Egypt (Arabic: مصر) is a country located in the northeast of Africa, and Cairo is its capital. The majority of Egypt’s population are Sunni Muslims, and Shiites are among the country’s religious minorities.
The land was conquered in 20/641 by Muslims under the command of 'Amr b. al-'As. The presence of early Shiites such as Abu Dharr, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, and Miqdad b. Aswad in the conquest is the first Shiite presence in Egypt. Ismaʿili Shiites ruled Egypt for two centuries since 358/969 and left many constructions and historical sites, such as al-Azhar mosque and the city of Cairo itself, which was founded in the Fatimid period. The addition of "Hayy 'ala khayr al-'amal" to adhan and holding mourning ceremonies in Ashura were among other measures that Fatimids took during their rule over Egypt. Today, love for Ahl al-Bayt (a) has multiple manifestations in the Egyptian society. The shrines and sacred places related to the descendants of the Prophet (s), such as the burial place of Imam al-Husayn's (a) head, the mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab (a), and the shrine of al-Sayyida Nafisa, are revered by Egyptians.
According to some reports, Shiites in Egypt face restrictions and discrimination. Although the establishment of Dar al-Taqrib in 1947 paved the way for the recognition of Shiism in Egypt, after the Islamic revolution in Iran and due to the disagreement between the two countries over Palestine, the Egyptian government increased its persecution of the Shia, and Shiite cultural institutes such as Jamʿiyyat Al al-Bayt were shut down.
Some of the well-known Shiite figures in Egypt are Salih al-Wardani, the journalist who converted to Shiism in 1981 and produced many works on Shiism, and Hasan Shahhata, the graduate of al-Azhar and Shiite lecturer who was murdered by extremist Salafi groups. Publishers such as Dar al-Najah, the first publisher of Shiite works in Egypt, and Dar al-Bidaya, which was shut down due to being accused of cooperations with Iran, were among Shiite cultural institutes in Egypt.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 The Islamic Period
- 3 Shiism in Egypt
- 4 The Fatimid Rule
- 5 Inclination to Ahl al-Bayt (a)
- 6 The Current Condition of the Shia
- 7 Restrictions on the Shia
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
Egypt is a country located in the north-east of Africa and bordered by Libya, Occupied Palestine, and Sudan. The Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea are in the north and east of Egypt, respectively. The capital of Egypt is Cairo and its area is approximately 1,000,000 km2. Ninety percent of the country’s population are Muslims and ten percent are Christians. Egypt has a Shiite minority, but their number is not accurately known.
According to the constitution of Egypt, no laws may be legislated against Islamic laws. The University of al-Azhar, one of the oldest Muslim scholarly institutions, is located in Egypt and has had immense influence on the Muslim world.
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, based in Egypt, has approximately fifteen million members worldwide.
The word "Misr" (Arabic: مصر) is mentioned five times in the Qur'an, and in four cases it refers to Egypt, the land that was under the rule of Pharaoh. The Qur'an also speaks of "gardens and springs"  and "treasures and splendid places"  in Egypt at the time of Moses (a). Moreover, the Qur'an contains several references to Nile, including in the story of the childhood of Moses (a) and in the report of Pharaoh's pride in having the branches of Nile under his control.
The Islamic Period
Egypt was conquered by Muslims in 20/641 under the command of 'Amr b. al-'As. With the spread of Islam in Egypt and the migration of great Arab tribes to it, the Greek culture prevalent in Egypt was gradually replaced by Islamic culture, and Arabic became the language of the land. Until the first centuries of the Abbasid dynasty, Egypt was under the rule of the central caliphate, but in 254/868, the first independent Egyptian dynasty was established by Ibn Tulun, initially appointed as the governor of Egypt by the Abbasid caliph al-Muʿtazz. He was able to add Syria to his territories as well. When Ibn Tulun died in 270/883-4, his sons succeeded him and ruled over Egypt until 292/905, when the Abbasids brought Egypt under their rule again. Muhammad b. Tughaj, known as Ikhshid and appointed by the Abbasids as the governor of Egypt in 323/935, regained Egypt's independence. When he died in 334/946, Abu al-Misk Kafur, came to power first as the custodian of Ikhshid’s sons and then as the independent ruler of Egypt. His rule continued until his death in 357/968.
In 358/969, Ismaʿili Fatimids, who had already established a powerful dynasty in Ifriqiya, conquered Egypt. About two-hundred years later, the Fatimid dynasty was overthrown by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin). The Ayyubid dynasty ruled over Egypt and Syria until 648/1250 by the Mamluks, whose rule was in turn destroyed in 923/1517 by the Ottoman Sultan Selim who subjected Egypt to his empire.
During the Ottoman period until the end of the 18th century, the governors of Egypt were appointed by the Ottoman caliphs, though enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy. With the decline of the Ottoman empire in the 19th century, the French army under the command of Napoleon occupied Egypt in 1798. Although the French left Egypt in 1801, the three-year occupation created great chaos in Egypt. Nevertheless, an Albanian family were able to take power and rule over Egypt for about 140 years. In 1952, Farouk, the last ruler of this dynasty was overthrown by a revolution that resulted in the establishment of the Arab Republic of Egypt and the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser (d. 1970).
Shiism in Egypt
The presence of Shiism in Egypt is considered to date back to the conquest of Egypt by Muslims, since early Shiite figures such as Abu Dharr, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, and Miqdad b. Aswad were present in the conquest. During the caliphate of Uthman, Ammar b. Yasir, another prominent Shiite, resided in Egypt. Nevertheless, the first significant Shiite political activity in Egypt was the uprising of Ali b. Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya. During his caliphate, Imam Ali (a) first appointed Qays b. Sa'd as his governor for Egypt, and all Egyptians, except a group of Uthman’s supporters, paid allegiance to him. After some time, the Imam (a), appointed Muhammad b. Abi Bakr as the new governor. During Muhammad’s rule over Egypt, Muʿawiya sent an army under the command of 'Amr b. al-'As to bring Egypt under his rule. The army conquered Egypt and murdered Muhammad b. Abi Bakr.
Under the Umayyads and Abbasids
Notwithstanding the Umayyad rule over Egypt, Shiite inclinations continued to be present therein. Considering this and the fact that Egypt was far from the center of the caliphate, some Shiite insurgents chose Egypt as the base of their revolts: the revolt of Ali b. Muhammad, the brother of al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, in 145/762, the revolt of Ahmad b. Ibrahim b. Abd Allah b. Tabtaba in 254/868 in Upper Egypt, the revolt of Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Abd Allah b. Tabataba in 255 AH/869 near Alexandria, and the revolt of Ibrahim b. Muhammad, a descendant of Imam Ali (a) and known as Ibn Sufi, in 256/870 in Upper Egypt.
According to al-Maqrizi (d. 845), the well-known Egyptian historian, when the Shiites gathered in the burial place of Kulthum on the Day of Ashura in 350/961 to hold mourning ceremonies, the Umayyad officers attacked and killed many of them. Afterwards, the persecution of the Shia intensified greatly such that the officers would ask the people, "Who is your uncle?"; if they answered anything other than "Muʿawiya," they would be punished, because Muʿawiya was considered "the uncle of the believers" by the Umayyads. Al-Maqrizi also reports that in this period some people were hired to proclaim in the Atiq Mosque that Mu’awiya was the uncle of the believers and to praise him.
The Fatimid Rule
The Fatimids were a group of Ismaʿili Shiites that, after a number of unsuccessful attacks since 301/914, managed to conquer Egypt in 358/969 and rule therein for more than two centuries. The construction of Cairo was one of the first tasks that the Fatimids accomplished. They also deleted the names of the Abbasids from the pulpits and coins, and added the formula "Hayy 'ala khayr al-'amal" to adhan. They also held mourning ceremonies on the Day of Ashura; it is reported that in 404/1014, the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah commanded that all the shops in Cairo, except bakeries, must be closed on the Day of Ashura.
The construction of al-Azhar Mosque in 359/970 and Dar al-Hikma (or Dar al-ʿIlm) in 395/1005, which was a library and education center, is among other accomplishments of the Fatimids in Egypt.
Inclination to Ahl al-Bayt (a)
The love and respect that the Egyptian Sufis have had for the family of the Prophet (s) and the social and cultural influence that they enjoy in Egypt have inclined Egyptians to the school of Ahl al-Bayt (a) such that Sufis are accused of being pro-Shiites and Sufism is regarded as the gate from which Shiism enters Egypt and the Sunni world.
Love for Ahl al-Bayt (a) is considered necessary in Sufi view, and hostility toward the family of the Prophet (s) is regarded as deviation from religion. Imam al-Husayn (a) is called by Some Sufis by the title "the Martyr of Truth." Visiting the burial places of the descendants of the Prophet (s), the importance of al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, holding birthday ceremonies for the Prophet (s) and the Imams (a) are among the similarities between the Shia and Sufis.
Visiting the burial places of the family of the Prophet (s) and of Sufi figures is a common practice in Egypt. Some of the most well-known pilgrimage sites related to the descendants of the Prophet (s) are the burial place of the head of Imam al-Husayn (a), the mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab (a), and the burial place of al-Sayyida Nafisa.
Migration of the Descendants of Imam Ali (a)
The migration of Alids and the companions of the Imams (a) to Egypt was one of the factors that led to the inclination of the Egyptians to Ahl al-Bayt (a) and to the promotion of Shiism in Egypt. The Alids would migrate to Egypt sometimes to promote Shiism and sometimes to flee from the persecution inflicted upon them by the Abbasids, especially at the time of al-Ma'mun al-Abbasi and al-Mutawakkil al-Abbasi.
According to Muntaqila al-talibiyya, more than eighty descendants of Abu Talib migrated to Egypt. In 236/851, in addition to destroying Imam al-Husayn's shrine in Karbala, al-Mutawakkil ordered the banishment of Alid figures from Egypt. This order is regarded as indicating the influence of Alids in Egypt at that time. The revolts of the Alids in Egypt since 252/866 until 270/884 are seen as a reaction to the persecution of the Shia in Egypt.
The Current Condition of the Shia
There is no accurate statistics of the number of the Shia in Egypt. However, according to The Economist, after the political changes in 2011, the Shia have been able to express their religious identity publicly more than before. The same source estimated the number of the Shia in Egypt to be about one-million. Other sources have given estimates ranging from 800,000 to two-million.
According to a report on religious freedom published by the US Congress, the Shia face restrictions and discrimination in certain countries including Egypt. Egyptian Shiites live in various areas such as Mansoura and Tanta in the north, Aswan in the south, and Qena in Upper Egypt.
The activities of the Shia in Egypt in the contemporary age are regarded as a result of the rapprochement movement aimed at bringing Muslim sects closer together. This movement resulted in the formation of ties between some prominent Shiite scholars and some of the outstanding figures of the University of al-Azhar.
Shaykh Muhammad Taqi al-Qummi, supported by Ayatollah Burujirdi in Qom, was one of the scholars who had an important role in the establishment of Dar al-Taqrib (The House of Rapprochement between Muslim Denominations) in 1947. Among other Shiite scholars who had an active role in the rapprochement movement were Muhammad Jawad Mughniyya, Muhammad Husayn Kashif al-Ghita', Sayyid Talib al-Husayni al-Rifa'i, and Sayyid Murtada Radawi.
Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut, the president of al-Azhar, issued a fatwa indicating the permissibility of following the Ja'fari school of jurisprudence. He expressed his wish to start the teaching of Shiism in al-Azhar. Although he did not succeed to do this, he paved the way for the study of Shiite jurisprudence in the courses on comparative jurisprudence. A further fruit of the rapprochement movement was the publication of the Shiite Quranic commentary Majma' al-bayan with forewords by scholars of al-Azhar such as Mahmud Shaltut. Moreover, from 1368/1949 until 1392/1972, Dar al-Taqrib published a journal called Risalat al-Islam, with articles by Shiite and Sunni scholars.
Restrictions on the Shia
After the Islamic revolution in Iran and the disagreement of the two states over Palestine, the Egyptian government increased its restrictions on the Shia. A number of anti-Shiite books were published, trying to introduce Shiism as a non-Muslim sect. Furthermore, the Egyptian government arrested a group of Shiites in 1988 accusing them of cooperating with Iran. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, although the restrictions on religious minorities decreased, the persecution of the Shia persisted. For instance, when Shaykh Talaat Afifi was the minister of religious endowments, all Shiite activities in mosques were banned. Moreover, some Shiite figures, being accused of insulting the Companions of the Prophet (s) or espionage, faced violence by extremists. The government’s religious policy in relation to the Shia was continuing the persecution and legal restrictions.
With an increase of the activities of Salafi groups after Hosni Mubarak, the attacks against the Shia increased, such as the attack on the Interests Section of Iran in Egypt, and the attack on the participants in the mourning ceremonies of the Day of Ashura. Despite their qualifications, the Egyptian Shiites are not hired in governmental organizations and are deprived of having an official political party, building a Husayniyya, or a representative in the parliament.
Al al-Bayt Association
Al al-Bayt Association was established in 1973, and one of its main founders was Sayyid Talib al-Rifa'i. Among the publications of this association was Al-Muraja'at (“The References”), a defense of Shiite beliefs, by Sayyid 'Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din, ʿAli la siwah (“None Other Than Ali”), a defense of the right of Imam Ali (a) to be the Prophet’s (s) immediate successor, and Al-Tashayyuʿ zahira tabiʿiyya fi itar al-daʿwa al-Islamiyya (“Shiism, a Natural Phenomenon in the Framework of the Islamic Mission”) by Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. After the Islamic revolution in Iran and the disagreement between the two countries, the Egyptian government shut down the Al al-Bayt Association.
Figures and Personalities
Some of the well-known cultural or religious Shiite figures in Egypt are the following:
- Saleh al-Wardani, the Egyptian journalist, was born in 1952 and converted to Shiism in 1981. He has written more than twenty books defending Shiite beliefs against Sunni views, such as ʿAqaʾid al-Sunna wa ʿaqaʾid al-Shiʿa (“Sunni Beliefs and Shiite Beliefs”), Al-Shiʿa fi Misr min al-Imam ʿAli hatta al-Imam al-Khumaini (“The Shia in Egypt from Imam Ali until Imam Khomeini”), Al-Haraka al-islamiyya wa-l-qadiyya al-filastiniyya (“The Islamic Movement and the Palestinian Issue”). Among the institutions he founded were Dar al-Bidaya publications, one of the first publishers of Shiite works in Egypt, and Dar al-Hadaf publications. Some of al-Wardani's books are translated into Farsi, Turkish, and Kurdish.
- Hassan Shahhata (d. 1946), a well-known lecturer and graduate of al-Azhar, converted to Shiism at the age of fifty. He is considered one of the leaders of the followers of Ahl al-Bayt (a) in Egypt . On June 23, 2013, he was murdered by an extremist Salafi group in a ceremony for the birthday of the Twelfth Imam (a) in a village in Giza Governorate.
Some of the Shiite publishers in Egypt are the following:
- Dar al-Najah, founded in 1952 by Sayyid Murtada Radawi, has published some important Shiite sources such as Wasa'il al-Shi'a, Tafsir al-Quran al-karim, Masadir al-hadith ʿind al-Imamiyya, Asl al-Shi'a wa usuluha, al-Shi'a wa funun al-Islam, and al-Shiʿa fi al-tarikh.
- Dar al-Bidaya, established in 1986 by Saleh al-Wardani, has published books such as al-Baʿth al-islami wa-l-mujtamaʿ al-islami by Sayyid Muhammad al-Mudarrisi and Kayf naqhar al-khawf? By Shaykh Hasan Saffar, among others. This publisher was soon faced with the opposition of Salafi currents. It was accused of cooperation with Iran and thus shut down.
- Qur'an 44:25
- Qur'an 26:58
- The material for this article is mainly taken from مصر in Farsi WikiShia.