American Stories, Connected Histories

'Egypt' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article outlines modern Egyptian history as background for G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque. The article by Raymond William Baker is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia in the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Religion has played a central role in the lives of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley from the time of the pharaohs. The priests of ancient Egypt presided over the cults that defined each province, and made up a central part of the ruling class. The first unified kingdom took shape around 3200 B.C.E., and a succession of dynasties ruled Egypt for the next three millennia. Persian invaders disrupted these traditional patterns of indigenous rule when they defeated the last Egyptian pharaoh in 525 B.C.E. Though religion among the Egyptians took different forms during the succession of foreign conquerors, it always remained a key element of political culture. Religion is not the only factor that has shaped Egyptian identity; however, it is arguably the most enduring. The venerable tradition of a strong state and the gradual but profound Arabization that began a mere twenty years after the dawn of Islam are important as well. Islam continues to play a key and often controversial role today. Contention over Islam's role is at the center of the core questions of Egyptian identity and Egypt's place in a globalized world. Approximately 90 percent of modern Egypt's estimated 80 million inhabitants are Sunnī Muslims. They share citizenship with several other religious communities of Egyptians, the largest of which is an indigenous Christian population claiming nine percent by conventional, though not uncontested reckoning; various other small religious groups represent the remaining one percent. Although broad religious tolerance has long been a hallmark of Egyptian culture, and the Egyptian Constitution of 1971 guarantees freedom of religion, tensions along religious lines have risen intermittently since the 1970s.

Early Islamic History in Egypt.

The centrality of Islam in defining Egypt today is deeply rooted historically. By the end of the reign of the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, the nascent Muslim state incorporated the Egyptian provinces of the Byzantine Empire into the ummah. Ascendant Islam found a fertile and nurturing soil in Egypt, though under the Umayyad caliphate (661–750 C.E.) Christianity persisted in the face of Muslim Arab settlement. Gradual conversions, however, eventually made Muslims an overwhelming majority, with Arabic eventually replacing both Greek and Coptic as the dominant language.The ʿAbbāsid caliphate (750–1258 C.E.) initially held Egypt under tight control, but a provincial revolt delivered Egypt to the Faṭimid claimants in the tenth century. Under the Shīʿīte Faṭimid rulers (969–1169 C.E.) the arts and sciences, especially architecture but also astronomy, physics, and medicine, flourished in the newly-founded capital of Cairo. With the establishment of the mosque-university al-Azhar in 971 C.E., Egypt changed status from a marginal province of a far-flung empire to an important Islamic cultural and religious center, a role that continues today despite the decline of almost all other aspects of Egyptian cultural and political power. A combination of external pressures from the Crusades and internal disorders weakened the Faṭimids and enabled Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī to found the Ayyūbī dynasty (1169–1250 C.E.), which in turn succumbed to the Mamlūks, slave soldiers who took control in 1250. The Mamlūks held the country until 1517 when Egypt was absorbed into the rising Ottoman Empire (1300–1923), though even under the Ottomans the Mamlūk princes continued to exercise control in the provinces. Despite the unsettled and often violent character of their rule and brutal struggles over succession, the Mamlūks produced architectural monuments of unsurpassed beauty, regarded by some as pinnacles of Islamic art. In spite of their military prowess and cultural achievements, the recurrent strain between the Ottomans and the Mamlūk princes and resultant disorders provided an opening for the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 and a three-year French occupation. The French aimed for regional hegemony, though they nominally justified their intervention as an attempt to restore order to the troubled country.With the help of the British, the Ottomans succeeded in driving the French out. An Albanian military figure, Muḥammad ʿAlī (1769–1849), then took power and established the dynasty that ruled the country until the 1952 revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser (Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāṣir). Muḥammad ʿAlī consolidated his hold on power by massacring the Mamlūk leadership and promptly launching an ambitious program of reforms. He is regarded as the founder of the modern Egyptian state, thanks to his modernization of the military (on the European model) and supportive transformations in agriculture, industry, and administration. Muḥammad ʿAlī extended the mandate of the Egyptian state: he undertook several Arabian campaigns (beginning in 1811) that established Egypt on the eastern coast of the Red Sea; his campaign in the south marked the beginning of the Egyptian Sudan; he dealt with the Greek Revolt in 1821; and then turned to Syria. Alarmed by these campaigns, the great powers intervened to curtail Muḥammad ʿAlī's ambitions. His successors, who were far less capable and faced even stronger imperial pressures, led the country into exorbitant foreign debt, notably from the concession for the construction of the Suez Canal. British occupation followed. Lord Cromer, the British Consul, consolidated the British position, and acted as the de facto ruler of Egypt from 1883 to 1907. With time, the occupation, despite its successful manipulation of the palace and minority parties, engendered national resistance centered in the Wafd Party. Inconclusive battles between the palace (allied with the minority parties) and the British against the Wafd Party set the stage for the military coup of 1952.

Entry into the Modern World.

It is a common mistake to tell the story of the emergence of modern Egypt in predominantly political terms as simply a tale of colonization, nationalist resistance, and eventually a coup that took the form of a revolution. Throughout this modern period of turbulence, marked by the awakening of modern forms of national sentiment, the Islamic cultural background of Egypt endured and even deepened. In the Islamic world, culture, and especially Islam itself, plays a far more important role than such a treatment allows. Alongside the nationalist political narrative, it is crucial to clarify the Islamic dimension of Egypt's entry into the modern world and the important role of various Islamic groups, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimīn).

Role of the ʿulamāʿ.

Egypt's absorption into the Islamic world in the seventh century made a decisive and enduring difference. Islam defined not only a political, but also a moral community that has proved highly flexible and adaptive. The new faith ruled out any version of the old hierarchical pharoanic claim of rulers as descendants of the gods and the notion of a closed, rigid caste of priests. Instead, Islam impelled Muslims to found a horizontal community of believers or ummah with far greater scope for participation in the religious experience. The central moral precepts of Islam, expressed in the Qurʿān and the traditions of the prophet Muḥammad, provided more than simple guidance for personal salvation, but also the moral basis for a good society on earth. Rulers of Muslim communities relied not only on men of power but also on men of intellect and faith who could mediate between the timeless revelations of Islam and the exigencies of specific times and places. Power rested with the rulers and their military supporters, but legitimacy derived from the religious scholars or ʿulamāʿ, who emerged as the guardians of the legacy and the guarantors of right guidance. In theory, and despite deviations in practice almost from the beginning, only Islamic law (the sharīʿah), elaborated by the ʿulamāʿ from the principles of the Qurʿān and the traditions of Prophet Muḥammad, could bind the new community while safeguarding its distinctive moral purpose and assuring its relevance in changing times.

The ʿulamāʿ, however, were not the only religious leaders in Muslim Egypt. Alongside their austere religion of the mind and the law there arose an Islamic mysticism, Suf ism, which shifted emphasis from the mind to the heart and from the law to love. This Islam of the heart evoked a powerful popular response, organized in Ṣūfī orders that coalesced around individual saints. The initial opposition of the ʿulamāʿ to the Ṣūfī orders faded into an uneasy compromise as it became clear that persecution did not diminish the appeal of Ṣūfī for the masses.

Over time, when the hold of early Muslim empires weakened and local dynasties rose in Egypt, religious leaders retained their importance as a powerful social and spiritual force to support rulers based in the Nile Valley and extend Egyptian influence outward. The Ottomans, originating in a Turkish principality of Anatolia, annexed Egypt in 1516–1517 and made it part of the last great Islamic empire. The Ottoman Empire survived until 1923, when the British, who had occupied Egypt in 1882, declared the country a protectorate and ended what by then had become nominal Ottoman sovereignty. The Ottoman Empire protected the lands of Islam and expanded their borders whenever possible, creating a diverse, powerful, and inclusive political structure that ruled parts of eastern Europe, Western Asia, and most of North Africa for periods ranging from three hundred to six hundred years. The acquisition of Egypt had strategic, financial, and religious importance (because of al-Azhar's role throughout the Muslim world) to the empire. The Ottomans maintained tight control over this prize by appointing the governor and controlling the military corps.

With time the Ottoman military garrisoned in Egypt put down local roots and entered into alliances not only with wealthy merchants but with the ʿulamāʿ as well. Relying on the religious scholars, the Ottomans strengthened the practice of the sharīʿah and enhanced the study of Arabic. In eighteenth-century Cairo the ʿulamāʿ flourished, numbering approximately four thousand out of an estimated adult male population of fifty thousand. From their base in the venerable al-Azhar, the organizational center of a national network of religious education, the Egyptian ʿulamāʿ preserved a rich Islamic culture that created a formidable social and moral link between Cairo and the provinces. Moreover, religious scholars figured prominently in all the political crises in Egypt. Through their control of religious endowments (waq  f, pl. awqāf  ), lawsuits, canonic dues, and inheritances, they held economic resources equal at least to those of the artisans or merchants. Religious leaders acted as intermediaries and occasionally even as protectors; their interventions buffered ordinary Egyptians from the excesses of Ottoman rule and rulers.

Napoleon's conquests in Egypt (1798–1801) disrupted this three-hundred-year-old order and cast the Egyptian provinces, vulnerable and unprepared, into a global political system dominated by the West. Egyptians encountered the West from a position of great material weakness. In the last stages of Ottoman rule, the Egyptian provinces were in a period of severe decline. Preoccupied with holding the European territories from which they derived much of their strength, the Ottomans neglected Egypt and other Arab centers. Local despotic states flourished in the Arab lands, and economies throughout the Ottoman Empire sank to subsistence levels as imperial support weakened. The towns saw little commercial trade and only the most limited artisanal production. The countryside became more vulnerable to nomadic incursions and increasingly suffered from the tax and military exactions of the hard-pressed centers. Recurrent bouts of plague only worsened the situation. By the end of the eighteenth century it was already clear that the old formulas were strained everywhere, although in Egypt the ʿulamāʿ as a corporate body survived as one of the few remaining cohesive elements.

Muhammad ʿAlī.

Amid the confusion that followed Napoleon's incursion, the ʿulamāʿ, it is often forgotten, played a critical role in bringing to power Muḥammad ʿAlī (r. 1804–1841), the Albanian officer who founded modern Egypt and established the dynasty that held power until 1952. The French invasion had weakened the tie between Egyptians and Ottomans and made it apparent that the Turkish rulers could no longer provide protection against Europeans. The ʿulamāʿ, considered the natural leaders of the country, gave their support to Muḥammad ʿAlī with the condition that he rule with their consultation. When Muḥammad ʿAlī agreed, they mobilized the population of Cairo to demonstrate against the Ottoman governor, calling successfully on the sultan to ratify the choice of Muḥammad ʿAlī as governor of Egypt. The ʿulamāʿ had cleared the way for the man who would set the course of Egyptian history for the next century. The energetic new ruler worked to transform a backward country with a subsistence economy and approximately two million inhabitants into a state powerful enough to counter further assaults from Europe, to maintain its de facto independence from the Ottoman sultanate, and to project power abroad. At home, he sought to discipline the population through new forms of education and social organization that would channel all energies to his dynastic purposes. He weakened or eliminated intermediary institutions between the peasant base and the bureaucracy of his centralized state. In the process he also moved against the ʿulamāʿ, circumscribing their influence as he consolidated his own power.The ʿulamāʿ never completely recovered the independent economic and political role they had played in the eighteenth century. Muḥammad ʿAlī's attempt to reign in the religious establishment was successful, but does not tell the whole story of Islam in nineteenth-century Egypt. Though weakened, the ʿulamāʿ of al-Azhar continued to exert a powerful religious and cultural influence on the rural population of the countryside, and thanks to the reformists among them, on the urban elite as well, including the new bourgeoisie that emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Had Muḥammad ʿAlī been able to continue his modernization drive unopposed, he probably would have further undercut the role of Islam and the ʿulamāʿ in Egyptian national life. Ironically, the intervention of the British arrested that development. Great Britain had grown alarmed by Egyptian military successes in the Levant and perhaps even more by the creation of an industrial base in Egypt that had made those successes possible. British threats culminated in a dramatic show of naval force in Alexandria and Muḥammad ʿAlī admitted defeat; he signed the Treaty of London in 1840. The treaty called for a limitation on the size of the Egyptian army, a disbanding of war industries, and the removal of tariffs and monopolies that protected the remaining industries. In these circumstances of containment and imposed weakness, the ʿulamāʿ assumed a renewed importance by providing a reservoir of intellectual, cultural, and religious opposition.

Islamist and Nationalist Reformers.

Europe colonized Egypt throughout the nineteenth century. Conventional history delineates two fundamental strategies of Egyptian resistance, the first a secular nationalist strategy and the second an Islamic reformist strategy. In fact, this line should not be drawn too sharply: both strategies drew on an underlying fusion of religion and collective identity. In the battles with the West, the population felt strong solidarity with the ʿulamāʿ even when they appeared to speak for the secular interest of the nation, and Egyptians responded most dramatically to the calls of political figures when those calls were expressed in Islamic terms. While weaving together diverse patterns of anticolonial sentiment and impulses for modernization and reform, resistance remained securely anchored in Islamic structures of thought and civilization until after World War I.

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī.

No figure better captured the energizing thrust of this potent blend of Islamic tradition and reforming impulse than the peripatetic Afghani, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838–1897), who played a significant role in the story of Islam in Egypt. Al-Afghānī traversed Iran, India, Turkey, and the Arab world sounding the theme of defensive reform and calling for local and pan-Islamic revolts. Admired for his classical Islamic learning, al-Afghānī also displayed an impressive familiarity with the social and scientific thought of the West. He argued that reason, science, and liberal ideas of government and social progress were fully compatible with Islam when the message of the faith was properly understood.Al-Afghānī called on his students, including the Egyptian Shaykh Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905), to work out interpretations of Islam along these modernist lines. Al-Afghānī's own greatest talent had a more activist thrust: his call for unity was driven by his conviction that the entire Muslim world, not just its frontiers, lay vulnerable to the power of the West. Deliberately cultivating mystery around his origins and his movements, al-Afghānī made himself a unifying figure, embracing at once Sunnīs, Ṣūfīs, and Shīʿah. Wherever they could, al-Afghānī and his followers engaged in direct attacks on Western, especially British imperialism. These political confrontations helped legitimate the painful conclusion that successful confrontation with the West would entail almost as much imitation as refusal. Al-Afghānī's message resonated with particular force in Egypt. Al-Azhar had not remained isolated from modern trends in science and social thought, despite its traditional methods. From the time of Muḥammad ʿAlī, its scholars had been sent abroad to study Western sciences. Al-Afghānī made himself a major though controversial intellectual force at al-Azhar. Resistance to the Western threat had become the driving force of Egyptian nineteenth-century history, and al-Azhar became an important center of resistance. None of Muḥammad ʿAlī's heirs could match him in ruthless energy, ambition, or vision. With Egypt's industrialization effort stymied, the economy became a huge monoculture cotton farm for Britain's textile factories. The conditions of the masses deteriorated, and the royal government grew more corrupt and inefficient, while the country slipped deeper and deeper into foreign debt. By the time of Khedive Tawfīq (1879–1892) the country had fallen totally under foreign domination. With the foreign ruling elite discredited, the initiative for Egypt 's defense passed from the state to broader Egyptian social forces.

Ahmad ʿUrābī.

The first effort at internal reform arose from an unlikely quarter, the emasculated Egyptian army. The precipitating event took place when the Turco-Circassian elite blocked access to the officer corps. When Egyptian colonels led by Aḥmad ʿUrābī challenged these restrictions, the government responded by arresting ʿUrābī. The move backfired when the colonels, speaking in the name of the people, broadened their demands to include a constitution, a change of government, and an increase in the overall size of the army to the eighteen thousand men specified in the Treaty of London. Drawing on his traditional religious education, the charismatic young colonel couched his call for reform in terms of Islamic renewal, greatly enhancing his appeal. ʿUrābī became a symbol for a broader campaign that coalesced around the slogan “Egypt for Egyptians.” Characteristically, al-Afghānī and his follower Muḥammad ʿAbduh rallied to the ʿUrābī call for reform and did their best to bring the ʿulamāʿ as a corporate body with them.Meanwhile, the British consul persuaded his government that the revolt had produced anarchy in the country. The British and the French dispatched a joint fleet to make a show of force at the port in Alexandria. When riots broke out in the city, the Khedive secretly encouraged the Europeans to shell the city and to land forces to destroy the revolution, despite the fact that ʿUrābī had rushed from Cairo and succeeded in restoring order. The British, though not the French, obliged the frightened Khedive and bombarded Alexandria. The forces of ʿUrābī's movement, ten-thousand roughly trained men and a rabble of peasants, were crushed in 1882 by an occupying British force of thirty thousand at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. Al-Afghānī and ʿAbduh were exiled. The era of direct British colonization began, and would not end completely until 1954.

Muhammad ʿAbduh.

Muḥammad ʿAbduh returned from exile to a colonial situation dominated by a monarchy imposed by British power; thus he had little choice but to shift his reformist efforts to the theological, educational, and cultural arenas. The journal he published, al-Manār, concentrated on Qurʿānic exegesis and theological explication. Although ʿAbduh had no illusions about the cynical manipulations of the throne and the brutality of the British occupiers, he also understood that behind their raw power stood the cultural attraction of new principles for organizing society and new kinds of knowledge. An Azhar-trained member of the ʿulamāʿ, ʿAbduh taught at al-Azhar, but also at the new college of Dār al-ʿUlūm, where a modern curriculum had been developed to prepare functionaries for the state bureaucracies. His modernist project aimed to free religious thought from the shackles of imitation (taqlīd) and to open the way to reforms that would express the spiritual power of Islam in terms appropriate to the modern world.

ʿAbduh legitimated this reform program by drawing a careful distinction between the essential spiritual message of Islam and its elaboration in social prescriptions and laws. He explained that the fundamental doctrines of belief in God, of revelation through a line of prophets culminating in Muḥammad, and of moral responsibility had been preserved by a line of pious ancestors (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ), and that these compelling and unchanging principles could be expressed and defended by reason. In contrast, laws and moral injunctions had the status of particular applications of these principles by successive Muslim communities. Naturally, when those circumstances changed, such formulations could be adapted and modified to meet new needs. ʿAbduh believed that Egypt's situation at the end of the nineteenth century demanded just such restatements. He directed attention first to the modernization of the al-Azhar curriculum and reform of the religious courts. As the senior legal officer or muftī of Egypt, he issued progressive legal opinions on the permissibility of Western dress, banking interest, marriage, and divorce.It was ʿAbduh's intention to assert Egyptian identity and liberation through the reform of Islam, through a compromise with colonial power, and more basically with the westernizing project. But the penetration of the West all but overwhelmed his prodigious effort. Having integrated a dependent Egypt into the global economy, the British pressed their effort to remake the country through a web of institutional reforms in the military, the bureaucracy, and the legal and educational systems. From this colonial situation emerged a new Western-oriented elite that wrested control of the national project from the ʿulamāʿ. The continuities of a reformed Islam, on which ʿAbduh had insisted, faded but did not disappear.

Saʿd Zaghlūl.

In 1919 a second wave of nationalist revolt stirred the country and pushed the secular elites into even greater prominence. Wartime conditions created serious food shortages and a staggering rate of inflation. This time nationalist leaders like Saʿd Zaghlūl gave voice to the popular resentment of foreign rule that aggravated these conditions. The rejection of Zaghlūl's request for an Egyptian delegation or wafd to the Paris Conference sparked a wave of armed rebellion and strikes that paralyzed the country. Under the pressure of these disturbances, Egypt was declared an independent monarchy in 1922. Egypt's new constitution enshrined liberal nationalist ideas. The Wafd Party that Zaghlūl founded included Copts as well as Muslims in its leadership. The country had entered a liberal constitutional era that lasted until the revolution of 1952. These secularizing events in Egypt coincided with the final destruction of the over-arching Islamic political framework in the Middle East at the end of World War I. Events in the Turkish successor states strengthened the hands of secularists in Egypt and throughout the region. Atatürk thwarted imperialist designs on Turkey and launched a development effort under a republican, nationalist, populist, secular, statist, and revolutionary banner; his reforms included abandoning the Arabic script and, more significantly, abolishing the caliphate. From the outset, al-Afghānī and ʿAbduh had argued that successful resistance to the West would entail a substantial dose of imitation. In Egypt the followers of ʿAbduh who had responded most to his call to imitate the West now had an influential model that pushed them decisively into the arms of the secular nationalists.

Rashīd Ridā.

These same ambiguities linking resistance and imitation simultaneously fostered quite a different orientation. Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935), ʿAbduh's most prominent follower, responded to the pressures of westernization in a strikingly different manner, eventually taking events in Saudi Arabia rather than Turkey for his inspiration. Although Riḍā initially tried to hold onto both aspects of ʿAbduh's legacy, the deterioration of the status of Islam in the national dialogue drove him to increasingly defensive and apologetic strategies. Riḍā drew closer to the conservative Ḥanbalī school of Islamic law and came to believe that the early eighteenth-century Arabian reform movement of Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, which had provided the religious underpinning of the Saudi Arabian state, represented the most viable Islamic alternative to capitulation to the West.The Wahhābīyah called for a return to Ibn Ḥanbal's strict interpretation of Islam, as understood by the responsible ʿulamāʿ of each generation and the rejection of illegitimate innovations. In line with this thinking, Riḍā issued a series of fatwās designed to bring existing laws in line with this strictly- interpreted sharīʿah. Riḍā noted that the Saudi state that had taken shape on this basis in the early nineteenth century had never succumbed to the colonial onslaught. Like both al-Afghānī and ʿAbduh, Riḍā, though a reformer, spoke as one of the ʿulamāʿ. While working to contain influences that threatened to undermine the distinctive character of the Muslim community, Riḍā embraced modernist conceptions of instrumental reason and efficiency; above all, he stressed creating new forms of institutional life to reassert Islam's social role under modern conditions.

The Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1928, Rashīd Riḍā's strand of Islamic reform bore its most impressive and lasting fruit when his disciple, the schoolteacher Ḥasan al-Bannā, founded the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimīn). Like his teacher, al-Bannā drew on modern institutional and communications strategies to create a durable organization to advance Islamic modernization. Unlike Riḍā, however, his project implied the creation of an Islamist elite by claiming to speak not only for Egypt but also for the world beyond.

Hasan al-Bannā.

The radical character of al-Bannā's project reflected the terrible deterioration of Egypt's material situation. By the late 1920s it was clear that Egypt's economy had been colonized. For more than half a century the country had been little more than an exporter of raw cotton to British mills. Direct occupation made effective resistance more difficult as the British tightened the bonds of economic dependency. Control of the Suez Canal by European shareholders continued to bind Egypt to the Western global economic system. Reacting to the Great Depression, the Egyptian private sector, including the large foreign component, moved the country on the path of import substitution in order to circument British attempts to prevent industrialization. The economic and political dimensions of the nation seemed to be monopolized by the Western-oriented secular elite. Undoubtedly al-Bannā's immense charisma helped to validate the Muslim Brotherhood's claim to represent a plausible Islamic alternative, but much more was involved than the personality of one man. Al-Bannā's assessment of Egypt's needs went beyond breaking the bonds of dependency in the political and economic realms: he understood that the most damaging injuries from colonization were internal. Islam's enemies, he warned, had succeeded in entering the social body, attacking and undermining the Islamic community from within and wounding Muslims in mind and soul. The westernized Egyptians who made up the colonial political class became his prime targets.

Ḥasan al-Bannā cast the Muslim Brotherhood as the heir of the unified project of resistance—political, economic, and cultural—that had characterized the nineteenth century. It was the Brotherhood alone that grasped the possibility for a culturally located mode of resistance. In the face of daunting “internal colonization” the Brotherhood struggled to develop an authentic social ethos consistent with Islam yet compatible with the modern world. They acted on the ethic of “social Islam” in concrete activities and services that reached a large body of Muslims, especially in the urban areas. At the same time, the Brotherhood moved decisively to assume the political responsibilities of resistance, earning an enduring appreciation for their role in directly combating British occupation forces in the Canal Zone and the Zionists in Palestine. These militant actions helped solidify the reputation of the Brotherhood abroad and fostered the transnational links to the larger Islamic body that later generated branches of the Brotherhood in other parts of the Arab world, most importantly in Syria and Jordan. In Egypt in the 1940s, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood numbered approximately one million.The elaboration of a viable social Islam in Egypt proved to be the Muslim Brotherhood's most impressive legacy for Egyptian public life; however, from the outset, a strand of radicalism, a “political Islam” prone to erupt in violence, threatened to overshadow this achievement. Initially directed at the British and Zionist colonizing agents, the militants gradually turned their weapons against the regime. The central figure in this development was Sayyid Quṭb. The emergence of the new mainstream social Islam created by the Muslim Brotherood and Quṭb's radical evolution of it can be understood only against the backdrop of the relationship between the Free Officers’ regime and the Brotherhood. Key members of the young army officers who spearheaded the 1952 Free Officers’ coup that transformed itself into a revolution from the top down were drawn to the Brotherhood. They knew Ḥasan al-Bannā personally and shared many of his ideas. When Gamal Abdel Nasser and the young colonels around him first moved to curtail political parties, the Brotherhood was exempted. In the critical early days the Muslim Brotherhood supported the military as they moved against the old secular elite. Later, echoing the fate of the traditional ʿulamāʿ at the hands of Muḥammad ʿAlī, Nasser turned against the Brotherhood as he moved to concentrate his own power. The conflict emerged essentially from these power considerations rather than from questions of ideology. The task of subduing the Brotherhood did not prove easy. On two separate occasions, roughly a decade apart, the regime launched murderous attacks against them. An alleged assassination attempt occurred in 1954, at a time when Nasser was manufacturing incidents to create a climate of general disorder. The regime moved to crush the one remaining organization capable of challenging state power. The Brotherhood survived underground, but a decade later it once again became the target of massive repression as the regime moved to consolidate its leftist support. Again, the Brotherhood was brutally crushed and dispersed.Within their prison cells and in exile, the Muslim Brotherhood developed a compelling critique of the Nasserist experience. Islam was no longer the mediating device in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. At the heart of the military regime, they saw a void. The Brotherhood charged that for all the surface movement on economic, political, and foreign policy issues, the Free Officers’ had no clear sense of where Egypt was going. The military rulers, the Brotherhood claimed, were chasing other people's modernity at the price of their own spiritual and cultural integrity.

Sayyid Qutb.

Quṭb began his intellectual and moral odyssey from a pro-Western position. As a young man, he found the West and its modernist project attractive, but a trip to the United States reversed that outlook. Disgusted by the anti-Arab prejudice he encountered and shocked by what he perceived to be the moral turpitude of American cities, Quṭb joined the Brotherhood on his return to Egypt. He then developed his own views, in the context of terrible personal suffering and torture; ultimately, he was hanged by the Nasser regime. The brutality of the regime confirmed Quṭb's anti-Western experience and provided the impetus for the elaboration of a new militancy. In outline, Quṭb argued that while there were millions of Muslims in Egypt, the system under which they were forced to live was fundamentally un-Islamic. In Signposts on the Way, his most important theoretical statement, Quṭb condemned the Egyptian regime as un-Islamic. Perhaps most significantly, he urged the formation of a vanguard of true believers who would mount a militant and armed resistance that alone could succeed. The regime recognized the direct and dangerous challenge that Quṭb's thought represented: he was executed, and the broad Islamist movement was smashed once again. But by the mid-1960s the regime's effort at modernization had crested. A financial crisis coupled with the devastating defeat by Israel in the 1967 War effectively ended the Nasserist experiment, in ways that mirrored the earlier imperial containment of Muḥammad ʿAlī. From these momentous events, many read the message that neither the liberal nor the socialist face of the Western project had much to offer Egyptians. The way had opened for those, whether moderate or radical, who claimed to speak for Islam. The death of the defeated Nasser and the succession of Anwar el-Sadat in 1971 paved the way for yet another return of the Muslim Brotherhood. As Sadat moved his regime to the right on all levels, he turned to the Islamist current to contain the old Nasserists and other elements of the left. Less than five years after Sayyid Quṭb's execution (many Muslim followers consider him a martyr), the Muslim Brotherhood reemerged to play their most important role in Egyptian public life since the 1940s. There were important differences, of course. No single leader emerged with the stature of Ḥasan al-Bannā. Equally important, although not initially noticed, the moderate mainstream that returned to civil life was haunted by the shadow of the militants, hardened in concentration camps and inspired by their selective reading of Sayyid Quṭb. The mainstream Brotherhood found themselves caught between the regime and the violent militants who had emerged from the repressed Islamists.

Mainstream and Radical Islamists.

In this difficult context, the Brotherhood assumed something of the role that the traditional ʿulamāʿ had once played in speaking for the nation and offering a variety of competing strategies. In this sense, in the 1980s and 1990s the Brotherhood gave rise to both the most moderate and the most militant voices for Islam.

The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, under the stable but uninspired leadership of ʿUmar al-Tilimsānī (Omar al-Telemsany), compromised with the Sadat regime and that of Hosni Mubarak. They adopted the conscious strategy of working within the existing order, and took advantage of every opportunity to play as large a role as possible in the emerging civil society. With official Islam and Ṣūfī orders diminished by Nasserist authoritarianism and brought into a single network of control, the Brotherhood constituted a quasi-independent Islamist mainstream that inspired a whole network of Islamist institutions and new forms of Islamist political and social action. Social Islam took on more elaborate forms. For a time the compromise with the Sadat regime worked. The Brotherhood threw themselves with genuine commitment into the officially orchestrated de-Nasserization campaign with attacks on socialism and authoritarianism. But when the full implications of Sadat's reorientation became clear in the mid-1970s, especially in the form of the separate peace with Israel in 1979, the tacit alliance came undone. As even the mainstream Brotherhood saw it, Sadat broke with Arab and Islamic ranks, sacrificed Jerusalem and the Palestinians, and all for narrowly conceived Egyptian interests. The United States failed to hold Israel to the Camp David commitment to do something for the Palestinians, as President Jimmy Carter much later candidly acknowledged, and the social gap in Egypt widened under liberalization policies. The Sadat regime's promise of peace and prosperity collapsed, leaving the president isolated and vulnerable. In October 1981 Islamist militants assassinated Sadat as he reviewed a military parade.

Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who was also on the reviewing stand, survived and assumed the presidency in a smooth constitutional transition. Mubarak began with a firm commitment to continue the policies of the Sadat era, including reconciliation with the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. In some ways Mubarak initially deepened the democratization process that Sadat had tentatively begun. He certainly continued to strengthen the presence of official Islam in public life. By the end of the first decade of Mubarak's rule, the Islamic current in Egypt had assumed an impressive array of forms. Alliances with legitimate political parties gave prominent Islamists seats in parliament, a leading role in the major professional syndicates, and many publishing houses. At the same time, the mosques steadily expanded their functions to include not only religious activities but also medical clinics and social service facilities that offered high-quality services at low prices, attracting middle-class as well as lower middle-class families. But despite these impressive advances of social Islam, the Islamist radicals cast a threatening shadow.

Radical Groups.

Militant political Islam, fragmented into small and often violent groups, continued to absorb the regime's energies in increasingly deadly duels. While the broad Islamic current drew support from all social classes, the militants appear to have originated predominantly from among the lower middle-class provincial areas, with their leaders coming from the rural elite. Their roots are especially strong in those parts of Upper Egypt, such as Minya and Asyūṭ, with large Christian populations. The militants splintered over their assessment of the appropriate target of their violent anger—the regime or society as a whole. They disagreed on strategy, with some militant groups such as the Takfīr wa al-Hijrah urging withdrawal from society to preserve their purity as the vanguard of a genuine Islamic order, and others, such as al-Jihād favoring shock attacks and assassinations designed to undermine the Mubarak government and produce the social chaos that would create the opening for a militant takeover. In 1991, Egypt participated in the first Gulf War. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait had divided public opinion and created an opening for the regime to align itself with the United States despite criticism of the attack from Arab countries. Egypt was rewarded with a reduction of its national debt by a reported $7 billion and the fury of the militants at this perceived complicity. In Upper Egypt extremist attacks on Christian and government targets increased dramatically, resulting in over one thousand deaths. The orgy of violence culminated in the slaughter of seventy tourists at the tomb of Hatshepsut at Luxor in 1997. The terrible reports of this massive killing had an even greater impact when ordinary Egyptians learned of the obscene mutilations of the bodies of these innocents. The government responded aggressively and the wave of terror subsided. While the regime claimed success, handing down death sentences for dozens of extremists and arresting some thirty-thousand others, the erosion of support for the militants that resulted from sheer revulsion among ordinary Egyptians at their unspeakable crimes was at least as decisive as the government's repressive measures. In some ways, the regime's most impressive weapon against the violent Islamist radicals was the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. On one hand, the Brotherhood was given a broader scope for their own activities; on the other, they were encouraged by the regime to cooperate in containing more militant elements that might challenge their own leadership. Uninspired leadership prevented the moderate Brotherhood from fully exploiting this new opening.

In retrospect, the most disappointing aspect of al-Bannā's legacy was the leadership void he left behind. During his lifetime al-Bannā surrounded himself not with the most talented but with the most loyal followers; he compensated for their limitations with his own impressive abilities. Official repression directed quite consciously against the top leadership cadres worsened the situation. Not surprisingly, some of the most creative and original minds in the Egyptian Islamist current found the ideological and institutional confines of the Brotherhood too limiting. Many prominent Islamist figures never joined. As the twentieth century drew to a close, some of the most impressive figures who had entered the Brotherhood's ranks moved out of the organization to act as independent Islamist figures, although they frequently maintained loose ties to the Brotherhood and always acknowledged the historic role of Ḥasan al-Bannā and the importance of social Islam.

New Islamists.

The most outstanding of these independent Islamists were the loosely linked members of an intellectual school who called themselves the New Islamists. They brought together such figures as Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, Shaykh Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, Kamāl Abū al-Majd, Muḥammad Salīm al-ʿAwwā, Ṭāriq al-Bishrī, and Fahmī Huwaydī. At the outset of the Mubarak era, Kamāl Abū al-Majd, on behalf of the group, produced a manifesto that expressed their moderate views, emphasizing domestic commitments to democracy and pluralism and an openness to the world. Despite its moderate thrust, the regime blocked the initiative, and the manifesto was not published for a decade. In the first decade of Mubarak's rule, however, the New Islamists nevertheless preserved their presence in Egyptian civil society and attempted to offer enlightened leadership to the rapidly growing Islamist body. During the first Gulf War the New Islamists stepped into the public arena with two statements addressed to the nation; they condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, called for an Arab and Islamic diplomatic solution, and opposed government support for the American-led military resolution. In moments of grave social tension precipitated by communal strife, key figures from their circle urged religious tolerance and acceptance of Egypt's Christians as full members of the political and social community. With ever greater urgency they addressed their conciliatory message to Egypt's disillusioned youth, who, in the deteriorating conditions of the 1990s, appeared to be responding instead to the shriller voices of the heirs of Sayyid Quṭb. In 1994 a variety of political groups, including centrist Islamists, participated in several initiatives to create an alternative politics of national consensus. They drew their resources less from the traditional opposition political parties than from the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the younger generation of centrist figures, and civil society more generally. Of these efforts the Kifaya movement was the most impressive and influential. Kifaya pioneered a new trans-generation, trans-ideological politics of public protest that declared in creative ways that Egyptians had had enough of Mubarak's authoritarian rule. For a time the movement enjoyed considerable momentum, benefiting from a brief respite from repression when American rhetoric emphasized an abandonment of its traditional support for regional dictators and openness to democracy. That policy was short-lived, as the full dimensions of the Iraqi quagmire became clear, and the United States turned once again to the authoritarian rulers on whom it had traditionally relied, quite explicitly abandoning the Egyptian democratic reformers. The coalition movement collapsed under these pressures. Kifaya suffered serious decline though it had already made a contribution in defining a new, if limited, consensual politics of public protest.


In the long term, the parliamentary experience of the Muslim Brotherhood might provide an enduring, liberalizing experience. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, candidates identified with the Brotherhood won roughly one-fifth of the seats, establishing themselves as the major opposition party. In parliament the Brothers played a restrained and constructive role, emphasizing, for example, non-ideological issues like corruption and the delivery of social services; this greatly enhanced their appeal and reputation for moderation. Meanwhile, the sclerotic regime of Hosni Mubarak presided over Egypt's steady decline as a regional power. True, from a macro-economic point of view and by the standards of the International Monetary Fund, the economy showed signs of improvement. But the gains of privatization, liberalization, and fiscal austerity fell to a narrow band of the population while the majority of ordinary Egyptians faced steadily worsening conditions of poverty. Most devastating for the Egyptian intellectual and political classes, however, was not only Egypt's growing irrelevance to the great, unsettled questions of regional political dilemmas like Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq but its role as a compliant enabler of American and Israeli designs for the area. Many saw these twilight years of the Mubarak regime as the worst in the modern history of the country. In tracing the history of the relationship between religion, the state, and a durable Arabism, Islam's vital yet constantly shifting, complex role emerges clearly, particularly with respect to the ongoing need to define a shared identity for all Egyptians. As part of this effort, prominent Islamist intellectuals and groups have formed and articulated unique and diverse responses to issues of democratic development and Egypt's relationship to the West. This contribution is best evidenced by their creative though inevitably contentious attempts to draw from the Islamic heritage those supreme Qur’ānic values and higher purposes of spirituality and justice that would enable Egypt to adjust to the conditions of a globalized world with a guiding worldview that preserves the best of the past while remaining open to the new possibilities of the future.


  • Baker, Raymond William. Islam Without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Comprehensive treatment of the most influential school of Egyptian centrist Islamists.
  • Carter, Jimmy. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
  • Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Written for a general audience, this authoritative survey of the current scene effectively counters media and scholarly distortions of Islam's role in public life.
  • Gilsenan, Michael. Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Middle East. London and New York: Tauris, 2000. Sensitive and probing anthropological study of popular Islam in its full diversity and complexity.
  • Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Brilliant and indispensable history of the Arabs and Islam, with important sections on Egypt.
  • Kassem, Maye. Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule. Boulder, Colo. and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004. An informative and useful guide by a promising young Egyptian scholar.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003. Helpful though one-sided guide to Egypt's radical militants.
  • Khalidi, Rashid. Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. An exemplary historical essay written for a broad audience, focusing on the American imperial project with detailed attention to Egypt.
  • Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Still the most insightful and fairest account of the Brothers’ historic role in Egypt and beyond.
  • Oweiss, Ibrahim M., ed. The Political Economy of Contemporary Egypt. Washington, D.C., 1990. Helpful collection sketching the sociopolitical conditions of Egyptian Islamist movements. See in particular the essays by Afāf Luṭfī, al-Sayyid Marsot and Moustafa K. el-Sayed.
  • Said. Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. A tour de force of cultural criticism with a political edge, paying notable attention to Egypt's centrality to the Western imperial project.
  • Sharabi, Hisham. Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Theoretically eclectic, this influential essay forcefully summarizes and restates negative assessments of the prospects of Islamist political movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
  • Shorbagy, Manar. “The Egyptian Movement for Change—Kefaya: Redefining Politics in Egypt Public Culture,” Arab Studies Quarterly, 19(1): 175–196 (2007). An astute assessment of the Kifaya movement.
  • Waterbury, John. The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Still the most complete mainstream political economy assessment.


William Baker, Raymond. "Egypt." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #183: 'Egypt' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", April 17, 2024