Inside the World of Egypt's Salafist Muslims

Jihadists in the ultraorthodox branch of Islam have been tied to terror attacks—including those in Paris—but most Salafists see politics as a distraction from religion. Photographer Paolo Pellegrin gained rare access to a group of Salafists in Egypt. Here is what he found.

This month's deadly attacks on Paris and Beirut, along with the recent downing of a Russian airliner, represent the latest attempts by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, to terrorize world powers and spread chaos. Those involved in the attacks were part of the ultraorthodox Salafist movement, a growing segment within Sunni Islam whose tenets have been twisted by ISIS to become the inspiration for much of today's terrorism.

According to the Institute for National Strategic Studies, there were roughly 50 million Salafists worldwide in 2009, the most recent year for which estimates are available. Salafists believe in a fundamentalist approach that emphasizes literal interpretations of the Quran and the words of the prophet Muhammad, as well as support for Islam's sharia law above any government policies.

Salafists generally can be broken into three groups. The smallest is made up of the jihadists, who represent a militant minority––about 250,000 people––but have a notorious presence across the Middle East, Asia, and Europe because of some militants' willingness to use random attacks on innocent people to draw attention to their radical views of Islam and punish those they see as "crusaders," those who are too influenced by the West.

A second, much larger group of Salafists rejects such violence and generally avoids politics altogether, seeing it as a distraction from their devotion to religion. A third group, also significantly larger than the jihadists, is nonviolent but has embraced political activity and has a growing influence in some countries, including Saudi Arabia.

<p>Abdul Rahman, from Al Mansurah, assists lower-income families as part of his religious charity duties.</p>

Charity Work

Abdul Rahman, from Al Mansurah, assists lower-income families as part of his religious charity duties.

Photograph by Paolo Pellegrin, National Geographic

Two years ago, photographer Paolo Pellegrin gained extraordinary access to nonviolent Salafists in Egypt and documented their everyday lives, traditions, and devotion to religion. We talked with Pellegrin about what he found as he opened a window into a culture that few outsiders have experienced.

Paolo, can you explain how you started this story? And who are the Egyptian Salafists you photographed?

Pellegrin: I was simultaneously sort of worried and intrigued. We all know of the extreme forms of radical Salafism, where its most extreme forms become ISIS or other violent jihadi groups. But at the same time I was very interested in learning and understanding a deeper sense of Salafism. [I wanted to confront] stereotypes that we have in the Western world—of who these people really are, what makes them tick. Go beyond the common narrative.

I managed to connect with several groups, [including] one Salafist group in particular that [practices] the purest form of Salafism. It's mainly nonpolitical. They believe politics is something of a diversion from Islam. They are nonviolent, they believe in education—especially the sort that relates to their practice and their beliefs, so they can purify themselves, so they can live their faith.

What do you mean by "live their faith"?

Pellegrin: These Salafists are so devout, their whole life really revolves around the idea of orthodoxy, trying to be as close as they can to the earliest forms of Islamic practices. They really believe that Islam in its purist form is so fantastic, so beautiful, that they … live in the grace of God.

How do you relate to people of different languages and, in this case, religions?

Pellegrin: I was very fortunate to meet a young Salafist, Abdul Rahman, in Al Mansurah, the northern part of Egypt. He became sort of my guide into their world. He decided I was a gentle-natured sort of soul; he even had me pick a Muslim name for myself. They were so concerned for my spiritual well-being that they were always trying to convert me to Islam. But the point is, on some mysterious level we did connect, in a way that I've encountered many times in my life in general but also in my life as a photographer. It's a connection that sometimes photography has to offer, like a gift.

One of our favorite images is of Abdul Rahman praying on the banks of the NIle River. Tell us about this moment.

Paolo: There is this idea that every action, every moment of the day, everything you do, is connected to God. You know the philosophy of [Baruch] Spinoza? The idea that God and nature are actually one and the same. Normally at the end of the day, when the sun was about to set, Abdul would walk down to the river, at times would touch the grass or a flower and see God's manifestations and pray with such fervor and intensity that it brought tears to his eyes. They were very honest, open, and generous in letting me be a part of these moments. This was foreign to me, but I could not help but see a beauty in it.

Perhaps the most striking of your images is the mock funeral ritual. We were surprised that you were allowed to photograph this ceremony.

Pellegrin: Yes, even my Egyptian guide-translator, himself religious and a photographer, could not believe we were being let into the innermost form of their religious practices.

So just to be clear, the man in that image is alive, correct?

Pellegrin: Yes, yes. He's alive. He's very much alive. It's only a symbolic death. The whole process took several days of meditation, concentration, fasting, and reading of the Quran. Finally, when he felt ready, they took him to the morgue, where his body was washed and then wrapped in a shroud—as is the custom. When his body was prepared for "burial," he was taken to the cemetery and placed in a grave. For this part of the ceremony, I could not follow.  

Why do they go through a ritual of being treated as one of the dead?

Pellegrin: With this idea of establishing a connection to this mystical sort of Salafism, he will spend the night in the grave to try and connect with the spirits of the dead, their ancestors. [They believe that] if they can connect with the other world, they will know how to better conduct themselves in this one.

I did end up going to the cemetery on another night, inside a crypt. It [was] pitch dark, and they start this litany of chants like reciting the suras of the Koran. It was so beautiful. Even now as I'm talking it gives me goose bumps. Then after a while I heard them become so overly touched, they began to cry and hug each other. So it really is very unique and very, very special.

Your time with these Salafists was before jihadists carried out the recent wave of attacks, but did you gain some insight about how these Salafists feel about their religion being used to justify and perpetuate jihad and extremely violent actions that they find offensive? Or how they feel about being seen by some Westerners as having things in common with violent jihadists?

Pellegrin: They [believe] that they're extremely misrepresented, especially by the West and even domestically. I think it was one of the key reasons I was given so much access. They are in this constant feeling of misrepresentation, depicted as something which they are not.

In [Al Mansurah] the men prefer to wear the galabia, which is the traditional garment, because it's what Muhammad used to wear—it's [considered] more conservative and religious. But they rarely do in public, because they know they could be harassed [by Egyptian authorities].  

Do you have an image or moment that stands apart from the rest?

Pellegrin: There's a picture of the dad kissing his son in their home. You know there's something so simple and absolutely universal in that—to hug and embrace your child, of being a father. Every one of us knows.

Paolo Pellegrin, a Magnum photographer, was born in 1964 in Rome. He studied architecture at Sapienza University of Rome before studying photography at Istituto Italiano di Fotografia, also in Rome. He started photographing in the mid 1980s and has published a half dozen books; he has also photographed three stories for National Geographic magazine, on the Jordan River, Cuba, and Gaza.

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