Anti-government protesters perform the prayer during a demonstration on February 22, 2013.
© Gianluigi Guercia
Anti-government protesters perform the prayer during a demonstration on February 22, 2013.
Last updated: May 20, 2013

Islamic diversity in Egypt

Banner Icon Even though the MB and Salafis are all under one umbrella – Islam – their ideologies and organizations differ from one another. The two groups have been rivals and competed over power during the post-revolutionary parliamentary elections in 2011. With the constitution being written more arguments and disparities in beliefs between the MB, political Salafis and Salafis will be thrust into the forefront, writes Rawan Ezzat.

Sheikh Saad Abo Aziz is a prominent preacher in Menofeya decrees. In order for a woman to approach him she has to cover her head (Hijab), wear a long black cloth (Abbayah) and be accompanied by her brother (Mehrem). Like any other Salafi he can be recognized by his long beard and his ankle lengths galibyas.

The Salafis is a controversial and conservative Islamist group who has criticized the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) for their beliefs and willingness to participate in a secular political system based on the laws of man rather than the laws of God.

Even though Islam stands for one meaning, in Egypt an overwhelming Islamic diversity has manifested itself and people find it hard to recognize a unified category of Islamists. Despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Salafis are both Islamist groups, they have fundamentally different visions of an Islamic Egypt.

“The Salafi movement is all about spreading the purist interpretation of Islam and not politics"

When the MB started rising to power, people feared extreme conservatism. Conversely, the Salafis believe that the MB does not follow and will not apply Sharia law; a pure Islamic law. Thus, some Salafis decided that in order to impose Shari’a, they must take part in politics, so as to infuse Islamic law into everyday aspects of life.

The Word Salaf means “ancestors” in Arabic and Salafis follow the first three generations of Muslim leaders, dating back to the seventh century. Those three generations are Prophet Mohammed, his companions (Sahaba), and his successors (tabaiyun). The Salafi movement began in Egypt in the 1970s by a group of Alexandria University students. However, they were suppressed by the old regime and chose to stay away from politics as they considered getting involved in modern life to be in great opposition to the teachings of their belief.

The Salafis regularly reject the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood as being too moderate. For instance, Ahmed Samir, a Salafi member said “MB don’t really follow Islam, they use it only when they need it and to look clean.”

Deciding to take matters into own hands and establish Islamic law themselves, the Salafis established El-Nour party to compete with the MB. Mahmoud Hamam, a 30-year-old Salafi says that, “El-Nour party understands religion the way that God wanted and they will be able to lead Egypt properly.”

Both Islamic parties are now competing about who is following Islam the “right” way.

“We care about the poor before the rich, unlike other parties who look from high up and ignore those in need. We will be able to implement God’s rule which is treating people equally,” said Sheikh Hassan Ramadan, adding that the MB does not follow Islam but rather interpret it depending on what they need.

The MB and Salafi ideology differ in the way they perceive Islam. Shaking hands with women, according to Salafis, is non-Islamic but when President Mohammed Morsy shook hands with Hillary Clinton the MB said that there are exceptions. The same goes for their view on international bank loans which Salafis say is a sin while the MB allows it. Being interviewed on TV by a woman is acceptable to the MB whereas Salafis believe its offensive. Salafis reject women’s participation in politics whereas MB encourages it. The list goes on.

“What is happening at the moment proves that there is an Islamic diversity in Egypt,” said Abdel-Hamid Abdou, a psychology professor at Cairo University. “This proves that a lot of those Islamic movements in Egypt misunderstand the right Islam.”

Islamic diversity does not only exist between different Islamic movements, but also within the movements. For instance, a lot of religious Salafi Sheikhs have disapproved of the political Salafi members. Salafi Sheikhs disapprove of politics, democracy, strikes, and the constitutional draft; all of which are practiced by political Salafi members.

Sheikh Abo Aziz, accused MB and even Salafis in Al Nour party of not following Islam and angrily refused to speak about politics or even about President Mohammed Morsy. Both Samir and Sheikh Abo Aziz agree that once someone participates in politics their main concern will be amount of votes, which will lead to bribery, lying, and all standards will be forgotten.

“I was an MB member for two years up till the revolution. I have joined them to gain religious knowledge,” said Maksoud. He goes on describing how during the revolution all the MB’s focus and goals were political and lacked religious orientation.

“The Salafi movement is all about spreading the purist interpretation of Islam and not politics. Accordingly, the MB and the Nour Party have no right to claim that they are Islamists,” said Sheikh Abo Aziz angrily.

Likewise, Sheikh Mostafa Refaat, a preacher in Nasr city, declared that what the MB is doing - focusing on politics rather than religion - is shameful for Islam. On the other hand, MB accused Salafis of supporting the old regime.

“We have never been with the old regime,” said Sheikh Abo Aziz. He goes on explaining that in Islam political parties and political opposition are prohibited, because Islam instructs people to obey the ruler.

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Rawan Ezzat
Rawan is a fresh journalism graduate from the American University in Cairo. She worked briefly as a researcher with Bassem Youssef, and a freelancer at Majalla. Rawan was an enthusiastic participant in the 25th January revolution and remains a post-revolutionary activist.
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