Citation for Ẓawāhirī, Ayman al-

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Burgat, François . "Ẓawāhirī, Ayman al-." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 18, 2022. <>.


Burgat, François . "Ẓawāhirī, Ayman al-." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 18, 2022).

Ẓawāhirī, Ayman al-

Born in al-Maʿādī (a residential suburb of Cairo), Ayman Muḥammad Rabiʿ al-Ẓawāhirī (b. 1951), former head of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihād and considered al-Qaʿida's second in command, comes from an upper bourgeois family that combines two central Islamic traditions: institutional scholarly Islam of al-Azhar university (headed in the 1930s by his grandfather) and Sufism (in which his other grandfather, Abdel Wahhab Azzam, was very active). A medical doctor and then a surgeon, in 1979 Ẓawāhirī married ʿIzzat Aḥmad Nuwayr, a graduate in philosophy; they have five children.

His early commitment to a revolutionary and elitist strategy can be related to three major events in his personal and public life. First, in 1966, when he was fifteen, Sayyid Quṭb, whom he admired, was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was at this time that Ẓawāhirī created his first activist cell, aimed at establishing an Islamic state through a coup d’état. Second, just one year later, Nasser's defeat in the Six Day War constituted a very strong blow to the credibility of Arab nationalism. Nasser's successor, Anwar el-Sadat, chose to support the young Muslim activists of the emerging Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah in the early 1970s against a possible Nasserist opposition. However, Sadat's later policies—including his personal journey to occupied Jerusalem and the Camp David agreement of 1978—were seen as a betrayal by Ẓawāhirī and others. Third, Ẓawāhirī was arrested in 1981, associated indirectly with Sadat's assassins. His personal experience of torture led him to betray his companions (including his closest friend, ʿIssam al-Qamarī) and testify against them in court in 1982. He was freed in 1984 after only three years in jail (possibly a result of his influential family); he traveled to Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and twice to Afghanistan. As a doctor in an Islamic non-governmental organization, he was impressed by a country which, at that time and unlike Egypt, had experienced limited western influence.

Ẓawāhirī's philosophy as seen in The Bitter Harvest, a pamphlet written in 1988 in which he denounces the sixty-year struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood as futile, is clearly influenced by Sayyid Quṭb's binary vision. Ẓawāhirī sees no possible connection between the normative system inherited from the colonial period and the genuine normative system (the sharīʿah) of Islamic culture. Until 1998, although convinced of the narrow connection between international and local politics, he gave priority to the armed struggle against the “near enemy” represented by Arab regimes whom he considered the main allies of the former colonial powers as well as the state of Israel: “the road to Jerusalem passes through Cairo or Algiers.” He argued that opposing both Israelis and Arab leaders would be counterproductive and accomplish neither; in this situation, the latter took practical precedence.

In 1992, at a time when internal dissent transformed the victory of the Afghan Mujāhidīn over the Soviet Union into civil war, Ẓawāhirī moved to Khartoum where a more stable Islamic regime offered opportunities for traveling to Europe and Asia as well as acting against the Egyptian regime. From there he initiated at least three actions against Egyptian interests: he failed in assassination attempts against the minister of interior and former prime minister Atef Sidki, and President Hosni Mubarak (during his 1995 visit to Addis Ababa), but succeeded in blowing up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. In 1996, he refused to follow the Jamāʿat, which halted its armed struggle (“to prevent weakening the capacity of the Egyptian state in its efforts against Israel”). The victory of the Taliban and their agreement with Osama Bin Laden, over whom he acquired a strong influence, allowed him to settle again in Afghanistan.

While his activities at the Egyptian level were weakened by a series of repressive blows, Ẓawāhirī switched from a local to a global strategy of acting against the “distant enemy,” America. In February 1998, in the name of his Jihād organization, he joined the newly created World Islamic Front for Jihād against Crusaders and Jews and fully engaged in the al-Qaʿida strategy of hitting Americans—in Africa, then in Saudi Arabia, then inside their own territory—who were considered occupiers of the holy land (Saudia Arabia) of all Muslims. A month after the September 11 attacks he made his strategy and motives explicit in his memoirs (first circulated by the London-based newspaper, Asharq Alawsat) under the title Knights under the Banner of the Prophet. Strongly involved in the post-9/11 pronouncements of al-Qaʿida, he tends to be considered, particularly when Bin Ladin is silent, as his possible successor.



  • Al-Zayate, Muntasser. The Road to al-Qaeda. London: Pluto Press, 2004.
  • Fandy, Mamoun. The Road to Kandahar: On the Trail of Bin Laden and Zawahiri. London, 2004.
  • Mansfield, Laura. His Own Words: Translation and Analysis of the Words of Ayman al Zawahiri., 2006.
  • Ẓawāhirī, Ayman al-. Knights under the Banner of the Prophet: Reflections into the Jihad Movement. Asharq Alawsat (December 2001).

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