At LobeLog, Georgetown’s Shireen Hunter took a deeper dive into the Saudi Grand Mufti’s declaration that Iranians are not Muslim. Of course, there’s no deep theology behind the mufti’s pronouncement; it’s simple anti-Shiʿa bigotry:
This belief is neither new nor limited to the Saudis or the Wahhabis. However, as far as I can recall, no significant Muslim religious leader had openly called them non-Muslims, although some secular leaders had done so before. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein regularly referred to the Iranians as Majus, and even worse, as insects that should be sprayed with pesticides. Indeed, he did just that by using chemical weapons against them.
This widely held Arab belief that Iranians are not real Muslims is based on the premise that they never fully converted to Islam. Instead, they developed Shiʿism, which is allegedly nothing more than their old religion with a thin guise of Islam. Moreover, Arabs believe that the Iranians did so in order to subvert and undermine their true and pure Islam. In a Cairo bookshop near Al-Azhar several years ago, I saw a book for sale entitled Shia Conspiracy Against Islam. Since then, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, along with religious figures such as the Egypt-born resident of Qatar Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, have sponsored many more books on Shiʿism’s threat to Islam and Iran’s plans to convert Sunnis to Shiʿism.
Of course, as Hunter points out and you readers already know, the idea that Iranians “developed Shiʿism” is entirely ahistorical. The leaders around whom the early Shiʿa community rallied were as Arab as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and in fact were descended from Muhammad himself. The Battle of Karbala, the inflection point for the initial break between Sunni and Shiʿa, took place in 680, when the conquest of Iran was far too new and far too incomplete for Iranians to do anything so bold as to develop their own strain of a religion that was still taking shape at the time. In fact, you have to go all the way to 1501, when the Safavid dynasty took over Iran and began, ah, “strongly encouraging” the Iranian populace to convert en masse to Twelver Shiʿism, to find the point at which Iran stopped being mostly Sunni–even the Safavid family itself began as a family of Sunni-minded Sufis before converting to Shiʿism in the mid-15th century. Yes, there were historical affinities between Shiʿism and Iranian resistance movements, and a lot of Shiʿa dynasties came to rule parts of Iran as a result, but Iranian culture permeated the entire caliphate irrespective of sect and, again, the majority of Iranians were Sunni until the Safavids came along.
The accusation that devious Shiʿa villains are plotting to turn your nice Sunni kids
gay Shiʿa has deep roots in every authoritarian Sunni regime going back to the caliphate–it’s the kind of narrative that oppressors keep telling everybody to justify their oppression. (To be fair, the Iranian argument that the Saudis are not fit custodians of Mecca and Medina–and therefore of the Hajj–is also a rehash of a historical slur against whichever political entity happened to control the Hejaz at any given point in time.) When Iran converted, and then again after 1979, tales of Shiʿa plotting were grafted on to the traditional Arab-Iranian rivalry and the two narratives began to feed on one another. But as Sanam Anderlini notes, there’s no upside to Iran picking a fight on sectarian grounds–nor is there much evidence that they have:
First, Shias make up just 10-13% of the entire Muslim population of the world. The remaining 87-90% are Sunnis. In other words, of the 1.57 Billion Muslims worldwide, some 204 million are Shias. The vast majority live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, and India. In the Arab world, just Iraq and Bahrain have majority Shia populations with Kuwait, Yemen, and Lebanon having sizeable minorities. Iran, a non-Arab state, has the largest with 77.5 million.
Besides, the notion of ‘Shiʿism’ itself is not a homogenous unifying identity. There are multiple branches and ideologies under the broad Shia umbrella, including Ismailis, Zaidis and Twelvers. In principle they are united in believing that Ali was the designated successor to the Prophet Mohammad, but they have different doctrines and competing views. Over the past decades, Iran has not sought to unify or control these branches. Nor is it likely that any would accept such control.
If both Iran and Saudi were engaged in a similar Shia-Sunni competition, there would be evidence of Iran’s success in converting millions of people from Sunnism to Shiʿism. But just as most Protestants are unlikely to convert to Catholicism or vice versa, the same holds true among Muslims. The ratio has not altered over the years. There is no doubt that the Iranian revolution inspired Muslims in other countries—notably Nigeria and Indonesia—but there were no systematic efforts to convert people.
The largest Shiʿa dynasties pre-Safavid were the Fatimids, who established their own caliphate in Egypt, Syria, and North Africa; and the Buyids, who ruled a decent chunk of Iran and established a “protectorate” over the Abbasid caliphs in the 10th century. Neither ever made any systematic effort to convert their subjects to Shiʿism. Sectarianism in Islam has always been a club wielded by the majority Sunnis against the minority Shiʿa, but only rarely have the Shiʿa done likewise.
In reality, the most dangerous sectarian trend in the Islamic world today is, as Anderlini says, the spread of Saudi Wahhabism. It’s Wahhabism, combined with Qutbism, that produced the ideology of Osama bin Laden, it’s Wahhabism that further radicalized the already radical Deobandi school to produce the Taliban(s), and it’s Wahhabism that underpins the takfiri ideology employed by ISIS.
I know, I know, ISIS targets Saudi Arabia too. Occasionally. Spare me, or better yet spare the people living in majority Shiʿa neighborhoods in Baghdad. Ask them what it’s like to really be on ISIS’s hit list.
This is becoming a growing concern in the West, which no longer seems willing or able to turn a blind eye to Saudi activities that fuel global terrorism and/or instability. But there are also signs that a Muslim backlash is starting to kick in. No, I’m not talking about Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s New York Times editorial, which, hey, he makes some good points, but he should worry first about what his own country has done to erode human rights, foment violence, and destabilize the Middle East. But while the Saudis were busy drumming Iranians out of Islam, a group of Sunni scholars gathered in Chechnya to do the same thing to the Saudis:
An Islamic conference was held Aug. 25-27 in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, and senior Sunni scholars from various Sunni schools attended. The meeting was sponsored by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The conference aimed at introducing “Sunni identity” and determining its adherents.
The closing statement limited the Sunni community to “Ash’aris, Maturidis by belief, followers of the four jurisprudential schools of Sunnism (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali) and followers of pure Sufism in terms of ethics and chastity. Any other sects are not included in the Sunni community.” This clearly indicates that, in the participants’ view, Wahhabism is not considered part of Sunni Islam, but rather an emerging innovation (Bid’ah) in Islam.
The closing statement also restricted the big Islamic schools to deep-rooted religious institutions in “Al-Azhar University (Cairo, Egypt), University of Al-Quaraouiyine (Fez, Morocco), Al-Zaytoonah University (Tunisia) and Hadhramaut University (Yemen).” The statement did not mention Islamic centers and religious institutions in Saudi Arabia.
Just the Saudi argument that Iranian Shiʿa aren’t really Muslim is more about 21st century geopolitics than centuries-old points of Islamic doctrine, so too with this Chechnyan gathering. Kadyrov is Vladimir Putin’s Man in Chechnya, and as Putin has no particular love for the Saudis right now, and both Putin and Kadyrov are happy for any chance to discredit ISIS’s ideology (there is an “ISIS-Caucasus Province,” remember). Giving a platform to (and, hypothetically, rolling out the red carpet for) some “senior Sunni scholars” who are prepared to say exactly what you’d like them to say on Wahhabism is at least some B+/A- level trolling. But the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, arguably the most storied institution of religious learning in the Sunni world (founded by the Shiʿa Fatimids, by the way, in case you were wondering), attended this affair, so it had some real intellectual and religious credibility. And it should be noted that Wahhabism doesn’t just oppose Shiʿism–it opposes any strain of Islam that isn’t Wahhabism. Which isn’t a great way to make philosophical allies within the faith. So it’s possible that we’re seeing the beginnings of a movement within Sunnism itself to counter the heavy, Saudi-financed influence that Wahhabism has had for the past several decades.