Islamism differs from contemporary Salafism, which is in all respects a fundamentalist current. Salafism originated in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the 1920s. It rejects rationalism and is highly antagonistic towards 19th-century Salafī theologians, so these two trends should not be confused. The former claims to be the heir to the thought of the 13th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya[1]  as well as of the 18th-century founder of Wahhābism, Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb. Since 1936 the Saudi authorities have dropped the term Wahhābism in favour of the term Salafism.


THESE TWO MAIN currents of Sunnī Islam emerged at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and differences have indeed arisen between them. To understand the fundamentalist or modernist character of a current of thought in Islam, one has to look at where license is given to ijtihād in interpreting a founding texts of Islam. While the modernist Salafists in the late 19th century called for opening the door of ijtihād to interpret the Qur’ān and the Sunna in accordance with the principles of scientific rationality and liberal governance, contemporary Salafists reject rationality altogether and follow the Ḥanbalī school[2] which calls for a strict approach and a literalist reading of the Qur’ānic text.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood has embodied an Islamist movement since 1928, as evidenced by their famous slogan ‘The Qur’ān is our constitution’, they have nevertheless remained somewhat pragmatic. This has allowed them to develop the movement’s discourse over the decades in step with the transformations that have occurred in the regions and societies to which it belongs. This fact continues to draw much criticism today from Salafists, who denounce such ‘updating’ as unacceptable ‘concessions’ and regressions. Salafists see it necessary to reject some Western concepts that the Brotherhood has purportedly ‘Islamized,’ such as the formation of political parties, participation in elections, and permitting women to enter the political or professional spheres. 

Qutb’s ideas find a particular resonance among Salafists and lay the foundations of ‘contemporary jihadism.’ 

Is there, therefore, an overt ‘politico-ideological competition’ taking place between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists?

Qutb’s ideas find a particular resonance among Salafists and lay the foundations of ‘contemporary jihadism.’ Throughout the 20th century the Muslim Brotherhood movement gradually became part of the political scene in various countries in the Islamic arena. Their political integration took place at several levels, subject to the various regional roots and the plurality of active figures. After a period of expansion in several of Egypt’s neighboring countries (the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, the Islamic Group in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood), as a result of increasing repression from local regimes the movement began to split into several sub-groups.

On the one hand there were political pacifists loyal to the vision of the founder Ḥasan al-Bannā’ – who was assassinated in 1949 by order of King Farouk – and on the other hand there were the supporters of the armed struggle.[3] It was the first trend that prevailed throughout the period of Ḥasan al-Huḍaybi,[4] the movement’s Murshid (‘guide’) from 1951 to 1972). 

In the face of this, a radical branch broke away from the Brothers’ original ideology and lurched towards extremist acts of violence carried out by some ‘subgroups. Ideologised by the theses of the Pakistani activist scholar Abū al-‘Alā Mawdūdī and the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb, this ‘radicalism’ took root and flourished. Since the 1950s, when the Brotherhood suffered from the bloody repression of the Nasserist regime in Egypt, Saudi Arabia has become the main host country for Quṭb’s ideas, and has thus perpetuated a certain form of ‘Salafism’ for the Muslim Brotherhood.

The turning point came when they came to consider Islamic societies and states as having exited from the fold of Islam 

Sayyid Quṭb’s thought conflicted with the principles of the founder Ḥasan al-Bannā’ and his successors, and the turning point came when they came to consider Islamic societies and states as having exited from the fold of Islam and were now jāhilī.[5] Since that point the concept of takfīr(‘declaring others as disbelievers’) has emerged in strength and legitimized violent activism in the name of jihād. This discourse has resonated especially with the young Brotherhood, who wanted to engage in battle, and also with Saudi Salafists who saw it as an opportunity and an effective means for mobilization.

This is how the foundations of ‘contemporary jihād’ were laid. Some Western scholars have argued that, following after the defeat of the Six-Day war of June 1967, Arab nationalism regressed and political Islam filled its place due to the alliance of ‘Quṭbism’ (theses relative to Sayyid Quṭb) with Saudi Wahhābī Salafism – paving the way for radicalization and terrorism. Gilles Kepel has even argued that the alliance of the two movements (the Brotherhood and Wahhābism) enshrined the birth of ‘petro-Islam’.[6](5).

It should be noted that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood considered this shift to be a serious deviation, as Supreme Guide Al-Huḍaybī wrote from his imprisonment from 1968 or 1969 in his work Preachers not Judges.[7] He considered that the ideas of Sayyid Quṭb had nothing in common with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The successor to Al-Huḍaybī, ‘Umar al-Tilimsānī (1972-1986), confirmed this pacifist vision. For a long time, nevertheless, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood continued to view Sayyid Quṭb as a member of the Brotherhood for tactical and political purposes. Factions thus broke away from the Brotherhood and opted for violence against the ‘erring leadership’. The first factions to emerge were al-Gamā‘a al-Islāmiyya (‘the Islamic Group’), the Salafī Student Groups, which emerged in 1973, and Takfīr or Gamā‘at al-Muslimīn in 1971.

This wave then went on to spread across the Muslim world where ‘radical Islam’ began to emerge in force. Quṭb’s ideology had a very important influence on subsequent jihād leaders such as the Palestinian ‘Abdullah ‘Aẓẓām,[8] who formed a key link between this violent growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ‘global jihad.’

Some scholars have argued that this split in the Brotherhood’s ranks served to weaken the Bureau of Guidance, the executive body of the Muslim Brotherhood. It had been unable to prevent a radical faction from gaining its autonomy and developing, at time on the margins of the group, and at other times by capitalizing on its fame and reputation.

[1] Ibn Taymiyya (661 – 728 AH / 1263 – 1328 AD) was one of the most prominent Muslim scholars in the second half of the 7th century and the first third of the 8th century AH, and was raised in the Ḥanbalī madhhab. He had witnessed the Mongol invasions of the Levant, was imprisoned several times and died while in custody. His influence spread to various places in the Islamic world, and is evident in the Arabian Peninsular movement of Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb. His influence also extended to in Egypt and the Levant, and appeared in the Maghreb in the second quarter of the 20th century in the work of Abdelhamid ibn Badis and in the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars. His influence in Morocco was via Moroccan students who had studied at Al-Azhar. His views reached the Indian subcontinent as early as the 8th century AH after some of his disciples had journeyed there. Ibn Taymiyya explained interpretative principles in his work مقدمة في أصول التفسير (‘Introduction to the Principles of Interpretation’), and takes as its starting point the understanding that the Prophet had himself given an interpretation for the entire Qur’ān and had left no part of it in need of any clarification, elaboration delimitation as to its rulings, other than what he himself had provided. It maintains that those who maintained that exposition were the Companions, given that the Prophet had taught it to them personally, and that they were thus the most diligent preservers of the meanings of the Qur’ān. It was thus their way of studying it that accounted for their attaining to the degree of knowledge of its meanings. For Ibn Taymiyya the soundest method for interpreting the Qur’ān was via the Qur’ān itself or, failing that, via the Sunna of the Prophet. If the correct interpretation could not be found either in the Qur’ān or the Sunna, then one was to have recourse to the statements of the Companions. Failing all of these, one must have recourse to the statements of the Tābi‘īn (‘the Followers’) and should these last differ in their views, one had to take up such views that were closest to the language of the Qur’ān and the Sunna, or the general language of the Arabs, or the sayings of the Companions. 

[2] The Ḥanbalī school is one of the four major schools of jurisprudence accepted by the Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamā‘a, along with the Shāfi‘ī, Ḥanafī and Mālikī schools. It is based on the thought of Ibn Ḥanbal (780-855 CE), who considered it pointless to evaluate the social framework in which the scholar interprets a verse or hadith. The Ḥanbalīs emphasize God’s absolute power and call for the complete obedience to the ruler. They constituted a minority in the 10th century, and in its Wahhāb version theirs became the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia. It spread to Najd, the Arabian Gulf, Egypt and the Levant. Ḥanbalīsm emerged among the public in the Islamic regions at a time after the three other schools of thought. Therefore, in most respects, the doctrine of Abū Ḥanīfa was dominant in Iraq, in Egypt the Shāfi‘ī school predominated while in Morocco and Muslim Spain it was the Mālikī that held sway after the Awzā‘ī school. In this regard, Ibn Khaldun remarked that “as for Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, he has few imitators because of the distance of his doctrine from ijtihād and his steadfastness in advocating the authority of the narrators. Most of them are to be found in the Levant and Iraq, at Baghdad and its environs. They are the people who, more than any others, closely conform to the Sunna and the hadith”.

[3] Al-Tanẓīm al-Sirrī (‘the Secret Organisation’), or armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in 1945 to fight on the side of the Arabs in Palestine. In 1935, the Muslim Brotherhood contacted Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and participated in the 1936 Palestinian Intifāḍa. In 1945, Sa‘īd Ramaḍān established an Arab-Palestinian armed wing of the movement, with the aim of fighting the Zionists and many of these were involved in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

[4] Ḥasan al-Huḍaybi (1891 – 1973 AD) was the second guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and he took over the leadership of the group during the period of confrontation between the Brotherhood and the activists of the July 23 revolution, headed by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The confrontation emerged following the Manshia incident in 1954, as a result of which a member of the Brotherhood was accused of attempting to assassinate Abdel Nasser in the Manshia district of Alexandria, despite the group’s denial of that. For the second time in its history the group was dissolved, its activities banned, its members and supporters arrested and its finances money and property confiscated by the state. Al-Huḍaybi was sentenced to death by hanging on December 4, 1954. It was during this period that many Brotherhood youths were killed in detention centers, in Tora prison, and in military prisons as a result of torture, as the state was trying to liquidate the Muslim Brotherhood by force. After Al-Huḍaybī’s arrest the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab countries formed an executive office headed by Dr. Muṣṭafā al-Sibā‘ī, the General Controller of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, as the new leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and acting general guide of the Syrian group.

[5] See Glossary: Jāhiliyya.

[6] ‘Petro-Islam’ is a new term employed to refer to the international spread of extremist and fundamentalist interpretations of Sunnī Islam derived from Wahhābism (the doctrine of Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb). The term takes its name from the source of funding – petroleum exports – that spread across the Muslim world after the October War of 1973. It is said to have been coined by Fouad Ajami (1945-2014) a Lebanese-American university professor and writer specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. It has been taken up and used by French political scientist Gilles Kepel, Bangladeshi scientist Imtiaz Ahmed and Egyptian philosopher Fouad Zakaria among others.

[7] This work is held to be one of the most prominent works to emerge and it occasioned much controversy in the history of the Islamic movement in general. Preachers not Judges, the first edition of which was published in 1977 six years after the death of its author and nine years after it had been written, is considered by some to be the first revisionist experiment by the contemporary Islamic movement. The work emerged at a highly sensitive time in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, as the group was still in the process of feeling its way towards coming back to life, not only in Egypt but in many other Arab and Muslim countries.

[8] ‘Abdullah ‘Aẓẓām (1941-1989) was one of the leaders of the Arab mujahidīn in Afghanistan fighting against the Soviet Union, and is considered to be the pioneer of the Afghan jihād and one of the leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood. He began his jihadist work with the Afghan mujahidīn and was assassinated in Peshawar, Pakistan, while he was heading to the mosque to deliver his Friday sermon when his car set off a mine. ‘Aẓẓām had joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine which he saw as “an opportunity to prepare the generation of liberators.” He issued a fatwā saying that ‘the jihād in Afghanistan was a farḍ ‘ayn“ – an obligation that devolved upon the individual Muslim. In the summer of 1984 he met with Osama bin Laden, and the two men became close. Before the end of that year they had established institutionalised activity for the provision of services to the Afghan jihād, in order to strengthen it and help it expel the Russians. This was named the Mujahidīn Services Bureau and was run by ‘Aẓẓām and financed by bin Laden, until an organizational split occurred between the two men in 1987.

Main image: The banner of the Muslim Brotherhood, two crossed swords and the slogan وَأَعِدُّوا from Qur’ān VIII (al-Anfāl), 60:  وَأَعِدُّوا لَهُمْ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ قُوَّةٍ وَمِنْ رِبَاطِ الْخَيْلِ تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ عَدُوَّ اللَّهِ وَعَدُوَّكُمْ And prepare against them what force you can and horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy of Allah and your enemy

See Part One of this essay here

Ḥasan al-Huḍaybi the Muslim Brotherhood’s Murshid (‘guide’) from 1951 to 1972
Sayyid Quṭb: conflicting with the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Ḥasan al-Bannā’
‘Abdullah ‘Aẓẓām: key link between the violent growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ‘global jihad’