It was a momentous occasion: the first visit to Egypt by a President of Iran since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Egypt Tuesday to an enthusiastic welcome from Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and top Egyptian officials. Yet underneath the kisses and expressions of mutual regard, the visit revealed yet again how deep the divisions are in the Islamic world – and why Sunnis and Shi’ites may only be able to unite on the basis of their mutual hatred of Israel.
Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of the Islamic world in January 2007:
"There’s still a tendency to see these things in Sunni-Shia terms. But the Middle East is going to have to overcome that." Rice’s statement, of course, was staggeringly naïve, and manifested a deep ignorance of the region, as well as of Islam. No one should be surprised that six years later, Sunnis and Shias still haven’t “overcome” their tendency to “see these things in Sunni-Shia terms,” and chances are that in six hundred more years, they still will not have done so, for the Sunni-Shi’ite divide goes back to the earliest days of Islam, and yet in fourteen hundred years has not burnt itself out, but still rages today as fiercely as ever.
And so it was that as Sunnis and Shias war against each other in Iraq and Pakistan, the Shi’ite President of Iran touched down in Sunni Cairo and was almost immediately scolded by Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, the foremost institution in Sunni Islam, for Iran’s meddling in Bahrain. Almost seventy percent of Bahrainis are Shias, but the king and the ruling elites are Sunnis, and in Bahrain’s version of the “Arab Spring,” the “pro-democracy” protesters were Shias who wanted either closer ties with Iran or for Bahrain to be annexed outright by the Islamic Republic, in line with Iran’s claim that it is actually an Iranian province.
But al-Tayeb told Ahmadinejad to back off, and to recognize that Bahrain was a “sisterly Arab nation” – i.e., within the Sunni Arab, not the Shi’ite Persian domain. And according to a senior al-Azhar cleric, Hassan al-Shafai, al-Tayeb and Ahmadinejad quickly began squabbling about Sunni-Shi’ite theological disagreements. His assessment of the meeting was far from positive: “There ensued some misunderstandings on certain issues that could have an effect on the cultural, political and social climate of both countries. The issues were such that the grand sheikh saw that the meeting ... did not serve the desired purpose.”
However much he got mired in theological issues with al-Tayeb, however, Ahmadinejad still had another hope for Islamic unity: mutual hatred of Israel. “The political geography of the region will change,” he asserted, “if Iran and Egypt take a unified position on the Palestinian question.” He expressed the hope that the people of Gaza would allow him to pay them a visit: “If they allow it, I would go to Gaza to visit the people."
Why wouldn’t they? Iran already crosses the Sunni-Shi’ite divide to fund Hamas; billboards in Gaza proclaim: “Thanks and gratitude to Iran.” The Sunni-Shia split, according to Islamic tradition, goes all the way back to the death of Muhammad. According to the Sunnis, he left no instructions as to who should succeed him. According to the Shia, he chose his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was then passed over three times as caliph, leader of the Muslim community, until finally he got the job, only to be assassinated five years later. When Ali’s son Hussein was killed at the battle of Karbala in 680, the Sunni-Shi’ite split became definitive, with both sides considering the other heretics and violence remaining a constant of their interaction.
A few examples: In the year 754, plans to enthrone the Shi'ite Jafar As-Siddiq as caliph, thereby ending the split, were disrupted when a Sunni, al-Mansur, murdered Jafar and took the caliphate himself. In 972, Shi’ite Fatimids conquered Sunni Egypt, and continued fighting Sunnis until they ruled much of North Africa and the Middle East. In the 1040s, the Sunni Zirid revolt against Shia rule began in North. In 1169 the Sunnis Nuraddin and Saladin seized Egypt, finally ending Shi’ite Fatimid rule. But the Shias saw victory in Persia in the early 1500s, when they violently suppressed Sunni religious authorities and took control of the country. In 1514 and again in 1623, war broke out between the Sunni Ottoman Turks and the Shi’ite Persian Safavids. The Safavids captured Baghdad in 1624; the Ottomans recaptured it in 1638.
And so on and on, until the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein's Sunni-controlled Iraq fought a protracted war against the Iranian Shi’ite mullahcracy, and our own day, when there is ongoing violence between Sunnis and Shia in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
But there are always those whom the Qur’an designates the worst enemies of the Muslims: the Jews (cf. Qur’an 5:82). Morsi’s remarks about Jews being “descendants of apes and pigs” (a Qur’anic reference, cf. 2:63-65; 5:59-60; and 7:166) has gotten widespread attention recently, and a rebuke even from the Obama White House, which has otherwise been warmly supportive of the Morsi regime, even as it becomes ever more brutal toward its opponents and ever more ruthless in its determination to hold absolute power.
In Iran, however, Morsi’s words would not have caused, and did not cause, any concern. Ahmadinejad reads the same (or nearly the same) Qur’an that Morsi does, and he no doubt also thinks that the Jews in Israel (and elsewhere) are the descendants of apes and pigs. Clearly Morsi, who said in the same 2010 remarks that there should be “no negotiations” with the Zionist entity, is only held back from tearing up the Camp David Accords and going to war with Israel by the prospect of losing American aid. Iran, meanwhile, has been busy forging trade agreements with states that don’t care about the U.S. sanctions (including our “ally” Turkey); thus one focus of Ahmadinejad’s visit may have been talks about how to shore up the Egyptian economy so that it could survive without American aid, and Egypt would be free to join Iran in a renewed jihad against Israel.
The necessity for that jihad is one thing they can agree on.
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