SINCE the dawn of Islam, Shias have been trying to penetrate Egypt. Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the first imam of Shia Islam, sent a loyal follower to govern the area. But no sooner had he arrived than he was captured by Sunni opponents, sewn into the belly of a donkey and burnt. Later the Fatimids, a Shia dynasty, captured Egypt and ruled it for two centuries. But Saladin overthrew them and, according to Shia lore, massacred thousands while levelling much of Cairo. “Kharab al-Din,” spits a Shia librarian in Alexandria, twisting Saladin’s name to mean destroyer of religion.
Since then Shias in Egypt have pretended to be Sunnis. Some cloak their traditions in the mystical rites of the Sufis. They join their moulids, or birthday celebrations, for saints and camp at the shrines of the prophet’s relatives. Holy men can be found beating themselves into a trance, recalling past Shia practices. Many Sunnis, in turn, have adopted Shia traditions. “Egypt is Sunni by sect, but Shia by temperament,” is an oft-cited saying.
Because they disguise their identity, no one quite knows how many Shia there are in Egypt. Estimates range from 50,000 to 1m. After the Arab spring in 2011, some came out of hiding. They formed Facebook groups, opened halls for commemorating Shia martyrs and collected tithes on behalf of Ali Sistani, the grand ayatollah in Iraq. “We have judges, police and civil servants,” says a Shia ironmonger in Cairo, who secretly converted from Sunnism. There are even said to be Shia sheikhs teaching Shia law at Al Azhar, the Sunni world’s most prestigious centre of learning.
After the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in 2012, many Shia scuttled back into hiding. Stick-wielding Salafis patrolled the shrines. But President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled the Brotherhood, has made life for the Shia a bit easier. The Al-Hussein mosque in Cairo might even stay open on September 29th for Ashura. Shias often visit the site, where the severed head of Ali’s son, Imam Hussein, is buried.
Yet Shias visiting the ayatollahs in Iran and Iraq are still interrogated on their return, as if they were a fifth column. They pray like Sunnis in public and shy from publishing their names. But “for now it’s easier to be Shia in Egypt today than Salafi,” cheers the librarian.