Shīʿism in South Africa – A Sunnī Perspective


Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan

28 October 1998

In a world that is becoming increasingly hostile towards Islam and Muslims, the need for solidarity amongst Muslims has become acutely pronounced. It would be logical to expect from advocates of such solidarity that they do not actively engage in or support activities that might prove disastrous to Muslim unity, and that they would by no means allow such activities to exist. What, then, are the implications of unabated Shi‘i missionary activity in Sunni societies, with the full support—by deed or by acquiescence—of the Iranian government?

The success of the Iranian revolution in 1979 caused major changes in the Muslim world. Repercussions of the revolution can be witnessed wherever Muslims happen to live, and South Africa in this regard is no exception.

The Iranian Revolution and South African Muslims

There had been considerable political awareness amongst South African Muslims before 1979, considering their exposure to apartheid on the one hand, and to the political thought and struggles of men like Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and Abul A‘la Mawdudi on the other. Many of the Islamist political figures in South Africa, if not all of them, cut their teeth on the example set by the Ikhwan al-Muslimun in the Middle East and the Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan. Political awareness amongst South African Muslims was therefore not the result of the Iranian revolution, but the revolution did serve to add an important dimension to that awareness: the knowledge that the struggle to raise the political standard of Islam in the modern world can succeed, despite the stoutest opposition of a hostile West.

Shi‘ism in South Africa before 1979

What the revolution also succeeded in doing was to catapult the issue of Shi‘ism onto centre stage. Nowhere in the 300 years of Islam in South Africa is there evidence of an acute awareness of Shi‘ism as could be seen after 1979. The sum total of the South African Muslims’ experience with Shi‘ism was the presence of a handful of Ismaili Khoja families, the exile of the Shah of Iran to South Africa in 1941, and the Iranian involvement in the building of Sasol during the sixties. In fact, the latter two cases cannot really be regarded as the experience of South African Muslims, since contact in these two cases was limited to the ruling White elite, rather than the Muslims of the country. Amongst the ‘ulama too, the knowledge of those who knew something about Shi‘ism was limited to what their textbooks contained. On the whole, when the revolution of 1979 dawned on the world, Muslims in South Africa knew more about Qadianism and Bahaism, both of which had by that time barely completed a century in existence, than about Shi‘ism, despite a history of over thirteen hundred years.

Awareness after 1979

It was the revolution that drew Muslims’ attention to Shi‘ism. To South African Muslims there were two aspects to the revolution. There was its Islamic character, in which Muslims everywhere discovered an invigorating source of inspiration; and there was the element of Shi‘ism. In some circles the initial euphoria was supplanted with suspicion and distrust as soon as the presence of this element was realised. Publications warning the public against being deceived by the revolution, and bearing information about the truth behind Shi‘ism came into circulation. This was the first time South African Muslims became acutely aware of Shi‘ism, and their response to the “awareness drive” was varied.


Firstly, there were those upon whom the warnings and exposures were immediately effective. It created in them an aversion to Shi‘ism, with the result that they became negatively disposed towards the revolution itself, notwithstanding its Islamic character. The response of this group can be ascribed to their readiness to adhere to the word of their ‘ulama and to rely upon their guidance in all matters of Deen.

Secondly, there were those who were already quite indifferent—even to the point of being scornful—to whatever guidance the ‘ulama might venture to give. To such as these it mattered not what differences make up the gorge that separates the Ahl as-Sunnah from the Shi‘ah. Shi‘ite views on the early history of Islam and their peculiar departures from Sunni perspectives in theology and jurisprudence as outlined in the publications of the ‘ulama were dismissed, either as malicious fabrications, or as inconsequential truths. This was an intensely politicised group, and to them the obvious yardstick for decision-making had to be political activity. It was this yardstick that caused them to lose confidence in the ‘ulama; it would be the same yardstick that would influence their decision in this matter. The Iranian revolution had to be right, and there could be nothing so diabolical about Shi‘ism, for the simple reason that they were politically active. Furthermore, it was the Shi‘ah of Iran who brought to fulfillment a dream the rest of the Muslim world could not achieve, despite trying. To many there could be no clearer testimony to the bona fides of Shi‘ism.

Trends amongst pro-Shi‘ites

With the passage of the years there would emerge three distinct trends within this second group. While a core group remained dedicated to ideals of Muslim unity despite differences, there were some who eventually succumbed to an objective look at Shi‘ism, developing negative sentiments towards Shi‘ism, but sustaining a measure of admiration for the revolution as a triumph for Islam against the hegemony of the West. In other words, the outward Islamic character revolution would still be admired, but there would be grave reservations over Shi‘ism as a manifestation of true Islam. Then there was a third group whose admiration for the Islamic character of the revolution would eventually assume larger proportions. Admiration for the revolution became admiration for the Shi‘ah, and admiration for the Shi‘ah grew into admiration for Shi‘ism. Soon there was a group in Cape Town that declared their acceptance of Ithna ‘Ashari Shi‘ism in a letter to the MJC, despite an obvious ignorance of the teachings of the sect.


With the first and the third groups thus disposed towards Shi‘ism, the stage was set for the next step: propaganda. Ever since the revolution the Muslim world had been flooded with scores of books, periodicals and newsletters bearing information about the revolution, about the war with Iraq, and about Shi‘ism per se. Many of these books articles would gradually become more than mere explanations of Shi‘ism. They would in fact become invitations to Shi‘ism, and trample upon issues sacred and personalities revered by the Ahl as-Sunnah. In due time books like Then I was Guided were translated and disseminated. The Muraja‘at of ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din too, was published in English under the title The Straight Path, and serialised in certain Iranian periodicals with a worldwide readership.

More significant, however, was the deployment of Shi‘ite missionaries in the predominantly Sunni Muslim world. In certain African countries whose people were as ignorant about Shi‘ism as the Muslims of South Africa, Shi‘ite theological institutions were suddenly established. In Zimbabwe Muslims had to take recourse to their government to keep the Shi‘ite missionaries at bay. South Africa, once again, was no exception. In both Cape Town and Durban there are centres engaged in the propagation of Shi‘ism, not only amongst non-Muslims, but amongst Sunni Muslims as well. These centres are manned by trained missionaries who make no secret of their mission, which is to convert people, whether non-Muslims or Sunnis, to the fold of Shi‘ism. The literature they disseminate and the teachings they spread have contributed to add a new dimension to the “export of the revolution”. It seems that the revolutionary spirit of Islam is no longer the only item earmarked for export from Tehran. It is to be accompanied by another package clearly marked: Shi‘ism. In light of the presence of Iranian missions actively engaged in the propagation of Shi‘ism throughout the Sunni world, no one can be blamed for believing that the government in Tehran sponsors the propagation of Shi‘ism amongst Sunni Muslims.


If this is true, it will mean to Sunni Muslims that the warnings of the ‘ulama for the past decade and a half, have all along contained more than just a bit of truth. The Shi‘ah of Iran were never interested in merely forging a bridge of unity over differences that have kept them apart from mainstream Islam for over a thousand years. Their intention in forging that bridge was only to have the Ahl as-Sunnah walk over to their side of the gorge. If ever they dreamt of welding Muslims all over the world into a single force to present a united front to the enemies of Islam, it was under the banner of Shi‘ism that they planned it to happen. Even within Iran itself there has been sufficient evidence of their intentions. Permission has been withheld for Sunnis to build a masjid of their own in Teheran, Sunni leaders have been detained, Sunni organisations disbanded by the authorities, madaris of the Ahl as-Sunnah taken by force and converted, and an Iranian Sunni writes about a conspiracy to convert all Iranian Sunnis to Shi‘ism within fifty years after the revolution.

How does all this appear against the backdrop of the slogan of unity, “There is no such a thing as a Sunni or a Shi‘i; we are all brothers”? How can we blame anyone for suspecting treachery on the part of a people for whom “taqiyyah is nine tenths of Iman”, a sect that teaches that “whoever has no taqiyyah has no Iman”? [Taqiyyah means to act or speak falsely for the sake of convenience.] Why, even the most dull-witted will not fail to detect dishonesty in the intentions of people who sanctimoniously raise slogans of unity, but at the same time dispatch missionaries to convert the Ahl as-Sunnah to Shi‘ism. How does the government in Teheran account for the presence and the activities of Shi‘ite missionaries striving to convert their Sunni “brothers” in other countries?

There will be those who argue that it is the mujtahids of Qum, with their vast financial resources, who are behind the campaign to proselytise the Ahl as-Sunnah, and that the Iranian government, who represent the line of Imam Khomeini, are innocent of any such intentions. Even so, we are still left wondering why a government that takes its guidance from Imam Khomeini’s line of thought, and claims to have the global unity of Muslims at heart, why such a government has up to date done nothing at all to halt a campaign that is bound to destroy the dream of Sunni-Shi‘i unity.

Because in truth, that is precisely what the Shi‘ite campaign to proselytise the Ahl as-Sunnah is headed for. One would have to be very naive indeed to imagine that the Ahl as-Sunnah are going to take a mission of this nature lying down. First of all, there will be the realisation that the slogans of unity were nothing but pretense. There might be even be a rude awakening to the fact that the very concept of unity with a people who attempt to convert the children of those whom they call their “brothers in faith” is  like a mirage, in sandy deserts, which the man parched with thirst mistakes for water; until when he comes to it, he finds it to be nothing. (Surah an-Nur:39).

There will follow detailed critical studies of the religion of the Shi‘ah, exposures of the fallacies and heresies inherent in their legacy of dogma and tradition, disclosures of the treason against Islam that they were guilty of in history, and of crimes that they committed against the Ahl as-Sunnah at various points in time. And if you imagine that this is all very one-sided, that it is always the Ahl as-Sunnah who are attacking the Shi‘ah in ways such as are mentioned, think again. Who is it that accused the Sahabah y of apostasy after the death of the Prophet r, that lay the blame for the “most serious deviation in the history of Islam” at the door of those very same Sahabah? Who is it that accused the earliest generations of Muslims, the very men of Badr and Uhud, of distorting the religion of Muhammad r when the heat of life had not yet left his holy body,  of distorting and corrupting the Qur’an itself, and of physically assaulting, and even killing, his immediate family? Are not all these attacks on the Ahl as-Sunnah? For indeed, if the Sahabah are not the Ahl as-Sunnah, no one is.

Yes, you might say, these are incidents that occurred in history; we have to face the facts; it is no use to turn a blind eye and imagine that it did not happen. Similarly, we reply, we will only be “facing the facts” when we disclose heretical elements in the belief structure of the Shi‘ah, or when we narrate to you how eminent ‘ulama of the Shi‘ah conspired with the Tartars to bring about the fall of Baghdad, one of the most calamitous happenings in the history of Islam. We will only be “putting things in their historical perspective” when we uncover that the overwhelming majority of the population of the land that was once called Persia were once of the Ahl as-Sunnah, and that it was the rise of the Safavid empire five hundred years ago that resulted in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis (forty thousand in the city of Tabriz on one single day), with many preferring exodus from their homeland over conversion to the Shi‘ah religion, while those who remained behind, bereft of their `ulama and their leaders, simply had Shi‘ism forced down their throats. It was in this way, and no other, that Shi‘ism became the state religion of Iran: by murdering the masses, sending them into exile, and by forcible conversion.

Historical roots

This brings us to another point of interest. A contemporary Shi`ite writer, Muhammad ‘Ali Tabataba’i, describes the rise of the Safavids as the “result of a renaissance in the Shi‘ite world.” We can see what fruits that renaissance has borne. A land that once boasted a majority of Sunnis in excess of 80 per cent, the same land that produced the cream of scholarship amongst the Ahl as-Sunnah—Imam al-Ghazali, Imam Muslim, Sayyid ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Imam Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi, amongst thousands of others—that very same land has today become the bastion of Shi‘ism; a change, history acknowledges, wrought by force of the sword.

The overthrow of the Shah in 1979 was no less the result of a renaissance in the world of Shi‘ism than was the establishment of the Safavid empire in the 1500s. And in the twentieth century, it must be admitted, wars are more often fought by propaganda than by combat. So we leave you to ponder over the following question: The mission of the Shi‘ah to convert Sunni Muslims: is it a mere coincidence, or is it the twentieth century version of the Safavid sword?

Shi‘ite proselytisation and 300 years of Islam

The seeds of Islam were planted in South Africa by awliya, ‘ulama and mujahidun of the Ahl as-Sunnah. It was practiced according to the madhahib of Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam ash-Shafi‘i, and the ‘aqidah of the Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama‘ah. For over three hundred years South African Muslims have  drawn spiritual sustenance from the teachings and practices of the mashayikh of the ‘Alawi, Chishti and Qadiri orders of Tasawwuf. Now all of a sudden, there is the call to embrace Shi‘ism as the original, uncorrupted version of Islam. What does this amount to?

It amounts to the denial of a rich legacy of struggle, sacrifice and survival. It means in essence, that the Islam taught by Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar, the Islam so meticulously outlined, and so jealously guarded by Tuan Guru of Tidore, the Islam that produced our martyr Imam ‘Abdullah Haroon, that that Islam had all along been, to put it mildly, a distorted Islam. It means that the Islam for which our ancestors fought and died, for which they were exiled from their homes, the Islam that has managed to survive every onslaught despite insurmountable odds—that that Islam was nothing but an empty shell. It means that now, after we have struggled and survived for over three centuries, missionaries from Iran will teach us true Islam. There will be those who will reason that this is the same type of argument the pagans of Makkah used against the Prophet r. But let them remember that to reason in that way is to equate the Islam of the Ahl as-Sunnah with the paganism of the Jahiliyyah.

And since we have now come to this point, isn’t that what the propagation of Shi‘ism amongst a Sunni public actually amounts to? When Shi‘ite leaders in Iran despatch missionaries to South Africa and other parts of the world to propagate Shi‘ism between the Ahl as-Sunnah, doesn’t that imply quite clearly that the form of Islam as practised by the targets of such a mission is not a valid form of Islam? Why else would they deem it necessary to proselytise Sunnis? We do not see the Hanafis of India or Turkey, for example, sending missionaries to convert the Shafi‘is of Indonesia or the Malikis of Morocco to their madhhab. This is simply because none of them believes the form of Islam practised by the other to be an invalid form of Islam. So when Shi‘ite missionaries start arriving in Sunni countries, the implications are clear: It is because they regard the religion of the Ahl as-Sunnah as a false religion that they feel the need to convert them to Shi‘ism.

If it is claimed that the conclusion drawn here is erroneous, and that the Shi‘ah do not regard the Islam practiced by the Ahl as-Sunnah as an invalid form of Islam, then why is there this mission to convert them? If it were that the Shi‘ah regarded their own Islam as well as the Islam of the Sunnis as true expressions of Islam, they would never have disturbed the harmony by sending missionaries to convert their Sunni “brothers”. But by doing so they have revealed their real opinion about the religion of their “brothers”, and by their own hands they have destroyed the illusion of Sunni-Shi‘i unity once so carefully nurtured?