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The World View of Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood

by Joseph S. Spoerl (December 2012)


Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, not only in Egypt and the Gaza Strip, where it has won elections and assumed power, but also in Europe and North America, where it has been very successful at forming national Islamic organizations claiming to represent Muslims in non-Muslim countries.1 It is more important than ever to understand this group and its ideology. A natural starting point in this effort is to examine the writings of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Sunni Muslim Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949).2 Al-Banna’s worldview may be summarized in four main propositions: First, Islam is a perfect and complete way of life; second, Islam must be the basis of all legislation; third, Western societies are decadent and corrupt; and fourth, God has commanded Muslims to conquer and rule the earth. Each of these propositions is deeply rooted in the worldview of classical Sunni Islam.

  1. Islam is a perfect and complete way of life.

Al-Banna stresses that “Islam is a perfect system of social organization, which encompasses all the affairs of life.”3 Speaking on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, he asserts, “We believe that Islam is an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life.”4 Because Islam is all-encompassing, it is impossible for Muslims to separate politics and religion. Al-Banna advises his fellow Muslim Brothers: “If someone should ask you: To what end is your appeal made? Say: we are calling you to Islam…: government is part of it…. If someone should say to you: This is politics!, say: This is Islam, and we do not recognize such divisions.”5

  1. Islam must be the basis of all legislation.

Because Islam is a complete way of life, encompassing law and politics, all constitutional and positive law must be based on it:

Every nation has a body of law to which its sons have recourse in their legal affairs. This body of law must be derived from the prescriptions of the Islamic Sacred Law, drawn from the Noble Qur’an, and in accordance with the basic sources of Islamic jurisprudence. For the Islamic Sacred Law and the decisions of the Islamic jurists are all-sufficient, supply every need, and cover every contingency, and they produce the most excellent results and the most blessed fruits. If the punishments prescribed by God[note omitted] were carried out, they would be a deterrent dismaying even the hardened criminal…6

It is striking that al-Banna mentions “the punishments prescribed by God” as an example of positive laws that must be derived from Islamic law. These are the so-called hadd punishments (plural hudud), specific punishments like stoning, crucifixion, amputations, or lashes for specific crimes like illicit intercourse, drinking of alcohol, theft, or highway robbery. Under Islamic law, these punishments have a special status because they are directly prescribed by God, either in the Koran or in the teachings of Muhammad.7

As the above quotation makes clear, al-Banna is very scrupulous in adhering to the traditional prescriptions of classical Islamic law. In 1936, al-Banna wrote a letter to King Faruq of Egypt, as well as to the other rulers of Islamic countries, in which he laid out in some detail his program for Islamic government.8 In this letter al-Banna called for

  • “a reform of the law, so that it will conform to Islamic legislation in every branch;”
  • “The diffusion of the Islamic spirit throughout all departments of government, so that all its employees will feel responsible for adhering to Islamic teachings;”
  • “The surveillance of the personal conduct of all [government] employees, and an end to the dichotomy between the private and professional spheres;”
  • Action by Islamic countries to pave the way for the restoration of the Caliphate;9
  • “the imposition of severe penalties for moral offenses” and the prohibition of prostitution, gambling, drinking of alcohol, dancing; and the criminalization of “fornication, whatever the circumstances, as a detestable crime whose perpetrator must be flogged;”
  • “Treatment of the problem of women…in accordance with Islamic teaching” and “segregation of male and female students; “private meetings between men and women,” except for family members, are “to be counted as a crime…”10
  • “The surveillance of theatres and cinemas, and a rigorous selection of plays and films;”
  • “The regulation of business hours for cafes; surveillance of the activities of their regular clients; instructing these as to what is in their best interests…;”
  • “The expurgation of songs, and a rigorous selection and censorship of them;”
  • “The confiscation of provocative stories and books that implant the seeds of skepticism in an insidious manner, and newspapers which strive to disseminate immorality…;”
  • “[P]unishment of all who are proved to have infringed any Islamic doctrine or attacked it, such as breaking the fast of Ramadan, willful neglect of prayers, insulting the faith, or any such act.”
  • “The annexation of the elementary village schools to the mosques…;”
  • “Active instigation to memorize the Qur’an in all the free elementary schools;”
  • “The prohibition of usury, and the organization of banks with this end in view.”

Al-Banna’s program is perhaps more readily understood in the context of a central provision of classical Islamic law, the duty to command the right and forbid the wrong.11 Firmly rooted in the Koran (e.g. 3:104), classical sharia prescribes this as a communal obligation12 of the Islamic umma, and indeed as “the most important fundamental of the religion,” such that “if it were folded up and put away, religion itself would vanish, dissolution appear, and whole lands come to ruin.”13 Gudrun Krämer writes that this Koranic injunction to command the right and prohibit the wrong “was to play a central role in al-Banna’s career as an Islamic activist.”14 The duty to command the right and forbid the wrong amounts to a communal duty of the whole Muslim umma to police the behavior of all is members, intervening verbally and even physically when seeing violations of Islamic law such as drinking wine, eating during Ramadan, playing illicit music, and so forth.15

  1. Western societies are decadent and corrupt.

Al-Banna is acutely aware that his program for Islamic government is radically at odds with Western values, like personal liberty and secular government. In his writings one finds a scathing critique of Western culture in general. He lists what he takes to be the defining traits of Western society, all of which are negative.16 European life and culture “rest upon the principle of the elimination of religion from all aspects of social life, especially as regards the state, the law-court, and the school.” European society is inherently materialistic, retaining its Christianity “only as a historical heirloom.” It is marked by “Apostasy, doubt in God, denial of the soul, obliviousness to reward or punishment in the world to come, and fixation within the limits of the material, tangible existence…”

Other defining marks of European civilization are “licentiousness, unseemly dedication to pleasures, versatility in self-indulgence, unconditioned freedom for the lower instincts, gratification of the lusts of the belly and the genitals, the equipment of women with every technique of seduction and incitement…” European culture is marked by “individual selfishness,… and class selfishness…, and national selfishness, for every nation is bigoted on behalf of its members, disparages all others, and tries to engulf those which are weaker.” Its addiction to usury is a natural expression of its selfishness and materialism.

Al-Banna sums up: “These purely materialistic traits have produced within European society corruption of the spirit, the weakening of morality,”  “impotence to guarantee the security of human society” and “failure to grant men happiness.”

What is worse, the entire Muslim world is being corrupted by Western decadence: Muslim countries are being flooded with Western capital, banks, and companies; Westerners have invaded Muslim lands with “their half-naked women, their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels.” Westerners have even “founded schools and scientific and cultural institutes in the very heart of the Islamic domain, which cast doubt and heresy into the souls of its sons.”17 This cultural infection of the Islamic world by Western decadence is even more dangerous than the political and military imperialism of the West.18 Consequently, the Muslim Brotherhood has two fundamental goals: “(1) That the Islamic fatherland be freed from all foreign domination,… [and] (2) That a free Islamic state may arise in this free fatherland, acting according to the precepts of Islam…”19

  1. God has commanded Muslims to conquer and rule the earth.

Since divinely revealed law is superior to man-made law; and since Islam is a complete and perfect way of life, encompassing the political sphere; and since materialistic European civilization cannot but cause unhappiness, it follows that Islam must rule the world:

[T]he Noble Qur’an appoints the Muslims as guardians over humanity in its minority, and grants them the right of suzerainty and dominion over the world in order to carry out this sublime commission. Hence it is our concern, not that of the West, and it pertains to Islamic civilization, not to materialistic civilization.20

[I]t is our duty to establish sovereignty over the world and to guide all of humanity to the sound precepts of Islam and to its teachings, without which mankind cannot attain happiness.21

The founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 is often explained as a reaction against Western imperialism. This is certainly true. However, one searches in vain in al-Banna’s writings for any principled critique of imperialism per se. What al-Banna criticizes is non-Muslim, especially Western, imperialism. For Islamic imperialism al-Banna has only the most effusive praise.22 Imperialism to impose Islamic rule on non-Muslims is altogether to the good. Al-Banna is fully aware that Islam was born not only as a religion but also as an imperialistic ideology mandating the conquest of non-Muslims. The first Islamic conquerors, he writes, “produced the maximal justice and mercy reported historically of any of the nations.”23

Al-Banna is also fully aware that classical Islamic law imposes offensive war to expand the borders of the Islamic state as a communal obligation (fard al-kifaya) on the entire Muslim community.24 Indeed, al-Banna wrote an entire essay “On Jihad25 in which he gives a survey of the Koranic verses and prophetic traditions (hadith) on jihad as well as the teachings of all four of the classical schools of Sunni jurisprudence on this topic. He reaffirms the classical teaching that “Jihad is not against polytheists alone, but against all who do not embrace Islam.”26 “[I]t is obligatory on us to begin fighting with them after transmitting the invitation [to embrace Islam], even if they do not fight against us.”27 Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” are not to be forcibly converted to Islam (unlike polytheists), but are to be forced to pay the jizya or tribute tax, as mandated by the Koran (9:29), as a sign of their humble acceptance of Islamic domination.28 Imperialism, therefore, is an obligation under Islamic law, and is wrong only when carried out by non-Muslims.

When Islamic lands are actually invaded or occupied by non-Muslims, Muslims have not just a communal but an individual duty to join the jihad (a fard al-‘ayn).29 This means every single able-bodied Muslim must join the fight or at least help the fighters.30 Al-Banna sums up the classical shariah on jihad as follows, applying the lesson to his own time:

Now you can see from all this how the men of learning…agree unanimously that jihad is a communal obligation imposed upon the Islamic umma in order to broadcast the summons [to embrace Islam], and that it is an individual obligation to repulse the attack of unbelievers upon it. Today the Muslims, as you know, are compelled to humble themselves before non-Muslims, and are ruled by unbelievers. ...Hence it has become an individual obligation, which there is no evading, on every Muslim to prepare his equipment, to make up his mind to engage in jihad, and to get ready for it until the time is ripe…31

A final point al-Banna makes regarding jihad has to do with an alleged saying of Muhammad, to the effect that fighting is the “lesser jihad” while spiritual struggle is “the greater jihad.”32 Al-Banna points out (correctly) that this alleged saying is not a sound tradition, that is, there is one or more weak links in the chain of people who allegedly passed it down from Muhammad. Indeed, this tradition never made its way into any of the six canonical collections of prophetic traditions.33 And in any case, the rewards of martyrdom are conferred only on those who slay or are slain in the way of God, al-Banna asserts; they are not bestowed on those who merely struggle spiritually.34

The classical Islamic law of warfare is closely linked to another central teaching of Muhammad and the Koran that clearly informs all of al-Banna’s writings, namely, that “Islam is superior and nothing must be made superior to it.”35 As scholar of Islamic law Yohanan Friedmann remarks, military victories and the humiliation of the subjugated infidel are “the most conspicuous way in which the superiority of Islam is demonstrated.”36

            Conclusion

A few key points emerge from this survey of al-Banna’s world view.  The first is well-stated by al-Banna’s translator, Charles Wendell:

First of all, it is important to state that by no stretch of the imagination can the movement [the MB] be regarded as a more-or-less deviant type of offshoot from Islam like Bahai, the Ahmadiyya, or American Black Islam. In most respects it was if anything ultra-orthodox, and…it had respectable intellectual roots. … Hasan al-Banna’s fundamental conviction that Islam does not accept, or even tolerate, a separation of ‘church’ and state, or of either from society, is as thoroughly Islamic as it can be.37

In other words, the world view of Hasan al-Banna is simply the world view of classical Sunni Islam. Al Banna was not and did not aspire to be an original thinker, but merely repeated and applied what can be found in any manual of classical Islamic law, such as The Reliance of the Traveller, which indeed enjoys the endorsement of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a major global Muslim Brotherhood organization.38

Second, al-Banna was an unabashed champion of Islamic imperialism and supremacism. Wendell observes that “it seems beyond dispute that …he [al-Banna] envisioned as his final goal a return to the world-state of the Four Orthodox Caliphs…and, this once accomplished, an aggressive march forward to conquer the rest of the earth for God and His Sacred Law.”39

A third point follows from this: as Wendell puts it, Jews and Christians “might aspire to nothing higher than a kind of second-class citizenship” under the restoration of classical Islamic law envisioned by al-Banna.40

Finally, Wendell observes, to al-Banna’s orthodox Muslim mind,

Nothing could be more hateful than further diminution of the lands traditionally dominated by Islam. I believe that much of the fury and unconcealed hatred of the Zionist state which is expressed by the majority of Arabs will become more comprehensible in light of what the Islamic domain as a concept really meant to the Muslim, seen through the lens of Hasan’s exposition.41

Indeed, implacable opposition to the Zionist project in Palestine was a central preoccupation of al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood,42 and this remains true of the Brotherhood and its Palestinian branch, Hamas, to the present day.43 The Hamas “Covenant” – its statement of foundational principles – features a quotation from Hasan al-Banna: “Israel will exist, and will continue to exist, until Islam abolishes it, as it abolished that which was before it.”44

What, then, can we expect from Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood? Are the Egyptian people prepared to support a Muslim Brotherhood agenda of the sort presented by al-Banna? The answer appears to be “yes,” simply because most Egyptians are devout, traditional Sunni Muslims. According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of Egyptian Muslims consider Islamic influence over political life to be a positive thing for their country. Fifty-four percent of Egyptian Muslims support making gender segregation in the workplace the law in Egypt; 82% favor stoning people who commit adultery; 77% support amputation of hands for theft and robbery; and 84% favor the death penalty for people who leave the Islamic religion.45 Seventy-five percent of Egyptians have a favorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood; 62% say the law should strictly follow the Quran, and another 27% say the laws should follow the values and principles of Islam without strictly following the Koran. A majority of Egyptians (54%) say the 1979 peace treaty with Israel should be annulled; only 36% say the treaty should be retained.46

The conclusion we must draw is that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not a fluke or a mere reflection of disgust with the Mubarak regime. It also represents the deep attachment of most Egyptian Muslims to traditional Sunni Islam. In the words of Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, “The Brotherhood is the Egyptian Kansas.” Their positions “reflect rather than oppose what the Egyptian center is thinking.”47 Wherever one finds conservative, traditional Sunni Muslims, one can expect to find sympathy for the world-view of Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood.



[1] Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Ian Johnson, A Mosque in Munich (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

[2] On al-Banna’s life, see: Gudrun Krämer, Hasan al-Banna (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010); Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942 (Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 1998); Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[3] Hasan al-Banna, Five Tracts of Hasan Al-Banna: A Selection from the Majmu at Rasail al-Imam al-Shahid Hasan al-Banna, translated and annotated by Charles Wendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 30.

[4] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 46.

[5] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 36; cf. p. 75.

[6] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 89.

[7] See Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, revised edition (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1994), pp. 610-618, 704, 985. This manual is an excellent guide to the world view of al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood generally, for that world view is simply the world view of classical Sunni Islam. Indeed, the Reliance of the Traveller is endorsed by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (pp. xviii-xix), a well-known global Muslim Brotherhood organization based in Herndon, Virginia (see Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, p. 36, and Johnson, A Mosque in Munich, p. 95).

[8] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, pp. 103-131, esp. pp. 126-130.

[9] The establishment of the Caliphate is a communal obligation under sharia: see al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 639; see p. 647 for a list of the caliph’s duties, which include “protecting the religion and the sacrosanct, preserving the religion from alteration and substitution,” “enforcing the prescribed legal measures connected with the rights of Allah and men,” “leading Muslims at group and Friday prayers, whether personally or by representative,” “facilitating travel to the hajj,” and undertaking jihad. On communal obligations, see p. 33 and below.

[10] See al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 541: “It is not lawful for a wife to leave the house except by the permission of her husband…. Nor may a wife permit anyone to enter her husband’s home unless he agrees, even her unmarriageable kin. Nor may she be alone with a nonfamily-member male, under any circumstances.”

[11] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 16.

[12] A communal obligation means that as long as enough are doing the activity in question, the whole community has fulfilled its duty, even if not everyone is doing it, but if no one is doing it, then the whole community is guilty of sin. Al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 33.

[13] Al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 714.

[14] Krämer, Hasan al-Banna, p. 9.

[15] Al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, pp. 713-725.

[16] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, pp 26-7.

[17] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 28.

[18] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 29.

[19] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 31.

[20] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 71.

[21] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 72.

[22] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. pp. 17, 24, 49, 51-2, 71-2, 81-2, 93-4, 110.

[23] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 110.

[24] See al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 600.

[25] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, pp. 133-156.

[26] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 142.

[27] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 147.

[28] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, pp. 136, 142

[29] See al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 601. A personally obligatory act is required by God from each and every morally responsible person, so that it is insufficient for another to perform such an act on another’s behalf: see al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 32.

[30] See al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, p. 32.

[31] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 150.

[32] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 155.

[33] David Cook, Understanding Jihad (Berkely: University of California Press, 2005), p. 35.

[34] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 150; cf. p. 143.

[35] The Koran teaches that God’s will is that Islam be exalted above all religions (9:33, 61:9). It is significant that verse 9:33 comes right after the verses commanding the military conquest of pagans, Jews, and Christians (9:5 and 9:29). The implication is that the exaltation of Islam above all other religions is to take a military and political form: the conquest and domination of non-Muslims.

[36] Yohanan Friedmann, “Islam is superior…”, The Jerusalem Quarterly 11 (Spring 1979), pp. 36- 42. See also Yohanan Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[37] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, pp. 3, 6.  Gudrun Krämer observes: “Contrary to widespread perceptions of Islamic scholars and Islamic activists as being locked in perpetual conflict, the Muslim Brothers attracted a significant following among religious scholars (and not just the lower echelons)…”; Krämer, Hasan al-Banna, p. 41.

[38] See footnote 7, above.

[39] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 3.

[40] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 4.

[41] Al-Banna, Five Tracts, p. 7.

[42] Krämer, Hasan al-Banna, pp. 48-50, 76-78; Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, pp. 155-6, 164, 235-247

[43] See Joseph S. Spoerl, “Hamas, Islam, and Israel,” Journal of Conflict Studies 26 (2006), pp. 3-15.

[44] “The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement – HAMAS,” Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch #3867, May 26, 2011, http://www.memri.org/report/en/print5319.htm

[45] “Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah; Most Embrace a Role for Islam in Politics,” Dec. 2, 2010, Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project, http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

[46] “Egyptians Embrace Revolt Leaders, Religious Parties and Military, as Well; U.S. Wins No Friends, End of Treaty with Israel Sought,” April 25, 2011, Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project, http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2011/04/Pew-Global-Attitudes-Egypt-Report-FINAL-April-25-2011.pdf

[47] David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “In Paper, Chief of Egypt Army Criticized U.S.,” New York Times, Aug. 17, 2012, p. A1.

Joseph S. Spoerl is professor of philosophy at Saint Anselm College.

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