Local Religious Leaders and the Rise of Political Islam

Steven Brooke, University of Louisville and Neil Ketchley, King’s College London [1]

In his memoir, Mahmoud Abd al-Halim (1979, 38-40) recalls first encountering the Muslim

Brotherhood in the al-Rifai mosque in Cairo’s Citadel in the mid-1930s. Abd al-Halim, who went on to be a founding member of the Brotherhood’s militant “Special Section,” regularly performed Friday prayers at the Citadel so that he could listen to the khutba delivered by Shaykh Mahmoud Ali Ahmad, the mosque’s well-known and respected imam. According to Abd al-Halim, following the conclusion of prayer, Shaykh Ali Ahmad would encourage the congregation to buy the latest issue of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newspaper, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, which was on sale in the mosque. Abd al-Halim purchased the paper and thus began a lifelong association with Egypt’s most prominent Islamist movement.

This vignette somewhat complicates the conventional story about the estrangement of early political Islam from traditional forms of Islamic religious authority. These accounts usually focus on how the Muslim Brotherhood was built upon those with “lay” professions recruited from neighborhood coffee shops rather than shaykhs embedded in local mosques. In other words, “effendis” rather than imams. In this paper we revisit these arguments using a Muslim Brotherhood branch survey published in 1937. Not only do we find that the modal branch leader during this period was identified as a “shaykh,” but also that the proportion of branch leaders with religious titles in a district increased with that district’s distance from Cairo. While exploratory, these findings suggest that the ways we conceptualize and understand Islamist movements is quite sensitive to the local context. More substantively, our conclusions join a newer line of research focusing on areas of synthesis between Islamist movements and traditional structures of religious authority (Rock-Singer 2016, Ketchley and Biggs 2017).

The paper proceeds as follows. We begin by briefly describing the dominant narrative of a conflictual relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and traditional forms of Islamic authority. We then describe the Muslim Brotherhood branch survey and present descriptive statistics highlighting the prominence of shaykhs in the Brotherhood’s branch leadership. A simple regression analysis suggests that local religious figures became more prominent in the Brotherhood as distance from Cairo increased. We close by suggesting potential extensions of this research agenda.

Political Islam and the religious establishment

As Nile Green (2011) has argued, much of the scholarship on Islamism has tended to follow a heuristic in which lay Islamists calling for religious reform stand at a distance from Islamic scholasticism. To take but a few examples from this literature, the Brotherhood’s activist interpretation of a “living Islam” is set apart from the textual and esoteric approach of the traditional religious class (Mandaville 2014, 121). According to Ayoob, Islamists like Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, “condemned the ulama for practicing and preaching an ossified form of Islam incapable of responding to contemporary challenges” (2009, 29). Baer concurs, interpreting the Brotherhood’s appeal as a function of its lay character, explicitly counterpoised to traditional sources of Islamic authority. “In the movement of the Muslim Brethren, for the first time, the exponents of Islamic politics were people belonging to the urban middle classes – teachers, officials, and professionals, but not necessarily and even not predominantly people who fulfilled religious functions,” he argues. After reviewing al-Banna’s disappointment with the Egypt’s professional religious class, Esposito and Voll conclude that, “the failure of old-style ulama to provide any real alternative to the secular intellectuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth century may be the single most important aspect of the rise of the contemporary Muslim activist intellectual” (2001, 16).

This tension purportedly circumscribed the Brotherhood’s ability to establish an organizational presence beyond Egypt’s urban centers. Kupferschmidt, for example, notes how the Brotherhood’s more orthodox and literal approach to Islam butted up against the popular and occasionally heterodox forms of religious practice that obtained in rural settings. As he suggests, “the main reason for the Brotherhood’s limited success in rural Egypt lies therefore in the tension between normative and popular Islam” (1982, 165-167). This approach dovetails neatly with scholarship emphasizing the urban, educated, and “modern” nature of the Brotherhood, emphasizing the group’s appeal to a social class which was apparently caught between their frustrations with the ulema’s inability to speak to modern problems, and their discomfort with and distance from the folk forms of Islam they had left behind when they began to pour into Egypt’s growing cities.

In the next section we use a unique cache of historical data in an attempt to systematically investigate the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood’s local leadership and networks of religious authority.

Muslim Brotherhood branch leaders

In 1937, the Muslim Brotherhood’s newspaper published an inventory of more than 200 of the movement’s branches. Included for each was the location, stage of organizational development, and the branch leader’s name, honorific, and occupation (branch leaders were exclusively male). Honorifics included “shaykh,” “effendi,” “doctor,” “lawyer,” and “judge” (note that shaykhs were also sometimes identified as imams of local mosques, but no other information on their religious background was included).[2] Prompted by the basic claim in the literature about the particular profile of the Brotherhood, we abstract these collections of titles of branch leaders into two categories: religious and lay, presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Percentages of Religious and Lay Leadership, 1937

Figure 1 complicates the usual narrative, showing that in the movement’s earliest years a majority of Muslim Brotherhood branch leaders had titles that suggest religious authority. And so, despite a considerable literature suggesting that the Brotherhood drew from those with “modern” professions, it is notable that, during the group’s first decade of existence the backbone of the organization – the leaders of hundreds of local chapters of the organization – were religious figures. While offering no cause to disregard the traditional story of the Brotherhood’s strength in places with higher literacy and lower percentages of citizens employed in agriculture (Brooke and Ketchley 2016), these findings do suggest that an important part of the story of the Brotherhood’s emergence – particularly in its earliest years – has not received the attention it is due.

We now turn to a simple regression analysis to investigate the conditions under which branches are headed by “religious” (vs. “lay”) figures. The dependent variable is the proportion of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in a given census district identified as shaykhs in the 1937 branch survey.[3] We are interested in the growth of the Brotherhood outside Cairo, Egypt’s urban center and site of the movement’s headquarters, and so the independent variable of interest is the distance between a census district’s central point and the Brotherhood’s headquarters in central Cairo, transformed to its square root.[4] As the dependent variable is a proportion, it is naturally estimated using fractional logistic regression. Figure 2, shows the marginal effect of distance from Cairo on the predicted proportion of religious branch leaders in a district.

Figure 2. Proportion of religious branch leaders per census district as a function of distance from Cairo, 1937

Figure 2 shows that there is a positive association between a given district’s distance from Cairo and the proportion of Muslim Brotherhood branches in that district headed by religious figures. To give an illustration: moving from central Cairo to the district of Girga in Upper Egypt (now in the governorate of Sohag), the conditional mean of religious branch leaders in a district roughly doubles, from approximately 30 percent to nearly 60 percent (p < .001). One plausible interpretation of this finding is that, especially outside Cairo, the village shaykh played an important role in the Brotherhood’s growth. This finding also finds support in qualitative work on the Muslim Brotherhood’s early history. For example, Brynjar Lia argues that the Brotherhood was able to reach beyond the cities because they managed to tap into local elite networks. “In traditional villages and provincial towns, those relatively untouched by the process of modernization and industrialization, the religious elite still held an enormous influence over the local populace. Winning the support of the local elite was therefore of fundamental importance” (1998, 132). Our quantitative finding supports this argument: by recruiting and co-opting religious leaders to lead branches, the Brotherhood would have stood to gain not only legitimacy and social acceptance in the eyes of constituencies on Egypt’s periphery, but also an ability to access networks and associational spaces that were already fairly robust and well-developed.


Of all the organizations and movements active in interwar Egypt, how was the Brotherhood singularly able to expand into the country’s considerable rural provinces? How was al-Banna able, according to one of his chroniclers, “to enter a village in order to establish a branch, despite the fact that he knows no one there” (al Guindi 1978, 30)? Using a branch survey published at the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s first decade, we offer a preliminary but promising answer: the Brotherhood, it seems, was particularly adroit at working inside traditional structures of religious legitimacy and authority. In the process, they were able to gain opportunities for mobilization in Egypt’s periphery that had escaped their competitors.

While our aim in this paper is largely descriptive, is also important to note the weaknesses

of our findings. Our argument is static – we do not discuss in any depth the specific processes through which the Brotherhood incorporated these religious figures into their organization (and, presumably, failed or never attempted to incorporate others). Nor can this data support an analysis of how ties with the Brotherhood allowed these figures to reconfigure their local social and political contexts, using affiliation with a larger movement to access resources and social status that may have otherwise remained unavailable.

The common story of the Muslim Brotherhood is one of activists with “modern” educations fanning out across Egypt’s cities, attracting adherents by jettisoning hoary religious speech in favor of a colloquial sociopolitical vernacular that spoke directly to the hearts and minds of Egyptians. Our findings, in contrast, highlight the important role of local Islamic leaders in the emergence and diffusion of organized political Islam outside urban centers. But the current data cannot speak to the precise reasons why local religious figures were so important to the Brotherhood’s early expansion into Egypt’s periphery.

Three mechanisms seem to us a good starting point for future research. First, these local leaders may have provided an imprimatur of religious legitimacy that allowed the Brotherhood to penetrate dense pre-existing social networks that often proved resistant to new ideologies and social movements. Secondly, assumedly higher rates of illiteracy in the countryside effectively centralized information transmission, raising the importance of brokers such as clerics at the expense of newer forms of print media that enjoyed more influence in urban, more literate districts. Third, these local religious figures controlled important physical infrastructures – such as mosques – that the Brotherhood needed to establish permanent platforms in local communities (Munson 2001, Langohr 2005). But whatever the precise mechanism (or blend of mechanisms) the Brotherhood’s adept co-optation of religious leaders seems to have eased their entree to a deep pool of potential followers. Not only does this shed new light into the Brotherhood’s early history, it also suggests a fresh look at how Islamist movements, both contemporary and historic, interact with traditional religious authorities, especially in contexts outside the metropole.

[1] Authors are listed alphabetically. We appreciate comments from participants in the June 2017 POMEPS/ GLD workshop on Islamists and local politics hosted by the University of Gothenburg. This research was supported by the Project on Middle East Political Science.

[2] The most frequently occurring honorific in the survey was “shaykh” (64 percent). The second most frequent was “effendi” (33 percent) suggesting that some of these branch leaders fit the “classic” profile of Muslim Brothers- literate individuals who belonged to the upwardly mobile “effendiyya” class (Ryzova 2014).

[3] Multiple subdistricts make up a district. Muslim Brotherhood branches identified in the survey are assigned to the subdistrict.

[4] In future work we plan to refine this measure to better discriminate urban and rural environments, as well as the uneven development of the Egyptian state, along the lines discussed in Brooke and Ketchley (2016).


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