Salafists Challenge al-Azhar for Ideological Supremacy in Egypt

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 35

Al-Azhar Shaykh Dr. Ahmad al-Tayeb

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.”

Raising the Ire of the Salafists

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?" [2] 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. [3] 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).

The 200-year reference refers to the Wahhabist movement, which is the origin of all Salafist currents in Egypt and the Muslim world at large. This reference highlights the historical dispute between Wahhabism and al-Azhar, which has been growing since Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848), son of Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha and one of the most formidable generals of his time, destroyed the capital of the Wahhabists in the Arabian Peninsula in 1818 and captured Saudi rulers and scholars of Wahhabism, sending some of them into exile in Egypt and others to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. [4]

It is safe to say that the relationship between al-Azhar and the Salafists has been antagonistic since the beginning. In the 1930s al-Azhar teachers expelled Saudi student Abdallah al-Qusaymi (died 1994) for Wahhabist inclinations and criticism of one of al-Azhar’s scholars. Until the early 1970s, there was only one Salafist scholar teaching at the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University. Shaykh Professor Muhammad Khalil Harras (died 1975) was the first Salafist to present a Ph.D. thesis to al-Azhar University’s then Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328), an inspiration to the Salafist movement. Harras was also head of the Salafist Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyah Society (founded 1926) for some time and also worked as a teacher in Saudi Arabia. Harras was one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s direct mentors, as mentioned by al-Qaeda’s second-in-command himself in his work The Aquittal, wherein Bin Laden’s lieutenant said he used to visit Harras constantly in al-Gharbiya Governorate in Egypt’s Delta. [5]

Mapping Salafism in Egypt

Salafist expansion in Egypt was not feasible before the late 1970s. But the so-called “Islamist Awakening” following the 1967 Arab defeat at the hands of Israel saw some Egyptian youth, especially in Alexandria, following the teachings of Saudi scholars and advocates of Wahhabism, while focusing on following in the footsteps of the Salaf, the “pious ancestors” (i.e. the first three generations of Islam). Other influences include the works of Ibn Taymiyyah on the principle of tawhid (the unity of God) and the teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his successors.  The core message of these teachings seeks to purge Islamic faith of Ash’ari theologies, the Sufist sanctification of saints and the practice of visiting graves of holy men in search of intercession. The movement is committed to fighting doctrines and sects with messages believed to be deviant in the view of the Wahhabists. [6]

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, after being released from prison in the late 1970s, were able to contain many of the youth radicalized by the Islamic Awakening in Cairo and Minya, attracting them to the ranks of the Brotherhood instead. The case in Alexandria was different, however, as the Islamist youth there refused to join the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed too moderate and Ash’ari-based by the radical youth. The same happened with the newly born jihadist brigades represented by the founders of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Egyptian Islamic Group) in Upper Egypt and the jihadist group, led by Muhammad Abd al-Salam Farag, that assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.

While the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists share the same goal of establishing an Islamic state and applying Shari’a, the main concern of the Salafists is correcting the Islamic faith and purging from it heresies and practices alien to Islam. Salafist youth have sought religious knowledge at the hands of Salafist preachers in Saudi Arabia (Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, Muhammad bin Saleh ibn Othaymein, Rabie’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali, Abd al- Rahman al-Barak, etc), in Jordan (Nasredeen al-Albany) and in Yemen (Muqbil bin Hady al-Wadi’y). Books written by Salafist scholars have been supported by the Saudi government to the extent that some works are given away for free.

The imprisonment of jihadists in Egypt during the 1990s and the constant search of the Muslim Brotherhood for political gains have given the latter movement the chance to expand its presence and gain more ground across the country, especially in the northern and middle governorates. The presence of Salafists in Upper Egypt is still weak due to the strong domination of Sufism there.

The Salafist presence in Egypt has been further cemented lately through Salafist religious satellite channels such as al-Rahma (Mercy), al-Annas (People), al-Majd (Glory), al-Hikmah (Wisdom) and al-Fajr (Dawn). [7] In addition, Salafists have been using other methods including establishing mosque-based social groups with a Salafist nature, such as the Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyah Society, founded in 1926 by Shaykh Muhammad Hamid al-Fiqy (1892-1959), and al-Gam’ia al-Shar’ia, established by Shaykh Mahmoud Khattab al-Sobky in 1912.

However, the most remarkable emergence of Egyptian Salafists affected by Saudi Wahhabism occurred in Alexandria in the late 1970s when the Alexandrian Salafist School was established, with some of the most prominent Salafist scholars in Egypt hailing from it. Some of these scholars are students of the Wahhabi call in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including Shaykhs Muhammad bin Ismail al-Moqaddim, Yasser Burhamy, Sa’id Abd al-Azeem, Ahmad Farid and Abd al-Moneim al-Shahhat. [8] These scholars have been taught by shaykhs such as Yemen’s Muqbil bin Hady al-Wadi’y and Saudi Arabia’s Abd al-Aziz Ibn Baz and Muhammad bin Saleh bin Othaymein.

Additionally, individual Salafist advocates, such as Abu Ishaq al-Hoyaini, have also been active in spreading Salafist theories throughout Egypt. Al-Hoyaini studied under the late Shaykh Nasrideen al-Albany (died 1999), considered one of the pillars of the contemporary Salafist call, with many Salafist schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen bearing his mark and following his teachings. [9] Al-Hoyaini is the most famous among al-Bany’s followers in Egypt.

Other individual Salafists include Shaykh Muhammad Hassan and Muhammad Hussein Yaqub, both very famous preachers in Egypt, with experience in teaching and preaching in some Gulf countries. [10]

One of the leading Salafist currents in Egypt is based on the thought of Saudi Shaykhs Muhammad Aman al-Gamy and Rabei’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali. This current believes in absolute obedience to political authority and rejects political activities by religious groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Advocates of this current, concentrated in the Mediterranean coast Buhayra Governorate, criticize Islamic political movements and attack their practices and beliefs. Prominent within that current is Shaykh Mahmoud Lotfi Amer, head of the local Ansar al-Sunnah branch.


Naturally, all the Salafists have rejected the criticism of the Shaykh al-Azhar. In general, we may summarize the Salafists’ own criticism of al-Azhar under three headings:

• Al-Azhar adopts the Ash’ari doctrine and rejects the Salafist doctrine.

• Some of al-Azhar’s Shaykhs have Sufist inclinations, notably the current Grand Shaykh (al-Tayeb).

• The (limited) tolerance of religious minorities such as the Christians and Shi’a, as reflected in the authorization given by the late Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut (Shaykh al-Azhar, 1958-1963) for the Shiite Ja’afary doctrine to be taught at al-Azhar alongside the four Sunni doctrines and the fatwa issued by the late Shaykh al-Tantawy legalizing donations by Muslims for churches. [11]

For the above reasons, Salafists refuse to acknowledge al-Azhar as the supreme Sunni institution of religious scholarship. They even call on al-Azhar to abandon the Ash’ari doctrine and espouse the Salafist doctrine in response to al-Tayeb’s criticism of Salafists. [12] Some individual Salafists, like al-Hoyaini, have attacked the institution harshly, describing al-Azhar as "dead" because of the actions and behaviors of the late and current shaykhs. [13] All in all, Salafist advocates and activists are furious at al-Tayeb’s statements, declaring that such criticism is only another ring in the chain of war against Islam and Salafism, whose influence is growing in Egypt.


1. Wahhabism is a conservative Sunni sect based on the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a 17th century scholar from what is today known as Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab advocated purging Islam of what he considered innovations. Wahhabism is now the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia.
4. For the campaign, see Andrew McGregor, A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War, Westport Conn., 2006, pp.62-64.
5. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, The Acquittal, 2008, p.5.
6. The Ash’ari theology was developed in the early days of Islam by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (d. 936 AD). In May, 2010 al-Tayeb gave a speech on the merits of al-Ash’ari to the alumni of al-Azhar. He was joined by Ali Goma’a, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, in saying a divided Islamic nation beset by radicalism and violence needs an approach like that of al-Ash’ari, who emphasized moderation and tolerance (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], May 9).
7. Basil al-Nayreb, “A look on Islamic Satellite Channels,”
8. Their writings and ideas can be read at a Salafist web-forum:
9. Ibid.
10. For Shaykh Muhammed Hassan, see and For Muhammad Hussein Yaqub, see
12. Ibid.