Large numbers of Islamist groups in Egypt, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Group “Al Jama’a Al Islamiyaa,” shifted from Sunni to Shia Islamic school of thought, a phenomenon that has raised many questions.
Alaa Al-Saeed, the Egyptian researcher on Shia affairs, said, “There are many … most of the current Egyptian Shia leaders were members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic Group”
Al-Saeed points out to leaders like Al-Demerdash al-Aqali, who joined the Muslim Brotherhood since the days of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, and who confirmed that he was a member of the Brotherhood for 15 years before shifting to become Shia as events of 1967 motivated him to convert and become of the of the most important Shia references in Egypt.
The list includes Ahmed Rasim al-Nafis, the Egyptian Shia leader, who was a member of the Brotherhood between 1976 and 1985, and Mohammed Ibrahim, who had been a Muslim brother for 10 years before splitting and then shifting to Shia in 2003.
As far as the Islamic Group is concerned, Al-Saeed says that there are many examples, most notably Ahmed Sobh, the marriage official (Mazoun) in Mansoura who was a leader in the group in 1980s and was imprisoned for 17 years before he became Shia in 2005, although he denies it, and Yasser Farwellah, a leader of “Al Jama’a” who intend to run for presidential elections in 2012, before defecting in 2013 and becoming Shia.
Shia roots in political Islam groups
Al-Saeed believes that there are deep ties between Shia and Egyptian political Islam group. “Since the days of its founder, Muslim Brotherhood has strong relationship with Shia that started in 1938 when Imam Khomeini visited Cairo and met Hassan al-Banna, which led to the establishment of ‘House of bringing Islamic sects together’ in 1947, of which al-Banna was a member.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood admitted these deep relationships in books written by some of its prominent leaders, such as ‘The Muslim Brotherhood … Events that made history’ by Mahmoud Abdel Halim, a member of the founding committee,” al-Saeed adds.
In his book, Abdel Halim wrote “Hassan al-Banna believed the time was right to include the Shia community in his group. So, he extended his hand to them as brothers in Islam to cooperate and work together and restore Islam glory. Al-Banna’s call was welcomed by Shia as it was the first voice calling for Islamic brotherhood in ages. Sheikh Taqi Qomi, a Shia leader from Iran, visited Egypt and met al-Banna and the result of this meeting and good understanding between them was the establishment of ‘House of bringing Islamic sects together’ in Cairo”.
In 1985, the ex-General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Omar al-Tilmisani, wrote an article titled “Shia and Sunna,” saying that “Bringing Shia and Sunnis closer is the duty of the (religious) jurists now. Apart from all political differences, the Muslim Brotherhood remains keen to bring together different schools of thought.” Al-Saeed confirms that the Muslim Brotherhood were among first supporters of the Iranian revolution in 1979, as evidenced by the Muslim Brotherhood delegation’s visit to Iran to congratulate Khomeini.
Youssef Nada, who was in charge of Muslim Brotherhood’s external relations, said earlier that their delegation was in the third plane to land in Tehran after the revolution.
“The relationship between the Brotherhood and Iran continued in the new millennium. In demonstrations in 2006 to support Hezbollah against Israel, a popular slogan was “There is no God but God, all of Egypt is Hezbollah,” and the ex-leader of the Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, expressed his willingness to send 10 thousand “Mujahideen” fighters to Lebanon to fight alongside Hezbollah.”
Relations between the two sides continued, and became very clear during the era of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Iran expressed its support of his election and its deputy minister of foreign affairs for Arab and African affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said that “Tehran is comfortable as seeing members of Muslim Brotherhood reaching higher power positions in some Arab countries, including Egypt. In 2012, Morsi was the first Egyptian president to visit Iran in 33 years.
Al-Saeed said this background “Created an awareness among the Muslim Brotherhood that Shia is an ordinary matter and not forbidden. Those Muslim Brothers who converted to Shia could have stayed as members in the Brotherhood if they wanted.”
A tale of a Muslim Brother’s shift to Shia
Mohammed Ibrahim al-Husseini, a prominent Shia in Alexandria who was a prominent Muslim brother, told the “Raseef 22” online news outlet that he left the Brotherhood in 2003 after nearly 15 years. He said he announced his shift to Shia months later, “Following reading many books about the Shia, I was convinced that it is the correct Islamic sect I should belong to.”
Al-Husseini admits the Brotherhood’s attraction to Iran, and that is what motivated him to learn more about the Shia sect. “In Brotherhood meetings in Alexandria, we used to talk about Hezbollah and its achievements in the war against Israel. Our leaders were talking about the Iranian Islamic revolution and the desire of Brotherhood to do the same in Egypt, and they were always praising Imam Khomeini.”
“This made me come closer to the Shia sect and become a Shia. When I left the Brotherhood, the group invited me to return to it and not to defect because I’m Shia, which I rejected since my decision of leaving the Brotherhood was not due to shifting to Shia, but because I no longer believe in importance of the organization itself,” al-Husseini explained.
Earlier, al-Husseini said that 40 percent of Egypt's current Shia were former Muslim brothers. He affirmed that to “Raseef 22,” citing several examples who shifted to Shia including Ahmed Rasim al-Nafis, Al-Demerdash al-Aqali, and Imad Qandil. “The Brotherhood did not invite them to Shia, but its fascination with Iran is what drove them to search about this country and its official school of thought; they were fascinated by it and became followers of Shia.”
Ahmadine Qasim, a member of the Brotherhood Shura “Consultative” Council, says none of the group leading figures shifted to Shia and those who changed school of thought were regular members. However, he didn’t deny the Brotherhood is influenced by the Islamic revolution and admire the experience of Hezbollah.
“Since the foundation of Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, great efforts were exerted to bring Islamic sects together,” Qasim said, adding that the idea in itself is good if not influenced by sectarian’s interests.
He adds, “The idea of rapprochement per se is good if everyone distanced it from sectarian gains. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi was a strong supporter of the idea and when he realized it was just a political card, he washed his hands from this call. This is similar to what happened with Hassan al-Banna who co-founded ‘House of bringing Islamic sects together’.”
“Al Jama’a” and Shia
Montaser Omran, a researcher of political Islam and a dissident of the Islamic Group “Al Jama’a”, said Al Jama’a members were among the staunchest supporters of the Iranian revolution 1979. Its members “used to praise the revolution during lessons and gatherings for new recruits, like me, to a point that my dream as well as many other members was travelling to Tehran and meet Khomeini.”
“The Iranian revolution’s influence on Al Jama’a was strong to a level that they wanted to “clone” the experience in 1981 when a group led by Khaled Al- Islambouli assassinated the late President Mohammed Anwar Sadat, trying to establish an Islamic revolution in Egypt through a coup d’état, but failed to do so. Following Sadat’s assassination, the leaders of Islamic Group “Al Jama’a” were arrested and imprisoned for long years-more than 20 years,” Omran added.
Omran recalls another event that indicates acceptance of Shia thought within the Islamic group and the strong influence of Iranian Revolution, “In 1986, I was in Asyut prison with the head of Shura “Consultative” Council, Karam Zuhdi, who told us that a delegation from the Group visited Khomeini and expressed support of Iran's policy in the Middle East and the Group has adopted these ideas. Al Jama’a organized demonstrations in Cairo in support of the Khomeinist revolution and this made members of the Group look differently to Shia sect and wish to be part of its great achievements in Iran.”
“Indeed, many became Shia and some of them traveled and lived in Iran. I won’t disclose their names except those who announced their shift like Yasser Farwellah, who was member of Islamic Group till 2013,” Omran added.
Yasser Farwellah was a member of the Islamic Group until 2013 when he defected and then announced that he has become a Shia by the end of 2017. He said, “The love of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) and his family and descendants was the main reason motivated me to read about Shia sect and adopt it. Shia is recognized by Al-Azhar which means it is an Islamic school of thought”.
On impacts of Islamic Group on his shift, Farwellah said, “We were very impressed by the Iranian revolution. Sheikhs and leaders of the Group highly praised Khomeini and his role in the revolution. All this made me think more and more about Khomeini and Iran. Subsequently, I read about the Shia as it is a recognized Islamic school of thought.”
“I read about Shia thought and became Shia by the end of 2017. I announced my belief because I wanted to defend Shia and Shiites in Egypt as it was under fierce Salafi attacks, which caused sectarian conflicts that led to the killing of prominent Shia clerk Hasan Shahhata. This incident led me to read more about Shia and be a Shiite and defend it against attacks of extremists,” Farwellah added.
Tariq Fekri, a leader of the Islamic Group, rejects the claim that his Group supports the Shia even if a number of its former members have become Shia. He said “Some Muslim brothers, Salafis, and Azhari professors have become Shia and that does not mean the ideas of these entities is the reason for their shift.”
Fekri said, “The Islamic Group was against the Shia spread in Upper Egypt and the Group’s Mufti, Sheikh Abd al-Akher Hammad, arranged many awareness courses there in 2011. In addition, the Group was against the return of Iranian religious tourism to Egypt.” He adds that all of Islamic groups were influenced by the Islamic revolution, but this does not mean that they support Shia sect.”