The Rise of Persian Salafism

This article first appeared in The Washington Institute for Near East’s website
Iran consistently accuses the United States and its allies in the Middle East of provoking tension between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Among these accusations is the notion that the West funds Persian-language satellite television networks whose sole goal is to ignite sectarian conflict. Tehran’s paranoid claims aside, many Persian broadcasters inside and outside the Islamic Republic are in fact engaged in a satellite war, and their various propaganda salvos point to a new phenomenon in Iran: the rise of Persian Salafism. The fact that a unique, puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam is taking root in Shiite-ruled Iran has raised worries among the regime’s elite and the traditional Shiite establishment.

Since the early twentieth century, Salafism has been spreading throughout Muslim communities from Europe to Indonesia. Yet few expected it to gain much traction in Iran given the innate antagonism between Sunni and Shia Islam. Traces of it entered the country before the 1979 revolution, but the sect did not gain popularity until fairly recently, after more than three decades of Shiite governance and regime propaganda. Today, it commands numerous active followers in Sunni areas such as Kurdistan and Baluchistan and in large, predominantly Shiite cities such as Tehran and Isfahan.

The Iranian regime views religious pluralism in general as a security threat, but the rise of Salafism — a sect that regards the state’s official religion as heresy — presents more serious problems. For example, the Bahai faith is also viewed as a threat to Iranian Shiism, but its structure makes it more containable than Salafism. Bahai adherents in Iran are well organized, highly centralized, and apolitical, making them easier to track and less of a direct threat. Yet Salafis are scattered throughout the country and represented by multiple organizations with theological and ideological variations. More important, they are becoming politically active in some Sunni areas, at least in terms of publicly criticizing the government, questioning its religious legitimacy, and accusing it of discrimination against Sunnis.

Since the 1950s, Salafi thought — in its general sense, which includes Muslim Brotherhood ideology — has entered Iran from the east and west. Following World War II, Sayyid Gholam Reza Saeedi (1895-1990), an Iranian religious author and translator, traveled to India and acquired extensive knowledge about the international Muslim community and elite. When he returned home, he began to translate works by Abul Ala Maududi — the main ideologue of Pakistani group Jamaat al-Islamiyah and a prominent Salafi — as well as other Muslim thinkers (e.g., Muhammad Iqbal). A prolific author, Saeedi played a significant role in introducing Persian readers to Indian Muslim concerns and the challenges of founding a new country, Pakistan. His works opened a new window to Iran’s religious world, influencing younger readers who were seeking new ideas on Islam in order to ease their frustration with the religious establishment and confront ideological threats (especially the communist wave that was taking over Iran’s intellectual environment at the time).

Meanwhile, other prerevolutionary Iranian thinkers introduced the country to the Salafist ideas of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In the late 1940s, cleric Navab Safavi formed Fadayan-e Islam, the first Iranian Islamist group to establish relations with the Brotherhood and produce Persian translations of its writings, including the works of theoretician Sayyed Qutb. Another prominent cleric, Sayyid Hadi Khosrow Shahi (b. 1938), translated writings from Algerian, Tunisian, and Palestinian Islamists in addition to Brotherhood works. These and other translators were essentially political activists who sought to raise their countrymen’s awareness of Muslim issues outside Iran. For example, the Islamist works they reproduced eventually created a new political question in Iran: the Palestine question.

While these translations were mostly received as ideological efforts to mobilize Iranians against Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime and Western imperialism, Salafi thought also spurred some religious thinkers to fight “superstitions” in Shiism. Haidar Ali Qalamdaran (1913-1989) was heavily influenced by such writings and sought to purify Shiism of various prayers, rituals (e.g., pilgrimages to the shrines of the Shiite Imams of old and their descendants), and beliefs (e.g., the notion that the Shiite Imams had supernatural power and knowledge). He escaped an assassination attempt ostensibly motivated by traditional clerics in Qom and spent his whole life in isolation and poverty. Although he was not a political activist, his views had political implications in later years, such as refuting the legitimacy of the type of religious governance instituted by the Islamic Republic. He and others who criticized Shiite “superstitions” — such as Muhammad Hassan Shariat Sanglaji (1855-1943) and Sayyid Abul Fazl Borqei (1909-1992) — were also influenced by the Salafi conception of Islamic dogmas, especially the sect’s interpretation of the unity of God.

Under the Islamic Republic — a regime that legitimizes the exclusive rule of the ayatollahs, makes Islamic law the main basis for legislation, and imposes it on all aspects of daily life — many youths and other Iranians have turned away from Shiite convictions and embraced atheism, skepticism, Sufism, Sunni Islam, the Bahai faith, evangelical Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and New Age and Latin American mystical trends. Various regime organizations, including the Bureau of Religions and Sects in the Ministry of Intelligence, monitor these religious minorities and work against their proselytization efforts. Even Sufi circles — which are officially Shiite — face frequent repression.

In this environment, Salafism has rapidly spread all over the country through the internet, social media, and satellite television. In addition, various underground organizations offer training courses for young volunteers and run exchange programs to introduce Iranian Salafis to Arab Salafis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why the regime does not allow Sunnis to build mosques in Tehran or other large cities — it is deeply concerned about Salafis using them to recruit young Shiites who are frustrated with the Islamic Republic’s ideology.

There are two major Shiite trends in Iran: the official regime creed, and an extremist version that defines itself largely in opposition to Sunni Islam. While the regime usually dismisses Sunni-Shiite tensions and advocates pan-Islamic approaches to foreign policy and other matters, the extremist Shiites (called gholat or velais) refuse to hide their animosity toward the first three Sunni caliphs (i.e., the Prophet Muhammad’s successors, whom Shiites believe usurped Imam Ali’s right to rule). These extremists are backed by clerical authorities, and their explicit anti-Sunni propaganda has caused trouble for the regime both inside the country and throughout the wider Muslim world.

In recent years, the gholat have relied in large part on satellite television to disseminate their propaganda, sparking an escalating virtual war between Salafis and Shiites. Today, Salafis use Persian-language satellite outlets such as the Global Kalemeh Network (based in Medina and Dubai and probably funded by Saudis) and Wesal Farsi (based in London and the Persian Gulf) to fight the “Safavid government,” as they call the Islamic Republic and its Shiite ideology. They broadcast religious programs, take calls from Iran, and engage in debates with Shiite satellite networks such as al-Kawthar TV, the Global Ahl-e Bait Network (whose programs are hosted by an Afghan cleric), Imam Hussein TV, and Salaam TV (based in Virginia and supported by the Shirazis, a clerical family with significant influence among Gulf Shiites).

Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood also use various websites to fight the propaganda battle, some affiliated with organizations such as Jamaat-e Dawat va Islah-e Iran (the Society of Mission and Reform in Iran). On the other side, extremist Shiites run dozens of their own websites to confront the Salafis. Both sides are very active in social media as well.

Many Iranian youths are disappointed in the Shiism professed by the regime and traditional clergy but wish to maintain their Islamic faith, leading them to convert to Salafism. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi trends tend to focus on the unity of god and the desacralization of all human beings and worldly things — a unique way of secularizing and rationalizing Islam in order to attract young students, especially those who study science. Unlike traditional Sunnis in Iran and Salafis elsewhere in the world, Iranian Salafis tend to question the Islamic Republic’s religious legitimacy and purposefully exacerbate Sunni-Shiite tensions. To be sure, they do not share the global Salafist aspiration of taking over political power, knowing that any Islamic government in predominantly Shiite Iran would be a Shiite government. Yet Iranian Salafis are organizationally connected to potent groups in Saudi Arabia and other countries, and most of their ideology and funding comes from outside the Islamic Republic. Given these factors and the increasing resentment among Iran’s Arab, Kurdish, and Baluch population, the growth of Salafism is a clear security threat to the regime.


Deja Vu in Cairo

March 1, 2013
I arrived at the hotel at 4:30 p.m. I left my baggage in the room, picked up the map and went out. I had read on the plane that there was a demonstration in Tahrir Square organized by Salafists protesting against the drafted constitution, and instead arguing for Shari’a as the sole basis of legislation. I walked for about fifteen minutes and found my way through the square. It was my first time in Cairo. The polluted sky was darkening. The square was packed with women and men. There were two podiums in two corners of the square on which organizers were chanting slogans. People were shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” in approval of the speakers’ messages. Some were holding signs supporting the place of Shari’a in the constitution, while others decried Mursi’s record as president.

A sign caught my attention: “Shari’a is the main component of Egyptian identity, Muslim and Christian.” I continued walking around the square, listening to the speakers and observing the protesters’ expressions. The Nour party — the major Salafi party — and Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be absent. The square was full of radical Salafists, who did not take any part in the revolution that took place in Tahrir Square. In Egypt, the Salafists have only recently become politicized, in the aftermath of Mubarak’s collapse.

My father was a revolutionary prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution. He spent a few months in prison until the shah left Iran and Khomeini came into power. Despite the fact that I was five years old at the time of the revolution, the events that transpired stimulated my interest in politics, especially the modern political history of Iran. The atmosphere of Tahrir Square conjured memories of my childhood. The looks of frustration and anger, groups of unfortunate women occupying the streets, and slogans advocating the superiority of Islam and the incorporation of Islam into political and social life were all too familiar from my life in Qom — the center of the Shi’ite clerical establishment — where political activism occurred with great frequency. Although it was my first time in Egypt, I could not help but feel a certain sensation of familiarity with my surroundings.

Two days later, while I was meeting a friend at Cairo University, I ran into Hassan Hanafi, a professor of philosophy and a prominent leftist-Islamist intellectual. When I was introduced to him as an Iranian scholar residing in United States, his expression changed. He approached me and began to murmur: “When the Islamic revolution first took place in Iran, we were all excited here. Now we are deeply disappointed, because of Iran’s support to Bashar Al-Assad.” I wanted to respond, but he continued: “We don’t care about the three disputed islands, we don’t care about referring to the Gulf as ‘Persian’ or ‘Arab,’ but we do care about Syria. Iran shouldn’t damage its revolutionary credentials by funding Assad in his crackdown on Muslims.” There was no room for me to respond at this point. He seemed optimistic about the Muslim Brotherhood’s new-found power in Egypt. I had heard that President Mursi addressed Hanafi in a meeting of scholars and intellectuals; the president had told him he owed much to Hanafi intellectually, and that he had read much of his work.

The university was full of young students. I have never seen any university, in any country, that was so crowded. To my surprise, almost all of the women were wearing hijab. I was told that only Christians were likely to forgo it, and that nearly all Muslim women were covered. As I entered the university, I thought to myself that compared to Egypt, Iran could not possibly be considered Islamic. In Iran, wearing hijab was a matter of choice before the revolution. It was only when Islamists came to power in 1979 that wearing hijab became mandatory for all women regardless of their faith. Nowadays Iranian women, especially those in metropolitan areas, accessorize the garment and use it more as a public statement, in a quasi-defiant act to show that the law is their sole reason for wearing it. It was my belief that when Islamists came to power in Iran, there was a need for the government to re-Islamize society. But in the case of Egypt, society has been greatly Islamized by organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists over the last forty years under Egypt’s military government.

A friend of mine, who also teaches philosophy at Cairo University, asked me to give a lecture to his class on Iran’s revolution and the consequent writing of a new constitution, so that his students could compare the Iranian experience to that of Egypt. I agreed.

I entered the class of around 150 students and proceeded to lecture in standard Arabic for about an hour and a half. I explained that immediately after the Iranian revolution, there was a dispute over the role of Shari’a, similar to the ongoing dispute in Egypt. Ayatollah Khomeini promised the implementation of Shari’a if he came to power, but his statements prior to the revolution insisted on concepts such as democracy, freedom of speech and the will of the people. Khomeini held that since Islam is superior to all other religions, it would translate into effective lawmaking, in turn creating the best society on earth. Who is the best person to take on the responsibility of implementing Shari’a? Who is best suited to rule an Islamic society or government? Khomeini’s response was clear and decisive: an ayatollah, or Shi’ite jurist, one who is an expert in Shari’a and knowledgeable of its intricacies. As a result, the concept of vilayat-e faqih, the “rule of the Shi’ite jurist” was embedded into the constitution in 1979 in the office of the rahbar, or “leader.”

Just as Egyptian liberal secular forces requested more time to draft the constitution while the Muslim Brotherhood was in a hurry to ratify it, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted on ratifying the constitution quickly, neglecting those who were not yet convinced of the concept of vilayat-e faqih. By accelerating the ratification process, Ayatollah Khomeini terminated public debate over critical disputes within the constitution and marginalized secular, liberal intellectuals and political activists.

However, when Khomeini actually implemented Shari’a, he soon realized that Shari’a was not compatible with Iranian society. Conversely, Egypt initiated its process of re-Islamization under its military state, and lost the liberal spirit that thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Iranian modernization took place under the Pahlavi monarchy, making it difficult for the population to accept a transition back to a society lacking the modern institutions they had become accustomed to. For example, under Shari’a, women are forbidden from appearing on television, acting in movies or playing music. But how could radio and television function without women? How is it possible to enforce a ban on women playing music?

Khomeini decided to loosen his grasp on Shari’a, and gradually one religious duty rose in importance above the others: the safeguarding of the Islamic regime. Khomeini’s idea was that safeguarding the Islamic government was of such importance that drinking wine or lying were permitted if it served this purpose. In other words, a ruling ayatollah differs from other Muslims in his ability to override Shari’a in instances of conflict between Shari’a and reasons of state. As such, Shari’a was placed in a position to complement the will of the ruling ayatollah, instead of being the foundation of legislation. It was what the ruling ayatollah recognized as the interests of the Islamic regime that dictated the government’s behavior, not Shari’a. To take it one step deeper, it is the personality of the ruler that replaced the institution of Shari’a; in essence, it became a complete Islamic totalitarianism.

I could see that the students were quite shocked by the contents of my lecture. The story of the Islamic Republic is not well known among the public in Arab countries. I exited the class and university and became lost in the polluted streets, which also reminded me of Tehran. Driving in Tehran is eerily similar to driving in Cairo. A passerby would have a really hard time crossing the street. Drivers have the right of way at all junctures; powerless people have fewer rights.

My hotel stopped serving alcohol in 2010, when a Saudi merchant bought it. There was once a famous nightclub that occupied the hotel’s penthouse, which had closed too. If one was familiar with Egyptian society, one should not be surprised by the influence of Islamist thought in the country. Much of Egyptian society had been taken over by Islamists long before the government fell under their control.

The really striking phenomenon of the revolution in Egypt is the presence of Salafists. In Iran, we also had religious fundamentalists who did not participate in the revolution but who demanded a share of power once the revolution had subsided. One example is Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who was not politically active prior to the revolution. He even discouraged people from participating in the Iran-Iraq War. When Khomeini died, he suddenly became immersed in the political scene. He denies every democratic interpretation of existing political institutions in Iran. He firmly believes in the sacred status of the ruling ayatollah, and is known as the ideologue of violence in Iran. Figures like Mesbah — who refuses to acknowledge elections as a democratic procedure — are useful instruments of the government for making the ruling ayatollah look moderate. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, often uses people like Mesbah as leverage to advance his policies in the face of his critics.

Salafists also seem to be useful in this sense for the Muslim Brotherhood, despite their theological differences. The Muslim Brotherhood seems moderate and a somewhat pragmatic party in comparison to the Salafists. In particular, I was astonished by the number of Salafist, anti-Shi’a books in bookstores. It occurred to me that one of the biggest challenges in the Arab world — and also elsewhere in the Islamic world, like Pakistan — is the rising tension between Shi’ites and Salafists (not Sunnis). This transcends the historical conflict between the two branches of Islam. The Salafist version of Islam is rooted more in the modern history of Islam than in its past.

In Iran, we were always amazed that the first so-called Islamic revolution took place in Iran, a country in which Islam forms only a part of national identity. To clarify, the revolution was not originally Islamic, it became Islamic after two or three years as Islamists consolidated their power. The Islamization of a revolution is a process. Many Iranian intellectuals thought that since Islam is a greater part of the Arab identity, the emergence of an Islamic government would naturally come about in an Arab country first. But history is not mathematics, nor is it based in actuarial science. Iran was the first country to install an Islamic government, but if history teaches us anything, it is that people rarely learn from it. Iran was so modernized before the revolution that the government failed to make the country an example of Islamic utopia. This was not the case in Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbor. Because that state was particularly poor in terms of modern institutions and the incorporation of aspects of modernity into its culture, the Taliban succeeded in creating an Islamic utopia, suppressing freedom and annihilating politics in the process. The Taliban government was overthrown not by the Afghan people, but through an invasion of allied forces led by the United States. Absent this invasion, nobody can guess how long it could have lasted — perhaps decades.

Things in Egypt are different. When I was walking in the streets and looking at old buildings, a sense of regret and pity overwhelmed me. Those bourgeois buildings have history, and their current state reveals many of the ideological, class and cultural failures associated with them. The buildings looked as pitiful as King Lear in Shakespeare’s play. Iranian Islamists have control over the oil reserves. This is the only way Iran could afford an eight-year war and also pursue its nuclear program. Egypt is not an oil-rich nation, and its economy is in a far worse state than that of Iran’s in 1979. Islamists — both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists — depend on foreign aid. The Islamic Republic had so much money that it was able to place the “exportation of revolution” at the top of its agenda. Egypt is a part of the Arab world. The Islamic Republic is an increasingly isolated government. The overwhelming amount of power that Islamists possess in Egypt did not start two years ago. If the government in Iran became devoid of Islamists, Iranian society would show its true secular face. The situation is complicated in both countries, and no one can predict how much longer the Islamists’ reign will last in either one.

The significant source of hope should be the intellectuals in both countries. Enabling society to reflect on its experience is the only way to escape political crisis and avoid repeating past mistakes. This is how Egyptian and Iranian intellectuals can benefit from each other most in helping liberate their political and social imprisonment, by serving as the living memory of both societies, of their triumphs and mistakes.


The Dilemmas of Pan-Islamic Unity

This article is first Published on Friday, November 27, 2009 by Current Trends in Islamist Ideology vol. 9

Throughout the 20th Century, the countries of Iran and Egypt have had a very complex relationship with one another. Among other things, Iran, a leading majority Shiite country that is also ruled by Shiites, and Egypt, the cultural and theological center of Sunni Islam, are home to two of the most important streams of modern Islamist revivalism—Shiite Islamism, and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively. While the relations between Shiite and Sunni states and non-state movements have often been adversarial and even prone to violence, the relations between these two streams of Islamism, both of which stress as a matter of doctrine the ideals of pan-Islamist unity, have tended toward ideological convergence and collaboration. As one writer recently put it in an article on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website:
“Many commentators in the West still believe in the fairy tale that Sunni and Shia Islamists are at odds. Though most Sunni jihadists tend to see Shias as heretics and Hezbollah as a Zionist tool (go figure), the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most popular of the Middle East’s radical Islamists, and the Shia Islamists’ history of mutual influence and collaboration traces back to the first Islamic revivalists of the 19th century and the political thought of the Brotherhood’s own founder.”[1]
The Brotherhood’s origins may in fact be traced back to a Shiite cleric. The Persian activist-intellectual Said Jamal Assadabadi, who is perhaps more widely known today as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, was a key architect of the first wave of religious revivalism that swept across the Sunni world during the latter part of the 19h Century. After migrating to Egypt in 1871, Afghani began spreading his reformist teachings, and influenced a new generation of Egyptian scholars who became passionate advocates of pan-Islamist ideals. Afghani’s most famous disciple, Mohammad Abduh, would become the rector of Cairo’s al-Azhar Seminary and a pioneer of the reformist socio-political approach to interpreting the Quran that underpinned the rise of salafism and its various streams. Later on, one of Abduh’s leading students, Rashid Rida, would take his teacher’s socio-political approach to the Quran in an increasingly more polemical and radical direction, becoming one of the first theoreticians of the Islamic state. Rida’s writings were enormously influential on the thinking of Hassan al-Banna, and by extension, Rida became one of the spiritual godfathers of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until today remains the most influential and the broadest of all Islamist movements.
But the story doesn’t end there. In yet another twist in Muslim history, the Muslim Brotherhood would in turn requite Afghani’s gift to Sunni revivalism by directly stimulating the emergence of a unique form of Shiite Islamism in Iran in the 1950s. Indeed, the Islamic paradigm of pre-revolutionary Iran was profoundly shaped by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as by kindred Sunni movements such as the Indo-Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami and its founder SayyedAbul Aala Maududi.[2] In this way, Sunni revivalist ideology helped pave the way for the 1979 Iranian revolution that culminated in Shiite Islamism’s greatest achievement: the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Shiite Islamism and the Egyptian Brotherhood have continued to find ways to collaborate with each other in what they’ve sought to portray as their common Islamic struggle against the West and the reigning regional political order. Moreover, the Islamic Republic has been a continued source of inspiration for the Egyptian Brotherhood in its unfulfilled struggle for an Islamic state of its own. Yet despite their long history of cooperation in the spirit of pan-Islamism, religious differences have also complicated the relationship between Shiite Islamism and the Brotherhood, rendering their ideals of Islamic unity difficult, if not impossible, to implement in political practice.
The Return to the Quran
Throughout Islamic history, Sunnis have often criticized Shiite thought and practice for neglecting or, at best, paying insufficient attention to the Quran. That criticism—which is sometimes used to support the further claim made by radical Sunnis that Shiites are “rejecters” of Islam properly understood—is rooted in part in the fact that Sunnis privilege the Quran in their juristic or legal reasoning practices much more than Shiites do.
Sunni jurisprudence, for instance, relies principally on the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet Mohammad as expressed by the hadith, as well as on the consensus of scholars (ijma) as passed down through the four recognized legal schools. While Twelver Shiite jurisprudence makes use of these sources, it also draws heavily from the example put forth by the twelve Imams–from Ali ibn Abu Talib to the so-called “Hidden Imam,” Muhammad Ibn al-Hassan. Shiite tradition recognizes these Imams as having had a special connection to God, and their knowledge of Islam is believed to be infallible. Indeed, to many Shiites, the hadith, or recorded sayings and traditions of these twelve Imams, carry the same legal and theological weight as the Prophet’s hadith. Some Shiite scholars even equate the Imams’ hadith to the Quran. This view, which is scandalous to many Sunnis, maintains that the early Imams had the authority to interpret the Quran and to reveal its hidden sense. This is the case even if, Shiites insist, an Imam’s interpretation appears to be in conflict with the generally accepted apparent meaning of the Quran.[3]
Because of these divergent Islamic paradigms, Quranic exegesis has historically not occupied as significant a place in the traditional curriculum of Shiite seminaries as it has in Sunni seminaries. In fact, for a long time, in the Shiite seminaries of Iran and Iraq, teaching and studying the Quran was not considered a suitable calling and was not prestigious enough for a high-ranking cleric. Quranic exegesis was appropriate to professional preachers, but it was not seen as the highest form of religious practice or scholarship, at least not as reflected in the faqih style of education and discussion that predominated in the Shiite seminary. Indeed, Quranic exegesis was even perceived as being potentially damaging to a Shiite scholar’s religious prestige–a traditionalist view that has persisted into the modern era in important ways. This is one reason why the late Ayatollah Abul Qassem Khoi–one of the most influential of 20th Century Shiite scholars, and the predecessor to Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Sistani at the Najaf seminary–was deeply criticized by the Shiite faithful in the 1960s for publishing the first volume of a Quranic commentary, Al-Bayan fi Tafsir Al-Quran. The outcry over his focus on the Quran led Ayatollah Khoi to decide against publishing the rest of his commentary.[4]
In the modern era, however, Shiism’s traditional reluctance to engage in Quranic exegesis has been deeply challenged. This has been especially true as traditional Shiism has come into contact with certain reformist tendencies in the Sunni world, including the salafist call to “return to the Quran.” In fact, Egypt’s early 20th century Quranic commentators, which include most notably Mohammad Abduh (1849-1905) and his student, Rashid Rida (1865-1935), were instrumental in encouraging a similar tendency within Shiism. Under the influence of these Islamist reformist thinkers, Shiite scholars, especially those based in Iran, increasingly began to reorient the focus of their scholarship on the Quran and the practice of Quranic exegesis.
rezaRashid Rida was perhaps the most important modern Sunni scholar of the Quran in influencing the growth of modern Shiite exegesis. The founder and editor of the reformist journal Al-Manar, Rida’s prolific Quranic commentary is regarded widely by Sunni and Shiite scholars as groundbreaking and a herald of a new era of socio-political exegesis of the Quran. Since Rida had a solid upbringing in Islamic theology, Al-Manar reflected a classical Sunni point of view as well as a more traditional mode of theological argumentation (especially when compared with the works of later revivalists such as Said Qutb’s Fi Zilal al-Quran). Although Rida did not succeed in finishing his commentary on the entire Quran, he did manage to publish his exegesis of the holy book from its beginning chapter until Sura Tawbah, the ninth chapter.
While Shiite scholars learned from and appropriated many aspects of modern Sunni Quranic exegesis, they also sought to develop their own distinctively Shiite exegetical perspective. The Iranian scholar Sayyed Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai (1892-1981) is widely regarded as the author of the most important work of Shiite exegesis in modern times, the 20-volume Al-Mizan fi Tafsir-s al-Quran. In many ways, Al-Mizan can be read as a counter-argument to Rashid Rida’s Al-Manar as well as a Shiite commentary. Tabatabai frequently mentions Rida throughout the work, and like Rida, his innovative interpretations of the Quran also seem to stop abruptly at Chapter 9, Sura Tawbah. On many key issues–from the ideal Islamic society, to justice, jihad, and other topics of Islamic jurisprudence–Rida’s influence on Tabatabai is undeniable. Yet at the same time, Tabatabai clearly went to great lengths to develop a uniquely Shiite socio-political exegesis of the Quran. This exegesis rejected outright Rida’s characteristically Sunni criticisms of the Shiite theory of the imamate, as well as Shiism’s belief in the infallibility and knowledge of imams.
One of the most significant implications of the modern Shiite scholars’ turn away from their tradition and toward the Quran is that it has helped pave the way for the emergence of a distinctly modern ideological and political interpretation of the Quran. In fact, the general discourse on ‘the return to the Quran’ found a most receptive audience among a new generation of thinkers that included clerics but also writer-intellectuals from the non-clerical class. These thinkers believed that the theological paradigm of traditional Shiism was not adequate to address the range of modern social and political challenges that Iranian society was confronting.
This intellectual ferment, caused by Shiism’s increasing interaction both with Sunni reformists (islahiyun) or revivalists and Western political ideology, led to the development of a special school of religious thought. For the first time in Shiism’s history, a religious view emerged from outside the clerical establishment. These new ideas emanated from doctors, engineers and other university-educated intellectuals who, thanks to their direct engagement with the Quran, felt themselves experienced and knowledgeable enough about Islam to render the traditional Islamic sciences and institutions unnecessary.
Once freed from the structural and theological encumbrances of Shiite tradition, groups like Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK, the Islamic Socialist organization), and engineers like Mehdi Bazargan (Iran’s first prime minister after the 1979 revolution), and even revolutionary clerics like Mahmoud Taleqani (who blended Shiism with Marxist ideals, inspiring a generation of clerical revolutionaries) produced a new and unique type of Quranic commentary. This was intended to respond to the new socio-political requirements of the time, and its contributors were influenced by the secular ideologies of positivism and Marxism.[5] They sought to present Islamist ideology as a superior alternative to secular political ideologies—one that provided a cure for all of humankind’s problems, both on earth and in the hereafter.
It is true that these Iranian intellectuals greatly benefited from Shiite sources and notions. However, their emphasis on concepts like jihad and martyrdom were profoundly inspired by Sunni writer-intellectuals.[6] Just as jihad and martyrdom were central to the thought of Sunni intellectuals like Said Qutb, these issues also came to be two pillars of Islam for Iranian Islamic lay writers like Ali Shariati. In the works of Shariati and others, jihad and martyrdom are colored and formulated with reference to Shiite culture and literature. But the idea of highlighting those notions among many others, as an attempt to create an Islamic ideology, was greatly inspired and shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood’s writers and members.

The Revolutionary Clerics
The aggressive secularization policies implemented by Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled Iran as Shah from 1925 to 1941, aimed to block the Shiite clerical establishment from two institutions that they had traditionally ruled: the schools and the judiciary. These policies created a new generation of ambitious young Shiite clerics who became more and more alienated from Iran’s ruling elites and culture. In addition to their growing disaffection, these young clerics found themselves increasingly with little reason to continue to adhere to traditional Shiite thought and political practice, in which the clergy was seen as the source of legitimacy for the monarchy. For this generation of scholars, traditional Shiism seemed unresponsive and ill-equipped to address the dramatic transformations taking place in Iranian society. In their view, the Muslim Brotherhood’s teachings on the Islamic state provided a fresh, religiously authentic, and politically compelling solution to the challenges they faced.
navvabOne of Shiite Islamism’s most important founding fathers was a young cleric named Sayyed Mujtaba Mir Lowhi, also known as Navab Safavi (1924-1955). Safavi established a group called Fadaian-e Islam, or the “Devotees of Islam,” which led a popular movement against the Shah’s regime, and against the perceived corruptions of Iranian society from 1945 and 1955 that included a string of political assassinations. Like the early Brotherhood, the Fadaian-e Islam believed in a pan-Islamic ideology of religious purification and political revival. They rejected nationalistic ideology as inherently un-Islamic, and held that revivalist Shiites and Sunnis should unify in the face of Islam’s enemies, and struggle to repel modernity and its ideas from Islamic lands. The Devotees also held that Islam presents a perfect, comprehensive system for governing every aspect of human life. In their view, the only solution to the contemporary problems facing the Muslim world–including its backwardness and political weakness relative to Western countries–was the creation of a genuinely Islamic state that would implement the sharia.
Fadaian-e Islam’s ideological view and agenda not only paralleled that of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it appears to have been directly inspired by it. In 1954, Safavi traveled to Jerusalem, where he participated in an Islamic conference. There he addressed the Palestinian cause and intermingled with Sunni revivalists. After speaking at the conference, he traveled to Egypt and met with Brotherhood leaders, where he became intimately aware of the Sunni movement’s plight under the iron-fisted rule of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Egypt’s nationalistic, secularizing and autocratic leader. During his time in Egypt, Safavi actually penned a letter to the Egyptian president, excoriating him for his policies on the Brotherhood. Safavi wrote that the president’s “harsh reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood has provoked deep resentment in the heart of Muslims. Reconsider this issue and try to do something that would not bring you a painful regret.”[7]
After returning to Iran, Safavi began a campaign to promote the Muslim Brotherhood’s pan-Islamic ideology within his Persian homeland, and he successfully introduced the Brotherhood’s ideology to a new generation of Shiite clerics. When his Fadaian-e Islam was established, its members represented the first modern attempt within Iran to build an independent Islamic society–along with a militia–whose purpose was to reform Islamic life and to endeavor to establish an Islamic state.
The Palestinian cause lay at the center of Fadaian-e Islam’s revivalist ideology, and in retrospect, the Devotees appear to have played a pioneering role in making the anti-Israel struggle a central issue for the Iranian religious community, which hitherto had generally not concerned itself with Arabian affairs. In Safavi’s view, the battle against Israel wasn’t simply a local conflict, but part of a larger, regional Islamic struggle against modern government, including the Iranian monarchy.
In fact, one of the reasons for Safavi’s hostility toward the monarchy stemmed from an incident in which the Shah prevented Safavi from mobilizing and deploying 5,000 volunteers to fight against Israel. In a speech at the Faiziya religious school, Safavi said, “If we want to destroy Israel, we have to start from Tehran; that is to say we have to first eliminate [the] Pahlavi regime in order to be able to fight Israel.”[8] For Fadaian-e Islam, the Shah’s regime was politically and morally corrupt, and complicit in supporting the “Jewish occupier” of Palestine. The movement unleashed a campaign within Iran to delegitimize the monarchy on the basis of its relationship with Israel and its lack of an Islamic identity. The group encouraged high-ranking Shiite clerics to take a stand against both Israel and the Shah.[9]
The Shah’s regime eventually apprehended Safavi, and in the course of his interrogations, the Devotees’ leader revealed extensive contacts between his organization and the Sunni revivalist movement, including the Iraqi Jamyyat Montade Al-Nashr, the Syrian Jamyyat Al-Ulama, the Egyptian Shobban Al-Muslemin, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s various branches in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.[10] Because of these unorthodox relationships with foreign movements and the assassination of government officials like General Haj Ali Razmara, the Shah’s regime dealt with Fadaian-e Islam aggressively and condemned its leaders to death. Not surprisingly, the Arabian Muslim Brotherhood eventually emerged as a leading critic of Mohammad Reza Shah and his policies against Shiite Islamism.
Safavi’s Brotherhood-inspired Fadaian-e Islam left an indelible mark on Iranian religious and political life. Among other things, it helped to steel popular Muslim enmity against the monarchy, and ultimately laid the philosophical groundwork for the Khomeinist Revolution of 1979. One of the Devotees’ most decisive achievements, which lasts to this day, was its radicalization of the culture, ideas, and institutions of the Shiite clerical establishment.
For its part, the clerical establishment was initially split over Fadaian-e Islam and how to regard Safavi’s heterodox teachings. Safavi was of course himself a cleric, and many other younger scholars, including Ayatollah Abulqassem Kashani and Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, became early supporters of the Devotees against the regime and the perceived corruptions of Iranian society.
Yet despite the Devotees’ emergence from within the clerical class, the traditional strata of the Iranian clerical establishment–including the most revered and emulated religious authority of the time, Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Boroujerdi–shunned the Fadaian-e Islam and their ideas. Safavi dismissed the charges of the clerical establishment, claiming his movement followed a higher authority and ideals than the clerics and their traditional mores. For example, when Ayatollah Boroujerdi renounced Fadaian-e Islam’s use of coercive tactics in securing funding from the people to aid its struggle of creating an Islamic state, Safavi replied, “Our intention is to borrow from people. What we take is for establishing a government based on the model of Imam Ali’s government. Our goal is sacred and prior to these tools. When we established an Ali government-like state, then we give people their money back.”[11]
Fadaian-e Islam unleashed a string of pronouncements against the clerical establishment’s higher-ups. They found fault with the jurisprudence of Boroujerdi without explicitly naming him, and argued that traditional Shiite jurisprudence was irrelevant and unresponsive to the requirements of the modern era. Here, the Devotees’ assault on traditional authority resembled the attacks of revivalist movements like the Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami on the established ulama in the Sunni world. The Devotees even proposed a plan for dramatically transforming the clerical establishment so that it would best serve the establishment and goals of an ideal Islamic state.[12] Eventually, this line of attack went so far as to call for the excommunication of Boroujerdi from the clerical establishment and a call to defrock him of his clerical turban and mantle.[13] This request to forcibly remove a religious leader was the first of its kind in Shiite history. A few decades later, however, the defrocking of religious scholars who opposed Shiite Islamism had become common practice in the Islamic Republic.
Sayyid_Qutb_9Revolutionary Iran’s founders–including Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current Supreme Leader–were all deeply influenced by Fadaian-e Islam, and by extension, by the Brotherhood revivalist ideology that undergirded Safavi’s teachings. In his autobiography, Ali Khamenei says that he entered into the world of politics under the influence of Navvab Safavi. Today’s Supreme Leader himself became an early champion and translator of the works of the Brotherhood intellectual, Said Qutb.
Had it not been for Fadaian-e Islam’s early sympathetic support of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of the philosophical writings of the Muslim Brotherhood might never have been as influential in Iran. But a massive process of translating Sunni revivalist authors from Arabic to Persian started less than a decade after Safavi’s execution. In addition to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s translations of Said Qutb, other Brotherhood revivalists–including Said’s brother, Mohammad Qutb–were also extensively translated into Persian. Besides the works of these Egyptian writers, the main writings of Abul Ala Mawdudi and other Pakistani and Indian Islamists were translated into Persian at around the same time. These books became the main source of nourishment for Iranian militant clerics’ sermons and writings during the pre-revolution era. [14]
Iran’s revolutionary generation discovered in the works of the Brotherhood a new conceptual apparatus that permitted them to both reject the sources of traditional Shiite authority and to elaborate a new Islamic ideology that aimed at being fully competitive with secular and modernist ideologies. Among other things, the Brotherhood’s writings provided enticing depictions of a militant Islam that sought political power, the implementation of the sharia, and resistance against the West and communism that helped shape the political rhetoric of Iran’s revolutionary era. But the Brotherhood thinkers also supplied theoretical nourishment for the development of a uniquely Shiite theory of the Islamic state. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini’s own theory of Islamic government, or “the Guardianship of Jurist” (vilayat-e-faqih), was elaborated under the influence of Rashid Rida’s Al-Imamat al-Uzma va al-Khilafat al-kubra, in which Rida theorized about the construction of an Islamic government ruled by Muslim jurists.[15]

Sectarian conflict and ideological alliance
The historically-rooted rivalry between Shiite and Sunni Islam is seldom addressed in the writings of modern Islamism’s spiritual fathers. In fact, writers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammad Abduh were more inclined toward the ideals of pan-Islamism and unity among Islam’s various sects. They sought to discover a common ground between divergent Islamic traditions on the basis of what they perceived as Islam’s original unity and its forgotten spirit of intra-Muslim solidarity. The ideal of Islamic unity also appealed to traditional Shiite and Sunni authorities such as the aforementioned Mohammad Hossein Boroujerdi at the Shiite seminary in Qom, and Shaykh Mahmoud Shaltut of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Seminary.[16]
Gradually, however, under the influence of Rashid Rida (who was more influenced by Wahhabi ideology than was his teacher, Abduh) and Said Qutb, Arabian Sunni revivalism began to exhibit some anti-Shiite leanings. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-Shiite inclinations were noticed by some Shiite clerics, including Hossein Modarressi Tabatabai, who traveled to Lebanon and Egypt during the 1970s. In his travelogue Tabatabai wrote that it seemed as if the Brotherhood believed that it is a religious “duty to avoid Shiite books, not to read them and not to let others to read them, because [they believe that] Shiite books are ‘religiously misleading’ [i.e. they contain theological errors or immoral points].” [17]
As we’ve seen, Tabatabai’s motivation for writing Al-Mizan wasn’t simply to produce a modernist commentary on the Quran on the model of Rida’s Al-Manar. Rather, he sought to develop a uniquely Shiite exegetical mode that was critical of Rida’s Sunni views and supplied a Shiite alternative to them. One of Tabatabai’s most prominent disciples, Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi Amoli, taught a course in which he insisted that clerics should study Al-Mizan in order to inoculate themselves against the anti-Shiite influence of Al-Manar. Al-Manar, Ayatollah Amoli argued, “did nothing but ignore the hadith [in which the Prophet appoints Ali as the first caliph of Muslims] and hence, beginner students should avoid reading Al-Manar… unfortunately our [Shiite] seminaries, instead of following the path of Al-Mizan, are following the model of Al-Manar.”[18]
Ayatollah Amoli’s concern, that Sunni revivalist influences were leading Shiites away from Shiism as such, was an anxiety shared by many Shiite scholars at the time, including both traditionalists and reformists. In the politically-charged atmosphere in Iran, into which Islamist revivalist ideology was introduced, the underlying anti-Shiite tendency of the Muslim Brotherhood tended to be overlooked. In fact, some revolutionary clerics who translated the Muslim Brotherhood’s works mentioned in their “translator’s notes” that, while they might not personally agree with certain ideas expressed in those books, their concerns over intra-Islamic sectarianism were secondary to their primary goal of disseminating the ideological core of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, the doctrinal differences between the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shiite Islamism that it helped inspire, could not be completely overlooked in favor of their mutually shared political agendas and pan-Islamic identity. This especially proved to be the case once the Shiite Islamists managed to seize power in Iran in 1979. Rather than merely reflect upon and advocate the creation of an Islamic state, Iran’s new rulers were forced to actually attempt to govern one. And while both Sunni and Shiite Islamism agree on the principle that the essential goal of the Islamic state is to implement the sharia, there are important discrepancies between different Islamic legal schools over what this actually means and requires. In a predominantly Shiite country like Iran, it was not surprising that Shiite clerics decided to propagate their own uniquely Shiite understanding of the sharia.
Thus, while Iran’s revolutionaries insisted on the pan-Islamist character of their revolution, their uniquely Shiite identity, and the Shiite character of their regime stoked concerns and even fears among Sunnis. These have served to complicate Iran’s subsequent efforts to export its revolution and to become the leader of the pan-Islamist revival.
The Dilemmas of Transnational Ideology
The concept of Muslim unity lies at the core of many, though clearly not all, steams of Sunni and Shiite revivalism. As a political ideal, Islamic unity has often proven to be a powerful rhetorical tool in efforts to mobilize diverse peoples in the service of a common political agenda. Indeed, that political agenda often becomes the reason for Islamic unity itself: Sunni and Shiite Islamists routinely claim, for example, that resistance against the West requires that Muslims put aside their religious differences. Perhaps most notoriously, Iran’s championing of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in Gaza, is one way in which the largely Persian and Shiite Islamic Republic has sought to curry political favor and prestige within Arab and predominantly Sunni countries. This has certainly been a successful strategy for Iran in that it has helped the Islamic Republic win the hearts and minds of many elements, not only within Hamas but also within the larger Brotherhood universe in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.[19]
Yet despite its political utility, and despite the fact that both Brotherhood and Shiite Islamists see Muslim unity as a requirement of religious law, Islamic unity is difficult to justify much less sustain by existing Sunni and Shiite religious paradigms. In fact, from the perspective of traditional Islamic jurisprudence and theology, neither Sunnis nor Shiites are able to find sufficient common ground for convergence, since the points of divergence between these two branches of Islam are over concepts that define their respective religious beliefs and practices. Even the concept of God in both sects is shaped differently, and by two separate conceptual apparatuses. Of course, this has not prevented modern Sunni and Shiite Islamism, with their expressed contempt for the pieties and other encumbrances of Muslim tradition, from striving to find new ways to transcend their historically-rooted differences.
The 1979 Iranian revolution—and the Islamic Republic’s subsequent efforts to export its revolution across the Muslim world, including to Sunni Arab societies—has marked the most ambitious effort to date to overcome these differences. Both the Brotherhood and the emergent revolutionary Shiite state have continued to seek to work together in a cross-national framework to promote Islamist ideology and political unity. Yet this agenda has also presented challenges for both movements. Among other things, it has required these movements to effectively ignore or to seek to minimize the legal and religious aspects of their respective traditions, and to focus more on Islam’s political dimension. Yet as a purely political matter, the spirit of transnational, intra-Islamic solidarity has proven difficult to sustain over the long term in an era where politics is shaped not only by religion, but also by national and other identities.
The triumph of the 1979 revolution alarmed the Arab regimes. This was so because of revolutionary Iran’s belligerence toward them and its consequent expansionist regional policies. The Arab regimes were also fearful because Shiite Islamism’s success in toppling the Shah’s pro-Western, secular government encouraged Sunni Islamists to think that their own secular rulers could be overthrown. Within this context, it was not surprising that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood at first welcomed the Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, despite their divergent religious identities.
But the Brotherhood’s public support for Iran faded after Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated by Khalid al-Islamboli on October 6, 1981 and the Egyptian government unleashed a new wave of repression against groups espousing pan-Islamist ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood subsequently became more reticent in its praise of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran, for its part, would eulogize Sadat’s assassin Islamboli as a martyr). Under Mubarak’s rule, crackdowns on the Brotherhood in Egypt forced the group to conceal its pan-Islamic ambitions. Other developments—including the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted for nearly a decade from 1980-1988, and exacerbated already tense relations between Sunni and Shiite and Arab and non-Arab populations throughout the Middle East—further worked to exert pressures on the pan-Islamist rhetoric and agenda of the Brotherhood. [20]
In part, as a consequence of the new pressures to downplay its pan-Islamic ideals in its political discourse, the basic religious differences between Sunnism and Shiism became a central problematic for the Brotherhood’s ideology. For instance, in January 1982, Umar Tilmisani, then the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told the Egyptian weekly magazine al-Msuwwar: “We supported him [Khomeini] politically, because an oppressed people had managed to get rid of an oppressive ruler and to regain their freedom. But from the doctrinal point of view, Sunnism is one thing and Shiism is another.”
The more the Sunni-Shiite divide was conceived by the Brotherhood as a problem of religion, the more the Brotherhood’s thinkers sought to develop religion-based means to overcome it. In 1985, for example, Tilmisani wrote in the Egyptian magazine Addawa (no.105) that “the convergence of Shiism and Sunnis is now an urgent task for the jurists.” He added, “The [early] contact between the Muslim Brotherhood and [Iranian clerics] was not done in order to make Shiites convert to Sunni Islam, but the main purpose was to comply with Islam’s mission to converge the Islamic sects as much as possible.”
Despite this and subsequent efforts to discover a new basis for Sunni-Shiite convergence, political developments have continued to frustrate the Brotherhood’s search for Islamic unity. In recent times, the general resurgence of Iranian power and influence has stirred up considerable controversy within Sunni Arab circles, including within the Brotherhood, over what Iran ultimately seeks, and what, in turn, should be the proper Sunni and Arab reaction to it. On this issue, the Brotherhood is deeply divided between those who adhere to a pan-Islamist ideology and those who primarily see the Brotherhood as a Sunni, Arab, or nationalist movement. This internal Brotherhood debate will continue to be a defining dynamic in Sunni revivalism’s future, with no clear resolution in sight.
Meanwhile, Shiite Islamism has sought its own resolution to the Sunni-Shiite divide and the dilemmas posed by the contradictions between its identity as a pan-Islamist movement and its actuality as ruling over a predominantly Shiite state. This resolution was found in a ruling elaborated by Ayatollah Khomeini that held that the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader is authorized to overrule what is prescribed by the sharia in favor of the regime’s interests. Khomeini made it clear that in any contradiction between Islamic law and the interests of the regime, the ruling jurist is obligated to prioritize the interest of the regime and to ignore the sharia. Accordingly, the Islamic government remains in an emergency state and considers safeguards to its survival its top priority, above both national and religious laws. On October 27, 2009, in a public speech, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of Revolutionary Guard said, “The Islamic Republic is a divine sacred government whose safeguarding is prior even to performed prayer”—(that is, the defense of the republic has priority over Salat or Namaz, the obligatory Islamic prayers).
In practice, this view has meant that Iran has pursued Islamic unity as a principle of its foreign policy while simultaneously pursuing more exclusivist and discriminatory policies at home in accord with regime interests. The Iranian government, for example, has destroyed Sunni mosques and seminaries in the politically restive southeastern provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, and exercises a comprehensive discriminatory policy against Sunni Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan. The government appears to be less biased toward the Brotherhood’s Iranian-based branch, whose activities actually appear to be favored by the government.[21] Internationally, however, the government uses its relations with Sunni groups to serve its own agenda, with little concern for religious differences or for that matter, for stirring up sectarian conflict. The Islamic Republic has even forged strong working relations with anti-Shiite Islamists.[22]

Despite the historically-rooted political and religious rivalry between Shiism and Sunnism, various currents of modern Islamist revivalism, including most especially Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Shiite Islamism, have sought to overcome their respective traditions and to forge ever closer ties between Islam’s two branches in the spirit of Muslim political unity. Present day circumstances have given rise to new common ground, new boundaries and new frameworks between the two groups for ideological convergence and cooperation. As a consequence of this, both sects have taken on roles radically different from those they once played in the traditional world.
And yet, none of modern Islamism’s various ecumenical efforts to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide have been particularly fruitful or politically sustainable over the long-term. Despite their common sources in modern reformism and decades of efforts by both Sunni and Shiite clerics to peel away their traditional differences, problems inevitably arise when one of these branches of Islamism exercises power. These problems emerge, in part, from a basic ideological contradiction within some strands of Islamism between the ideals of pan-Islamic unity and the principle that Islamism’s primary goal is to implement the sharia. Since the latter goal requires seeking guidance and a model from the schools of traditional jurisprudence, efforts to implement the sharia inevitably reflect an exclusivist or religiously partisan character.
Nevertheless, the ideal of Muslim unity persists in large part because of its political utility. The Islamic Republic of Iran especially has used it to make alliances with Sunni groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to promote its foreign agenda. As such, while the mistrust between Shiites and Sunnis is not easily resolved, modern Islamist ideology has created common ground for cooperation between these historically rival sects.
This article appears in Volume 9 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology published by Hudson Institute.
Keywords: Shia, Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, Khomeini, Pan-Islamism

[1] The official website of the Muslim brotherhood:
[2] For a brief account on the influence of the Pakistani group, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, on Iranian Islamic fundamentalism see: Enayat, Hamid, Modern Islamic Political Thought (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982) pp. 69-110.
[3] For the theological stats of “Imam” in Twelver Shiism see: Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali, Le guide divin dans le Shi’ism original, Aux sources de l’ts of “Imam” in twelver Shiism see: Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali, Le guide divin dans le Shi’ism original, Aux sources de l’ésotérisme en Islam, (Paris: Verdier.1992).
[4] Al-Khoi, Al-Sayyed Abul Qassem Al- Moussavi, Al-Bayan fi Tafsir Al-Quran, Dar-Al-Twohid lennashr wa al-towzi, Al-Kuwait, fourth edition, 1979. In 1962, Morteza Motahhari, an acclaimed disciple of Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai said, “Almost a month ago, one of our scholars traveled to Atabat (four Shiite holy cities in Iraq). He said, “I met with Ayatollah Khoi. I asked Ayatollah Khoi, why did you quit your tafsir (Quranic commentary) course?” Khoi replied: “There are some problems and difficulties in teaching tafsir.” I told him in Qom Allameh (Mohammad Hossein) Tabatabai had continued his tafsir course and spent most of his time on that. “So why [you do not do the same]?” Khoi said “Mr. Tabatabi has sacrificed. He has lost his social credibility:” see Motahhari, Morteza, Majmooe-ye Asar, Nashr-e Sadra, Tehran, 1387, Vol. 24, p. 534.
[5] Hemaidah Al-Naifar has described Moujahedin’s and Sayyed Qutb’s Quranic commentaries as two examples of an ideological interpretation of the Quran: see: Al-Naifar, Hemaidah, Al-Insan wa al-Quran wajhan le-wajh; Al-Tafasir al Quraniya Al-Moasara, Qeraaton fi Al-Manhaj, Dar Al-Fikr, Syria, 2000.
[6] For a discussion about jihad and martyrdom in Said Qutb’s thought and a comparison between him, Khomeini and Mawdudi as three leaders of radical Islam see Cook, David, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp.138-143.
[7] Khosrowshahi, Sayyed Hadi, Fadaian-e Eslam, Tarikh, Amalkard, Andisheh-ha, (Qom: Kolbeh-ye Shorouq) p.147.
[8] Khaterat va Mobarezat-e Shahid Mahallati, Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, Tehran, 1376, p. 25, cited from Jafarian, Rasoul, p.197.
[9] Influenced by the Navvab group’s propaganda, many clerics issued a fatwa and banned trade with Jews. There were some other clerics who refused to do so. One of them was Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari who said, “Iranian Jews are our countrymen.” See Milani, Abbas, Eminent Persians: The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979, (Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press, 2009).
[10] Jafarian, Rasoul, Jaryan-ha va Sazman-ha-ye Mazhabi-Siasi-e Iran, Az Rouye Kar Amadan-e Mohammad Reza Shah ta Enqelab, Sal-ha-ye 1320-1357, chap-e nohom, (Tehran: Khane-ye Ketab, 1387) p. 207.
[11]Ibid, p.213.
[12] Here, an interesting parallel can be drawn between the rivalry and clashes of Fadaian-e Islam and the clerical establishment in Iran, and the tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni clerical establishment in Egypt and elsewhere.
[13] Rahnoma, Ali, Niroo-ha-ye Mazhabi bar Bestar-e Harakat-e Nehzat-e Melli, (Tehran: Gam-e no, 1384) pp.57-76.
[14] Ayatollah Ali Khameini translated Al-Mustaqbal le haza al-Din, (Ayandeh dar Qalamrov-e Islam, Entesharat-e Sepideh, Mashhad, 1345), (Eddea Nameh-I Alay-he Tammaddon-e Gharb va Resalat-e Islam, Mashhad, 1349, with his brother Hadi); Tafsir-o fi Zelal Al-Quran (Tarjomeh-ye Tafsir-e fi Zelal Al-Quran, Tehran, 1362–this translation was completed before the revolution). Khamenei’s brother, Mohammad, also a cleric, translated Qutb’s Khasaes Al-Tassavvor Al-Islami (Vijeggi-ha-ye Ideology Islami, (Tehran: Moassesseh-ye Melli, 1354). More than ten other works of Said Qutb were translated later on by others. For a detailed report on books translated from Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistani and Indian Islamists see: Jafarian, Rassoul, pp.378-388. Mohammad Ali Guerami, a cleric who translated Al-Adala al-Ijtimaiya fil Islam into Persian, cites one member of the revolutionary movement who admitted to the influence of the book on other mujahidin members. Guerami, who was imprisoned during the Shah’s reign, remembers that political prisoners were reading this book too. In the “translator’s preface,” Guerami states that the government should be run by clerics and Islamic jurists (faqihs), a philosophy which lives on until today in Iran. (Guerami, Mohammad Ali, Khaterat, Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, (Tehran, 1381) pp.59-60).
[15] For a brilliant account of Rida’s treatise see, Kowtharani, Wajih, Al-Dowla wa Al-Khilafa fi al-Khitab-e al-Arabi Ebban al-Thowra al-Kamalia, Dar al-Talia, Beirut, 1996. In his book, Rida praised the leadership role that Iranian clerics played in the “Tobacco Movement” against concessions to the British in the early 1890s, and he argued that Sunni clerics should similarly engage in political struggle. He accepted Shiite criticism of the way Abu Bakr and Omar, the first two caliphs, were elected, and admitted the necessity of ijtihad in understanding the religious texts. Khomeini’s treatise Hokoumat-e Eslami, (Islamic Government), is clearly inspired by Rida’s book, especially in its concept of Islamic government, the role of clerics, and the constitution of a government state.
[16] For a detailed historical account of this tendency see: Brunner, Rainer, Islamic Ecumenism in the 20th century, The Azhar and Shiism between Rapprochment and Restraint, (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
[17] Moddaressi Tabatabai, Hossein, “Az Forat ta Nil; Gozari bar Mahd-e Adyan-e Bozorg va Tamaddon-ha-ye Kohan” in Khaterat-e Vaid, No. 14, Azar 1351.
[18] A report on his course is available online:جوادی+آملی،+المیزان،+المنار&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.
[19] Although a Brotherhood offshoot, Hamas prefers to be seen as an independent Palestinian group, since their relationship with the Egyptian government, already tenuous, would be even more strained if Hamas were openly acknowledged to be connected to the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, itsuits Cairo to downplay the Hamas-Muslim Brotherhood link. As for Hamas’s links to Iran, during his February 2009 trip to Teheran, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal expressed his gratitude for the Islamic Republic’s ongoing generous support of Hamas, asserting that “the people of Gaza…have always appreciated the political and spiritual support of the Iranian leaders and nation.” According to state television, Mashaal said that “Iran has definitely played a big role in the victory of the people of Gaza and is a partner in that victory.” Iran was highly vocal in supporting Hamas during the recent Gaza War at a time when the Egyptian government was not. Iran, in fact, led the charge in seeking to embarrass and delegitimize the Egyptian government for its failure to openly help Hamas.
[20] With the end the war, in fact, the Muslim Brotherhood was among the first from the Arab Sunni world to openly seek to foster ties with Iran. At the request of Shaykh Ghazzali, Iran agreed to unilaterally release the Egyptian prisoners of war who were members of Iraq Army. The Brotherhood’s relations with Iran have since been strengthened.
[21] While many barriers remain to a formal link between Iran and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood operates a branch in Iran that has legal permission from the government to function and works within the framework of the Iranian constitution. The Iranian Muslim Brotherhood is headquartered in Tehran and has several branches throughout the country. The group has expressed its commitment to the Islamic Republic’s Constitution and has promised to participate in the political process. Jamaat-e Davat va Eslah, a Sunni group in the Iranian province of Kurdistan, first claimed to be an independent organization for all Iranian Sunnis, especially in the northwestern and southeastern regions of Iran. (See, for example, But recently, Mohammad Mehdi Akif, the Muslim Brotherhood’s General Guide, stated that the Muslim Brotherhood in Iran has renewed its baya, or pledge of allegiance, with the Egyptian MB. He denied rumors of a split. (See for example, ) According to Jamaat-e Davat va Eslah’s mission statement, one of its requirements is that its members must be Iranian nationals. Support for ethnic, religious and sectarian freedom and rights, and the ideal of pan-Islamic unity are among the group’s goals. (The group’s mission statement is available online: Clearly the group has close ties with Iranian reformists and supported their candidate in a previous 2005 presidential election. Apparently Jamaat-e Davat va Eslah is the largest and most prominent Sunni group in Iran, enjoying the government’s permission to participate in political activity as well as in its own education program.
[22] For example, according to the New York Times, the Saudi authorities allege that the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Persian Gulf, Abdullah Al-Qaraqi, lives and moves freely about in Iran, along with more than 100 Saudis who work for him. The U.S. Treasury Department announced that Saad bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, was arrested by Iranian authorities in early 2003, but that “as of September 2008 it was possible that Saad bin Laden was no longer in Iranian custody.” According to the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, Saad bin Laden is now most likely in Pakistan


Egypt’s Brotherhood and Iran

Following article is originally published in the Washington Institute website on February 12, 2009

During a February trip to Iran, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal praised Iranian leaders for their support during the conflict in the Gaza Strip, a further indication of the strengthening ties between the Sunni Islamist group, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization, and the Shiite regime in Tehran. Mashal’s statements come on the heels of the U.S. Treasury Department’s terrorist designations of al-Qaeda leaders and operatives sheltered in Iran. These latest examples of Sunni-Shiite cooperation raise new questions about whether Iran can improve its relationship with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
While such a rapprochement appears unlikely, history suggests it is far from impossible. Iran has maintained informal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood for many years, and Shiite Islam probably has more appeal among Egyptian Sunnis than it does among Sunnis in other Arab countries. Iran’s sharp criticism of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is also likely to resonate with Egyptian radicals under the thumb of the regime in Cairo. If Iran were to develop close relations with the Brotherhood, Iranian influence would grow considerably in the Arab world, giving Tehran a significant say among Arab radicals and, undoubtedly, producing dangerous developments for U.S. interests in the region.

Ties between Iran and Sunni Extremists

Egypt has long been suspicious of the connection between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, based in large part on Iran’s longstanding strong ties to Hamas — an offshoot of the Brotherhood. The recent conflict in Gaza is likely to further arouse Cairo’s suspicions. During the fighting, Iran was highly vocal in their support of Hamas, blasting the Egyptian government for its inaction. Hamas leader Khaled Mashal thanked Iran for its support of his organization, asserting that the “people of Gaza . . . have always appreciated the political and spiritual support of the Iranian leaders and nation.” According to Iranian state television, Mashal reportedly said that “Iran has definitely played a big role in the victory of the people of Gaza and is a partner in that victory.”

Iran has also forged stronger working relations with other Sunni extremists. According to the New York Times, Saudi authorities allege that the leader of “al-Qaeda in the Persian Gulf,” Abdullah al-Qaraqi, lives and moves freely in Iran, along with more than a hundred Saudis working for him. The Treasury Department, in its recent enforcement action, announced that Saad bin Laden, son of Usama bin Laden, was arrested by Iranian authorities in early 2003 but that “[a]s of September 2008, it was possible that Saad bin Laden was no longer in Iranian custody.” According to Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, Saad bin Laden is now most likely in Pakistan.

Prerevolutionary Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood

While the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Iran do not have strong organizational ties, the Brotherhood has had a major impact on Islamic revivalism in Iran, a movement that sought to promote Islam not just as a religion but as an ideology governing all aspects of political, economic, and social life. Mujtaba Mirlowhi, known as Navvab Safavi, (1924-1955) was a young Iranian cleric who created the Society of Islam Devotees (SID) in the early 1940s and played a major role in connecting Shiite fundamentalism to Islamic fundamentalist movements in other countries. Like the founding fathers of Islamic revivalism in Egypt, SID believed that in order to fight the supremacy of the West, Muslims have to combat sectarianism, put the Shiite-Sunni conflict aside, and create a united Muslim front.

In 1954, at the invitation of Sayyed Qutb, then secretary of the Islamic summit and main intellectual of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Navvad Safavi traveled to Jordan and Egypt to meet its leaders. Under their influence, he became more attracted to the Palestinian cause. Before that time, there were few references to the Palestinian problem in Iranian society among clerics or lay (leftist) intellectuals and activists. After his return to Iran, he started a Palestinian campaign and collected promises from five thousand volunteers to deploy to the Palestinian territories to fight the Jews.

Perhaps even more important, in his short autobiography, Iran’s current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describes becoming interested in political activities after he met Navvad Safavi in Mashhad, Iran. Before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khamenei translated two books by Sayyed Qutb, Al-Mustaqbal li hadha al-Din (The Future of this Religion) and Al-Islam wa Mushkelat al-Hadharah (Islam and the Problems of Civilization).

The Islamic Revolution in the Brotherhood’s Eyes

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood at first cautiously welcomed the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Islamic revolution, which may have given the Brotherhood confidence that they too would be able to overthrow their country’s secular regime. But after an Islamic radical assassinated Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, the Brotherhood was forced to take a cautious attitude toward the Islamic Republic, at least in public. In January 1982, Umar Telmesani, then leader of the Brotherhood, told the Egyptian weekly magazine al-Msuwwar, “We supported him [Khomeini] politically, because an oppressed people had managed to get rid of an oppressive ruler and to regain their freedom, but from the doctrinal point of view, Sunnism is one thing and Shiism is another.”

The Muslim Brotherhood nonetheless continued to decry sectarian differences among Muslims, arguing that unity was necessary for the sake of jihad against the corrupt rulers and the West. In 1985, Telmesani wrote in the Egyptian magazine al-Dawa that “the convergence of Shiism and Sunnism is now an urgent task for the jurists.” He added that “the contact between Muslim Brotherhood and [Iranian clerics] was not done in order to make Shiites convert to Sunni Islam, the main purpose was to comply with Islam’s mission to converge the Islamic sects as much as possible.”

There were points where the Brotherhood and Iran cooperated more openly. In 1988, for example, at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, at the request of Muslim Brotherhood leader Shaikh Muhammad Ghazzali, the Iranians agreed to unilaterally release the Egyptian prisoners of war who had fought alongside the Iraqi army against Iran.

More recently, on January 28, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, the current leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in an interview with Mehr News Agency: “The Muslim Brotherhood supports the ideas and thoughts of the founder of Islamic Republic.” He added “[Ayatollah] Khomeini’s idea, especially with regard to the Palestinian issue, is the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude toward fighting occupation.”

Egypt under Shiites: Distant Past but Popular Memory

Egyptians are more receptive and positively disposed toward Shiism than other Sunni Arabs. One reason is the Fatimid Dynasty that was established in Egypt in the tenth century as an offshoot of the Shiite Ismaelite movement. The dynasty played an important role in the cross-fertilization between Iran and Egypt. The two centuries of Fatimid rule in Egypt marks a high point in the history of Islamic civilization in terms of economic development and cultural prosperity. Even the art in Fatimid Egypt was influenced by Iranian styles.

The Fatimid period left a lasting impression on Egyptians, and vestiges of the country’s long-ago Shiite rulers are still seen in Egyptian openness to Shiite practices and traditions, a receptiveness not found anywhere else in the Sunni world. Egyptians still respect the symbols, icons, and sacred places of that period; for example, Egyptians believe that Hussain, the third Shiite Imam, and his family are buried in Cairo, not in Karbala, Iraq. For Sunni Egyptians the tombs of Hussain, Sayyeda Zainab (his sister), and Assayeda Sakina (his daughter) are the most sacred places in the world after Mecca and Medina. Also like their Shiite coreligionists, Sunnis in Cairo perform Ashura (the Shiite commemoration of the death of Hussain) each year. Furthermore, in nineteenth-century Egypt, the Persian language was accepted as a language of literature and science, reflected in the Persian-language newspapers available at the time.

Moreover, in addition to the influence of Egyptian political Islamists on Iranian clerics noted earlier, Iranian clerics in turn helped to shape Islamist revivalism in Egypt. One notable example is the nineteenth-century Islamist Sayyed Jamal al-Din Asadabadi, also known as al-Afghani. When he arrived in Egypt from his native Iran, he claimed to be an Afghan so he could pass himself off as a Sunni. His new ideology advocated the unity of Muslims and sought in “authentic Islam” answers to the ills of Muslim societies.

As a result of this history, for many years Shiism held some appeal in Egypt, despite the fact that Egyptians at the time of the Fatimids, and still today, are predominantly Sunnis.

Shiism in Contemporary Egypt

The appeal of Shiism has been dampened somewhat in recent years as the Egyptian government has grown increasingly nervous about what it perceives as a rising Shiite tide in the region. In response, the Egyptian government and the state media began waging a campaign against Shiism and Shiite symbols. In November 2005, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stated that “most Shiites are faithful to Iran, not to their own government.” His comment provoked several Shiite demonstrations, including thousands of people in Najaf, a Shiite holy city in Iraq. Afterward, he explained that he meant that Shiites sympathize with Iran in terms of their religious, not political, viewpoint.

On several occasions, prominent Egyptian cleric Shaikh Yousef Qarzawi, a former member of the Brotherhood, warned about the “Shiite tide” and the missionary activities of Shiites and the Iranian government, especially in Egypt. He said that “the increasing infiltration of Shiism in Egypt may lead to a civil war like the one in Iraq.” The Egyptian government has made efforts to mobilize powerful clerics and faculty associated with al-Azhar University against the Muslim Brotherhood in order to fight the tide of Shiism.

There are no reliable statistics about the number of Shiites in Egypt. Since Shiites are under pressure from the Egyptian government, most of them avoid publically admitting their faith. Some Western and Egyptian sources (like the Ibn Khaldun Research Center) indicate that Shiites constitute less than 1 percent of the Egyptian population (approximately 657,000). But Muhammad al-Darini, a prominent Sunni who converted to Shiism, puts the figure at 1.5 million.

Al-Darini also claims that Egyptian Shiites are Twelvers, which is the type of Shiism practiced in Iran. But he denied any connection between the Shiite community and the Iranian government. “Iran does not have any kind of influence over us,” al-Darini said. “Sometimes, even Iranians criticize us for some of our stances and statements. Everybody must know that Shiism is not originally an Iranian [sect], but an Arab one, while [the four traditional] Sunni schools stem from Iran.” Part of the attraction of Shiism in modern Egypt is political rather than doctrinal in nature. Some young Egyptians see conversion to Shiism as a way of protesting the regime, much as thousands of Iranian Shiite youths convert each year to various other faiths partially in reaction to the Shiite nature of their government.


While a breakthrough in relations between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Tehran remains unlikely, the consequences for the United States of such a union would be very damaging. Iran remains focused on expanding its influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond, and connections to the strongest opposition party in the Middle East would be a great leap forward. The longstanding and growing ties between Iran and Hamas, as well as a look back at the relevant history, makes clear that U.S. policymakers should monitor this trend.