The roots of Brotherhood violence

Ammar Ali Hassan , Friday 29 Jun 2018

While some Muslim Brotherhood members today are calling for a return to the ideas of the organisation’s founder Hassan Al-Banna, in truth his views merely explain its long-standing use of violence

Assassination of Ahmed Maher Pasha
The assassination of Prime minister Ahmed Maher Pasha at the Pharaonic Hall of the House of the Nation, illustrated in Monday magazine, 1945

A closer inspection of some of the core ideas of Hassan Al-Banna (1906-1949), founder of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, may help resolve the current debate over the present condition of the Brotherhood and its future prospects.

Al-Banna, who founded that Islamist organisation in 1928, was not a political philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. The political views that appear in his writings are either conceptualisations that lack the depth, cogency and universality that characterise the thinking of those placed among humanity’s political thinkers, or they are reactions to current events or criticisms levelled against his organisation and the behaviour of its members.

Alternatively, they are stances meant to advance the aims of the Brotherhood and promote the interests of its members or supporters.

In most of the writings by or attributed to Al-Banna, political concepts are enveloped in heavily embroidered rhetoric, concealing the lack of scientific rigour in the exposition and defence of his propositions. His writings have more in common with political propaganda than with political philosophy or even theology.

The fact that his ideas are often ambiguous and pitched to draw the greatest number of adherents add to the propagandistic nature of his writings, making them snares lurking beneath a religious camouflage.

Nevertheless, Al-Banna’s ideas on the state, power, political parties, identity and relations with the world and the “other” have served as the ideological framework for the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and governed its actions throughout its history.

The organisation’s leaders still use his ideas and sayings as instruments for recruitment, resolving internal disputes and building cohesion in its ranks. They also serve as guidelines on how to respond to critics and counter developments that might obstruct the organisation’s expansion or undermine its public profile.

Such is the authority that Al-Banna’s writings have for the organisation that these now outweigh an entire 14 centuries worth of output by Muslim philosophers, theologians and jurists, not to mention their contemporary counterparts, many of whom are adamantly opposed to the Brotherhood’s political project. Indeed, Brotherhood ideologues have gone so far as to bend interpretations of the essential Islamic texts (the Quran and the Prophetic Hadith) to the service of Al-Banna’s views.

This article covers various points in Al-Banna’s political writings, showing how crucial they have been in shaping the organisation’s behaviour over many decades. It looks at Al-Banna’s concept of the state, including its nature, its material and moral functions, and how it contrasts to the modern concept of the civil state.

It examines Al-Banna’s view of political power and how to attain it, including his views on legitimacy, the role of religion in shaping governmental and legal systems, and the Muslim Brotherhood as a vehicle for attaining power.

The article also examines Al-Banna’s views on identity, an issue that continues to dominate the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups working to accumulate political power and economic riches. It looks at notions and attitudes towards the “other”, including both those not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and those not connected with Islam.

The Brotherhood’s ultimate goal of “global mastery” serves to link between these concepts and the ideological impetus behind the organisation’s expansion.

The State

Al-Banna encapsulated his vision of the state by using the term “the daawa state”, in other words one dedicated to the Islamic daawa or calling.

Founded on a notion that he said dated to the Ummayad caliphate in the early centuries of Islam, he held that the function of the ruler was to “guard the faith and administer life on earth”. The purpose of government was to disseminate the Islamic calling, organise jihad, realise Islamic brotherhood and empower Islam. In order to realise such ends, the state had to inspire awe and fear, Al-Banna said.

The state had to be built on foundations consistent with the Quran. It therefore needed to tend to matters related to the observance of the faith (rites of worship, alms-giving, fasting, etc.), guard public morals (safeguard chastity, promote virtue and prohibit vice) and work to build the “Muslim character”, which he defined as a person able to work and earn a livelihood, equipped with knowledge and skills, and as keen to maintain a healthy body as to develop his intellect.

The state, according to Al-Banna, was responsible for securing funds and overseeing expenditure to promote social solidarity and mutual support and for training and equip combatants for holy war (jihad). A system of government consistent with Islamic Sharia Law was a system that disseminated both the calling of the faith and jihad, he said, holding these to be interrelated.

Another function and duty of the state and the ruler was to establish justice, a principle that Al-Banna stressed in letters to former Egyptian king Farouk and prime minister Mustafa Al-Nahhas in 1947.

As for the pillars of the strength of the state, these resided in its ability to order society in a manner in keeping with the Quran, a strong and united political leadership, centralised government in everything from the management of public finance and the army to local government, a commitment to cultural specificity while taking advantage of the material goods of other cultures, and an adherence to faith without subordinating the political establishment to a religious institution.

Among the phenomena that could jeopardise the power and authority of the state were power conflicts and rivalries over wealth and influence, hubris and megalomania among members of the ruling elite, a lack of attention to the affairs and concerns of the people, the rise of factionalism and fanaticism, deviation from the faith and its creed, indulgence in luxury and dissolution, and ignoring knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect.

Political Authority

Any group, regardless of number or size, had to be led by an “imam”, Al-Banna held, as otherwise anarchy would prevail and the tenets of the faith would not be established.

The “imam” was synonymous with the ruler of the state, he said, whom all were duty bound to obey if he followed Sharia Law. Al-Banna said that if the ruler followed Islamic Law in his government then the Muslim Brotherhood would supply “his soldiers, supporters and aides”. If not, it would work to oust him and replace him by one of their own who would apply its prescribed approach to ruling. This, Al-Banna said, was in accordance with the Quran and the Sunna (traditions) of the prophet.

In his writings at least, Al-Banna maintained that constitutional means such as elections and participation in government should be used to oust heretical rulers.

Instead of revolution, Al-Banna advocated “the reform of government to render it truly Islamic and make it perform its duty in the service of and as an employee of the ummah [the Muslim community] and in pursuance of the nation’s interests.” A government is Islamic, he said, “as long as its members are Muslims who perform the duties of Islam and do not practise sedition, and as long as it carries out the provisions and principles of Islam.”

Among its characteristics are “the sense of responsibility, compassion for all subjects, fairness and justice, integrity and economy in the use of public money”, while its duties include “the maintenance of security, the enforcement of the law, the spread of education, the development of military strength, the preservation of hygiene, the provision of public services, the sound management of resources, the safeguarding of property, the strengthening of morals, and the dissemination of the Islamic calling.”

An Islamic government, “as long as it performs its duties is owed loyalty and obedience and moral and concrete support”, Al-Banna said. If a government fails in its duties or strays from Islam, it should first be counselled and advised. If this does not help it should be deposed. “There can be no obeying any created thing that defies the Creator,” Al-Banna wrote.

While Al-Banna disapproved of revolution as a means to achieve political change, because he doubted it could work realise the type of reforms he envisioned, he believed that corruption and tyranny could generate revolutionary currents.

Referring to conditions in Egypt in the 1930s, he wrote that “if the situation continues in the present manner and the authorities do not find ways to introduce urgent reforms to such problems, this will ultimately lead to a revolution. This will not be the result of actions carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood or its call, however. Instead, it will result from the pressures of circumstances, the present demands, and negligence of other means of reform.”

Of the system of government itself, Al-Banna prefers a parliamentary to a presidential system, which he said would vest too much power in the president’s hands. His view was consistent with the political context of Egypt at his time and also with his belief that a parliamentary and constitutional system was the government system closest to the principles of Islam.

Such a system, he held, could ensure the fulfilment of three fundamental principles of Islamic rule: the responsibility of the ruler; the unity of the nation; and respect for the national will. It could also safeguard personal freedom, render the people the source of authority, and establish clear boundaries between the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government, rendering the executive accountable to the people.

However, Al-Banna contradicts himself in his views on government systems as he disapproves of political pluralism, saying that many political parties would lead to divisions in the ranks of the nation. Either there should be just one political party, or there should be none at all, he said. Political parties were divisive, and their leaders used them as ways of attaining social position. As a result, Al-Banna argued for the “elimination of the political party system and the need to steer the nation’s political forces in a single direction and in a single rank”.

Two factors strongly influenced Al-Banna’s attitudes towards political parties. One was the Muslim Brotherhood’s secret alliance with the British occupiers of Egypt at the time and its open alliance with king Farouk, explaining the organisation’s willingness to help their common aim of undermining the Wafd Party, which was the leader of the constitutional movement and the drive for national independence.

The second factor was related to Al-Banna’s political ambitions for himself and for his organisation. Political parties stood in the way of the Brotherhood’s drive to monopolise the public sphere. Some parties openly opposed Al-Banna and his ideology. Al-Banna himself stood more than once for election as an MP for the Darb Al-Ahmar district of Cairo, but he failed to win the seat even though the district was home to the Brotherhood headquarters. 


Al-Banna set the sights of his organisation on the ultimate goal of “world mastery” as a clearly expansionary concept couched by some of his followers in the phrase that “our state exists wherever there are our ideas”. 

The Muslim Brotherhood has long held that one of the main reasons behind the creation of the organisation in 1928 was the fall of the Islamic caliphate, previously held by the Ottoman sultan, four years earlier. Reviving the caliphate was one of its highest aims, though this did not prevent its founder from using nationalist ideas and sentiments.

Al-Banna spoke of Egyptian patriotism, Arab nationalism and Islamic unity as three complementary and interrelated circles in a framework in which Islam formed the basis of national identity, regional cooperation, and ultimately the union of all Muslims on earth.

Islam, he said, was not just a faith and a creed, but was also a nation and a nationality. As Islam formed the essential bond of national identity, this naturally implied that only Muslims could enjoy full rights of citizenship and non-Muslims had to be accorded some inferior status.

The ambiguity of Brotherhood thought on questions of nationality, patriotism and citizenship was the subject of criticism even in Al-Banna’s own time. He responded to it by denying that the Brotherhood was not patriotic towards Egypt. After enumerating the ways in which his organisation had demonstrated this, “have you seen how we agree with the people who are the most ardent in their desire to fight for the good of this country and free it and promote its advancement,” he asked.

“We work with and support all those who strive towards such ends. I would also like you to know that while their mission may end with liberating the nation and regaining its glory, for the Muslim Brotherhood this is only part of the way. It remains for the Brotherhood to work to raise the flag of the Islamic nation over all parts of the earth so that the banner of the Quran can flutter everywhere,” Al-Banna wrote.

In a letter to the Fifth Brotherhood Congress, Al-Banna wrote that “the Muslim Brothers believe that the caliphate is the symbol of Islamic unity, the emblem of the link between the Muslim peoples, the Islamic beacon that should focus Muslim attention and concerns. The question of the caliph, or the successor to the prophet, is the subject of many strictures in the faith of God, which is why the companions of the prophet, may the grace of God be upon them, dedicated more attention to this than they did to preparations for the burial of the prophet himself.”

“The Prophetic Sayings concerning the need to appoint an imam and the provisions concerning the leadership and associated details leave no room for doubt that it is the duty of Muslims to ponder the matter of the caliphate since its transformation and abolition. The Muslim Brothers have placed the caliphate and work to restore it at the top of their agenda.”

Al-Banna nevertheless maintained that restoring the caliphate had to proceed in stages. “There must be complete cultural, social and economic cooperation between all Islamic peoples,” he wrote.

“This should be followed by alliances, treaties, and conferences and assemblies among these countries. The Islamic Parliamentary Conference on the Palestine question and the invitation of delegations from the Islamic countries to London to press for Arab rights in the blessed land [Palestine] are two large steps in this direction. After this, an Islamic League of Nations should be created.”

However, even so Al-Banna also stressed that Muslims still needed an “imam”, or caliph, to serve as a central and unifying figure for all Muslim peoples and the “shadow of God” on earth. Otherwise put, for the Muslim Brotherhood, the “caliphate”, not the nation state, is the central focus of patriotic loyalty, while the ultimate goal of the movement is not the re-establishment of the caliphate, but “global mastery”.

The group has come under much criticism for its views both at the time and since. Critics hold that the “caliphate” is not an authentic article of the faith but is rather a system of government devised and implemented by some of the companions of the prophet after his death.

That system later evolved into the pitiful sociopolitical order that crippled the entire Islamic world and that the Europeans dubbed the “sick man of Europe” in the 19th century, such critics say. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood has continued to cling to the goal of universal domination, in accordance with which the nation state is only a staging point and the rights of the ideological or religious “other” are insignificant.

The question of identity has a major social dimension for Al-Banna that he expressed in his calls “to resist licentiousness and indecency in dress”. This applied to women in particular, including to teachers, doctors and students. He was a staunch advocate of the segregation of the sexes in all phases of education, the revision of educational curricula for girls, and the criminalising of any meeting between a man and a woman who was not a legal relative.

He urged tighter moral controls on theatres, films, literature and music. In addition, he called for the implementation of hisbah, which involved “punishing those proven to have violated the strictures of Islam or offended the faith by, for example, breaking the fast in Ramadan, deliberately abandoning prayer, or not respecting the faith. As for the press, it needed to be properly steered,” Al-Banna said, while writers should be encouraged “to address Islamic subjects”.

The Other

Al-Banna did not have any idea of national unity that would include members of the three revealed religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, or even the first two alone, even though he took pains to bring along a Christian (named Nasif Mikhail) to Brotherhood rallies during his lifetime.

For him, “national unity” meant the unification of the ranks of Muslims who he felt had disintegrated into parties and factions. Neither his personal outlook or the times in which he lived inclined him to transcend the era of the “dhimmi” (the status of “protected person” endowed with certain rights within his religious community and obliged to pay a jizya poll tax) in his attitudes towards the religious other and in his concept of citizenship.

The Muslim Brotherhood has carried such notions into the 21st century. When its officials or parliamentary candidates were asked their views on the rights of Egyptian Christians, for example, they would offer the pat answer that “they have the same rights and duties as we have.” However, in practice, they did not adhere to this, even if like Al-Banna himself they practiced a form of tokenism by developing well-publicised connections with a few Christian figures.

As for the participation of non-Muslims in government, Al-Banna had the final word for the Muslim Brotherhood. “There is no problem if the government solicits the services of non-Muslims, if these are necessary, in non-senior public offices as long as the form or quality of such services conforms with the general principles of the Islamic system of government,” he said.

As for Western “others”, Al-Banna saw them as licentious, godless and hedonistic. He vehemently attacked his compatriots who viewed Western culture in a positive light. Such was his hostility to what he perceived as the western lifestyle in his own time that he made the prevention of the spread of this lifestyle into Egypt and the Islamic world one of the basic aims of his organisation.

He opposed Christian evangelists, whom he regarded as an extension of the “Crusader West,” saying that they were bent on “a new Crusader war.” Some Muslim Brothers today argue that one reason Al-Banna established the organisation was to fight what he perceived to be the threat of Christian evangelism.

However, while outwardly opposed to British colonialism in Egypt and the Muslim world, in practice Al-Banna cooperated with the British, who funded him generously in order to help him found his organisation, which then went on to obstruct rallies calling for the end of the British occupation in Egypt.

Al-Banna had no problem accepting Western technological advances. But he cautioned Muslims against overly admiring these since they lacked the crucial element of “faith”.

Although he claimed to seek to unify all shades of Islam, he clearly wanted to subordinate that unity to his organisation, in its capacity as the pretended chief representative of Islam. In practice, the Muslim Brothers have shown that they regard even the most pious Muslims who are not members of their organisation as “others”. Even within the organisation they discriminate between members, affiliates and sympathisers.

Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Qotb officially established this doctrine when he spoke of the “contemporary jahiliya,” or age of ignorance, in the 1960s and called on fellow Muslim Brothers to “emotionally isolate” themselves from and to actively oppose Muslim “others”.

Some Muslim Brothers today believe that the failures of their organisation, which led it to ally with radical jihadist and terrorist groups, were the product of the ideas of Qotb and that the way to salvage it is to return to the ideas of Hassan Al-Banna.

However, as can be seen from examining some of Al-Banna’s views, he is in fact part of the problem and not part of the solution. Qotb did not deviate from the thinking of the organisation’s founder. He simply elaborated on it. If Muslim Brothers today believe that their salvation lies in “returning” to the “calling” of Al-Banna, they are deceiving themselves.

The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The roots of Brotherhood violence 

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