Iranian efforts to blur the Shi’ite-Sunni rift over the war in Gaza

Unity between Sunnis and Shi’ites (IRNA, March 10, 2022)

Unity between Sunnis and Shi’ites (IRNA, March 10, 2022)

Iranian President Raisi at the Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran (Mehr, October 1, 2023)

Iranian President Raisi at the Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran (Mehr, October 1, 2023)

“Soleimani, from us, residents of Palestine,” message of support for Soleimani from east Jerusalem (Haj.Qasem.Soleimani Facebook page, April 13, 2015)

“Soleimani, from us, residents of Palestine,” message of support for Soleimani from east Jerusalem (Haj.Qasem.Soleimani Facebook page, April 13, 2015)

Israel and the Wahhabis (the official religious school of thought in Saudi Arabia) are trying to undermine the unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis (Bultan News, January 4, 2015)

Israel and the Wahhabis (the official religious school of thought in Saudi Arabia) are trying to undermine the unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis (Bultan News, January 4, 2015)

“Karbala of Gaza” (Basij News, October 19, 2023)

“Karbala of Gaza” (Basij News, October 19, 2023)

Ali bin Abi Talib mosque in the Gaza Strip (Fars News Agency, August 25, 2014)

Ali bin Abi Talib mosque in the Gaza Strip (Fars News Agency, August 25, 2014)

Dr. Raz Zimmt
Highlights
  • Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, there has been considerable effort by the Islamic Republic of Iran to blur the Sunni-Shi’ite rift, which it sees as liable to undermine its efforts to enlist the support of Muslim and Arab public opinion in the campaign against Israel and to arouse opposition from both Sunnis and Shi’ites to its support for the Palestinians, especially Hamas.
  • Statements and commentaries by Iranian officials include two main messages: emphasizing the need for Islamic unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis in the struggle against Israel and presenting the Palestinians as closer to Shi’a despite their Sunni Islamic affiliation.
  • The call for Muslim unity, especially against the enemies of Islam, reflects the official policy of the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979. Against the backdrop of the 2011 regional upheaval, which deepened the Sunni-Shi’ite rift in the Arab world, senior Iranian officials, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have stressed that the Islamic Republic advocates Islamic solidarity and is committed to supporting both Shi’ites and Sunnis regardless of their sectarian affiliation. Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, Iranian officials have stressed that increasing unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis will strengthen the Muslim world in the campaign against Israel.
Unity between Sunnis and Shi’ites (IRNA, March 10, 2022)
Unity between Sunnis and Shi’ites (IRNA, March 10, 2022)
  • Concurrently with the efforts to promote Shi’ite-Sunni unity, the Islamic Republic has not abandoned its Shi’ite identity and has been trying to create an affinity between Sunni Palestinians and Shi’ite Islam. Commentaries published in Iran since the beginning of the war present the Palestinians, including Hamas, as close to Shi’a, mainly because most Palestinians belong to the Shafi’i school of Islam, which is considered closer to Shi’a. According to Iranian clerics, presenting the Palestinians as enemies of Shi’a serves Israel’s interest in sowing discord among Muslims and driving a wedge between Iran and the Shi’ites and the Palestinians and Sunnis.
Stressing the need for unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis vis-à-vis Israel
  • Since its establishment in 1979, Iran has adopted an official policy aimed at bridging the gap between Shi’a and Sunna and preaching Muslim unity. Even before the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, preached Islamic unity against Western imperialism and called on Sunnis and Shi’ites to abandon their differences.[1] In 1982, the Islamic Republic launched the Annual Unity Week, marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. It has also held the annual International Islamic Unity Conference, attended by Sunni and Shi’ite clerics from Iran and elsewhere.
Iranian President Raisi at the Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran (Mehr, October 1, 2023)
Iranian President Raisi at the Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran (Mehr, October 1, 2023)
  • Beginning in the early 1990s, the Iranian authorities established organizations that encouraged the idea of the unity of Islamic schools of thought, first and foremost the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought (Majma Jahani-e Taqrib-e Mazaheb-e Eslami), which operated from the 1940s to the 1960s under the leadership of Egypt and was re-established in 1990 in the office of the Supreme Leader of Iran. This forum, which operates alongside the Ahl al-Bayt Association, conducts a series of religious activities, such as convening conferences encouraging dialogue between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and organizing programs for Sunni Muslims to study Islam in the religious seminaries in Qom.
  • The regional upheaval that has struck the Arab world since January 2011 has deepened the Sunni-Shi’ite rift and threatened Iran’s efforts to establish itself as the leader of the primarily Sunni Islamic world. Against the background of these developments, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has repeatedly stressed that the Islamic Republic is motivated by a belief in Islamic solidarity and is committed to supporting the “oppressed” wherever they may be. He has taken pride in the fact that by supporting the oppressed, Iran does not consider their sectarian affiliation and provides the same assistance to the Shi’ite brothers in Lebanon and the Sunni brothers in Gaza.[2]
  • Other senior Iranian officials have conveyed similar messages. In a speech given at the International Islamic Unity Conference held in Tehran in December 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rejected the claims about the creation of an Iranian-led “Shi’ite crescent” in the Middle East, saying that as far as Iran was concerned, there was no “Shi’ite crescent” and a “Sunni crescent,” but only an “Islamic moon,” and that Iran supported pan-Islamic unity. He said Muslims had only one identity, and that was Islamic identity (Mashregh News, December 27, 2015). The Supreme Leader’s representative in the IRGC, Hojjat-ul-Islam Ali Saidi, said in an interview that Iran did not seek Shi’ite control of the world but was acting in the name of all Islam. He said Khomeini and Khamenei had never adhered to particular Shi’ite views and, therefore, Iran supported both Hamas and Hezbollah (Mashregh News, June 9, 2015). Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, also declared, speaking on the occasion of World Mosque Day in August 2017, that Iran did not support Palestine because of “Shi’ite interests” and would not support Palestinians who declared themselves Shi’ites because 99.99 percent of the Palestinians were Sunni (ISNA, August 20, 2017).
“Soleimani, from us, residents of Palestine,” message of support for Soleimani from east Jerusalem (Haj.Qasem.Soleimani Facebook page, April 13, 2015)
“Soleimani, from us, residents of Palestine,” message of support for Soleimani from east Jerusalem (Haj.Qasem.Soleimani Facebook page, April 13, 2015)
  • Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, Iranian officials have repeated these messages against the backdrop of an increasing Iranian effort to enlist the support of the Muslim and Arab world for the campaign against Israel in Gaza:
    • Hojjat-ul-Islam Ahmad Bavghar, head of the Supreme Leader’s Office of Representatives for Sunni Affairs, said at a conference in Hormozgan Province in southern Iran that increasing unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis would strengthen the Islamic world and lead it to its true status. At a conference attended by Sunni clerics and government representatives, the Iranian cleric said that Palestine was the foremost issue for the Islamic world, and that if the Muslim world had done its job well, the events taking place today in Palestine could have been prevented. He said that as the dialogue between Sunnis and Shi’ites expanded, it would put the Islamic world on the right track (ISNA, November 22, 2023).
    • Ayatollah Hosseini Bushehri, head of Qom Seminary Teachers’ Society, said at an event held online following the war in Gaza: “We say to the Palestinian people that today, the Shi’ites and Sunnis stand together, and even the Christians stand with you, and a united front has been formed against the occupying regime [Israel]” (Mehr, November 1, 2023).
    • Mojtaba Amini, Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview that the support of the “resistance groups” for Hamas showed the unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis. He noted that both Sunnis and Shi’ites believed in the Mahdaviyat culture (the belief in the return of the Mahdi) despite interpretive differences. He said Hamas’ activities were supported by all the resistance groups, including Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese, Yemenis, and Iraqis, which indicated unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis. He added that the unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis against Israel was one of the pillars of thought of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution (Defa Press, November 18, 2023).
Israel and the Wahhabis (the official religious school of thought in Saudi Arabia) are trying to undermine the unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis (Bultan News, January 4, 2015)
Israel and the Wahhabis (the official religious school of thought in Saudi Arabia) are trying to undermine the unity between Shi’ites and Sunnis (Bultan News, January 4, 2015)
Presenting Palestinians and Hamas as close to Shi’a
  • Despite efforts to promote Shi’ite-Sunni unity, the Islamic Republic has not changed its Shi’ite identity. Although Iran has not limited its efforts to Shi’ite Muslims and has not conditioned its assistance to Muslim movements and organizations around the world on their willingness to adopt Shi’ite Islam, it has given priority to consolidating its status and influence among Shi’ites. Moreover, part of its propaganda activity aimed at Sunni Muslims has included attempts to create an affinity with Shi’ite Islam. Thus, for example, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, conservative circles in Iran sought to link the struggle of the Palestinians in Gaza to the days of mourning for Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century (Tasuaa and Ashura), which were marked concurrently with the operation. The Ashura story plays a crucial role in fostering Iran’s culture of self-sacrifice, and marking the days of mourning amid the fighting gave the events in Gaza a special religious symbolic significance that was well exploited by senior politicians, clerics, and media in the country. Thus, for example, in a Friday sermon at Tehran University, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani referred to the events in Gaza and drew parallels between them and the massacre perpetrated by members of the Umayyad dynasty against Imam Hussein and his supporters. The events in the Gaza Strip, Rafsanjani said, represented the essence of jihad, whose objective was to fight against evil, and the Zionist enemy was as evil as Imam Hussein’s enemy and even worse (Fars News, January 2, 2009).
“Karbala of Gaza” (Basij News, October 19, 2023)
“Karbala of Gaza” (Basij News, October 19, 2023)
  • Even after the days of Ashura had passed, Iran continued its efforts to create an affinity between the Palestinians and the Shi’ites. According to an article published on several websites affiliated with the conservative faction, the religion and beliefs of Hamas and the Palestinians are close to Shi’ite Islam. This is because most Palestinians belong to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, which is considered the closest of the four schools of Islam to Shi’a because of its respect for the descendants of the House of Ali. The article listed mosques in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank named after key figures in Shi’ite Islam, among others: Ali bin Abi Talib, Fatima al-Zahra (Ali’s wife and daughter of the Prophet Muhammad), and Hussein bin Ali. The article also quoted Ayatollah Mortaza Motahari, one of the most prominent thinkers of the Islamic revolution, who, in a speech given in 1970, rejected claims that the Palestinians were enemies of Shi’a (Raja News, January 13, 2009).
  • This approach, which seeks to portray the Palestinians, including Hamas, as close to Shi’a, can also be found in commentaries published in Iran since the beginning of the war in Gaza:
    • On November 1, 2023, the Qods Online news website published a commentary article by cleric Hojjat-ul-Islam Hamid-Reza Gharib Reza, titled “Facts about the religion of the inhabitants of Palestine: Nasibi [a Shi’ite term for the enemies of the first Shi’ite imam, Ali bin Abi Talib, and his descendants] or Shafi’i?” According to the article, most of the residents of Palestine are Shafi’i, and the founder of the Shafi’i school himself, Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, was born in Gaza. According to the Shi’ite cleric, declaring a Muslim belonging to another religious school an infidel is intended to weaken the Muslim world. The Zionists seek to exploit the Shi’ite-Sunni rift by trying to frighten the Palestinians of the danger of Shi’ite expansion and calling the Palestinian fighters linked to Iran “mercenaries of Iran.” They also present the Palestinians to the Iranians and Shi’ites as “Nasibis” and enemies of Shi’a even worse than the Jews themselves.
    • According to Gharib Reza, the senior Shi’ite clerics (“sources of imitation”) never defined the Palestinians as Nasibi and called for the protection of Muslims in Palestine from the Zionists. The leader of the Islamic revolution, Khomeini, also stressed the need to mobilize all the oppressed and freedom-loving people in the world against Zionism. Thus, for example, in a fatwa issued by Khomeini in October 1968, he ruled that part of the charity money (Zakah)) paid by Muslims should be allocated to Fatah’s struggle against Israel, even though it is an organization with nationalist rather than religious-Islamic tendencies. Likewise, senior cleric Mortaza Motahari, in a fatwa he issued in 1970, distinguished between Sunnis who accepted Ali bin Abi Talib as the fourth caliph in Islam and treated him with respect, and the Nasibis, who saw him as an enemy. He ruled that the Palestinians were not Nasibi. He even noted that Laila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who took part in the hijacking of planes, had declared herself a Shi’ite.
    • Referring to the religion of the Palestinians, the Iranian cleric claimed that many Palestinians gave their children the names of members of the Prophet’s family (Ahl al-Bayt) and that there were mosques in Gaza and the West Bank named after Ali, Hussein, and Fatima, including mosques named after Ali bin Abi Talib in Gaza and Hawwara, mosques named after Hussein bin Ali in Gaza and Hebron, and mosques named after Fatima in Tulkarm and Nablus. He noted that the Mahdaviyat doctrine had played a vital role during the Second Intifada to recruit fighters against Zionism. For example, Nidal Farhat, one of the main operatives in Hamas’ military-terrorist wing, who manufactured Qassam rockets in Gaza and was killed in 2003, referred in his will to the Mahdi’s expected return on Judgment Day.
    • Gharib Reza detailed the efforts of the “Zionists and Wahhabis” to portray Hamas as collaborators of Iran and Shi’a to stir up differences of opinion among Muslims. This is even though Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood support cooperation with all Islamic and even non-Muslim forces against Zionism.
Ali bin Abi Talib mosque in the Gaza Strip (Fars News Agency, August 25, 2014)
Ali bin Abi Talib mosque in the Gaza Strip (Fars News Agency, August 25, 2014)
    • Hojjat-ul-Islam Hamza Ali Bahrami, a Shi’ite cleric from Isfahan University, also criticized those who portrayed Hamas as enemies of the Shi’ites (Nasibis). At a conference held in cooperation with the Basij organization of lecturers in Isfahan Province titled “Is Hamas a Salafist-Nasibi movement?”, Bahrami claimed that it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who compared Hamas to ISIS. According to the cleric, the only ones who deserve the derogatory term “Nasibis” are a group of supporters of Mu’awiyah, the first Umayyad caliph, who refused to accept Ali bin Abi Talib as the fourth caliph in Islam. On the other hand, all Sunni Muslims, including the Muslim Brotherhood, recognize Ali’s caliphate and have respect for him. He added that the Muslim Brotherhood stressed jihad against Zionism and the United States and did not show hostility towards the Shi’ites. This is unlike ISIS, which makes no distinction between Hamas and Israel and considers both infidels. Bahrami also noted that the founder of the Shafi’i school was accused by adherents of the extremist Hanbali school of sympathy for the Shi’ites and was, therefore, forced to flee Iraq to Egypt. He also served as an important source for later writing against the extremist view of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia (IQNA, November 22, 2023).
The conference titled “Is Hamas a Salafist-Nasibi Movement?” (Esfahan Basij website, http://baesf.ir, November 22, 2023)
The conference titled “Is Hamas a Salafist-Nasibi Movement?”
(Esfahan Basij website, http://baesf.ir, November 22, 2023)
    • Dr. Ayat Peyman, secretary-general of the General Assembly of the World Center for Shi’ite Studies, argued in a commentary article that the Palestinians, who belong to the Shafi’i school of thought, were greatly influenced by the Shi’ite culture of jihad and sacrifice, and therefore it was wrong to refer to them as Nasibis. He cited as an example the founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Fathi Shiqaqi, who adopted a positive view of Ayatollah Khomeini’s thinking and saw Iran under his leadership as a model. According to Peyman, Hamas also owes its growth and expansion to the success of the Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon, which succeeded in defeating Israel. While most Sunni political and religious leaders have acted and continue to operate under the influence of Western countries, the Shi’ite leadership in the Muslim world operates in the spirit of the principles of jihad and sacrifice. Therefore, it is clear that the younger generation of Palestinians is more influenced by the Shi’ite culture of resistance (Shafaqna, November 24, 2023).
    • The hardline religious preacher Mansour Arzi criticized those who did not pray for the Palestinians because they were not Shi’ites. He said the Palestinians were Shafi’is close to Shi’a, and the sufferings of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were reminiscent of the sufferings of Imam Hussein in Karbala (Fars, October 20, 2023).

[1] Meir Litvak, Know Thy Enemy: Evolving Attitudes towards “Others” in Modern Shi’i Thought and Practice (Leiden, 2021), pp. 117-118.
[2] Meir Litvak, “Iran, Shia, and the Arab Upheaval: The Ideological Response,” Strategic Assessment, Ideas and Ideologies, INSS Bulletin, Volume 24, No. 1, January 2021
https://www.inss.org.il/publication/iran-the-shia-and-the-arab-upheaval-the-ideological-response/