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Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah, al-

Ibrahim Ibrahim, Joseph A. Kéchichian
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah, al-

Several Islamic organizations in Egypt use the name al-Jamāʿat (al-Gamāʿa or al-Jamāʿah) al-Islāmīyah (Islamic Groups). Along with the Egyptian Islamic Jihād group, the Jamāʿat aims to overthrow the military government of President Hosni Mubarak, which it perceives as corrupt and repressive, and replace it with an Islamist state. Most Egyptian congregations operate primarily through independent mosques and student unions on university campuses and appeal primarily to Egyptian youths. There appears to be no unifying leadership; instead, the groups reflect the general trend in Egyptian society toward Islamic resurgence. However, because violent clashes occurred in Upper Egypt between government forces and more politically militant groups acting under the banner of al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah between the mid-1980s and 1999, Cairo remains vigilant. A self-proclaimed leader of these assemblies is Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman (Umar ʿAbd al-Rahman), a blind preacher from al-Fayyum who lived in exile in the United States in the early 1990s and who was serving a life sentence in jail for his involvement in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

Origins and Support.

The use of the term “al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah” originated in the early 1970s under the government of President Anwar Sadat. Sadat released members of al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn (the Muslim Brotherhood), who were imprisoned under President Gamal ʿAbdul Nasser and officially permitted new Islamic organizations to form under the umbrella of al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah. This move to reconstruct the conservative religious sectors of society was an early sign of a shift in Egypt 's political course. Throughout the 1970s, as Sadat developed his plans to restructure the Egyptian political economy, various Islamic groups served as an important counterbalance to the old Nasserist constituency and others further to the left. While the regime reduced government programs and encouraged general privatization, the number of private (ahli) mosques in the country doubled in one decade from twenty thousand to forty thousand.

Ahli mosques and the many Islamic organizations associated with them played critical roles in large urban areas, including Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez in Lower Egypt, and Asyut, El Fayyûm, and El Minya in Upper Egypt. Continued rural migration to these cities, combined with the government 's restructuring policy, exacerbated social and economic tensions and led to a growing sense of urban alienation. While Cairo reduced its social welfare programs, al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah provided a sorely needed safety net through private mosques, with centers for the distribution of food and clothing as well as for the study of the Qurʿān. Ahli mosques relied on independent sources of funding, especially private remittances from members ’ relatives who migrated to work in the Arab Gulf countries, or sympathizers that loathed the regime. An additional factor affecting the growth of the movement was the expansion of the country 's university system, especially in Upper Egypt where new campuses were founded in the 1970s in El Minya, El Fayyûm, Sohâg, Qina, and Aswan. Students there and in Asyut organized unions and fraternities under the name of al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah.

Sadat faced growing opposition after 1978 for signing the Camp David agreement with Israel. In response, several independent religious leaders associated with al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah gained popularity for criticizing the regime. Prominent among these were Shaykh Ahmad al-Mahallawī at Qaʿid Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria and Shaykh ḥāfiz Salāmah of al-Shuhādāʿ Mosque in Suez and al-Nūr Mosque in Cairo. Just before his assassination in 1981, Sadat publicly chastised both Shaykh Mahallawī and Shaykh Salāmah. For his part, Shaykh Omar Abdul Rahman was also critical of the regime, and was later charged with having links to the Jihād group that carried out Sadat 's assassination. His trial ended with a not-guilty verdict. In the crackdown on public opposition that followed the assassination, these religious leaders all suffered state censorship and imprisonment; Karam Zuhdī eventually expressed regrets for conspiring with Islamic Jihād. Zuhdī was among 900 militants who were released in April 2006 as the Mubarak government introduced new controls.

Methods and Aims.

It is difficult to generalize about the ideology, practices, and aims of the various al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah organizations. They tend to advocate stronger Islamic rule and oppose non-Islamic practices in Egyptian society. They call for the adoption of sharгʿah, the Islamic legal code, as the official law of the state, and oppose attempts by the government to control and supervise—through the Shaykh of al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqāf (Endowments)—the work of mosques and religious groups. When he was still in Egypt, Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman, perhaps more than other al-Jamāʿat leaders, denounced the official religious institutions of the state, and opposed participation in electoral politics. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, he identified closely with its Islamic government and urged his followers to confront the Egyptian government directly for its alleged non-Islamic practices.

Mubarak government officials and compliant media repeatedly linked the Blind Shaykh with the clandestine and subversive Jihād group; the cleric denied any connection. The main difference between his activities and those of Jihād was his use of methods openly designed to mobilize popular resistance through public preaching and conferences whereas Jihād activities were secret. By the summer of 1998 there were numerous clashes in El Fayyūm, El Minya, and other cities in Asyut province between the local police and the Shaykh 's followers as they left mosques after Friday sermons. Cities and universities throughout the area experienced increasing repression as mosques were closed, student union elections disrupted, and all activities in the name of al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah banned. Tensions rose following house-to-house searches, thousands of mass arrests, and an increasing number of killings. In 1988 and 1989 Shaykh Omar was arrested and detained on at least two occasions. During his imprisonment, his followers staged large protests that led to further confrontations with the police; there were also demonstrations of support in the Cairo suburbs of Imbābah and ʿAyn Shams, reflecting his broad following and the shared identity of al-Jamāʿat organizations around Egypt. As violent clashes between the government and al-Jamāʿat continued, Shaykh Omar left the country, reportedly first to Afghanistan and Pakistan and then to the United States via Sudan.

After the Blind Shaykh.

After Shaykh Omar 's exile, the level of conflict between al-Jamāʿat followers and Cairo increased, with military troops, armored vehicles, and helicopters deployed to several cities. The nature of the confrontation also assumed three new forms. First, the political assassinations of People 's Assembly speaker Rif  ʿat al-Mahjūb in October 1990 and of liberal author Faraj Fawdah in June 1992, were blamed on al-Jamāʿat and were said to have been ordered by Shaykh Omar. Attacks on prominent officials continued, such as the attempted assassination of Prime Minister ʿātif Sidqī, in November 1993, and that of President Mubarak on several occasions. Second, in 1991 violent clashes between Muslims and Christians erupted in key cities of Upper Egypt, notably Dayrut; the government claimed these were instigated by members of al-Jamāʿat, although dormant rivalries probably contributed to the malaise. Third, by late 1992, extremist elements in al-Jamāʿat claimed responsibility for at least two attacks on foreign tourists visiting pharaonic monuments in Upper Egypt. The government claimed the al-Jamāʿat were pursuing a new strategy to disrupt the tourist trade to damage the national economy and weaken it. Attacks on foreign tourists continued throughout the 1990s.

In part to address such assaults on Western visitors, Cairo pushed through its subservient parliament a strict new antiterrorism law, which limited al-Jamāʿat activities after 1992. It required that all mosques and prayer leaders follow vetted guidance from state-sanctioned authorities. In August 1992 the government claimed to have arrested twenty-five leaders of al-Jamāʿat, including two foreign citizens—a Sudanese and a Jordanian—at an organizational meeting in Alexandria. Cairo had always maintained that al-Jamāʿat was an enterprise inspired by foreigners—especially Iranian and Sudanese—and it now declared the international connection proven. One of the most spectacular operations carried out by al-Jamāʿat militants was the attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor on November 17 1997, in which six men machine-gunned and hacked to death fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians. The attack stunned Egyptian society, severely curtailed the booming tourist industry for several years, and shattered popular support for violent Islamism among devout Muslims.

Despite the arrests, however, al-Jamāʿat remained a significant factor in Egyptian society because it enjoyed wide appeal among university students. Moreover, its carefully tended popular roots in several parts of the country—the result of the country 's moribund economic conditions—ensured its longevity. It was unlikely that the Egyptian government could establish control over the thousands of independent mosques that served as the movement 's base. Leading Egyptian political analysts perceived Cairo 's conflict with al-Jamāʿat as a long-term challenge. Given this situation, it was also unlikely that al-Jamāʿat could seize power from the present ruling elite in Egypt, not only because the latter was shielded by a powerful security apparatus and the army, but also because the regime was backed by the “silent majority” of the middle classes as well as the intelligentsia.

Recent Developments and Prospects.

After March 1999, when al-Jamāʿat leaders formally renounced bloodshed after causing the deaths of over a thousand people, a cease-fire was generally respected. By late 2003, Cairo freed several hundred imprisoned members allegedly belonging to the al-Jamāʿat, because they rejected violence. Nevertheless, Egyptian Islamists disapproved secular influences within society and, equally importantly, the peace treaty with Israel.After 1999, and especially after Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman 's imprisonment in the United States, Islamic Jihād leader Ayman al-Zawahīrī claimed that his group and al-Jamāʿat were cooperating. On August 5, 1990, Zawahīrī declared that the “knights of the al-Jamāʿat had united with al-Qaʿida” in order to help “rally the Muslim nation 's capabilities in a unified rank in the face of the most severe crusader campaign against Islam in its history.” An al-Jamāʿat official in Egypt, Muhammad al-Hukaymah, confirmed the move, although other representatives denied that they had joined forces with al-Qaʿida. ʿUsama Rushdi, the group 's media official who lives in the Netherlands where he publishes an occasional newsletter Al-Murabitoun (the garrison troops), dismissed the claim. Without a spiritual and passionately articulate and charismatic local leader like Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman, it may be difficult for the organization to return to its pre-1999 activities.



  • Baker, Raymond William. Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. A nonjudgmental exposé of the ideology and discourse of the New Islamists.
  • Kenney, Jeffrey T.Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Studies the influence of Kharijites as for a source of militant opposition in contemporary Egypt.
  • Rubin, Barry. Islamic Fundamentalism in Egyptian Politics. Updated ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Attributes past failures to fundamentalist rigidity, contradictory philosophies and, most importantly, to the fact that fundamentalism is alien to Egyptian Muslims.
  • Zakariyya, Fouad. Myth and Reality in the Contemporary Islamist Movement. London: Pluto Press, 2005. A classic exploration of the intellectual, political and social foundations of Islamism and current Islamist groups across the Arab and Muslim worlds written by an Egyptian philosopher and leading Arab intellectual.
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