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Sectarianism and Forms of Politics! - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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If we take ourselves out of these heated political circumstances, would a book by the late Sheikh Mohammed Mehdi Shams al Din have raised controversy in Cairo, the home to al Azhar and the shrine of al Husayn?

The Shia Lebanese sheikh who represents a sublime form of moderation has become a controversial and thorny issue. Some sources in Egypt regarded the “promotion” of his book as a form of preaching the Shia doctrine in a stronghold of the Sunni doctrine!

If our circumstances had been otherwise, and away from the regional political fermentation that is chiefly escalated by Iran, would it have been possible for religious, historical and social controversy to emerge regarding the Shia or Sunni doctrines?!

In most cases, the political factor in the clashes and conflicts of religious character has been investigated; otherwise, how else could one explain the convergence between the (Sunni) Hamas movement and the (Khomeini-style) regime of Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood’s prompt backing of Khomeini since he was in Paris, according to the confessions of Yusuf Nada, the head of the Brotherhood’s international “shadow government”, during the program ‘Shahid ala al Asr’ (Witness to the Age) presented by Ahmed Mansour.

Political strife is the fuel for many sectarian and ideological differences throughout history; it is not exclusive to our Islamic history.

If we look back at the history of Islam and to the Shia-Sunni strife that broke out at in the first chapter of Islamic history following the death of the Prophet of Islam, and that ruptured in a bloody way in the battle of the Great Sedition between Ali and Muawiyyah and continued to divide the Muslim memory into two parts, we can see that nothing has changed since that era—matters calm down and flare up pursuant to the balance of powers between the two parties.

Political strife together with direct threat is the key motivator of sectarian literature, and history has much to relate in this regard. An example is the bloody conflict between the Ottomans and the Safavids that began with the famous Battle of Chaldiran in August 1514 between the Safavid Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid state and who was devoted to Safavid culture, and the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, who was prompted to fight this battle to restrain the Safavid “Empire” that had expansive ambitions under the slogan of Shia sectarianism. Oddly, the eponym of the Safavid Dynasty, Sheikh Safi al Din al Ardebili, was a Sunni Sufi mystic. Gradually and due to special complexities, steps were taken towards the conversion to Shia Islam until we reach the era of the Safavid Shah Ismail.

Shah Ismail was extreme in Shiism, in oppressing the Sunnis and in spreading Shia Islam in Iran. He had ambitions in Iraq and in the territories that bordered Iran in the east and north. His ambitions in Iraq were justified—it is home to the holy shrines.

What is also interesting about the story is that the father of Sultan Selim I, Bayezid, corresponded with the Safavid Shah and was interested in poetry and philosophy. He did not feel that he had to fight the Safavids. When news was confirmed about the Shah’s suppression of the Sunnis, the Ottoman Sultan, out of responsibility for his subjects, advised him to be kind to the Sunnis and refrain from being aggressive towards them. However, Sultan Selim I had a different view and believed that the Safavid Empire posed a real danger to the Ottoman Empire and that the Shah’s zealous promotion of the hardline version of Shia Islam was part of Ismail’s endeavor to provide an appropriate cultural ground for the expansion of the Safavid state. Here, the political considerations intertwine with the religious and social ones. Originally, perhaps the cause, or one of the causes for Ismail’s ancestors to choose Shia Islam and Ismail’s consolidation of the Shia doctrine was the political concern in the framework of creating a cultural identity for the new empire, an identity that is based on denominational distinction, differences in historical references, and collective local memory to complete the components of a different identity. We should not be surprised by this as the man’s ambitions, though profuse, were limitless when coupled with power.

In any case, the Ottomans managed to confine the Safavid extension within its present borders, however, the open border for conflict remained in Iraq; at one time the Safavid Shah entered Baghdad torturing the Sunnis, and at another point in time the Ottoman Sultans entered, torturing the Shia and reconstructing the tomb of Abu Hanifa.

With reference to the Iranian “state,” regardless of the ruling system, even if it were almost secular, the adoption of the Shia doctrine was a channel for national expansion beyond the Iranian borders, particularly in Iraq, hence the importance of the nationalist Shia voices that always stress the difference between Arab Shiism and Iranian or “Safavid” Shiism, despite the embodiment of this difference on the ground.

In his book entitled ‘Al Risala al Baghdadiya,’ Maaruf al Rusafi writes about how Shah Pahlavi, a secularist, or the “Iranian Ataturk,” vehemently advocated Najaf’s Hawza (a school of traditional Islamic studies) and the Iran-linked Shia doctrine for pure political reasons though he domestically fought the Shia scholars, which means that the whole matter was driven by political ambitions even if it appeared to assume a remote religious character.

This was not limited to the Safavids as the Ottoman sultans fought the Safavids playing all cards that were available. During that stage of conflict between the Safavids and Ottomans, the war of reciprocated fatwas broke out and this was a methodological war. Thus, most of the extremist Shia works of literature that “intellectualized” the Shia doctrine and supplied it with its large encyclopedias, such as Al Majlisi’s ‘Bihar al Anwar’ that is made up of approximately 100 volumes, belongs to this era. This book was too long for al Majlisi to compose in a lifetime, especially considering that ‘Bihar al Anwar’ was not his only book, which denotes the presence of a “state institutional” effort, as suggested by Ali al Wardi.

Also at that time, there were frequent anti-Shia fatwas issued by the chief religious leaders in “Istanbul” and other cities depending on how hot or cold the confrontation was between the Sultan and Shah. Al Wardi also mentions that during a truce, a fatwa was issued in Istanbul using friendly language about the Shia, and when the truce was destroyed and tension arose between them once again, there was a fresh war of fatwas.

Why are we talking about the distant past?! Let us refer to the near past and the present. The Sunni-Shia reconciliation project was advocated by the sheikhs of al Azhar in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood when the Shia doctrine did not represent a political identity for sheikhs, such as Sheikh Shaltut, or represent a political alliance in revolutionary groups, such as the group of Nawwab Safawi, who delivered a famous Brotherhood-sponsored lecture in Cairo in the 1950’s.

When Khomeini’s “Islamic revolution” succeeded, according to Yusuf Nada and the news from brotherhood delegations to Tehran, the Brotherhood considered it from a friendly perspective. However, when the revolution sought to export itself and both hot and cold wars broke out in the Gulf and Iraq on the one hand and Khomeini’s Iran on the other, the reconciliation project retreated and the confrontation project advanced. Reciprocated works of literature unfurled in succession, slamming the other party based on the heritage of long-term strife between the Sunnis and Shia. However, when Rafsanjani later came to power, and the revolutionaries were exhausted and the revolution began to transform into a state, the language of reconciliation and the “culture of reconciliation” returned between the Sunni and Shia worlds. This “honeymoon” period lasted until the Iraqi question arose and Ahmadinejad’s Iran powerfully emerged onto the scene and cast a shadow over its men there. The “Shia crescent” appeared in the political sense of Shiism and the battles of the past were resurrected…

We are now at the beginning of a new chapter of the Sunni-Shia story, which throughout all chapters was coated in religion, ideologies, theological differences, and so on, but the political difference was always at its core.

What is ironic is that we are repeating the techniques of the past down to every last detail and what is even more ironic is that such techniques always succeed and achieve results! Is the problem that the Arabs and Muslims are destined to fail in grasping and assimilating a transectarian, transracial national identity? Where is the fault?

The problem with Iran will come to an end, whether through war or peacefully… But who will end this everlasting war amongst the Muslims themselves; a war that feeds on people, security and light…?!

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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