Who are the Egyptian Salafists? And what is their mission?

© Robert Bauval, 23 March 2012

The term ‘Salafi’ comes from ‘Al Salaf al Saleeh’, loosely translated as ‘the pious forefathers’, meaning those original Muslims who were companions of the Prophet Mohammad, as well as their direct followers. To be a Salafist is to relate oneself to “that group of people about whom the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “The best of people is my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them”, that is the first three generations of Muslims. It demands a strict adherence to the Qur’an and a code of behavior that is full conformity with its teachings.

But, of course, things are never as simple as that when it comes to interpretation of ‘Holy Scriptures’. Not only do interpretations differ widely, but the question also arises as to how to apply and impose these interpretations.  Today, especially in Egypt, there is a serious attempt to use the political route to impose Salafist beliefs and ideologies on society.

In brief, and in a wider definition of the term, Salafism can be said to have originated with the Prophet himself, and with his companions and their followers. As a modern movement, however, and according to Trevor Stanley, a researcher in Islamic terrorism and editor of Perspectives on World History and Current Events (Terrorism Monitor Volume 3 Issue: 14, July 2005) “Salafism originated in the mid to late 19th Century, as an intellectual movement at al-Azhar University, led by Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935).” Finally, as a political movement, Salafism in Egypt stems directly from the creation of the Nour Party (the ‘Light Party’) after the Tahrir Revolution of 25th January 2011. Their presence is more so felt in Egypt by winning 30% of the Parliamentary seats in 2012.

Today politics in the ‘New Egypt’ is full of contradictions and confusion. But here is one such contradiction that requires perhaps some deeper scrutiny: contemporary Salafists define themselves as Muslims who follow “literal, traditional…injunctions of the sacred texts”, and regard Ibn Taymiyyah as their ideal role model and “not the 19th century figures of Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida”.

Taqi al-Din Ahmed ibn Taymiyyah (1263 – 1328 AD), was a Muslim scholar and teacher born in Harran, Turkey. He was a follower of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780-855 AD. Regarded as the most famous Sunni theologian and a ‘father of Muslim Juriprudence (Fiqh)’. He is also widely known as ‘Sheikh el Islam’). Ibn Hanbal advocated the return to the original and pure interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.  (Fiqh is an ‘expansion’ of Sharia, the latter being a ‘code of conduct’ based on the Qur’an).

In other words, the Salafists today in Egypt link themselves to an earlier, non-Egyptian source, rather than the 19th century Egyptian source (of Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Rashid Rida). 

The ‘19th century figures’ of Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani are somewhat of an embarrassment to Islamic fundamentalists and Salafists. Not only these early Salafists admired the scientific, technological and social advancement of the Western World (generally seen as anathema by modern Salafists) and tried to merge them with their own belief that they, the Salafists, were the inheritors of the Golden Age of Islam that followed the Prophet, but it transpires that Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani were also senior members of a Western ‘secret society’ that today is vilified and banned by Muslims all over the world. In 2005 Matthew Scanlan, a well-known historian of Freemasonry, wrote an article in Freemasonry Today (Issue 31) titled ‘Freemasonry Serving Egypt’, in which he stated that,

‘Today it is a tragic irony that Freemasonry is falsely derided in much of the Muslim world as a stooge of Zionism, when some of the great names of Islam have in fact been keen Freemasons. And foremost among these were two towering figures of 19th century Islamic modernism –Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Sheikh Mohammad Abduh –both actually members of the same Egyptian lodge.”

Although born in Persia (modern Iran) and educated in Afghanistan, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani ‘travelled extensively before arriving in Egypt in 1871.” He was very awed by Western scientific achievements and became convinced that it could “eliminate economic backwardness and cultural sterility’ in the Muslim world. According to al-Afghani ‘a rediscovery of Islam’s scientific past would not only help Muslims materially, but also strengthen the unity of Islam’. In his own words,

“Those who imagine that they are saving religion by imposing a ban on some sciences and knowledge are enemies of religion.”

Al-Afghani believed that he could learn how Western nations had progressed with the use of science and technology if he fraternized with prominent Europeans in Egypt within the Masonic Lodges which, in those days, acted as meeting place and open forums to the elite. Al-Afghani consequently was initiated in 1875 into the Egyptian Lodge No.1355 Kawkab al-Sharq (The Star of the East). He was followed there by Mohammad Abduh, who was also initiated into Lodge 1355 in 1877. 

According to Ami Iseroff, writing for Encyclopedia of the Middle East (December 2008),

“There are at least three types of Muslim groups or movements who claim to be Salafi or are called Salafi:

1-      Conservatives like the Wahhabi

2-      Radical Islamists (or ‘Jihadists’) such as Al Q-Qaeda

3-      Liberal reformers like Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

Salafi fundamentalists are not necessarily all violent nor do all schools insist on interfering in political affairs. Some authorities class reformers such as Jamal_al-Din Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh as Salafists because they returned to early sources, but this construal is often not accepted by others (especially non-westerners), because both Afghani and Abduh favored reform by Itihad – innovation. They were only ‘Salafi’ in the sense that they wanted to disown much of Sharia law and return to what they considered to be ‘first principles,’ in order to liberalize Islam.” An attempt has been made to see the movement al-Afghani and Abduh as al Salafeya el Tanwiriyya (Enlightened Salafism) since, on the one hand it was a reformation of Islam seeking to restore it to its former glory using modernism, while on the other hand it advocated a return to the original pure form of Islam practiced by its original followers. They did not see this as a contradiction in terms, and deemed it feasible. In fact the term ‘Salafi’ was first coined as a slogan by followers of Mohammad Abduh, especially when after his death his disciple Rashid Reda moved closer to ‘traditional Salafism’ and the teachings of ibn Taymiyyah, after being influenced by Sheikh Mohammad abdel Hamid el fiqqi who drew him towards the ‘Saudi’ type of Salafism or Wahabbism. Thus even though the present Salafist politicized movement in Egypt rejects any connection to al-Afghani and Abduh, there embryonic origins in Egypt cannot simply be dissociated from them and, in consequence, to the connection these figures had with European Freemasonry.

At any rate, in 1964 President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned Freemasonry from Egypt when it was believed that the lodges had been infiltrated by Zionist spies. Since then Freemasonry has been regarded as some sort of ‘Zionist’ organization working against Islam and the Arab world. The fact that the State of Israel owes its creation to the direct support by US President Harry Truman, a prominent Freemason, as well as the Zionist lobby in Washington DC, has strengthen the view that some sort of Zionist-Masonic-American conspiracy exists to control the Muslim/Arab world. Not unexpectedly, in 1978 the Islamic Jurisdictional College of El-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the most influential Sunni organizations for interpreting Islamic law, issued the following statement:

“Freemasonry is a clandestine organization, which conceals or reveals its system, depending on the circumstances. Its actual principles are hidden from members, except for chosen members of its higher degrees. The members of the organization, worldwide, are drawn from men without preference for their religion, faith, or sect. The organization attracts members on the basis of providing personal benefits. It traps men into being politically active, and its aims are unjust. New members participate in ceremonies of different names and symbols, and are too frightened to disobey its regulations and orders. Members are free to practice their religion, but only members who are atheists are promoted to its higher degrees, based on how much they’re willing to serve its dangerous principles and plans. It is a political organization. It has served all revolutions, as well as military and political transformations. In all dangerous changes, a relation to this organization appears either exposed or veiled. It is a Jewish organization in its roots. Its secret higher international administrative board is made up of Jews, and it promotes Zionist (pro-Israel) activities. Its primary objectives are the distraction of all religions, and it distracts Muslims from Islam.It tries to recruit influential financial, political, social, or scientific people to utilize them. It does not consider applicants it cannot utilize. It recruits kings, prime ministers, high government officials, and similar individuals. It has branches under different names as a camouflage, so people cannot trace its activities, especially if the name of Freemasonry has opposition. These hidden branches are known as Lions, Rotary, and others. They have wicked principles that completely contradict the rules of Islam. There is a clear relationship between Freemasonry, Judaism, and international Zionism. It has controlled the activities of high Arab officials in the Palestinian conflict. Any Muslim who affiliates with it, knowing the truth of its objectives, is an infidel to Islam

The growing conflict between El-Azhar and the Salafists in Egypt has been discussed in an article in the Terrorism Monitor (Volume 8 Issue 35, 16 September 2010 which points out that,

“Having emerged from a period of religiously inspired terrorist violence in the 1990s, Egypt has since been regarded as a regional bulwark against Islamist militancy in the Arab Middle East. However, a new ideological struggle is emerging between the religious scholars of Cairo’s al-Azhar University (Sunni Islam’s preeminent institution of scholarship and religious rulings) and Egypt’s growing Salafist movement, largely concentrated in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria. Recently, al-Azhar’s Shaykh (leader) equated the threat posed by Salafism to the danger posed to Islam by secularism, Marxism and Christian missionaries. Views expressed in a recent interview with current al-Azhar Shaykh Dr. Ahmad al-Tayeb were only one indication of the ongoing conflict between al-Azhar and Salafist movements in Egypt, especially with the attempts of al-Tayeb to revive al-Azhar’s role as a central and effective player in the management and guidance of religious affairs not only in Egypt but throughout the Islamic world (al-Ahram Daily, July 10; al-Ahram Weekly, August 19-25). The interview included harsh criticism of the Wahhabi-based Salafist currents, with al-Tayeb declaring a campaign against Salafism, which he deems alien to Egypt and funded by foreign countries. Describing Salafists and their activities, al-Tayeb said, “In the absence of al-Azhar’s role, Salafists and other foreign sects have become active, with Wahhabism trying to fill the vacuum, leading to the spread of Saudi fiqh [religious jurisprudence] at the expense of moderate fiqh.” Al-Tayeb’s interview provoked commentary from Salafist internet forums in Egypt, with one activist angrily stating, “How could you (al-Tayeb) put what you called Wahhabists in the same sentence with anti-Islam people like Christian missionaries and Marxists?” Another activist in the same forum called al-Tayeb’s remarks a war on the rising Salafist currents in Egypt “expected from [an] al-Azhar Shaykh with Sufist inclinations.” The activists further described both al-Tayeb and Egypt’s Mufti, Dr. Ali Goma’a, as “advocates of turbaned scholars,” whose popularity is diminishing compared to the rising fame of Salafist shaykhs such as the Alexandria School figures and Shaykhs Muhammad Hassan, Abu Ishaq al-Hoyaini and Muhammad Hussein Yaqub. That argument deepened so much so that some rumored about al-Tayeb’s plan to expel scholars with Salafist inclinations from al-Azhar University. Al-Tayeb, however, denied that would be the case (al-Osbou Weekly, July 29). It is vital here to point out that this was not the first time al-Tayeb has attacked Salafists since assuming his post as al-Azhar Grand Shaykh on March 19, 2010. He launched a scathing attack on them during an April interview with al-Arabiya News Channel. Al-Tayeb accused them of sophistry, saying Salafist thinking is alien to Islam, having a pedigree of less than 200 years. Al-Tayeb added during the TV interview that he was “concerned such thinking might spread in Egypt, as al-Azhar and moderate thinking dominate Islamic life in Egypt” (al-Arabiya, April 2).”

All this, needless to say, creates a potent brew of social ideologies and political objectives that not only are very confusing to the ordinary Egyptian in the street about to vote for the very first time in a multi-party presidential elections and in a possible referendum on a new constitution, but could be the wick of a powder keg that could blow Egyptian society into an inner conflict  –a wick that, once lit, would be very difficult to diffuse.


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