Hassan al-Banna

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 06/10/2020

Last modified: 06/10/2020

Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is alternately praised as a leading social reformer, and decried as laying the foundations for modern Islamic terrorist groups.

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islam  egypt 

Table of Contents

Introduction

Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is alternately praised as a leading social reformer, and decried as laying the foundations for modern Islamic terrorist groups.

Active during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s (until his assassination), al-Banna was focused on improving the circumstances of Egyptian society, as well as other nations in the region, and believed that by instituting reforms grounded in Islamic tradition, he would be able to steer people towards more rewarding lives.

Naturally, not everyone living in Egypt (during al-Banna’s lifetime or after) was Muslim, nor wished to be coerced into living Islamically, so this aspiration was almost guaranteed to lead to controversy. In pursuit of his socioreligious vision, al-Banna called for a number of authoritarian measures, for example the ‘…diffusion of the Islamic spirit throughout all departments of the government … the surveillance of the personal conduct of all its employees…’ (al-Banna, 1978, p.126). These methods and aspirations were controversial almost by design, since al-Banna was aiming to challenge conventional morality, political structures, and religious sensibilities – the controversy was not his goal, but it was a natural concomitant.

Yet even amongst Muslims, al-Banna’s position attracted protest; his identity as a member of a Sufi order (the Hasafiyya) was contentious, with many traditional Muslims (particularly those in the Salafi branch) viewing Sufi practices as little more than superstition – al-Banna’s relaxed attitude to these divergent Islamic systems stemmed from his belief that Muslims should be united by their commonality, and not divided by their minor differences; while this perspective earned him support from some sides, it upset others (Beattie, 2013, pp.172-4).

The application of al-Banna’s ideas for an Islamic nation has been taken to extreme lengths by some groups and individuals, and some have even suggested that al-Banna is indirectly responsible for the growth of terrorist organisations such al-Qaeda and Islamic State – Christina Rinehart argues that the Muslim Brotherhood ‘…spawned some of the most violent terrorist organisations throughout the world…’ (2009, in Beattie, 2013, p.180). Some scholars disagree with this connection on the grounds that this was never al-Banna’s stated intention (and indeed he died long before these groups were formed), however his use of violent language to encourage struggle (Jihad) is certainly open to interpretation, and far from neutral.

However, Beattie (2013, pp.181-2) makes the point that al-Banna and his associates tried twice during the 1940’s to enter politics as candidates; in the first instance they were put under pressure from the Prime Minister to withdraw, and in the second they were defeated at the polls but in questionable circumstances.

Al-Banna’s controversial status in the eyes of the established Egyptian-British system of power is clearly that he represented a popular movement, with grassroots support, which wanted to reform and significantly change society, and which was not particularly sympathetic to the British – that the Brotherhood had its own developing militia was also likely a cause for concern.

The political circumstances and conflicting aims of these different groups help to explain part of the controversy surrounding al-Banna – the Muslim Brotherhood represented a challenge to entrenched power structures, non-Muslim social groups (for example Christian and Jewish Egyptians), and Muslims who felt that the group did not accurately reflect their beliefs (for example the Salafis). In this context of so many competing groups, it is arguably the case that controversy emerged from the reception of al-Banna’s ideas – indeed any social ideals applied to a large group will invariably find cause for disagreement.

Al-Banna’s aspirations for the Egyptian state were a natural expression of his belief in the authority of Islamic tradition, and a recognition that such traditions must be flexible and adaptable in order to suit people’s temperaments – yet when others heard these goals they were considered either too authoritarian or too lenient.

References

  • al-Banna, H. (1978) Five Tracts of Hasan Al-Bannā (1906–1949): A Selection from the Majmū‘at Rasā’il al-Imām al-Shahīd Hasan al-Bannā (translated from the Arabic and annotated by Charles Wendell), Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.
  • Beattie, H. (2013) ‘Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood’, in A332 Book 1 Controversial Figures, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 155-212.

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