crowd to surround the house and demand Shahata and his followers leave the village. When he refused, they set the house on fire and beat dozens of people in attendance when they fled the fire.
The Shiʿa population of Egypt is small. As with the Christian communities that comprise roughly 10% of Egypt’s population, the state produces no official demographic figures, but estimates of Egyptian Shiʿa range from range from 200,000 to 1 million (0.25 to 1% of the population). However, Egyptian Shiʿa complicate the nationalist image of Egypt as a Sunni Muslim country even more than the Christians do, despite Egypt’s historical association with Shiʿism. Cairo was the seat of the Ismaʿili Shiʿi Fatimid Caliphate between 909 and 1171, named after the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, and even Sunni Cairenes revere shrines to Fatima’s children Zaynab and Hussein. The Fatimids founded Al-Azhar, which in a twist of history, has become the most famous seminary of Sunni Islam after the Salah Ad-Din, a Sunni Kurd, established the Ayyubid Dynasty.
A brief Shiʿa recap: Fatima married Muhammad’s cousin ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, who was the fourth successor (khalifa, Caliph) chosen by the early Muslims (the “companions” of the prophet) to lead the Muslim community and political state. ʿAli and his sons Hassan and Husayn faced competition from the Ummayad clan of the third Caliph, ʿUthman, for political leadership of the early Islamic Caliphate that they ultimately lost with the death of Husayn at the Battle of Karbala in 680. However, the concept that religious and political authority belonged to a male descendant of the prophet (Muhammad had no sons that survived to adulthood) survived and re-emerged with different movements and dynasties in Islamic history that eventually evolved into different sects of Shiʿism based on different successions of authority and other factors (Click for more detail). The takeaway point is that both reverence for the prophet’s family, and more formal theological and legal elaboration of Shiʿa beliefs has been polymorphous and does not belong to any particular historical place or time. Most of Iran, today the political leader of the Shiʿa world, converted to Twelver Shiʿism only during the Safavid dynasty starting in the 16th century.
The recent growth in Shiʿa hatred in Egypt, as with most communal conflict, has nothing to do with ancient antipathies, but rather results from a complicated interaction of domestic and international politics. Just as Egypt became politically realigned with the United States under President Sadat in the 1970s, the 1978 Iranian Revolution overthrew the US ally and friend of Sadat, Muhammad Reza Shah. When Egypt granted the deposed Shah refuge, and later recognized Israel in the Camp David Accords, Iran cut its diplomatic ties with Egypt. It later went so far as to name a Tehran street after Khalid al-Islambouli, the assassin of Sadat. Iran’s influence in the region has grown since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which replaced the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein with a Shiʿa-controlled parliamentary democracy, and it has become the leader of international resistance to Israel with its support of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. This has been threatening to Egypt, which is a US ally and has a peace treaty with Israel.
The domestic position of the Shiʿa in 20th-21st century Egypt has been varied. It seems the community has grown in recent years: a good number of Shiʿa are descendents of recent Iranian expatriates, such as the wife of Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasser, Taheya Kazem. Others, including many of the most vocal activists like Shahata, have converted from Sunni Islam. During a period of anti-colonial pan-Arab and pan-Islamic associationalism in the mid-20th century, a group of Iranian and Egyptian clerics founded the Association for the Rapprochement between Islamic Schools of Law (jama‘at al-taqrib bayn al-madhahib al-islamiyya) in 1947. ʿAbd al-Nasser continued to promote this organization, and in 1959, the rector of Al-Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that the Shiʿa Jaʿafari school of law was a fifth legitimate school, alongside the four canonical Sunni schools of law. Rainer Brunner is the expert on this subject; his recent article is available online. Al-Azhar has made abortive attempts to continue this project in recent years, but they all depend on an improvement in relations between Egypt and Iran.
According to Brunner, the rise of independent Shiʿi activism in Egypt has had strange connections to Sunni Islamism. Salih al-Wardani and Ahmad Rasim al-Nafis, who became the leading spokesmen of Shiʿism in the 1990s, both converted from Sunni to Shiʿi Islam in prison for participation in the Sunni Islamist movements of the 1970s. There has been acrimony recently between Shiʿa ashraf of Upper Egypt, who claim descent from the prophet, and recent Shiʿa converts like Muhammad al-Darini, who founded an organization to promote Shiʿism in Egypt: the Supreme Council for the Protection of the Family of the Prophet (al-majlis al-ʿala li-raʿayat ahl al-bayt). When al-Darini resigned his leadership of this group in 2007, he suggested ʿAbbud al-Zomor, a leader of the Sunni Salafi group Al-Gamaʿa Al-Islamiyya which has a strong presence in Upper Egypt, as his replacement!
The Sunni fundamentalists and Shiʿa were both on the social margins and in political opposition until recently, and had little to gain from conflict until 2011. The Mubarak regime imprisoned both al-Darini and Hassan Shahata in the past 10 years for alleged proselytizing activity, which the Egyptian state counted as Iranian infiltration. The regime arrested dozens of Shiʿis in 2009 upon suspicion of a “Hizbullah cell.” Since 2011, however, Salafi politicians have become the far-right provocateurs of the current political mainstream in Egypt, the center-right Muslim Brotherhood. Shiʿa fear-mongering has become an effective tool to burnish their righteousness. An MP from the leading Salafi Party, Nour, said last month that Shiʿis are more dangerous than “naked women,” and held a conference to combat the supposed spread of heretical views in April. Besides seeking to prevent conversion, the political tenor of this Salafi activism highlights Shiʿi insults to the companions of the prophet (some of whom were enemies of ʿAli).
The Muslim Brotherhood has been caught trying to manage its and Egypt’s image on a larger stage: President Morsi recently hosted Iranian President Ahmedinejad in Egypt, the first such visit since the Iranian Revolution, which bolsters Egypt’s anti-imperialist credentials. Egypt and Iran are also trying to establish tourism between their two countries, although the public visit of Shiʿis to shrines in Egypt could raise Sunni sensitivities. More recently, however, Morsi has voiced his support for jihad against the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. While Muslim Brotherhood leaders have condemned Sunday’s attack, Nour and other Salafi leaders seem largely unapologetic. Media attention to Shiʿis in Egypt has been increasing (Sarah Carr has a good article from the now-defunct Egypt Independent), but it remains to be seen whether this will translate into defusing the Salafi exploitation over Shiʿism — or stoke the fire.