The advocates of that version of reform called themselves “Salafis,” or imitators of the Prophet Muhammad and the first three generations of his companions and successors. They resisted the weight of Islamic law on Arab society – a burden much lighter in the Ottoman, Persian, and Indian Muslim empires – and questioned the spiritual tradition of Sufism. But they did not try to expel their opponents from the body of Muslim believers or advocate armed attacks on the West.
These 19th century “Salafis” were superseded, in the consciousness of many discontented Arabs, by the ultrafundamentalist Wahhabis from the Arabian Peninsula, who later usurped the term “Salafi;” and then by Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), an Algerian scholar of Islamic studies, in his Arabic-language Toward a Comparative History of Monotheistic Religions, argued that this happened for two reasons. First, intellectual capital was absent from Arab world centers such as Baghdad or Cairo; second, an indigenous Arab business class, that would presumably support critical attitudes, had disappeared. Then, after the victory of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia in 1924-25, and particularly following the increase in Saudi energy income, Wahhabi-inspired radical thinking enjoyed huge funding and support.
Mohammed Al Zulfa, a former member of the Saudi Arabian Shura Council, a supreme consultative body reporting to the country’s king, and a writer for the main Saudi journals, has examined the links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi/”Salafi” ideologies. He points out that once Nasser in Egypt and his Syrian allies, whose influence grew in Damascus in the 1950s, began opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood traveled to Saudi Arabia, where its members worked mostly in education and the media. The Muslim Brotherhood is similar to the Wahhabis/Salafis in that they both oppose respect for non-Muslims; pluralism in Islamic opinion, and Muslim women’s rights. The doctrines of violent, anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood figures, such as Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), identified as the intellectual paragon of the movement, then reshaped the religious curriculum in Saudi schools and universities.
However, while these textbooks were edited by Muslim Brotherhood members, who differ from the Wahhabis in favoring participation in electoral politics, they were formulated to serve the Wahhabi context. They conformed to the past Saudi practice of excluding the term “Wahhabi” from textbooks and public statements – a phenomenon reflecting widespread repulsion for Wahhabi extremism among Muslims – and proclaiming themselves nothing more than “Salafi” Muslims, or simple representatives of Sunnism (that is, of ahl-as-sunna wa’al jama’a,” or “the people of the Islamic tradition united in consensus”). Today, it is common for Wahhabis/Salafis to call themselves “the monotheists” (muwahhidun) – as if only they were faithful to Islamic belief in One God – although acceptance of, and even pride in, the title of Wahhabi is growing.
The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arabian Gulf countries was similar to that in Saudi Arabia. Salim Al-Naimi, a researcher from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has disclosed to the journalist Abdullah Al-Rasheed that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood migrated to the UAE in 1973, searching for jobs and to escape political persecution in their home countries. Al-Naimi’s account appeared in the series “The Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE: The full story,” published by the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East.) After the founding of “Al Islah” (“Reform”), a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE in 1974, the Brotherhood penetrated the education sector through formulation of curricula and control of student activities. Dr. Abdullah al-Nafisi, a former professor of political science at Kuwait University, mentioned in his study, “The Muslim Brotherhood – Trial and Error” that many Muslim Brotherhood members immigrated to the Gulf, where they formed committees in Kuwait and Qatar, along with the UAE. Delegates from the Gulf states collect funds for the Brotherhood internationally.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979, even though it occurred in a non-Arab country, reinforced the appeal of Islamist ideology across the Middle East and North Africa. Khomeini’s regime wanted to exploit, and still manipulates for political advantage, the lack of freedom and discrimination the Shia Muslims face in Sunni-majority countries. Khomeini made no secret of his wish to overthrow the Saudi authorities; Radio Tehran broadcast regular appeals to Saudi Shias to rise up against their oppressors. The Iranian regime pursues the same strategy today, revealed in its support for protests in Bahrain, especially on Al-Alam, an Arabic news channel broadcasting from Iran and owned by the state media corporation, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).