Sheikh Arifi’s arrival in the UK divides opinion

Sheikh al-Arifi at IERA dawah stall in London

The arrival of an Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia in the UK has caused concerns amongst different groups in the Muslim community over the fear of increased sectarian tensions.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Arifi arrived in the UK this week and is scheduled to give lectures at numerous events and mosques during his stay.

The Sunni cleric is renowned for his anti-Shia and anti-Sufi stance as well as his staunch opposition to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Some Muslim leaders fear that his presence will cause sectarian divisions within the Muslim community in Britain whilst others have welcomed him.

Syria and sectarianism

Sheikh al-Arifi spoke at a conference last week in Cairo, attended by 70 Sunni scholars from around the Arab world, urging Muslims to engage in jihad against the Assad regime.

The declaration of jihad at the conference was issued along with some rhetoric against the Shia because of Shia leaders giving backing to President Bashar al Assad. Saudi Arabian clerics are infamous for their firm opposition against Shia Muslims and those from Sufi backgrounds, branding some as non-Muslims and deviants.

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The ongoing civil war in Syria which has cost over 100,000 lives and displaced millions has become a topic separating Muslims on sectarian lines. The Sunni majority rebels are supported by Arab states and the West, while the Assad regime (which is partially Alawite) is supported by Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

This thick line drawn between the two camps on sectarian lines has not only spilled over regionally but internationally to Muslim diasporas in the West.

The arrival of Sheikh al-Arifi is likely to stir further emotions on this sensitive topic and no doubt he will be asked to give his thoughts and opinions on the issue of Syria and Shias.

Welcome or not?

Whilst many have raised concerns about his presence in the UK, namely leaders of Shia organizations, some Sunni leaders have also opposed his trip. However, not everyone is against his arrival in the UK, many Muslims have welcomed him, seen possible positives that he may offer and others see no issue with Sheikh al-Arifi speaking at events or mosques in the UK.


Director of  intra-faith and anti-Muslim monitoring organization Tell Mama, Fiyaz Mughal was tipped off about Sheikh Arifi’s arrival and is currently liaising with the Home Office.

Labour MP for Birmingham, Khalid Mahmood said: “These preachers are purely here to promote themselves and create divisions where none need to exist. The Home Office must take action on this issue. This is just another branch of hatred, and it’s bizarre the Home Office doesn’t listen to people who are concerned about this.”

Yousef Al-Khoei, director of a leading Shia institution, The Al-Khoei foundation said: “We have had a very cordial relationship for many years between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But preachers come from abroad, and try to stir it [division] up. Arifi has been very vocal in trying to create these divisions. But we will work to make sure these guys don’t win. He has said he is on a mission, a jihad, at a lecture in Egypt. And we expect him to say this, and expect that his very presence on British land to be controversial.”

The leader of Newham Ulema Forum and Ulema Council of UK, Imam Sohail Bawa said: “If Sheikh al-Arifi is coming to the UK to stir up sectarian division then he is not welcome here. The last thing Muslims in Britain need is disunity.”


Sheikh al-Arifi met with members of the Islamic human rights organization Cageprisoners earlier this week. He was welcomed by director Moazzam Begg and director of research Asim Qureshi who shared with him the work CP carries out.

Asim Qureshi wrote on his Facebook page: “Shaykh Muhammad al-Arifi showed a keen interest in the work of CagePrisoners. During our meeting with him earlier today, he asked many profound questions that indicated his deep concern for justice and the plight of those that are denied their rights in the War on Terror.”

Sheikh al-Arifi also joined members of IERA in their street dawah stalls in London on Tuesday and have welcomed him to participate in their activities. IERA followers have also shown support for the renowned Saudi scholar on social media who has over five million followers on Twitter. Numerous Salafi orientated organizations have also welcomed Sheikh al-Arifi.

Media spokesman for IERA, Saleem Chagtai said to 5 Pillarz: “We welcome Sheikh al-Arifi as he is arguably the most popular scholar in social media with millions of Twitter followers. Given the sheikh is so popular in the East, it makes sense that he comes to the West to see what the unique challenges Muslims are facing here. I met him personally and he is a jovial and affable character masha’Allah and is interested in giving dawah to non-Muslims.”

I am not a spokesman for Sheikh al-Arifi, but he is not a sectarian person. While he has been here, he has not criticised any Muslims which shows he understands the need for unity amongst us especially as a minority living in the UK. We Muslims need to be more thick-skinned and understand that criticism should not lead to disunity.”

“The Islamic etiquette is to take criticism on its merits and “if the cap fits, wear it”, so to speak. A Muslim is a mirror to another according to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and we should appreciate that if someone criticizes us or advises us to the truth, they are doing us a favour and fulfilling their duty towards Allah.”

The scholar has referred to Britain on Twitter as “one of the most just countries in Europe towards Muslims” and described Britons as “pleasant, polite and respectful towards all religions” and that he was impressed with their “pleasant treatment and development”.

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