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Being Shia in Cairo: The Struggles of Commemorating Ashura

What happens when the state denies access to one of Islam's holiest shrines on Ashura?

Staff Writer

With milder weather and sweaters taking over the streets of Cairo as the autumn season firmly sets upon us – while we trade frappes for lattes, plan Halloween costumes, and imagine the wildest New Year’s Eve parties – the Muslim world, however, is not celebrating yet. For the last ten days, Muslims all over the world were in remembrance of one of the bloodiest days in their faith’s history, the day of Ashura, and Cairo has been no exception to that.The day of Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Al-Hussein. Killed and dismembered along with most of his family, companions, and an army of 72 men in the Battle of Karbala in modern day Iraq on October 10th 680, Imam Al-Hussein’s head is believed to be buried in the ground of the eponymous Al-Hussein Mosque, making it one of Cairo’s holiest Islamic sites. Cairo’s Al-Hussein Mosque, primly located opposite Al-Azhar and right behind the famous Moez Street, hosts Imam Al-Hussein’s mausoleum, having at its centre the burial casket intricately decorated. Protected by two massive wooden doors adorned with delicate silver floral carvings, access to the mosque and the casket is usually accessible to people seeking to pay their tribute and respect.On Ashura day, not only have the doors of the mosque been closed, but access to Al-Hussein Mosque has been officially denied. A predominantly Shia commemoration, observing the day of Ashura in Cairo has been subject to rising sectarian tensions over the last few years, leading religious authorities to ban any form of congregation at Al-Hussein Mosque on this day. This year has been no exception.

On Tuesday the 10th of October, Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments decided to close Al-Hussein Mosque until Thursday the 12th. The Ministry of Religious Endowments runs mosques in Egypt in accordance with Sunni doctrine and does not recognise Shia mosques or rituals. In addition, Salafis – who are ultra-conservative Sunnis – reject the Shia denomination altogether and consider it a heresy.The first time Al-Hussein Mosque was closed on Ashura was in December 2011, when the Egyptian Shia community made headlines as a group of them publicly celebrated Ashura and clashes erupted between local Salafi groups and the attending Shias. The clashes erupted when Egyptian security forces forcibly removed Shia worshippers from the mosque as they were accused of performing 'barbaric rituals' ending in the arrest of dozens of people and the mosque’s closure.  

The rituals in questions refer to how a majority of devout Shia Muslims mourn the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson with rituals including mass flagellation during which people draw their own blood to emulate the suffering of Imam Al-Hussein. Such parades during which men and boys beat themselves with chains, sometimes with blades attached to them, have become bigger and more prominent in recent times.

Since the 2011 events, the Al-Hussein Mosque has been reportedly closing on Ashura day, with this year’s closure announced only hours ahead of the religious celebration to avoid any possible conflicts towards Cairo’s Shia minority.

Egypt’s minority Shia population is thought to make up around one percent of the population, with estimated numbers to range from 800,000 to about two million. For decades, international organisations – including the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International – have documented instances in which Egyptian Shias have been targeted for their religious beliefs, a fact reported by UN refugee agency UNHCR, highlighting the fact that Egyptian Shias feel that they cannot practice their religious rituals in Egypt.  Although Shia Islam has a long pedigree in Egypt – with Cairo founded, named, and established as a capital in 969 by the Shia Fatimid dynasty which ruled Egypt for 200 years, and with Al-Azhar University originally founded as a Shia university in 970 that shaped Cairo’s identity – hostility towards Egypt’s minority Shia community is firmly rooted in modern politics, with the bad blood originating between predominantly Sunni Egypt and Shia-dominated Iran going back to the early days of Iran’s 1979 Revolution. The two countries severed diplomatic ties after former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel and granted asylum to Iran’s exiled Shah Reza Pahlavi.  

Fast forward to 2012, it was reported that a group of mostly Salafi demonstrators surrounded the residence of Iran’s Chargé d’Affaires in Cairo to protest a new tourism exchange protocol that saw the arrival or Iranian tourists in Egypt for the first time in over 30 years.

With a stronger crackdown on religious minority groups in post-revolutionary Egypt, a series of events contributed to the already tense environment when it comes to the Shia community in Egypt. For instance, in 2012, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb reportedly chaired a meeting with Islamist forces allegedly including Muslim Brotherhood members and Salafis, declaring total rejection of "attempts to spread Shiism in Egypt." The same year, Mohamed Afsour, a young Shia Muslim man was sentenced to three years in jail for allegedly “insulting the Prophet Mohamed’s companions.” In 2013, four Egyptian Shias were killed by an angry mob in Giza village following anti-Shia incitement by Salafi preachers. 

While precautionary, the Ministry of Religious Endowment’s recent decision to deny access to Al-Hussein Mosque seemed contrary to any principle of freedom of religious practices, but also needed verification. With the backdrop of rising sectarian tensions in mind, four of CairoScene’s as-ethnically-diverse-as-possible members ventured to Al-Hussein Mosque the day following Ashura. From the moment we hailed a cab that refused to take us to the site to the second driver who was growing increasingly uncomfortable when we were discussing all things Ashura related, the tension was palpable. Yet, mum was the word.

When we approached the main gates of Al-Hussein mosque, a quiet gathering was taking place, with religious men having a watchful eye on the midan – on the mix of worshippers, street vendors, tourists, and what appeared to be the odd worshippers here and there. The gates to the mosque were clearly closed. The loaded whispers that we could gather were a unanimous, stern nod of disapprobation from the crowd regarding whatever was taking place inside the mosque. When asked what was actually happening, we were left hanging, almost literally, then eyed suspiciously.Our cameras appeared threatening, our looks out of place. However, as the sun was setting and the time of the evening prayer of maghreb was coming to a close, the doors of the Al-Hussein Mosque swiftly opened and saw all the men milling around the midan rushing in the spectacular main hall hosting 41 white marble columns supporting the marvellous structure that is Al-Hussein Mosque.

The general movement led towards Imam Al-Hussein’s casket, whose doors were heavily closed. Yet, worshippers were not deterred and leaned on the door carrying their remembrance. For those of the CairoSceners who wished to pray, we did so, yet feeling under constant scrutiny. In fact, as soon as the prayers terminated, the men’s hall filled with a heavy police presence with one officer per prayer matt row.Although contrary to what was announced, the Al-Hussein Mosque was not entirely closed off from access as of Wednesday the 11th of October; the heavy atmosphere, the palpable tension, and suspicion made for a day of taking caution rather than undertaking a commemoration.

Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ezz El Masry