Islamic Movements in the Middle East: Egypt as a case study

ÖZLEM TÜR KAVLİ

Akef

The Islamic challenge remains a central issue within the ongoing debate on the nature of Middle East
politics. As the main opposition to government policies, the Islamic movements enjoy widespread
popularity, especially among the lower echelons of those populations —people who are
economically or politically alienated. Egypt has been a pioneer of Arab countries in many aspects of
economic, political and cultural development. It has also been the pioneer in the rise of Islamic
movements and the state’s fight with these groups. The aim of this paper is to look at Egypt as a case
study in Middle East’s Islamist movements in general.
The first part of this paper looks briefly at nineteenth century Islamic reformers who had an impact
on the development of modern Islamic movements. In the second part, the focus will be on the
formation of the Islamic movements and their cadres and main ideologies. The third part looks at
contemporary movements and their position in Egyptian society.
ISLAMIC REFORMISTS
Islamic reformism is a modern movement that came into the scene in the nineteenth century as a
reaction to European supremacy and expansion. It was during this period that Muslim religious
leaders and politicians began to realise that their state of affairs was inferior to that of Europe and
was in steady decline. Although Islam has suffered many defeats by Europeans, it was in the
nineteenth century that Muslims felt for the first time their weakness and decline and the need to
borrow from their ‘enemy’. This painful awareness made Muslim intellectuals think about the
defects and the weaknesses they were suffering from and they started to search for a remedy.1 On the
one hand, Islamic reformists embarked on studies of Europe’s pre-industrial phase in order to trace
ways of building a strong state and economy. On the other, they sought viable cultural paradigms
capable of checking the dominance of Europe. The Islamic reformist movement was an urban
movement and tried to establish strategies for the development of the Muslim world. The frustration
of the early reformists with the status quo did not entail a demonising of the West or even a rejection
of modernisation per se. In their quest for progress, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani and Mohammad
Abduh looked upon the West both as a model and as a rival. They perceived the challenge the
Umma, the Muslim community, was facing as shaped by a need to readjust their worldview to the
realities of the approaching new age. The Muslim people were given priority as citizens, whereas
Islam as a normative system “assumed the role of a defensive weapon that had to be restored in order
to stop deterioration and check the decline”.2 Rashid Rida had more radical views about society as
being corrupt and the heads of Arab states as being the apostates of Islam and he supported the
implementation of Koranic punishments. These three reformists desired to bring back the glory of
Islam by embracing ijtihad, rejecting the superstitions of popular religion and the stagnant thinking
of the ulama. They aimed at “creating a synthesis of Islam and the modern West rather than a
purified society constructed primarily along Islamic lines”.3 It is ironic that these reformists became
the founding ideologues of the Islamic movements that demand strictly purified Islamic
communities.

The Islamic challenge remains a central issue within the ongoing debate on the nature of Middle East politics. As the main opposition to government policies, the Islamic movements enjoy widespread popularity, especially among the lower echelons of those populations —people who are economically or politically alienated.

Egypt has been a pioneer of Arab countries in many aspects of economic, political and cultural development. It has also been the pioneer in the rise of Islamic movements and the state’s fight with these groups. The aim of this paper is to look at Egypt as a case study in Middle East’s Islamist movements in general.

The first part of this paper looks briefly at nineteenth century Islamic reformers who had an impact on the development of modern Islamic movements. In the second part, the focus will be on the formation of the Islamic movements and their cadres and main ideologies. The third part looks at contemporary movements and their position in Egyptian society.

ISLAMIC REFORMISTS

Islamic reformism is a modern movement that came into the scene in the nineteenth century as a reaction to European supremacy and expansion.

It was during this period that Muslim religious leaders and politicians began to realise that their state of affairs was inferior to that of Europe and was in steady decline. Although Islam has suffered many defeats by Europeans, it was in the nineteenth century that Muslims felt for the first time their weakness and decline and the need to borrow from their ‘enemy’.

This painful awareness made Muslim intellectuals think about the defects and the weaknesses they were suffering from and they started to search for a remedy.On the one hand, Islamic reformists embarked on studies of Europe’s pre-industrial phase in order to trace ways of building a strong state and economy. On the other, they sought viable cultural paradigms capable of checking the dominance of Europe.

The Islamic reformist movement was an urban movement and tried to establish strategies for the development of the Muslim world. The frustration of the early reformists with the status quo did not entail a demonising of the West or even a rejection of modernisation per se.

In their quest for progress, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani and Mohammad Abduh looked upon the West both as a model and as a rival. They perceived the challenge the Umma, the Muslim community, was facing as shaped by a need to readjust their worldview to the realities of the approaching new age.

The Muslim people were given priority as citizens, whereas Islam as a normative system “assumed the role of a defensive weapon that had to be restored in order to stop deterioration and check the decline”. Rashid Rida had more radical views about society as being corrupt and the heads of Arab states as being the apostates of Islam and he supported the implementation of Koranic punishments.

These three reformists desired to bring back the glory of Islam by embracing ijtihad, rejecting the superstitions of popular religion and the stagnant thinking of the ulama. They aimed at “creating a synthesis of Islam and the modern West rather than a purified society constructed primarily along Islamic lines”.

It is ironic that these reformists became the founding ideologues of the Islamic movements that demand strictly purified Islamic communities.

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