The emerging clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran has certain political and economic motives: differing positions on the issues of Syria and Yemen; competition in oil production; the struggle for power on the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. But this confrontation also has religious roots and is about whose form of Islam is destined to dominate.
Islam has been going through a crisis for decades, its most profound in the last two centuries. This crisis is manifest in diverse forms, depending on the politics in question. However, one point that must be urgently addressed and resolved is the close relationship between politics and religion.
The reality is that this problem was addressed in period between the mid-1800 and mid 1900: There was a liberal trend that sought to create states that were religiously neutral; Islamic because the majority of the population was Muslim, but in which non-Muslims enjoyed the same rights, more or less. So there was a certain neutrality and secularism.
Money and chadors
However, over the past 50 years or so, we have been witnessing a reverse trend. For example in Egypt, where in Minia in 1973, all of a sudden, girls schools demanded that all the girls be veiled, with the chador, hands gloved. The explanation: Saudi Arabia paid a “monthly salary” to the families who agreed to cover their women. This salary was approximately one third of the salary of an employee. And people accepted the money. This custom has become quite normal. Now, a woman is criticized, and looked at badly if she does not wear a veil. Even Christian women walk around covered for fear of being insulted or offended. This move towards closure comes directly from the Sunni and Wahhabi fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It can also be explained from a sociological point of view: Egypt had more than one million workers abroad, in Saudi Arabia, who after a few years brought Saudi practices home with them. The same goes for other migrants returning to their country of origin. The expression you could hear everywhere: “God bless Saudi Arabia, damn it!”. Arabia was a source of economic gain, but also a source of fundamentalism and closure.
Things like that happen in Italy, where the fundamentalist husbands force their wives to follow the Saudi or fundamentalist customs. They see these cultural customs as a religious category.
It must be said that other Gulf countries have more tolerant views, to the point they allow the construction of churches and even fund them.
Since the late 1970s, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran has spread a Shiite fundamentalism, but now the Iranians are distancing themselves from it. A few years ago I was in Qom [a city south of Tehran, a sort of “Vatican” for Iranian Shiites, given the large number of theological schools present there – ed], and I saw that the women were in chadors, all veiled in black. But in Shiraz, for example, the girls wore colored veils out of which impertinent strands of blond hair escaped, and walked hand in hand with their boyfriend. An ayatollah in Qom told me: You must understand that Qom is not Iran, but as a holy city we are required to keep a certain standard of living.
Sunnis and Shiites
There are therefore two fundamentalisms, but the Persian one is much more open-minded, both in intellectual and critical terms.
In Qom for example, there are 40 institutions connected to the mosque, but they were not religious organizations: they were associations to help the deaf, or the blind, for medicines, a children’s TV, an astronomical observatory in the nearby mountain; a Library of history, philosophy … I once even found an imam, who told me that every day he read some pages of Plotinus’ Enneads, in the original Arabic version manuscript, which is still called “Theology of Aristotle”. This is unthinkable in the Sunni world. Under the Wahhabi tradition, these books would be burned. Mystical Islam has always been similarly persecuted: we should remember what happened with Al Hallaj in the ninth century: He was crucified for his ideas and his writings, in which he described his spiritual union with God.
Some years ago, in 2008, we held the first Catholic-Muslim Forum at the Vatican. There I met an imam who was “a teacher of philosophy.” We discussed a recent episode: A university student in Paris posted on the website islam.org asking for help in preparing a thesis on Avicenna (980-1037). The answer was: Do not study these things of unbelievers, focus instead on the Koran! The imam in front of me, a Shiite, concluded: This was certainly the response of a Sunni imam. They have no understanding of philosophy or science.
A Shiite imam’s formation includes many subjects that are not strictly religious, but cultural. Instead Sunni imams are limited to the study of Islam. For this dialogue with the Shiites is easier and of a wider scope; dialogue with the Sunnis has a very narrow base. A Sunni imams’ formation focuses primarily on memorizing verses from the Koran without understanding or interpreting, or putting them into a historical context.
Supremacy in the Islamic world
Sunnis and Shiites have the same outlook on life and religion, and this is why they clash. This clashing of views has existed since the beginning, but once the differences were more accepted. With Wahhabism, the Sunni dogma is emerging everywhere. In Pakistan, for example, the blasphemy laws that have led to the death sentence of Asia Bibi and the killing of so many people are inspired typically by Arabia. In all Sunni regions – with the exception of some countries like Egypt – this fundamentalism that rejects the use of reason in the reading of the Koran is spreading.
Sunnis and Shiites are fighting to win supremacy of influence in the Islamic world and for those who must deal with the West. Iran’s nuclear deal with the major powers gives free rein to Tehran; and Saudi Arabia – which opposed the agreement to the very end – are still bitterly opposed to it. So does Israel, although for different reasons.
It should also be said that the Isis war was originally an anti-Shiite war. It is no small chance that the governing groups in Syria and Iraq refer to Shiism: the Alaouite minority in Damascus and the Shiites (who are the majority of the population) in Baghdad. Tensions and clashes between the two communities are now widespread in Lebanon, India, Pakistan, wherever there are Shiite communities.
Shiites are a maximum 15% of Muslims and therefore cannot claim to be hegemonic in the Islamic world. The Sunnis, who are the vast majority, tend to establish themselves in an all-encompassing manner. Very often, in televised debates in Egypt, I hear the Sunni imam tell his fellow Shiites, “You have no right to be here! This is a Sunni land. ” And the Shiites are Egyptian like him!
In addition to the tendency towards totalitarianism, the Sunni world has always tempted to absolve itself of all blame: It has never exercised any self-criticism. For centuries, the Muslim world has had a pluralist character. From the eighth to the thirteenth century, under the Abbasids with capital Baghdad, there were Sunnis and Shiites, fundamentalists and liberals. In the ninth century there were even Mu’tazili who claimed that “the Koran was created”, while others said it was “uncreated”. If the holy book is “uncreated”, it comes directly from God and cannot be touched; if it is “created”, then it is possible to study and interpret it. The Mutazilite position developed for centuries, especially under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833). His successor al-Mu’tasim (833-842), instead took on a partisan position regarding the “uncreated” question and ousted the Mu’tazili. But their power remained over the centuries: the Koran must be interpreted with reason, with what is most acute and intelligent in reality. Unfortunately nowadays this position is seen as a threat and those who express it risk being accused of heresy.
The Al-Azhar University is suffering greatly as a result of this problem: being partially supported by Saudi Arabia, it does not criticize the “uncreated” position, although in the past it was forcefully drove the need for reform modernizing Islam.
Between 1860 and 1950, for almost a century, the trend was to interpret the Koran with freedom and common sense. The great Chancellor of the University of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), stated that the Koran should be interpreted according to reason. He was supported by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) in Iran; Syrian Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1855-1902), and many others who were among the protagonists of the Nahda, the Arab and Islamic Renaissance. All of them were then exiled for political reasons, but while in Paris continued to publish a very open-minded monthly magazine (“The inextricable link”), willing to receive and discuss criticism of Islam by the likes of Ernest Renan.
This Renaissance led to the formation of States that were tolerant of different religions. When Nasser founded the Egyptian Republic, the slogan was “Religion belongs to God; The country is for everyone. ” Religion belongs to God, it means that everyone is free to choose and practice the religion he or she wants. Unfortunately, in the 1970’s and under the influence of Wahhabi Islam, all this began to disappear.
But already in Egypt the liberal thought of Muhammad Abduh had given way to the median thought of Rashid Rida, his disciple, to the position of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. The wahhhabiti are even more extremist than the Muslim Brotherhood.
Money and submission
Here another issue comes into play: how does Saudi Arabia spread its Wahhabi ideology? Egypt receives at least $ 3 billion a year from Riyadh; Sudan receives a few billion … To win them over to their vision, the Saudis are willing to pay, to support governments and build mosques. More than 1,000 mosques have been built so far by Saudi Arabia in many parts of the world (also in Italy and in Europe). Usually these mosques are majestic, huge and Riyadh also pays imams and employees. The reality is he who pays, commands. And this is why Saudi Arabia influences the style of Islam that is lived.
In Egypt, because of Saudi Arabia’s influence the sale of food and drink to anyone is prohibited during Ramadan. In return, the Saudis bought an area close to the pyramids, which became an exclusive resort where rich Arabs enjoy freedoms banned in their own nation. In the world the view, Muslims see Saudis as “wicked”, “infidels”, “corrupt”, but who guarantee their power, even religious, thanks to their money and wealth.
What is sad is that Saudi Arabia buys “religious” allies with money. It should be noted that their fundamentalist religious style, and practice of sharia leads directly to the Isis style of government. Every week there are executions in Saudi squares – beheadings, flogging, stoning – conducted as if it were a religious rite, just as we see in the videos distributed by ISIS.
I would add a caveat: Isis did not just fall from the sky. Isis is the brutal application of teaching spread not only by Saudi Arabia, but also by the many Islamic universities, including certain teachings of Al-Azhar, which forms thousands of imams year! This phenomenon has been highlighted by liberal scholars in some television broadcasts. The source which inspires jihadists has its origin in a traditional Islamic teaching, that is still widespread today!
The submissive West
In an attempt to rule the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia wants to decide on the future of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, many African and Asian countries. It has a negative role, because it lacks a wide and tolerant vision and totally ignores modern thought: it only tolerates Sharia and is spreading this fundamentalist vision across the world. It is thanks to this that fundamentalism has arrived in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc.
In this light, Iran, with its more open and cultivated Islam, could act as a counter balance, but despite being the most populous nation in Arabia, it does not reflect the strength it possesses. And the Shiites are far from popular in the Gulf.
The clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran is therefore a political clash, but its roots are religious and the fight for religious supremacy. Moreover, in the Islamic world religion and politics go hand in hand. The West acts like the Muslim countries helped by the Saudis: it is only interested in trade. The United States has never criticized Riyadh on its human rights record, where they are trampled on more than in most countries of the world.
We may hope that Muslims in Europe – who have reached at least 10 million – represent a reasonable and rational Islam, open to all that is positive in the modern world. In France and elsewhere there are enlightened imams, but they are a minority and express themselves discreetly for security reasons. Moreover, they do not have the ideological and financial backing of Saudi Arabia.
If there was a liberal view in Saudi Arabia similar to Tunisia for example, today we would have a very different Islamic situation, one that was more open, more tolerant. And that’s what the majority of Muslims want to reach, unfortunately without knowing how to go about it, or not daring to try what is inevitable. This does not mean imitating the West in everything it does – which would be catastrophic – rather it means discerning what is positive and constructive in modernity, and applying it. In this, I think that Christians of the East have a mission of discernment, to help their Muslim brothers to integrate the positive aspects of modernity, rejecting what is negative.
Samir Khalil Samir
An Egyptian Jesuit priest, Islamic scholar, Orientalist.
Based in Lebanon (Université Saint Joseph)