New Egyptian Appointee Vows to Prevent Sunnis from Falling into ‘Shi‘i Trap’

The ailing Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s longtime autocratic president, has named Ahmad al-Tayyib (al-Tayeb), 64, the new head (shaykh al-Azhar) of Al-Azhar Seminary and Mosque, the prestigious institution of Sunni religious education in Cairo.

Despite noting that many “Sunni and Shi‘i” jurists have reached a “consensus” that there should be no attempts at conversion by either side in countries where one sect dominates, al-Tayeb has come out of the gate vowing to prevent the “spread of the Shi‘i school of thought in any Islamic country” and to work to prevent “Sunni students” from falling into the “Shi‘i trap.”

Ironically, the Sunni al-Tayeb’s chair was built by the Isma‘ili Shi‘i Fatimid dynasty in the tenth century when they built their capital city, what is now Cairo, on the banks of the Nile River.

Al-Azhar has for centuries been famous for producing learned Sunni jurists and preachers. Today, however, the seminary, like the vast majority of religious institutions in the country, has been subjugated to government control, a key example of which was Mubarak’s selection of Al-Tayyib—a member of the president’s National Democratic Party—reiterating the regime’s line against the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most influential opposition group. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are constantly harassed and sporadically arrested, often without charge, by government security forces.

Some criticized the selection process, arguing that a council of religious jurists was more qualified to select the new shaykh al-Azhar than the president. He is also a member of the NDP’s policy committee, which is headed by Gamal Mubarak, one of the president’s sons.  

Al-Tayyib claims that his comment about the “Shi‘i trap” noted above is akin to the Iranian government’s approach toward Sunnis in Iran. He said that he would continue to welcome Shi‘i students at al-Azhar in order to “introduce them” to the Sunni tradition. He also said that he would continue al-Azhar’s policy of dialogue with Shi‘i Muslims, particularly Twelvers, that began in 1961 when the then-shaykh al-Azhar, Mahmoud Shaltout, issued a fatwa recognizing the Shi‘i school of jurisprudential thought. Al-Tayyib said that his policy was aimed at continuing the Sunni-Shi‘i dialogue which has “reduced tensions” between the two groups.

In his Wajh al-Sahafah interview, al-Tayyib also amplified the concerns of many Sunni leaders, both political and religious, that their super-majority in the Muslim world is “threatened” by the ten to fifteen percent of the Muslims who follow one of the Shi‘i traditions (mostly the Twelvers, but also the Isma‘ili and Zaydi). This fear, which is largely irrational, is more political than theological.

Autocratic Sunni heads of state, such as Hosni Mubarak, King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan, and King ‘Abdullah I of Saudi Arabia, fear the increased popularity of Twelver Shi‘ism, which they connect with the regional influence of Iran, which is ruled by a Twelver Islamist government. Limited “conversions” of Sunni Syrians and Palestinians following the Summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah—the Lebanese Shi‘i political party and paramilitary organization—did not help assuage these fears. Interviews with many of these new “converts,” however, suggests that their affinity “for Shi‘ism” was largely based on political support of groups such as Hezbollah which were seen as resisting Israeli military aggression, rather than an adoption of Twelver Shi‘i theology.

What al-Tayyib and the others—including the Qatar-based Egyptian Sunni jurist Yusuf al-Qaradawi—are really afraid of is an aggressive politicized Twelver Shi‘ism, though there are some disagreements with parts of the latter’s theology and creed. Despite the increased regional influence of Iran, and Twelver Shi‘i political parties in Iraq and Lebanon, there is little actual evidence validating the fears of al-Tayyib and other Sunni leaders that there has been or will be a mass conversion of Sunnis to Shi‘i Islam.