Salafism is an Islamic reformist movement that emphasizes a restoration of Islamic piety and practice as was perceived to exist during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers (the latter referred to as the Salaf or “forefathers”). As a movement, Salafism emerged as early as the 1300s in response to the perceived corruption of Muslim leaders and rise of rigid institutions, including juridical institutions, and rejected both the popular practice of Sufism and its strict hierarchies. During the 18th century, Salafism spread in many areas of the Muslim world; in the Arabian Peninsula, the Salafi movement came to be known as Wahhabism. While they tend towards political quiescence, Salafis also maintain that, should a ruler cease to be Muslim, he may be opposed.
Salafism appeared in Egypt in the early 20th century, represented early on by the Ansar al-Sunna or “Helpers of the Prophet.” Salafis tend of be clustered in northern Egypt, however, Salafi belief is similar to that of the followers of Gama’a Islamiyya, an Islamist organization based in Upper Egypt responsible for terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s, but which has since renounced violence. Security forces under Hosni Mubarak were generally lenient towards Salafis on account of their nonpolitical stance, though any indication of political activity tended to result in swift imprisonment.
Egyptian Salafism is loosely organized and non-hierarchical; its nodes are Salafi preachers and scholars in Egypt’s Delta region. It is difficult to characterize a Salafi in absolute terms—while many dress in distinctive ways, with men wearing a long beard and short pants, many Egyptians lean towards Salafi religious beliefs but look and sound quite different from Salafi preachers. Salafism also differs from Islamic reformism as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is markedly modern, while Salafis embrace a particular historical tradition. While scholars and faculty associated with al-Azhar University also embrace traditionalism, they reject Salafism, though many of its students consider themselves Salafi and several prominent Salafi leaders are al-Azhar graduates.
Egyptian Salafis initially boycotted and condemned the Arab Spring protests, consistent with their politically quiescent philosophy. However, Salafis formed several political parties, including the popular Nour Party, which participated in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012. Although Salafi political groups were generally poorly organized and politically inexperienced, they performed well in elections (making up roughly 25% of parliament in 2012) and have grown increasingly pragmatic.
At the same time, many Egyptians were deeply concerned by the participation of Salafis, particularly as Salafi groups were implicated in acts of violence against Copts, in the demolition of Sufi shrines, and in other incidents. The Egyptian media is generally slanted against Salafi groups, which frequently exaggerated acts of violence attributed to Salafis or associated Salafism with other unrelated acts.
The Nour Party was among the opposition groups to demand the removal of Muhammad Morsi from the presidency in June 2013, which they justified by calling for the prevention of bloodshed between pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi demonstrators. This position was hotly contested among Salafis, many of whom have protested the military coup. The Nour Party has lost out amidst constitutional changes that forbid political parties based on religion, and it is unclear what role Salafis will play in Egypt’s politics moving forward.
Alaa Bayoumi, “Egypt’s Salafi kingmakers suffer backlash,” Al Jazeera English, July 21, 2013, accessed October 16, 2013.
Jonathan AC Brown, “Salafis and Sufis in Egypt,” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 2011, accessed October 16, 2013.
Jared Malsin, “Egypt’s Main Salafist Party May Now Regret Supporting the Military,” TIME, August 20, 2013, accessed October 16, 2013.