Book review: Roots of the Salafist Movement in Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 19 May 2011

Shalata researched the Salafist movement, tracking its origins outside Egypt and its path into Egyptian society, highlighting their recent activities and sources of power among Egyptian youth

Al-Hala Al-Salafeya Al-Moasera fi Masr (The Contemporary Salafist Movement in Egypt) by Ahmed Zaghloul Shalata, Cairo: Madbouly Bookstore, pp. 368, 2010.

Throughout the 18 days of the Egyptian revolution until the resignation of ex-president Mubarak, there was almost no sign of Salafists on the scene. Their appearance was limited to a few statements about the importance of obeying the ruler and that revolting was religiously improper. They were never concerned with the issue of extending Mubarak's rule or of Gamal inheriting it; never concerned with who was ruling Egypt as long as he was ruling by the Holy Book of God. They insisted that all the debate about a civil state, democracy and freedom was nothing but a sack of foreign luggage from the West that doesn't concern Muslims in any way.

Yet the voice of Salafists grew louder and louder and is currently perhaps the loudest and noisiest one. This is possibly due to the fear—or even terror—that other constituents, including Copts, feel towards Salafists because of their alarming political slogans in demonstrations, sermons, debates and even religious classes.

In The Contemporary Salafist Movement in Egypt, the author Ahmed Zaghloul Shalata discloses many of the ambiguities surrounding the movement. The book comes at a moment when Salafists’ arrival on the political scene is creating controversy. The influence of Salafists appears to be increasing, especially after allegations that they were behind the recent violence against churches and Copts, and even among their Muslim opposition.

The author does not only record the recent Salafist movement but goes back to its origins, describing the relationship between Salafists and followers of the Wahabi Islamic doctrine. Wahabism originated in the Arabian Peninsula under the leadership of Mohamed Ibn-Abdel-Wahab. He called for a return to what he viewed as the origins and “pure Islam,” free from contemporary interpretations with a focus on religious practices. Ibn-Abdel-Wahab formed an alliance in 1744 with Prince Mohamed Ben-Seoud of the Saudi family line. He resided and received protection and support from the Saudis and once the Saudi family took power and established a state and monarchy, Wahabism became the official religion.

In the book’s second section, the author describes the overall religious scene in Egypt with a contemporary focus. He believes an entire generation is coming under the influence of Saudi thought, "hiding thereby our cultural identity in favor of a Bedouin-Saudi-Wahabi one that favours shape over essence, celebrating the religious outlook without caring about behaviour or even the work of the heart."

The book gives particular attention to the "characteristics of the new devout", describing their condition as one that depends on accepting direction with a superficial knowledge about the faith, in particular among the younger generation. They rush for calls and Fatwa (religious directions), and have defend these without difficulty even their knowledge is limited to the teachings of religious figures on Satellite TV channels.

On another front, the author defines Salafist thought as one that tends to take ideas of ancestors as a reference for daily life. He maintains that Jihadist currents use Salafists to back them up and give them legitimacy, choosing radical Salafists that support violence over those that advocate peace.

The third and largest section of the book is dedicated to the Salafist movement in Egypt, and is one of the first studies of the movement here. The discussion is all-encompassing and consistent and supported by references which the author critiques, debating their stances and refuting those with which he disagrees. As a researcher with a strong expertise in his field, the author doesn't worry about opposing these sources; he conducts a comprehensive scientific analysis.

What may be debatable is Shalata's view that the roots of the Salafists in Egypt goes back to the time of Gamal El-Din El-Afghani and Mohamed Abdou and Mohamed Rasheed Reda. The author himself refers to El-Afghani’s objection to the invaders of Egypt, while Mohamed Abdou has well-known progressive Islamist stances and calls for Ijtihad (a scholastic effort to develop rules and regulations in light of the Islamic sharia).

The author also deals extensively with the Islamic civil society organizations in Egypt. He sees them a powerful means of propagating Salafi thought and gathering those who are already susceptible to Salafist incitement. The author focused on two particular such organizations, the "Legitimate Association for Workers in El-Sunna El-Mohamadeya" founded by Sheikh Mahmoud Khattab El-Sobky in 1912, and the " Allies of El-Sunna El-Mohamadeya" found by Sheikh Mohamed Hamed El-Fiky in 1926.

In the annexes, the author presents examples of Salafist material, both from their most important and popular TV channels as well as fatwa of Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Ben Baz Fatwa and other others available on the internet.


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