Egypt’s Religious Diversity and Its Forgotten Shi’ites

Issues of religion have figured prominently in news reports and commentaries on the recent political upheaval in Egypt. A number of rightwing pundits have warned that the uprising could allow the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power and establish an Islamic state. They have also highlighted recent attacks on Egyptian Christians by Muslim extremists, arguing that the Christian position will probably further deteriorate under a new regime. Most observers, however, have stressed the secular nature of the Egyptian revolution, casting doubt on any devolution into a hard-line Islamist government. A number of reporters have stressed cooperation between Muslim and Coptic Christian protestors; a photograph posted on The Daily Dish, for example, showed Christians linking hands to form a protective cordon around praying Muslim demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

Despite the political divergence of recent commentary, most reports divide Egypt cleanly into two communities of faith: the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians. Standard reference sources claim that roughly ninety percent of Egyptians follow Sunni Islam, with virtually all of the rest adhering to Coptic Christianity. In actuality, the situation is more complicated.

Religious statistics in Egypt are crude approximations at best. The country does not ask about faith in its infrequent censuses, and the subject has not been addressed through public polling. As a result, reasonable estimates of Egypt’s Christian population vary from over twenty to as low as seven percent. The Wikipedia pegs the Christian proportion at “10-20 percent.” The same article puts the number of Coptic Christians at thirteen to seventeen million; yet if Christians possibly account for only ten percent of the Egyptian population, their numbers could not exceed eight million. And not all Egyptian Christians are Copts; the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities each number roughly a quarter million, and other sects count thousands of adherents.

The geography of these communities is an intricate one. As can be seen in M. Izady’s map of religion posted above, Egyptian Christian congregations are interspersed with Muslim communities over much of the country. A hundred years ago, roughly eighty percent of Egyptian Christians lived south of Cairo in Upper Egypt. But with the vast expansion of Cairo and other cities in the north, the distribution pattern changed. Today some sixty percent of Egyptian Christians live in Lower Egypt.

Estimates of Egypt’s Shi’ite population are more variable yet. The Wikipedia article “Religion in Egypt” tells us that “there is a minority of Shi’a numbering a few thousands,” while the article on “Islam in Egypt” does not find the Shi’ite community worth mentioning. Many sources, however, estimate Egypt’s Shi’ite population at 700,000: less than one percent of the total population, yet a very substantial number. A few experts think that this community is significantly larger.

Whatever their numbers, Shi’ites were persecuted under the Mubarak regime. According to Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “Shi’ites are treated with suspicion like all other religious groups in the country as a threat that must be contained.” But there are some indications that they have been singled out for special persecution. A 2004 news report claimed that three Shi’ite dissidents were held by security forces for eight months and were only released after they promised to convert to Sunni Islam. Five years later, a number of Shia leaders were arrested and charged with “forming a group trying to spread Shiite ideology that harms the Islamic religion.” According to one dissident, “There have been smear campaigns about us in the state press and in mosques, and our loyalty has been questioned.” Shiites, he claims, have often been regarded as agents of Iranian subversion by the Egyptian security forces.

The notion that Shi’ism in Egypt is a vehicle of Iranian subversion is shared by some outside of Egypt as well. In 2008, the Saudi-owned international newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat claimed that the very existence of Shi’ism in Egypt stems from the recent activities of the Iranian government:

Statistics in Egypt a few years ago show that the Egyptian Muslims were 100 per cent Sunnis. Shiite ideology could not penetrate Egypt even under the Shiite Fatimid rule. Recently, the intensive Shiite preaching efforts, sponsored by Iran and its religious leaders, have borne fruit and Egyptians amounting to thousands and perhaps dozens of thousands have converted into Shiites. The new converts are disguised in more than 76 Sufi groups.

These claims are not credible. Shi’ism has perhaps gained converts in Egypt in recent years, but the faith has been present much longer than that. To be sure, the Shi’ite Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171 CE, did not impose its version of Islam on the country; the Fatimids were noted for their tolerance, allowing Sunni Muslims, as well as Christians and Jews, not just to practice their faiths unmolested, but also to reach high levels in governmental service. Yet Shi’ism – in the Ismaili version of the faith practiced by the Fatimid rulers – certainly did “penetrate” Egypt during this period. In the standard narrative, Ismaili Shi’ism gradually declined after the Fatimids lost power, and eventually all but vanished. According to the official U.S. “country study” of Egypt, “there were virtually no Ismailis in Egypt.” It is doubtful, however, that the author of the “country report” had accurate religious statistics for all parts of the country, and it is often the case that that sizable but proportionally small minorities in densely populated areas are unduly dismissed. A “mere” one percent of Egypt’s population might be considered inconsequential, but at 800,000 it is equivalent to the population of San Francisco.

Some scholars put Egypt’s current Ismaili population well above one percent. M. Izady pegs Egypt’s total Shia population at 2.2 million, finds it to be concentrated in seldom-studied southern Upper Egypt, and judges the community to be mostly Ismaili. If Izady is correct, the story of Shi’ism in Egypt needs to be substantially revised. The presence of a large Ismaili community would suggest that connections with Iran may be much weaker than is commonly imagined. Both the theological and the sociological gaps between the Twelver Shi’ism dominant in Iran and Ismaili Shi’ism – known for being global, cosmopolitan, and relatively liberal – are substantial.

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