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Practices of Piety: An Alternative Approach to the Study of Islamic Movements

Department of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, USA
Religions 2020, 11(10), 520;
Submission received: 29 July 2020 / Revised: 31 August 2020 / Accepted: 13 September 2020 / Published: 12 October 2020
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Political Islam in World Politics)


This article challenges the dominant organization-centered focus of the study of Islamic movements, and argues for a turn towards social practice. To do so, it traces the rise and spread of Egypt’s leading Salafi movement, Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya (e. 1926) and its role in popularizing a series of distinct practices between 1940 and 1990. Based on the full run of this movement’s magazine, al-Hadi al-Nabawi (the Prophetic Guide, 1936–66) and al-Tawhid (Monolatry, 1973–93), the article explores the conditions in which practices such as praying in shoes and bareheaded, gender segregation and the cultivation of a fist-length beard were both politically viable and strategically advantageous. In doing so, it not only casts light on the trajectory of this movement, but also shows how and why the articulation and performance of distinct social practices are central to how Islamic movements shape society.

In 1952, Amin Muhammad Rida (1922–1998), a leading figure in Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, declared that members of Egypt’s leading Salafi movement “pray in their shoes without shame, because they pray based on a belief in God and His Prophet, and in obedience to God and His Prophet.”1 Among Islamic movements, Salafism is the trend that most explicitly bases itself on Islam’s founding moment in seventh century Arabia generally, and on the model set forth by the Prophet Muhammad, in particular. A reformist approach that arose in the early 20th century, the Salafi movement would distinguish itself by elaborating a vision of God’s oneness (Tawḥīd) that offered particular models of ethical formation, social transformation and political engagement. But why did Rida emphasize praying in shoes, and what can a focus on religious practice teach us about the study of Islamic movements? In this article, I will tell a story of how Ansar al-Sunna emerged, articulated a vision of social change, and formulated a variety of daily practices that sought to restructure society. In telling this story, I seek not only to cast light on the trajectory of this movement, but also to show how and why the articulation and performance of distinct social practices is central to how Islamic movements define communal boundaries and influence society more broadly.

1. Studying Islamic Movements

In 1928, a schoolteacher from the Nile Delta by the name of Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949) founded what would become the most successful Islamic movement of the twentieth century. The Muslim Brotherhood became known for its tight-knit organizational structure, ideological discipline and ability to withstand crushing repression. This model, in turn, is the starting point for organizational histories of the Brotherhood’s efforts to spread Islam through grassroots preaching and the establishment of an Islamic state alike.2 Influenced consciously or unconsciously by this approach, scholars of Islamic movements from Turkey to Jordan to Yemen have foregrounded organizational structures as the central analytical framework through which to study such groups.3
A second approach to the study of the Muslim Brotherhood has pivoted on ideology. This scholarship, produced largely in a period in which the question of compatibility between Islamism and democracy figured prominently in both academic and policy circles, traces how political conditions lead to either moderation or radicalization of Islamist beliefs.4 In doing so, it valuably illustrates the significance of ideological vision to the decisions of Islamist movements, and takes the internal dynamism of Islamist intellectual engagement seriously.
A third body of research on Islamic movements more broadly notes the importance of both formal and informal grassroots efforts to spread particular movements’ religious visions. Whether Quietist Salafis across the Middle East, the Nur and Fetullah Gulen movements in Turkey,5 the Deobandi and Tablighi Jamaat movements in South Asia,6 or Sufi orders in Iran and Central Asia,7 grassroots outreach remains the dominant form by which Islamic movements seek to influence society. Indeed, notwithstanding the Brotherhood’s post-1970 focus on institutional access—whether through student associations, business syndicates or parliamentary representation—the organization has maintained its commitment to this form of outreach.8
In this article, I build on previous scholars’ emphasis on grassroots development and local practice. Yet, instead of focusing on institutions that facilitate this form of spreading the call of Islam (daʿwa), I foreground the importance of distinct social practices as a technique of identity formation, boundary maintenance and social challenge. To tell this story, I trace the path of a second Islamic movement that emerged in Egypt, Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya.
This is a story that begins in 1926, when a graduate of al-Azhar by the name of Muhammad Hamid al-Fiqi (d. 1959) began delivering religious lessons based on “Books of the Sunna” (kutub al-Sunna) at the ʿAli Qasim Coffeehouse on Bustan Street, near what is now al-Tahrir Square.9 The initial focus of Ansar al-Sunna’s founder was not on building branches but on ritual practice within mosques and, for the next two decades, the organization would combine this emphasis and a commitment to local education. Al-Fiqi’s primary institutional focus was training graduates of al-Azhar to serve as mosque preachers (wuʿāẓ) and establishing institutes to teach Quranic recitation.10 Over the course of the second half of the 20th-century, however, Ansar al-Sunna would move beyond the mosques. Specifically, the organization spearheaded the popularization of a series of social practices—namely praying in shoes, gender segregation, a particular model of facial hair, and the prohibition against full length pants—that would come to be seen as distinctly Salafi.
My argument is not that we should simply replace an emphasis on one group’s trajectory with that of another. Nor am I claiming that organizational structures and sites are irrelevant; institutions controlled by Islamic movements, whether mosques, business syndicates or medical clinics, can play vital roles in the transmission of particular ideological projects and in the mobilization of populations.11 Instead, my contention is that a focus on social practice casts light on what makes such movements social, namely the practices that define and bind communities. I have previously written about the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in popularizing specific practices of piety in 1970s Egypt, most notably novel models of education, timely prayer and male/female interaction.12 Here, by contrast, I focus on a longer period—roughly the final three quarters of the 20th-century—during which Ansar al-Sunna played a key role in defining a set of social practices that distinguished adherents to Salafism from competitors within other Islamic movements, most notably the Brotherhood. In this article, I will focus on three of the four key practices popularized by Ansar al-Sunna: praying in shoes, gender segregation, and the popularization of a fist-length beard, alongside a fourth practice, discarding the turban, that bound its members to their secular-nationalist competitors.
In making this argument for the centrality of practice, I proceed on a basic assumption that social acts, when performed regularly, constitute both a particular way of orienting oneself to the divine and a visible marker of communal membership. Unlike measures of organizational strength (e.g., branches or affiliated mosques) and political influence (e.g., parliamentary seats), practices can be performed in spite of deep power inequalities. Indeed, the symbolism of the performance of distinct practices provides a powerful visual (and embodied) contrast with the status quo. Though practices of prayer or dress are certainly not immune to repression or intimidation, they are flexible, portable and diffuse compared with organizational infrastructure.
The significance of practice also arises from the claims made by modern nation states. Scholarship on the history of modern states both within and beyond the Middle East has shown how governmental institutions seek to regulate the daily practices of their citizens through public education, mandatory conscription and incarceration.13 As Talal Asad notes, “because the modern nation-state seeks to regulate all aspects of individual life—even the most intimate, such as birth and death—no one, whether religious or otherwise, can avoid encountering its ambitious powers.”14 In the specific case of the Middle East, these states have also made a conscious effort to subsume Islam within a broader national frame, “functionalizing” religious thought and practice to provide ideological support for varied political programs.15
As a result, groups that seek to challenge the modern state, whether directly or indirectly, often turn to social practices in articulating an alternative communal identity.16 These practices, in turn, serve three principal purposes: to model a particular social vision within spaces controlled by the movement, to communicate the movement’s broader project, and to provide opportunities for building ties in those spaces that it does not control.17 In this context, Islamic movements must not merely distinguish themselves from a state, but also from competing movements.
This article draws inspiration from a broader body of literature on Islamic movements and social practice. Within research on Salafism, scholars have previously acknowledged that Salafis engage in distinct social practices,18 while anthropologists of contemporary Islamic piety movements, some of whom study Salafis, have foregrounded the importance of embodied piety.19 A minority of Social Scientists have also turned to questions of practice in the study of Islamism.20 In the specific case of the Muslim Brotherhood, previous scholarship has noted the importance of local modes of social organization,21 though not the significance of particular bodily markers, such as distinct modes of dress or facial hair.22
In this article, my move to foreground the history of particular social practices for the study of Islamic movements has two principal goals: (1) to focus on how movements define communal identity and boundaries through practice and (2) to explore what the performance of these practices in varied social spaces—such as state institutions—can reveal about the social and intellectual development of Islamic movements. In doing so, I seek to concretize the intersection of organizational mobilization and ideological change by casting light on how embodied practices are used to articulate alternative visions of state and society alike.
My focus on Ansar al-Sunna’s path in Egypt should not be seen as representative of all Islamic movements. Instead, I seek to explore a set of conceptual questions surrounding the study of such movements by analyzing the practices by which Ansar al-Sunna specifically, and Salafis more generally, distinguish themselves today. To do so, I draw primarily on the full run of this movement’s magazine, al-Hadi al-Nabawi (the Prophetic Guide, 1936–66) and al-Tawhid (Monotheism, 1973–present). With these considerations aside, how did Ansar al-Sunna emerge and begin to lay claim to Egyptian society through a particularistic and highly disruptive practice of praying in shoes?

2. The Rise of Ansar al-Sunna, 1926–52: Whither Politics?

In 1926, Muhammad Hamid al-Fiqi founded Ansar al-Sunna, which would soon spread throughout Egypt, transmitting a project of neo-Hanbali theology and a commitment to deriving Islamic law from the Quran and Sunna from Egypt to Sudan, Eritrea, and beyond. The first roughly quarter century of this organization’s life would see substantial growth: Beginning with twice-weekly lectures at the organization’s original Cairo base in ʿAbadin,23 Ansar al-Sunna expanded outwards first to Alexandria,24 and then to the Nile Delta cities of Monuf, Damanhur, Port Said, Bani Swayf, Quwaysna, and Shibbin al-Kum,25 as well as to key cities within Upper Egypt such as Minya.26 By 1939, regular lectures throughout the week were increasingly common across Egypt,27 and as the 1940s progressed, AS branches proliferated further, increasingly coming to include attached or affiliated mosques28 and schools.29 While the organization would retain its branches and mosques up through its forced merger with a second Islamic movement, the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya, in 1967,30 the period between 1952 and 1967 saw a significant decrease in the previously-regular announcement of new branches in pages of the group’s periodical, al-Hadi al-Nabawi.
A focus on this story tells us a great deal about how political shifts shape opportunities for institutional growth, membership engagement, and financial stability. Most notably, Ansar al-Sunna’s mosques and branches benefited from the relatively open political environment of the 1930s and 1940s during which varied ideological groups vied for prominence under a British-backed monarchy.31 By contrast, under ʿAbd al-Nasir (r. 1952–70), opportunities narrowed as Egypt’s secular-nationalist dictator engaged in a project of mass repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and, more broadly, in an effort to assert control over independent spaces within Egyptian society. How did Ansar al-Sunna respond to effect of these restrictions on opportunities for religious mobilization? I will begin by focusing on what the practice of praying in shoes (known alternately as al-Ṣalāt bi-l-Hadhāʾ, al-Ṣalāt bi-l-Niʿāl, or Ṣalāt al-Naʿlayn)—a story that stretches from Monarchical through Free Officer rule—can reveal about the benefits of a focus on social practice in the study of Islamic movements.
In May 1940, al-Hadi al-Nabawi republished a fatwa by the Egyptian State Mufti, ʿAbd al-Majid Salim (r. 1928–45), which had originally been published in the leading Egyptian daily newspaper al-Ahram, and then reprinted in the March 1932 issue of the scholarly journal al-Islam. In this fatwa, Salim had argued that as long as one’s shoes were free of impurities (al-naʿlān ṭāhiratān), then praying in them was permissible (ṣaḥīḥa) as the Prophet Muhammad had done so in his lifetime.32 As he concluded the fatwa, Salim argued that that praying in shoes must be permitted and noted “[that] many Muslim scholars have determined that [this practice is] praiseworthy (mustaḥḥaba).”33 Neither was Salim the first prominent Muslim scholar in Egypt to make such a claim: in both November 1903 and January 1931, the leading Islamic reformer Rashid Rida (d. 1935) issued fatwas in al-Manar defining this practice as Sunna, though he did not specify whether the practice was merely permitted or praiseworthy.34
Praying in shoes constituted a provocative yet potentially powerful social practice. While Muslim scholars largely agreed that the Prophet Muhammad had prayed in this manner, the prominence of this practice had receded since the early Muslim community expanded beyond Arabia from the mid-seventh century on.35 It was in this context that Ansar al-Sunna would face criticism for its commitment to praying in shoes.
Most vociferous would be a December 1949 fatwa in Liwaʾ al-Islam, a scholarly journal dominated by graduates of al-Azhar, in which the petitioner explained:
I have seen a group, which identifies itself as Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, praying in their shoes [in mosques] with their heads uncovered…. and insulting the scholars of Azhar…cursing [Sufi] saints (awliyāʾ Allah) and claiming that celebrating the Prophet’s birthday (Mawlid al-musṭafā) is polytheism (shirk b-illā)… I request a response.36
While the journal’s response did not engage in explicit criticism of Ansar al-Sunna—it largely affirmed the principle that prayer in ritually pure shoes is lawful (ṣaḥīḥa)—Ansar al-Sunna’s elites took offense nonetheless. Most notably, a leading member of the group, Abu-l-Wafaʾ Muhammad Darwish penned an article entitled “Us and Liwaʾ al-Islam,” in which he angrily noted that the Mufti in this journal had not contested these accusations, thus leading to the “the awakening of dormant discord” (īqāẓ al-fitna al-nāʾima).37 In March 1952, Amin Muhammad Rida took this stance a step further, noting that “some Muslims reproach Ansar al-Sunna for praying in shoes…I was even accused of disbelief (kufr) and a lack of manners (ʿadam al-taʾdub).38 Far from disbelief, Rida sought to tie this practice directly to belief in and obedience towards “God and His Prophet.”39
What can we learn from this conflict over the legal status of shoes during prayer? This is a story of how Ansar al-Sunna sought to place orientation to a divine model at the forefront of their social world, at a time when Egyptian movements, Islamic and secular, were deeply engaged in questions of national and supra-national identity.40 Far from a retreat from contestation, the emphasis on praying in shoes—and more broadly, the claim to the supremacy of the hadith corpus to living a piously Islamic life—represented a clear critique of the ways in which the dominant ideological debates of this period paid little attention to the core texts of the Islamic legal tradition. Just as importantly, this claim challenged the scholars committed to the Madhhab-based legal traditions who had lost their historic independence vis-à-vis the state and increasingly had sought to find a place within it.41
This conflict also reveals the power of social practice for Egypt’s leading Salafi movement. Praying in shoes projected a salt-of-the-earth piety, distinguishing this organization and its members not only from the ideological battles of the day or the institutions of a secular Egyptian state, but also from other Muslims who removed their shoes to pray. Yet, lest we overemphasize the extent of Ansar al-Sunna’s reach, Amin Muhammad Rida’s account also underscores a key social reality: despite Ansar al-Sunna’s ostensibly healthy infrastructure, he does not appear to have necessarily prayed in a mosque dominated by Egypt’s leading Salafi group, but rather in one that hosted individuals of varied religious orientations. As such, the story of praying in shoes casts light both on the social potency of ritual practice, as well as on the varied social contexts in which such practices are performed.
July of 1952, however, would bring the Free Officers to power, led by Muhammad Najib and Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir, the latter of whom would ascend to unquestioned status as sole leader by 1954. Just as importantly, 1954 would see a mass crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the attempted assassination of ʿAbd al-Nasir by two members of the organization’s Secret Apparatus (an-Tanẓīm al-Sirrī).42 This crackdown, though directed at the Brotherhood, would also raise the cost of religious distinctiveness more generally and the topic of praying in shoes would vanish from al-Hadi al-Nabawi until the journal was closed in 1967 as part of forced merger of Ansar al-Sunna with the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya.43 How, then, might we study the claims of an Islamic movement in an era of substantial repression?

3. Islamic Movements in the Shade of Secular-Nationalist Repression (1952–70)

In his memoir, a leading Islamist student activist of the 1970s who became a prominent reformist within the Brotherhood, Abd al-Munʿim Abuʾl-Futuh, recounts how, under ʿAbd al-Nasir, members of the Brotherhood would frequent mosques controlled by Ansar al-Sunna and the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya.44 Similarly, a September 1962 article in al-Hadi al-Nabawi reported that a prominent preacher within Ansar al-Sunna, Muhammad Khalil Hurras, had previously lectured at Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya mosques and, upon joining Ansar al-Sunna, had brought a significant number of Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya members with him.45
These two sources are a tantalizing hint at the opportunities for intellectual and social cross-pollination among Islamic movements in this period, as well as a reminder of the challenges of studying such interaction in periods of state repression. When faced with such a dearth of sources and real restrictions on activism, there is an understandable temptation to emphasize either what movements cannot do or to hone in on particularly significant intellectual developments, such as the debate over declaring other Muslims to be disbelievers (takfīr) catalyzed by Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (Maʿālīm fī al-Ṭarīq) and Hasan al-Hudaybi’s Preachers Not Judges (Duʿāt lā Quḍāt).46 More broadly, we are left with the option of telling a story of quietism or politics, of moderation or radicalism. Notwithstanding their limitations, these stories valuably illustrate how political conditions shaped the emergence of particularly significant ideas.
The challenge of sources and social life, however, remains. To face this challenge, I will return to the story of praying in shoes, specifically to a second feature of Ansar al-Sunna’s ritual practice noted in both Liwaʾ al-Islam and al-Hadi al-Nabawi: praying with one’s head uncovered (ḥāsir al-raʾs). The significance of this practice lay not in the challenge it posed to the Egyptian state or even primarily to other worshippers, but rather to an increasingly weak old order of religious authority dominated by scholars who wore the turban (al-ʿimāma). Once a basic sign of Islamic masculinity alongside a long robe, this form of head covering had become increasingly marginalized by the sartorial practices of a state-sponsored project of modernity, whose proponents called for men to don suits and a cylindrical peak-less hat, known in Egypt as the Tarbush.47
Let us begin with a basic empirical observation: in a period in which the debate over praying in shoes disappeared from the pages of Ansar al-Sunna’s journal, discussion of praying bareheaded persisted.48 While the textual record of al-Hadi al-Nabawi does not directly reflect social practice—presumably at least some members of Ansar al-Sunna continued to pray while wearing shoes in private and possibly even in a communal setting—the marginalization of this practice in the pages of al-Hadi al-Nabawi is a sign of Ansar al-Sunna’s priorities. The question, then, is why, in a period in which the costs of distinctiveness had risen substantially, would this movement marginalize only one of these two practices?
I wish to offer a few linked observations and finally a possible explanation for this contrast. First, the repression of the ʿAbd al-Nasir period raised the cost of praying in shoes and, more broadly, the price of socially distinctive practices. At the same time, though, it appears to be the case that at least some members of Ansar al-Sunna continued to pray bareheaded throughout the ʿAbd al-Nasir period. What is confounding at first glance—surely this, too, distinguished Ansar al-Sunna?—reveals the opportunities created by a basic similarity that united secular nationalists and Salafis in mid-20th century Egypt: a rejection of the old scholarly order’s authority symbolized in material form by the turban. Put differently, praying bareheaded was a practice worth preserving because it distinguished Ansar al-Sunna from competing Islamic movements.49 Just as important was that it was viable to preserve because a rejection of the turban challenged precisely the same segment of the Egyptian religious hierarchy that the Free Officers’ project of secular nationalism had targeted. Second, when we consider the practice of praying with one’s head uncovered, alongside Abu-l-Futuh’s recollection of praying in Ansar al-Sunna mosques, it is reasonable to conclude that while Ansar al-Sunna’s institutionalized activities were significantly curtailed, it retained partial access to ritual space and continued to engage in some, though not all, of its distinctive ritual practices.50 With ʿAbd al-Nasir’s death in 1970 and the rise of his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, however, Ansar al-Sunna would move beyond the mosque and the centrality of social practice within the movement would expand.

4. The Rise of Salafi Social Practice, 1970–1981

June of 1967 would bring with it ideological and military devastation as the stunning victory of the Israeli Defense Forces produced a lethal challenge to ʿAbd al-Nasir’s vision of secular nationalism and the Egyptian army alike. With ʿAbd al-Nasir’s death in 1970, his Vice President Anwar al-Sadat would take the reins, embracing the mantle of “religion and science” (al-ʿilm waʾl-imān) as he positioned himself as the “Believing President” (al-Raʾīs al-Muʾmin).51 Over the course of the next decade, al-Sadat would seek to shape the rise of a broader “Islamic Revival” (Ṣaḥwa Islāmiyya) as both state institutions and Islamic movements worked to redefine the goalposts of public morality and piety. Whether the Brotherhood, Ansar al-Sunna and the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya among Islamic movements or the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (al-Majlis al-Aʿlā li-l-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyya) within the Ministry of the Endowments and the Islamic Research Academy (Majmaʿ al-Buḥūth al-Islāmiyya) within al-Azhar, the question was not whether Islam should be applied to daily life but how to do so.
Under al-Sadat, Islamic movements found new room to maneuver within Egyptian society and state institutions alike, and many of their members were released from prison. During this period, the Brotherhood and Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya aligned with the Islamic Student Movement (al-Jamāʿa al-Islāmiyya) to entrench varied projects of piety within state institutions, notably the daily performance of the early afternoon Zuhr prayer, and pious male/female interaction.52 While Ansar al-Sunna’s elites were linked both intellectually and socially to leading figures within the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya,53 their focus would be on articulating a vision of Salafi social practice that distinguished them from their Islamist competitors socially. In this section, I will focus on one such practice—gender segregation—and what it reveals about the centrality of social practice to Salafism as it emerged as a social movement.
As Ansar al-Sunna’s leaders considered the possibility of gender segregation in 1970s Egypt, the view was far from promising in structural terms: between 1947 and 1976, Egypt’s population had grown from 18.8 million to 36.6 million, and the number of Egyptians living in cities rose from 6.2 million to 16.1 million.54 Demographic growth within higher education was even more rapid, increasing fourfold to four million between 1951 and 1976, and 30.4% of those attending were women.55 Finally, this demographic growth within Egyptian educational institutions occurred without any significant expansion of infrastructure, leading to overcrowded lecture halls and classrooms.56 Whether on the subway, in schools or in the workplace, men and women occupied the same social space rather than separate spheres.
Despite this challenge, Ansar al-Sunna worked with allies within the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya and a leading Saudi Salafi scholar, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz b. Baz, to push forward a project of gender segregation. Both challenged and inspired by the success of the Islamic Student Movement in offering makeshift gender segregation on public buses and trains57 and to a limited extent within public spaces of university campuses,58 Salafi scholars sought to raise the stakes as they articulated a vision of gender segregation that encompassed the entirety of Egyptian social life.
Ansar al-Sunna, for its part, would host a conversation in the successor journal to al-Hadi al-Nabawi, al-Tawhid (1973–present). Most notably, Ibn Baz offered the unprecedented textual claim that the Quranic injunction against “flaunting” (al-tabarruj) was a prohibition against gender mixing (al-ikhtilāṭ) rather than immodest behavior as Salafi scholars (and more broadly, Sunni scholars) had previously understood this term.59 Yet, unlike in Saudi Arabia,60 the Egyptian Salafi project of gender segregation would fail to find a durable foothold within state institutions. By the early 1980s, Egyptian Salafis scholars had ceased to advocate for gender segregation within state institutions.61
What can the failure of the project of gender segregation teach us about how to study Islamic movements? First, it reveals how practices of social distinction that rely on institutional support are vulnerable to not merely repression but also to a simple lack of influence over the decision makers within state institutions. The issue is not freedom of action or lack thereof, but access and influence. Second, the failure of this project underscores a basic fact of the social world of members of all Islamic movements: though projects may be formulated by elites and transmitted through particular institutions, whether mosques or branches, they are largely lived in social spaces, such as public transportation or state institutions, that these movements do not control.
Yet, despite a failure to create durable change within state institutions, gender segregation has become an ideal that defines the Salafi movement. The contrast between ideal and social reality is most notable in a forward to a 2011 study by Salafi scholar and Salafi Call founder Shaykh Shahata Muhammad ʿAli Saqr (b. 1969), entitled Mixing Between Men and Women: Rulings and Fatwas. In this short entry, a leading preacher of the Salafi Call (al-Daʿwa al-Salafiyya), Yasser Burhami (b. 1958), offered a novel interpretation of gender mixing and, by extension, a path to gender segregation through personal discipline:
Our brother Shahata Saqr has pointed us in this study to the harms of forbidden mixing…. he has brought up well-known issues of our Egyptian society…in our universities, schools, and professional workspaces…. which encompasses numerous evil actions (anwāʿ al-munkarāt) including illicit looking (al-naẓar al-muḥarram), illicit speech (al-kalām al-muḥarram), illicit listening (al-samāʿ al-muḥarram) and the forbidden touch (al-lams al-muḥarram)…62
Thus, while self-segregation through proper comportment is a far cry from structural change, it has continued to serve as a means by which Salafi men and women use their bodies to lay claim to public space.63

5. From Gender Segregation to Facial Hair, 1981–1993

In 1981, there was a mass crackdown on Islamic movements, particularly Jihadi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, following the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in October of that year. The battles that would occur during this period among Islamic movements, however, had their roots in the 1970s. During this period, activists of the Islamic Student Movement had not only challenged Ansar al-Sunna for the mantle of religious leadership in the context of the Islamic Revival, but also offered a powerful vision of piety: a long robe (jalabiyya) paired with a bushy beard.64
In the aftermath of al-Sadat’s assassination in October of 1981, the beard was a source of debate. One such debate took place at an event convened in November of 1983 at the Workers’ Cultural Institute (al-Muʾassasa al-Thaqāfiyya al-ʿUmmāliyya) in the working-class Cairene neighborhood of Shubra. This event featured lectures by a leading member of al-Azhar’s research arm, the Islamic Research Academy, ʿAtiyya Saqr, and by Muhammad al-Ahmadi Abu-l-Nur, Dean of the Girls’ branch of the Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies at al-Azhar. These two leading scholars, together with less well-known colleague from al-Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments, counseled these youth that “while some may think that growing a beard is inextricably linked to one’s faith” (iṭlāq al-liḥya qarīn al-imān), scholars disagree as to whether a beard is obligatory at all, let alone a basis for declaring someone non-Muslim (al-takfīr).65 Although a broad cross-section of pious youth participated in these dialogues, the association of shaving the beard with takfir left little doubt that this particular point was directed at Salafi youth, particularly the Jihadi-Salafis among them.66
The question, however, was what distinguished a Salafi beard? Most prominently, in a January 1986 fatwa, AS President Muhammad ʿAli ʿAbd al-Rahim (d. 1991) noted that it is forbidden to shave the beard, yet did not specify the extent to which one should trim it.67 During the mid-1980s, though, a relatively junior voice in the Salafi movement—Muhammad Ibn Ismaʿil al-Muqaddam of the Salafi Call—entertained two possible minimum lengths: one or two fists (al-qabḍa or al-qabḍatayn, respectively). According to al-Muqaddam, the beard should “not exceed a fist” (lā tazād ʿalā al-qabḍa) in order to avoid excess (al-mughāla).68 This debate, which Salafis from beyond Egypt would also deeply shape,69 concluded with broad adoption of the minimal length of a fist, alongside the trimmed mustache.70
What is most pertinent to the question of studying Islamic movements, however, is not the precise measurement of the Salafi beard but rather the significance of facial hair to projects of piety. This concern was not limited to Ansar al-Sunna: in the 1930s and 1940s, Hasan al-Banna had sported a closely trimmed beard that identified him as “Islamic modern,”71 and this approach would be reflected in the Brotherhood’s magazine, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, which featured an argument for “moderation” (al-tawassuṭ) in facial hair rather than allegedly excessive shortness or length.72 Al-Banna’s position would be both preserved in a landmark text associated with the Brotherhood-al-Sayyid Sabiq’s Fiqh al-Sunna73—as well as practiced by its leading members.74 The significance of a self-consciously Islamic vision of facial hair, in turn, lay not merely in its claim to authenticity but also in its power to communicate an alternative vision of masculinity and community vis-à-vis the state-sponsored project of secular nationalism, which prized a clean-shaven face adorned by a mustache.75
As Egyptian Salafis turned to articulating a distinct vision of facial hair in the late 1980s, however, they would face an additional challenge. In 1987, the editors of Ansar al-Sunna’s mouthpiece al-Tawhid vented their frustration that, in the aftermath of incidents of terror and violence in Cairo, writers have “sought to make people fear every bearded man (kull dhī liḥya)…. accusing those who wear the beard and long robe (jilbāb) of terrorism.”76 While some Jihadis were (and are) Salafis, many are not and, and Quietist Salafis were concerned to differentiate themselves from Jihadists in the eyes of security forces. Indeed, this matter that had grown more pressing in the face of a spate of Jihadi attacks on nightclubs, liquor stores, former government ministers and journalists.77 It would be in this context that, like their counterparts across the Red Sea, Quietist Salafis would adopt the fist, alongside the trimmed mustache, as a minimal measurement.78
The adoption of the trimmed mustache and fist length beard as a Salafi social marker thus reveal how which secular-nationalist projects of identity and community laid claim to citizens’ bodies and how, in turn, Islamic movements both challenged and reflected this focus. Just as importantly, it foregrounds the importance of a bodily practice to political contestation and how such practices could be performed with the barest of institutional infrastructures. Finally, it underscores the basic reality that contestation over appearance was not merely between Islamic movements and state institutions but among Islamic movements.

6. Conclusions

One might be tempted to dismiss the role of praying in shoes, gender segregation and a distinctive beard in the history of the Salafi movement as reflecting secondary concerns of social practice. One might alternatively argue that this focus on social practice is distinct to Salafism, a reflection of the movement’s dominant Quietist strain and its related lack of access to structures of state power. Finally, one might add that the absence of this story within the many histories of the Muslim Brotherhood that have already been written suggests that, unlike their Salafi counterparts, Egypt’s oldest and most successful Islamist organization simply did not depend on social practices performed in spaces that the organization did not control.
Such a dismissal of a turn to practice in the study of Islamic movements, however, flies in the face of what we know about Islamic movements more generally. My research on the rise of the Islamic Revival in Egypt, Fabio Vicini’s scholarship on the Fetullah Gulen movement,79 and Khalil al-Anani’s study of the Muslim Brotherhood’s intense socialization process of tarbiya80 all speak to the centrality of particular modes of social interaction to Islamic movements. While processes of socialization involve the transmission and maintenance of communal norms that extend beyond distinct social practices, the Brotherhood’s focus on tarbiya suggests that social practice is a potentially productive avenue of analysis.
Furthermore, the story of Ansar al-Sunna reveals that the analytical significance of a focus on practice arises not only from the ideological claims of the modern state to regulate practice, but also from the persistent challenges of mobilization under authoritarian rule. In this context, socially distinctive measures that require little infrastructure yet can shape daily life are attractive to movement leaders and potentially influential on a local level. While embodied social practices are vulnerable to repression in the short term, they are simultaneously remarkably resilient in the long term, and represent a form of religio-political challenge whose power stems from its diffuse nature. A focus on social practice thus casts light on how Islamic movements, some of which have pursued formal political activity and others of which have abstained from it, respond to shifts in the political environment.
More broadly, a focus on socially distinct practices reveals how participants in Islamic movements are both shaped by and shape the world around them. In this context, such practices are both a cause and effect: articulated by elites to advance a particular goal, their performance is also constitutive of membership in a movement, both among other members and vis-à-vis broader society. Moving beyond a story of organizational structure, political behavior or ideological development, a focus on practice shows how and where Islamic activists both shape their movements and navigate spaces in which they constitute minorities.
Finally, a call for a focus on social practice enhances existing approaches to the study of Islamic movements. For example, one could study distinct practices of dress as a form of mobilization that bridged the conceptual framing emphasized by Social Movement Theory and the practices that groups adopted as they pursued particular goals. Similarly, one could broaden analysis of the social influence of Islamic movements by focusing not merely on how they created distinct cultural spaces in which they were the majority, but also on how they sought to shape society in spaces in which they were the minority. Finally, a focus on practice could allow scholars of Islamic movements to better track the power of their ideological visions to shape daily life. For example, they could examine how members did or did not seek to distinguish themselves in the heterogeneous religious spaces that they frequented out of necessity, whether public transportation, schools or professional workplaces. Whether we consider social practice as primary or secondary to the activism of Islamic movements, though, we must take our analytical cue from the social worlds of those whom we study: as Islamic movements’ participants move in their daily lives, we must follow.


This research received no external funding.


I would like to thank Steven Brooke, Killian Clarke, and Rich Nielsen for their helpful comments on drafts of this article.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Notable works include Mitchell (1993); Lia (1999); Wickham (2015); Kandil (2015); al-Anani (2016). For an exception, see Wickham (2002, pp. 176–203), which tracks the activities of not just the Brotherhood but also of individual members as they engaged with ideological competitors in varied spaces such as university campuses and business syndicates.
For a Turkish example, see White (2002). For a Jordanian example, see Wiktorowicz (2001). For a study that engages with Egyptian, Jordanian and Yemeni cases, see Clark (2004). For a recent work on Egypt, see Brooke (2019). An exception to this trend can be found in Rory McCarthy’s study of the Tunisian Islamist party al-Nahda, which employs the tools of political ethnography to trace this group’s rise. See McCarthy (2018, pp. 14–39).
See Vicini (2020). The Gulen movement also spread to Central Asia. See Khalid (2007, pp. 124–25).
Like Salafis, members of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) seek to model their lives after the practices of the Prophet Muhammad. See Metcalf (1993). TJ was founded in 1927 by Mawla Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi (d. 1944), the paternal uncle of Muhammad Zakariyya al-Kandhalawi (d. 1982) who studied with leading Deobandi scholars. See Ingram (2018, pp. 10–11, 149–59). The Tablighi Jamaat have also made inroads in Central Asia. See Khalid (2007, p. 123).
On the continued role of Sufi orders in 20th-century Iran, see Van Den Bos (2002, pp. 73–142). On Central Asia, see Tasur (2018, pp. 256–83).
See Wickham (2002).
Muhammad ʿAli al-Qadi, “Nashʾat al-Jamaʿa,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Rabiʿ al-Thani 1356/~July 1937, 22–23.
For studies specific to the Egyptian case, see Mitchell (1988); Fahmy (2002); and Fahmy (2019).
On Israel, see Aran (1991, pp. 308–13). On the role of Revival tents within American Evangelicalism during the mid-20th-century, see Dochuck (2012, pp. 22, 324). On practices associated with the spread of Pentecostalism in Sub-Saharran Africa during this time period, see Marshall (2009, pp. 12, 71–76).
Robert Futrell and Pete Simi emphasize the importance of both “Indigenous-prefigurative” spaces (i.e., those controlled by the movement) and “Transmovement-prefigurative” spaces (cultural spaces such as music festivals) in the American White Power Movement (WPM). See Futrell and Simi (2004). The author argue for a primary focus on practices, ranging from “the promotion of traditional patriarchal gender relations; participation in solidarity rituals, such as cross-lightings and commitment ceremonies; and the wearing of racist regalia.” See Futrell and Simi (2004, p. 21). In contrast to the WPM, however, Salafis have not historically struggled with social marginality based on rejection of their views; while their interpretation of Islam may be contested, the Salafi claim to the normative centrality of Islam is widespread.
On the social significance of Salafi practices, see Østebø (2009, p. 352); Thurston (2016, p. 118); Wagemakers (2016a, p. 44); Bonnefoy (2012, pp. 49, 64); Lacroix (2011, p. 88); Pall (2018, pp. 159–60). Also see Comparative Islamic Studies 8: 1–2 (2012), particularly Svensson (2012, pp. 185–209). Gender segregation, in particular, has previously merited significant study. See Doumato (1999) and Wagemakers (2016b, pp. 40–51).
Notable studies include Gauvain (2013); Hirschkind (2006); Mahmood (2005); Jouili (2015); Deeb (2006). Notably, Neither Hirschkind nor Mahmood specifically acknowledge studying Salafi movements yet, based on the groups that they studied, it appears that the members of such movements significantly overlapped with those individuals that both studied. Specifically, Hirschkind classifies Ansar al-Sunna and the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya as “Islamic charitable associations” while Mahmood describes these two groups as well as a third Salafi organization, Daʿwat al-Haqq, as “Islamic non-profit organizations.” Although there is considerable debate as to the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya’s Salafi credentials, the other two groups understand themselves and are understood by others to sit squarely within the Egyptian Salafi movement. See Hirschkind (2006, p. 57) and Mahmood (2005, p. 72). For a study of the Fetullah Gulen movement that emphasized particular modes of pious sociability, see Vicini (2014) and Vicini (2020, pp. 74–79).
Cihan Tuğal argues for the consideration of the ways in which “culture, everyday life, identity-formation and habits might not only be resources, instruments and aspects of society that are transformed as a result of mobilization, but the very focus of movement activity.” See Tuğal (2009, p. 427) and McCarthy (2018, pp. 20–21, 26–27). For an edited volume that focuses on social practice in the Jihadi case, see Hegghammer (2017, pp. 171–201).
Previous scholarship on the Brotherhood has highlighted the importance of the “family” (usra) system a group of five to six members within the organization who meet weekly “for religious, personal or organizational purposes.” The “battalion” (katība), in turn, is composed of seven to eight “families.” See al-Anani (2016, pp. 87–89). Studies of this system, however, outline structures of religious community rather than casting light on practices of piety.
Were one to tell such a story, it would likely center on a combination of a neatly trimmed beard and a broad shoulder suit.
“Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Shawwal 1356/December 1937, 28.
“Muhadarat Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya bi-l-Iskandariyya,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Rabiʿ al-Thani 1357/May 1937, 4.
al-Muʾtamar al-ʿAmm li-Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Dhu al-Qaʿda 1357/December 1938, 21–25.
al-Muʾtamar al-ʿAmm li-Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Dhu al-Qaʿda 1357/December 1938, 46.
“Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 15 Dhu al-Qa’da 1358, 46–48, cit. 48. Also see “Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 15 Dhu al-Hijja 1358/25 January 1940, 31.
For example, see “Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 15 Muharram 1359/24 February 1940, 31; “Masjid Ansar al-Sunna fi al-Manuf,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 15 Ramadan 1359/17 October 1940, 17; and “Masjid Jamaʿat Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 1 Safar 1360/27 February 1941, back cover.
For example, see “Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya- Shuʿbat al-Jiza,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Shawwal 1364/September 1945, 395.
Hasan (2013, p. 8).
“al-Salat bi-l-Hadhaʾ wa Hukmuha Sharʿan,” al-Islam, 18 Dhu al-Qaʿda 1350/25 March 1932, 4. According to the 1980 official fatwa collection of Dar al-Ifta, this fatwa was first issued in Rajab 1347/December 1928. See al-Bari (1980, p. 64). For its publication in al-Hadi al-Nabawi, see “Bab al-Fatawa,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 1 Rabiʿ al-Thani 1359/~9 May 1940, 40.
“Bab al-Fatawa,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, 1 Rabiʿ al-Thani 1359/9 May 1940, 40.
See Rashid Rida, “Bab al-Suʾal waʾl-Fatwa,” al-Manar, 1 Ramadan 1321/20 November 1903, 823–28, at 827–28; and Rashid Rida, “Fatawa al-Manar,” al-Manar, Shaʿban 1349/19 January 1931, 442–48, at 444–45.
For more on this legal and social development, see Kister (1989, pp. 344–45).
“Fatawa,” Liwaʾ al-Islam, Rabiʿ al-Awwal 1369/December 1949, 67–70, at 68. I wish to think Yaara Perlman for locating this citation for me from Princeton University’s Firestone library.
Abu-l-Wafaʾ Muhammad Darwish, “Nahnu wa Majallat Liwaʾ al-Islam” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Rabiʿ al-Awwal 1369/~December 1949, 21–25, at 21.
Amin Muhammad Rida, “al-Salat fi-l-Niʿal,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Rajab 1371/~March 1952, 20–23, at 20.
Rida, “al-Salat fi-l-Niʿal,” 20.
On the decreasing legal authority of the Madhhabs as reflected in the increasing prominence of the practice of drawing from multiple legal schools to make a ruling (known as Talfīq), see Skovgaard-Petersen (1997, pp. 154–55).
“Akhbar al-Jamaʿa,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Jumada al-Ula 1382/~September 1962, 48.
For example, see Zollner (2007).
For example, see “Bab al-Fatawa,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Shawwal 1384/~February 1965 33–39, at 33–34 and “Bab al-Fatawa,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Rabiʿ al-Akhar 1385/~July 1965, 32–7, at 32–33.
The Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya, for its part, took the view that it was permissible to pray without a turban yet donning the turban had the effect of increasing the merit of one’s prayers. See ʿAli Hasan Hulwa, “Asʾila wa Ajwiba,” al-Iʿitsam, 20 Ramadan 1365/17 August 1946, 2, 4. I could not find record of the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on this question.
Other prayer-related practices include the Salafi prohibition against reading the Qurʾan audibly (bi-ṣawt masmūʿ), concluding the prayers secretly (jahran aw sirran), and the a rejection of the soundness of a second call to prayer (adhān) on Fridays, which had had long been justified based on the model of the third Caliph ʿUthman. See Sayyid Abu Duma, “Nadwat al-Hiwar al-Fikri maʿa al-Jamaʿat al-Diniyya,” al-Ahram, 28 October 1983, 13.
Islamists often invoked these phrases to challenge the alleged gulf between the President’s rhetorical commitments and his actions. For example, see “Barid al-Daʿwa,” al-Daʿwa, Shaʿban 1398/July 1978, 62–63.
The two key figures in this regard were ʿAbd al-Latif al-Mustahiri and ʿAbd al-Wahhab Fayyad. See “Akhbar al-Jamaʿa,” al-Hadi al-Nabawi, Ramadan 1380/February 1961, 50. This bond reflected the fact that these two figures had adopted Salafi theological positions. See “al-Jamʿiyya al-Sharʿiyya wa Sumʿatuha fi al-Bilad al-ʿArabiyya waʾl-Islamiyya,” al-Iʿtisam, Rajab 1398/July 1978, 41.
Egyptian universities enrolled approximately four times their capacity, with Arts, Law and Commerce faculties particularly suffering in this regard. See Abdel-Fadil (1980, pp. 354–55).
Tajriba Yajib an Tu‘ummam,” al-Daʿwa, Jumada al-Thaniyya 1398/ May 1978, 44.
Fasl al-Tullab an al-Talibat fi Tijarat al-Qahira,” al-Daʿwa, Jumada al-Thaniyya 1401/April 1981, 60.
ʿAbd al-ʿAziz b. Baz, “Khatar Musharakat al-Marʾa li-l-Rajul fi Maydan ʿAmalih,” al-Tawhid, Ramadan 1398/August 1978, 14. For a broader discussion of this shift, see Rock-Singer (2016).
For the Saudi case, see Le Renard (2014).
By contrast, Muhammad Yusri Ibrahim (b. 1966), an Egyptian Salafi based in Saudi Arabia at the Islamic University of Medina and the head of this volume’s publisher, Dar al-Yusr, cautioned the author and his readers alike against delineating “permitted and forbidden forms of mixing (inna al-ikhtilāṭ minhu mubāḥ wa minhu muḥarram). See Saqr (2011, 1: 14).
Tayyar al-Jamaʿa al-Islamiyya fi al-Jamiʿat al-Misriyya,” al-Islamiyyun, published 4 February 2016, available at
Abu Duma, “Nadwat al-Hiwar al-Fikri maʿa Shabab al-Jamaʿat al-Diniyya Tunaqish,” al-Ahram, 25 November 1983, 13.
Salafi youth were deeply influenced by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb regarding divine sovereignty (ḥākimiyya) and the related necessity of excommunicating those Muslims who lived according to “man-made” law. As Richard Gauvain argues, “the key question [that divided Egyptian Salafism] was simple: to what degree should a Salafi acknowledge the legitimacy of Mubarak’s regime (and implicitly any political regime that does not rule through Shariʿa)?” See Gauvain (2013, pp. 39–40).
Muhammad ʿAli ʿAbd al-Rahim, “Bab al-Fatawa,” al-Tawhid, Jumada al-Ula 1406/February 1986, 18–31, at 29.
For this broader story, see Rock-Singer (2020).
For a debate on whether one can shave beyond the minimum of a fist, see ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Ibn Baz, “Wujub Iʿfaʾ al-Lihya wa Tahrim Halqiha wa Qassiha,” al-Tawhid, Jumada al-Ukhra 1415/November 1994, 34–35 and al-Albani (1996, 5:5).
See al-Sayyid Sabiq, “al-Taharat,” al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, 24 Rajab 1363/15 July 1944, 18–19. In this instance, Ansar al-Sunna and the Muslim Brotherhood would cite the same hadith report to argue for radically different understandings of facial hair. Both would pivot on the same hadith report, narrated by the Umayyad-era scholar Nāfiʿ (d. 95–6 H/785 CE) reported the following: The Prophet said, ‘Distinguish yourselves from the pagans. Grow the beards and trim the mustaches. Whenever ʿUmar’s son performed the Hajj or ʿUmra pilgrimages, he used to hold his fist up to his beard and cut whatever exceeded it.” See al-Bukhari (2002, p. 1487).
Sabiq (1946).
For example, Brotherhood Supreme Guides such as Hasan al-Hudaybi (1951–73), ʿUmar al-Tilmisani (1972–86), Mustafa Mashhur (1996–2002), Maʾmun al-Hudaybi (2002–4), and Mahdi ʿAkif wore their beards short. The Supreme Guide between 1986 and 1996, Muhammad Hamid Abu Nasr, sported a longer beard.
“Kalimat al-Tahrir,” al-Tawhid, Safar 1407/October 1986, 109.

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