Dr. Ammar Ali Hassan, novelist, political and sociological researcher, specializing in Islamic Movements
Most writings about the establishment of Islamist political groups discuss the fundamental texts, statements, or books. They do not pay a great attention to the Islamist figures who relieved themselves of the burden of writing, being satisfied with activism, and therefore did not leave significant written works for researchers and general readers to peruse. Yet, the impact of some of these people was greater than any books.
One of the most prominent such Islamists, perhaps the most prominent, was Abdullah al-Samawi. He was not busy writing books, and when he wrote two of them, “The Heavenly Stream” and “Landmarks of Our Da’wa”, he did not publish them; they remained manuscripts until his death. Instead of writing, he preferred to speak to people face to face. As a result, many people learned from him, from Tablighi Jamaat and da’wa-oriented scholarly Salafist (al-salafiyya al-ilmiya) groups, all the way to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Takfir wal-Hijra, Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Qutbists (named for Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb), and the Shawqiyeen (named for Shawqi al-Shaykh, the ultra-extremist who broke away from the Gama’a).
Al-Samawi did not complete his university studies, instead he devoted himself to da’wa, calling people to what he considered true Islam. Although he was imprisoned several times, he managed to travel around Egypt as a preacher and advocate for his ideas and perceptions. In making his way across Islamist movements and groups, attracting followers and recruit them to so-called “political Islam”, Al-Samawi’s had a method consisting of four basic tools:
One: Non-organizational da’wa, intended to create a “fluid” Islamist current, without having to stick to a particular group. Whoever reads the speeches of Al-Samawi, or knows his movement, connections, and targeted audience, cannot define to which organization the man belongs. Abdul Rahman Lotfi, his most prominent follower, says that “a person who wants to profile us cannot do so, cannot know whether we belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, Tabligh and Da’wah, Salafism, or Islamic Jihad! This is because we support everyone, cooperate with everyone, and defend everyone, because we believe that everyone is Muslim, even if they hold different understandings and approaches.”
Even the so-called “Samawism” was neither a group in the conventional sense, nor a movement like the other radical Islamic political currents. In fact, it lacks a coherent structure and a large part of its discourse can be related to any of the other groups. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Al-Samawi himself describes the groups that were formed around him as “not a group of a particular thought, but a group of brothers who cooperated on righteousness and piety, hold fast to the bond of Allah, work to establish the deen [faith, Islam] in ourselves, and invite people to Allah, that is, it is pure Islam.”
Two: Singular characteristics and qualities. He was eloquent, speaking only classical Arabic even with his children at home. His costume was distinctive, easily drawing attention to him, a short white galabia, with two pockets hanging over his chest, with a turban on his head, from which a small part is left to hang over his back. Al-Samawi was keen to meet people with a cheerful face. When he spoke, he captivated his audience; when he acted, his actions would be met with approval. Such cheerfulness was not limited to his followers; even in mainstream society he was impactful.
Three: A long term strategy: Although Al-Samawi did not belong to any group, he pursued a strategy very similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, believing that his ideas must spread to the whole of society, getting the overwhelming majority to sign-up to it, and then it could impose itself.
Four: Claiming to represent Islam in its core and structure: Al-Samawi was tempting young people because he presented himself as preaching not for one factional group or a political ideology, but for Islam itself, particularly adhering to noble morals, cooperating in establishing the deen, and encouraging other people to do so.
Nevertheless, these features do not preclude that the vision espoused by Al-Samawi was not far from the spectrum of groups that turned Islam into an ideology and employed it to serve their purposes under the pretext that they are the goals and objectives of Islam itself. The remarkable personality traits of this man did not hide the radicalism and extremism present in his perceptions and sayings. He considered it a legitimate duty to pledge allegiance to him, and described those who violated this as disobedient, hence Muslims are prohibited to pray with or behind such person.
For him, the pledge of allegiance was like a treaty. He said: “The treaty, which we call bay’a [a pledge of allegiance], as an analogy to a financial barter, is as if the one who pledges had sold himself and his money to Allah. The bay’a permits all acts of righteousness. There is a pledge to Islam, a pledge to the caliphate, a pledge to jihad, a pledge to death, a pledge to not ask people anything. There is also a pledge to the establishment of prayer and the payment of zakat and advice to every Muslim. The bay’a is legitimate to all acts of righteousness and is not specific to the caliphate only.”
Al-Samawi forbade public education, which ended up harming many of his followers: his students left their universities with only qualifications in religious studies, limiting the trades in which they could work. He also forbade working in banks and praying in mosques affiliated with the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments), as he considered them “to be hurtful mosques”, especially after the ministry seized the mosque where he had been preaching. He accused people of blasphemy if, in his opinion, what he called “shari’a criteria” were available.
There are followers of Al-Samawi who say that, especially in the beginning, he was not content with accusing a “taghuti (idolatrous) rulers” of blasphemy and calling on his followers to break with such rulers and overthrow them, but he viewed the whole of Egypt as part of Dar al-Kufr (The Abode of Disbelief) on the pretext that it does not apply the provisions of Islam, and therefore they must fight its people in their entirety to establish the “Islamic State”. In the 1970s, Al-Samawi adopted the idea of hijra (emigration), which was espoused by the Takfir wal-Hijra leader Shukri Mustafa, and asked his followers—years before the murder of Egyptian president Ansar al-Sadat in 1981—to go to the Salhiya area in Egypt’s eastern desert, settle there, and “reclaim” its lands as a starting point for the conquest of Egypt. Al-Samawi spent about a decade in this Islamist commune.
With the death of Egypt’s ruthless pro-Soviet leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1970, and his replacement with Sadat, who was more worried about the Communists than the Islamists, Al-Samawi found the public arena more open for him to advance his ideology in the early 1970s. At this time, Al-Samawi also had less Islamist competition, as many Brotherhood members were still locked up in prisons, and the Salafi activism had not really begun in Egypt. Thus, he was almost the only one on the stage, and used his considerable communication skills to go around the country meeting ordinary people face to face, rather than being content to preach in one mosque like Shaykh Abd al-Hamid Kishk, or to speak only to small gatherings of the Islamist underground or secret recruits in places like the Military Technical College.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Al-Samawi reconsidered the idea of withdrawing from society and, indeed, his takfirist ideology more broadly. When Sayyed Imam al-Sharif broke from Al-Qaeda in 2007 and advocated religious and ideological revisions, Al-Samawi described Al-Sharif’s ideas as having “weight and value”. Illness had for many years before this kept Al-Samawi from pursuing his activities; now, many of his followers turned away from him. But the rejection of Al-Samawi the man has not stopped “Samawism” from being an important factor in the establishment and continuation of jihadi-Salafism in Egypt.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.