The war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which began over Bahrain and the 'Arab spring', has crossed over from the temporal world to the spiritual. The newly-appointed Saudi Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdulaziz Al Shaikh began the spat when he made a patently racist comment in an interview with the Jeddah-based Okaz paper some three weeks ago. "A little thing is known about the Safavids and their doctrine. They are known for their black history laden with hatred to Islam and Sunnis. We must be wary of the Iranians’ intrigues and be careful of their deceit and not fall for their claims about Islam, which are all hypocrisy and deception", the Wahhabi religious head reportedly said.
The highly tendentious reference to the Savafids who established the Twelver school of Shi'ite Islam as the official religion in Iran opens up the hugely controversial Wahhabi insistence that the Iranians are not Muslims and that the 1979 revolution was not 'Islamic' but was an Iranian revolution. The Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) had its origin in the Safaviyya Sufi order, which was established in the city of Ardabil in the Azerbaijan region. From their base in Ardabil, the Safavids established control over all of Greater Iran and reasserted the Iranian identity of the region, thus becoming the first native dynasty since the Sassanid Empire to establish a unified Iranian state. Despite the relative brevity of the Saffavid dynasty, the legacy that it left behind was the revival of Persia as an economic stronghold between East and West, the establishment of an efficient state and bureaucracy based upon “checks and balances”, their architectural innovations and their patronage for fine arts. The Safavids have also left their mark down to the present era by spreading Shi'a Islam in major parts of the Caucasus and West Asia.
Quite obviously, the Saudi grand mufti calculatedly intended to insult Iran and to provoke the Iranian establishment, which has been savvy enough so far not to fall into the US-Saudi trap to polarise the Sunni Muslim Middle East - especially the Persian Gulf countries - on the basis of an alleged rise of resurgent Shi'ism. The Saudi grand mufti most probably spoke at the instance of the ruling family. At any rate, the Saudis finally succeeded in compelling the Iranian religious establishment to respond.
The response has come from the highly respected Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi who is based in the holy city of Qom. He shot off a letter to the Saudi grand mufti where he accused the latter of serving the interests of the United States and Israel by dividing the 'ummah' at this historic juncture.
Shirazi raises a very pertinent question: “You, the Wahhabi grand mufti, have forgotten that if it had not been for Shia Muslims in Iran and Lebanon, Israel and the United States would have gained domination over the entire Middle East. And it is not clear where your muftis were and what they were doing at the time. When Israel was massacring Muslims in Gaza, most of whom were Sunni, Shias in Iran and other places supported them (the Gazan Muslims), and if it had not been for their support, Israel would have continued (committing) atrocities." The reference is to the doublespeak of the Saudis, especially their underhand dealings with the US-Israel axis and their lack of commitment to the Palestine problem.
The passing away of the old Saudi grand mufti in February seems to have enabled the Saudi regime to put in place a more pliable character as the new grand mufti. Interestingly, the Saudi grand mufti's tirade against Shi'ism hasn't had many takers in the Middle East. There seems to be all-round embarrassment that the Saudi regime is desperately stoking the fires of sectarianism in its existential struggle to survive the current upheaval in the Middle East. Interestingly, the Egyptian grand mufti in Cairo is on record that Shi'ite jurisprudence is acceptable to the 'ummah'.
The controversy arises at a sensitive time when Egypt is careering away from Saudi Arabia in its regional policies; there is tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian regime; Bahrain is in turmoil; Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite eastern provinces (oil-rich) are restive; Yemen is descending into anarchy and tribal/clan struggle; and, most important, Iran and Egypt have joined hands as the torchbearers of the Palestinian cause.