Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood: What is the Difference?

Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood: What is the Difference?

For western lay people, it can be hard to distinguish one radical Muslim from another.  What is the difference between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood?  Are they really all that different?  And why do Western governments seem to favour and even partner with Brotherhood-backed groups, but denigrate Salafis?

The 2011 People’s Assembly elections in Egypt focused the world’s attention on the Salafis when they proved to be the ‘dark horse’ of that poll, winning 25% of the seats.  This, together with the Muslim Brotherhood’s 47%, gave Islamists  almost three quarters of the seats in the Assembly. How do these two powerful Islamic groups compare?

Today the Brotherhood and Salafis also figure prominently in reports from Syria.  Both brands of Islamists field rebel forces in Syria, and Brotherhood leaders dominate the Syrian National Council, which has been recognized by the Arab League and some UN states as the legitimate representative of Syria.

Often in the past Western politicians have made the mistake of dismissing the Salafis as marginal extremists, while being all too willing to lap up the Brotherhood’s propaganda about their democratic credentials.  A good example was David Cameron’s statement in Parliament this past week concerning the Syrian National Council, as he sought to downplay any suggestion  that the conflict in Syria had a religious basis:

“When I see the official Syrian opposition I do not see purely a religious grouping; I see a group of people who have declared that they are in favour of democracy, human rights and a future for minorities, including Christians, in Syria. That is the fact of the matter.”

As troubling as Cameron’s ignorance about Brotherhood ideology appears to be, even more disturbing is his intent to forward military support to rebel groups, at the very time that a report has come from Syrian refugees of ethnic cleansing measures being enacted by Islamist rebels against the Syrian Christian minority.

This past week evidence has also emerged that among the insurgents who attacked the American Embassy in Benghazi in September 2012 were Egyptians, captured on video saying that ‘Dr Morsi sent us’.  Yet Dr Morsi, the Brotherhood President of Egypt, is claimed by the US as an ally, and Brotherhood operatives have had long-standing high-level access to and support from the US Government.


Salafism is a movement which emphasizes close adherence to the model of the Salaf or ‘predecessors’.  These were the first few generations of Muslims. To understand Salafism, one needs to grasp why the model of the Salafs is important to Muslims.

In normative Islam it is an article of faith that Muhammad is the ‘best example’ for other human beings to follow (Sura 33:21).  As a result a great many features of Islamic practice go back to what Muhammad did and said.  For example, conservative Muslim men grow beards precisely because Muhammad commanded this again and again: for example he stated that he would have nothing to do with men who shaved their beards; he gave specific instructions to men to let their beard grow; and he commanded his followers to be different from non-Muslims precisely in this, that they should not shave their beards.

The example and teaching of Muhammad — the Sunna — is an absolutely central and unassailably prestigious concept for mainstream Islamic faith and practice.

Knowledge about Muhammad’s example and teaching was, according to pious understanding, mediated to the world through Muhammad’s companions and the first few generations of Muslims.  The Salaf thus form the lens through which the example of Muhammad has been passed on to humanity.

Muhammad himself said that ‘The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them [the next generation after that]’ (Sahih Bukhari 76:437).  ‘Best’ implies the most rightly guided and most deserving to be emulated.

What all this means is that the Islam of the first generations of Muslims — the Salaf — is considered the purest and most prestigious form to follow. If a Muslim walks close to the Salaf in how they live, then they will be rightly guided and on the path to gaining Allah’s favour.

The Qur’an even declares a blessing in paradise for all those who follow the model of the first Muslims:

“The vanguard (of Islam) — the first of those who forsook (their homes) and of those who gave them aid, and (also) those who follow them in (all) good deeds, — well-pleased is Allah with them, as are they with Him: for them hath He prepared gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein for ever: that is the supreme felicity” (Sura 9:100).

Relying on such logic, the Salafi movement emphasizes the life of Muhammad, and the way of life of the first generations of Muslims.

Salafism is not so much an organization, as a worldview and a way of deciding religious questions. Salafi Muslims may identify with one or another of the schools of Islamic law, but their preference is not to stray from the practices of the first generations. They delight in rejecting ‘innovations’ (bid‘ah) introduced by later generations of Muslims.

Although Islam has a long tradition of esoteric metaphorical readings of the Qur’an, Salafis  reject all such intellectual creativity out of hand and chose to stay close to plain readings and the direct emulation of Muhammad and his immediate followers.  They delight in referring to Muhammad’s teaching that:

“He who innovates (an act or practice) or gives protection to an innovator, there is a curse of Allah and that of His angels and that of the whole humanity upon him. Allah will not accept from him (as a recompense) any obligatory act…” (Sahih Muslim)

It is important to grasp that Salafism is a reform movement in the sense that it aims to bring Muslims back to the purity of Islam’s origins.  It is overtly anti-Western to its bootstraps because it opposes everything which is not based upon the ‘best example’ of Muhammad, and it explicitly rejects appeal to intellectual concepts associated with western thought, whether from economics, education, ethics or politics.

The Salafi perspective on what is authentic Islam will always have a measure of prestige in the eyes of Muslims, because of the doctrinally unimpeachable authority of Muhammad’s example and the first generations of his followers.

Salafis are sometimes described as apolitical. For a time they can be, but ultimately they are not.  When in a minority position Salafis may keep themselves separate from non-Muslims and more liberally minded Muslims, quoting the example of Muhammad who did this when he was politically weak. For this reason Salafis can appear politically disengaged, and even obscurely innocuous, keeping themselves to themselves.  In some countries Salafi leaders have explicitly instructed their followers not to participate in democratic elections.

However, just because Salafi movements can and do flourish under the political radar — as happened in Egypt under President Mubarak, who privileged them as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood — this does not negate their potency to promote religious violence and jihad.  In rural Egypt today Salafis have been at the forefront of violent attacks against Christians.

The ancient scholars whom Salafis look to for their guiding lights, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qudamah and Ibn Qayyim, were unashamed advocates of jihad and the political dominance of Muslims over non-Muslims, and this doctrinal inheritance is openly acknowledged and fully endorsed by Salafi leaders.

In their political teachings Salafis promote aggressive jihad‚ extending Islam by the sword, because this is what the example of Muhammad and the first generations best supports (as taught for example in three ‘classic’ articles archived from a 2001 Salafi site from Melbourne Australia: here, here and here).  In short, Salafism provides a fertile seedbed for jihadi recruitment.


What is called Wahhabism — the official religious ideology of the Saudi state — is a form of Salafism. Strictly speaking, ‘Wahhabism’ is not a movement, but  a label used mainly by non-Muslims to refer to Saudi Salafism, referencing the name of an influential 18th century Salafi teacher, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

Salafis themselves do not like being called Wahhabis, because to them it smacks of idolatry to name their movement after a recent leader.  Instead they prefer to call themselves Ahl al-Sunnah “People of the Sunna”.

The continuing impact of Salafi dogma in Saudi Arabia means that Saudi leaders are active and diligent in funding and promoting Salafism all around the world.  If there is a mosque receiving Saudi funding in your city today, in every likelihood it is a Salafi mosque.  Saudi money has also leveraged Salafi teachings through TV stations, websites and publications.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood has stated on its own website that it is a Salafi movement. Although this self-description would not be accepted by others, like the Salafis themselves, the Brotherhood is also a reform movement, which shares the agenda of strict adherence to the example and teaching of Muhammad.

This agenda is reflected in a speech given by President Morsi of Egypt where he emphasizes that

“the Koran is our constitution, the Prophet Muhammad is our leader, jihad is our path, and death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration…sharia, sharia, and then finally sharia.  This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic sharia.”


Where the Brotherhood differs is in its strategy for facing the challenge of modernity.  Influenced by the teaching of Sayyid Qutb, it adopted a strategy for reform which engages strategically with the modern world and develops policies which engage with modernity in every dimension of life.

The Brotherhood is more deceptive in language and appearance than Salafis.  Salafis tend to be separatist and can give the impression of being focused upon personal religious piety, which separates them from those who do not share their beliefs.  Salafis also tend to speak using pious religious jargon, making few concessions to the communicative norms of others.  This is mirrored in their manner of dress, which concedes nothing to secular fashion sense.

In contrast the Brotherhood’s approach is to penetrate and transform western institutions,  with the ultimate aim of bringing about the same end as the Salafis.  The Brotherhood may seem more pragmatic and accommodating than Salafis, but this is little more than a strategic tactic on their part, not evidence of a fundamental difference in ultimate goals.  Brotherhood ideologues can be very skilled in modifying their rhetoric to suit their audience, but this is not an art Salafis have much time for.

Consistent with its goal of penetration and transformation, Brotherhood ideology interacts directly with and challenges western thought.  It is positive about modern science, and has developed ideological positions on challenges posed by modern economic and political realities.  It has strong appeal to and actively recruits Muslim professionals and intellectuals, including doctors and scientists – many of them western-educated – who have contributed many of its leaders, and when it is powerful the Brotherhood can function as a state within a state, with its own constitution, educational system, and laws.

Brotherhood ideology has taken account of and assimilated modern western ideologies, such as the idea of revolutions.  It uses western ideological terms, such as democracy but reinterprets their meaning to reference its end-goal of sharia implementation.  For example in this video, during recent elections, President Morsi was questioned about statements of Brotherhood leaders in favour of reimplementing jizya, the discriminatory tax paid by Christians living under sharia law.  He replies that this was taken out of context. Christians living under Islam, Morsi said, have more rights than they realise. Morsi also explains that the Islamic state by definition fulfils the ideals of a civil society: “the Islamic state is by necessity, necessity – let the West hear – a civil state, a moderate state, a democratic state; there is no difference between shura and democracy”.  (Shura is consultation as conceived of by Islamic law.)  A correct interpretation of Morsi’s message is that when the Brotherhood tells western leaders that it is in favor of democracy, what it really means is that it is committed to uphold a strict application of the Islamic sharia.

Although Salafis criticize the Brotherhood for making too many accommodations to non-Muslim thought, Brotherhood ideologues justify their formulations on Islamic grounds, by appealing to the example of Muhammad.

A key strategic idea taught by Brotherhood ideology is that of the Phases or Stages of Da’wa, or ‘proclamation’ of Islam.  Based on the model of Muhammad’s own prophetic career, the Brotherhood’s ideology is that in implementing Islam there is a God-given sequence of stages to be followed.  At first there is the less visible, even hidden, stage of building up individuals in their faith.  Then a community is formed with associated institution building.  Finally there will come the assumption of power for the sake of Islam, whether through gradual political processes or, if  necessary, jihad.

In accordance with this model, Brotherhood ideology emphasizes that military jihad is a method for the later stages of the implementation of Islam, just as it was in Muhammad’s own prophetic career.  Consequently, until the Islamic movement reaches the appropriate stage, Brotherhood teachings about jihad may be downplayed or concealed, especially before the eyes of outsiders.

In contrast Salafis tend to be much more upfront and unapologetic in presenting their teachings. They are a ‘what you see is what you get’ movement. Like the Brotherhood, they endorse the doctrine of stages based on Muhammad’s example, but seek to form and maintain a pure Islamic community throughout all stages of establishing Islam, which demands a consistency and purity in their public message to their constituency.

While the Brotherhood’s program can be pursued surreptitiously, within existing structures to transform and Islamicize society, Salafis typically take pride in openly teaching what others may regard as offensive doctrines, even when in the minority.

Both Brotherhood and Salafi leaders may use deception, but the difference between them reflects their contrasting strategies.  The Salafis’ focus is to attract followers through the authenticity and purity of their message, but the Brotherhood’s strategy is often to gain power by infiltration and exerting influence from within existing structures.

An ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ of the North American Brotherhood, dated 22 May 1991, stated that the goal of the Brotherhood movement is to engage in:

‘a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within and “sabotaging” its miserable house by their [own] hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.’

It is not possible to engage in such a ‘grand project’ without concealing one’s intentions, including one’s doctrines, from public scrutiny.

On the other hand, Salafis are willing to forgo covert means for the sake of maintaining clarity about Islam’s authentic teachings before the eyes of their followers, so they openly oppose democracy and western political ideals.  Without any apology they openly promote polygamy, violence against women, violent jihad, killing apostates, and other doctrines which western sensibilities would reject.  Yet when in a minority position Salafis, while openly teaching aggressive jihad, will restrain their followers from acting out this teaching against the infidels they live among.  This they do on principled theological grounds, appealing to the example of Muhammad’s early period in Mecca.

Another difference between the two movements is that the Salafis are politically more fragmented, and the Brotherhood more cohesive.  This is because Salafism is a theological ideal, and the Brotherhood is an organisation.

Those who pursue Salafism gain authority from their ability to argue their case directly from the Islamic canon.  This easily leads to fragmentation, because different preachers will make different rulings, depending upon how they interpret the primary sources for themselves.  In much the same way, Protestantism, with its emphasis on people reading the Bible for themselves, is more fragmented than Catholicism, which has a more clearly articulated doctrinal core and exercises central control over doctrine.

The Brotherhood is more like the Catholic church in that it has a detailed ideological base, with well articulated positions on many subjects, and demands solidarity and consistency from its followers.

In the longer term the religious power of the Salafi ideal may carry greater spiritual momentum, but Brotherhood leaders will be better organized and positioned to take power.  In Egypt we have seen Brotherhood leaders gaining control of the government, while the Salafis’ power base grew in local village mosques all over the country.

Saudi attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood are negative.  The Brotherhood is a banned organization in Saudi Arabia because it is considered a cogent political threat.  The Brotherhood’s vision of an Arabic caliphate stretching across the Middle East would spell the end to dynasties like the House of Saud. This is why in Egypt the Saudis support both Egypt’s military and the Salafis.

A model Salafi: Yassir Al-Burhami

As an example of the Salafi’s kind of radical Muslim, I put forward Sheikh Yassir al-Burhami, who is one of the founders and leaders of the Salafi Al-Nour party which won 25% of the seats in Egypt’s most recent parliamentary elections.  Al-Burhami trained as a doctor before pursuing religious studies.  In this TV interview Al-Burhami, dressed in a simple traditional robe, explains his attitude to politics:

“Allah said: ‘Never will Allah grant the infidels a way (to triumph) over the Muslims.’ [Sura 4:141] We are not afraid of losing the elections or of not getting votes.  We are not trying to ingratiate ourselves before the people.”

In dealing with the Christians of Egypt, al-Burhami goes on to explain that Muslims can use whatever methods Muhammad used in his dealings with the Jews of Medina.  He says that when Muslims are weak they are instructed — by Islam and by scholars including himself — to live peaceably alongside infidels and devote themselves to their religious duties, just as Muhammad did when he was weak.  Al-Burhami gives the example of Muslims under Israeli rule.  But when Muslims are strong, they can do as Muhammad famously did when he eliminated the Jews of Medina by the sword:  “The Christians [of Egypt] can be dealt with like the Jews of Medina.  That is possible.”

This is incitement to genocide through slaughter.  The intent is crystal clear: Muslims are commanded to get along with Christians (or Jews) while they are weak, but when they are strong, if the non-Muslims do not toe the line, then Muhammad’s example dictates that the unbelievers can be freely and openly killed.

A model member of the Brotherhood: Safwat Hijazi

As an example of the Brotherhood’s kind of radical Muslim, I put forward Safwat Hijazi, who holds a doctorate from the University of Dijon, France.  Hijazi was the speaker selected to launch the election campaign of President Mohammed Morsi before a crowd of hundreds of thousands on May 1, 2012, declaring “So that the whole world may hear … Jerusalem is our goal!”.

Behind Hijazi were sitting a group Brotherhood dignitaries, characteristically dressed like Hijazi in western business suits.

Hijazi is a well-known television presenter. In one of his Times of Honor TV programs  (was at, again dressed in a grey suit and tie, Hijazi gasps with delight as he cheerfully demonstrates with his hands how the conqueror of Egypt Amr Ibn Al-As taught his son Abdullah the preferred method of killing (Christian) Egyptians, namely by splitting open their skulls:

“How do those people [at the time of the conquest of Egypt] teach their children? They are teaching their children the method of how to conduct jihad for the cause of Allah. Oh, yes, today we do have people who teach their children, but one teaches his son how to split open a pocket [i.e. to pick pockets]… [or] to do something … in the matter of bullying. [But] look what our master Amr Ibn Al-As says to his son.”

If readers examine the video links they will see that both Hijazi and al-Burhami have a prominent zabiba or ‘prayer bump’ on their forehead caused by banging one’s head on the floor during daily prayers.  The Salafi’s bump is bigger! .

It must be emphasized that both al-Burhami and Hijazi are recognized and widely respected leaders within the largest Islamic movements in Egypt.  Their views are not extreme, but mainstream.

Strategic Implications

Western leaders can mistake the pragmatism of Brotherhood leaders for ideological flexibility. That is a serious underestimation.  Their flexibility is strategic.  In essence, although a Salafi preacher may be sporting a seemingly untidy long beard and wearing a long robe, and the Brotherhood leader’s bead is neatly trimmed and he wears a smart western suit, both share the same fundamental vision for society.  As one of my correspondents put it:

“They will both shout Allahu Akbar and bomb Israel, support jihad, and support the violation of the rights of women and non-Muslims.  One will do it openly and loudly while wearing his primitive Islamic dress and his untidy beard, but the other will be a PhD holder from Oxford University, or the Sorbonne, and he will do it cunningly and secretly while wearing his German or French suit and a tidy beard, from an air-conditioned office, all the while making deals with the Americans.”

On the other hand, Westerners have sometimes mistaken Salafi patterns of coexistence in minority contexts for a disposition to be politically disengaged.  That is equally a mistake.  Salafis have proven that they can be more than willing to use political power and violence when they become strong enough to profit from it.  Salafi preachers are familiar with and teach the well-known principle that Muslims should only use force to advance Islam when they are in a position of strength.

In Egypt today, and in the skirmishes of Syria, the Brotherhood and the Salafis are competing for the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses.  Both are feared by non-Muslims and liberally minded Muslims alike.  On the ground, in remote villages of Egypt and Syria it may be the Salafis who are proving to be the more cogent threat to non-Muslim minorities, but in the corridors of power it has been the Brotherhood leaders who are better positioned to take control.

For example, in Syria it is the Brotherhood who, with their suits and mastery of western ways, who have been validated by foreign powers as leaders in what Cameron called the ‘official’ Syrian opposition.

Despite their differences, one thing is certain, which is that the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood are intent on more Sharia, more radicalism, and less freedom for all, wherever they gain influence.

Their paths may differ, but they agree on where the final destination lies.

It is therefore time that western leaders abandoned their naivety and stopped being bedazzled by Brotherhood rhetoric.  They should look upon them as sharing the same ideological goals as the Salafis, although dressed in different clothes.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

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