Who was the architect of Islamism?

The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hasan al-Banna (1906 - 1949) is one of the most important Islamist thinkers and activists.
The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hasan al-Banna (1906 - 1949) is one of the most important Islamist thinkers and activists.

Renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Gudrun Kramer has just published the first well-founded biography of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Joseph Croitoru read the book

By Joseph Croitoru

In the late nineteenth century, great swathes of the Islamic world were under Western colonial rule. This presence was particularly marked in Egypt. British rule in Egypt began in 1882 and lasted for several decades. France was involved in the Suez Canal Company and also had considerable cultural influence on the educated secular class in Egypt.

While the confrontation with European ideas and behaviours led to a hardening of conservative Islamic attitudes among the devout, reform-oriented groups were open to the momentum for modernisation and sought to re-evaluate their own traditions with a view to making Egyptian society "more Islamic".

Hasan al-Banna, who was born in 1906 in a small town called Mahmoudiyah not far from Alexandria, was filled with a similar sense of mission in his younger years. In 1928, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Ismailia on the banks of the Suez Canal. In the two decades that followed, the brotherhood became an important player in Egyptian society. The organisation did not lose any of its significance, even when it was subjected to massive repression after the assassination of its founding father in 1949. This repression continues to this day in Egypt.

Resistance to colonialism

A lot has been written about the Muslim Brotherhood, which grew increasingly active both inside and outside Egypt after al-Banna's death – much of what has been written was partisan. Until now, however, there has not been a well-founded, comprehensive biography of the brotherhood's founder.

Gudrun Kramer's portrait of this influential, active man is a worthwhile read. It is also pioneering in terms of what it has to say about al-Banna's background and career and the development of his organisation. Kramer also shines a light on the upheaval in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century – a period marked by hefty political and economic turbulence. This turbulence was caused not only by the two world wars, but also by the growing religiously and nationalistically charged resistance to colonialism and its consequences.

Professor Kramer, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at the Free University of Berlin (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte)
The first "comprehensive" biography of Hasan al-Banna: Gudrun Kramer, professor emerita of Islamic Studies at the Free University of Berlin, illuminates the ideological foundations, social environment and political context of the Muslim Brotherhood, portrays comrades-in-arms and opponents, and impressively opens up a key chapter in the modern history of the Middle East through al-Banna's biography. "The source-saturated study, which draws on a huge number of sources, provides a much more nuanced view of the often demonised Muslim Brotherhood and its founder than has been written to date," writes our reviewer Joseph Croitoru

As a member of a group of strictly religious young people, Hasan al-Banna sought to defend "Islamic morals" against corrupting influences such as Christian missionary work, the consumption of drugs and alcohol, gambling and prostitution in the town where he was born. Years later, his Muslim Brotherhood would campaign against these things too.

Even as a young man, al-Banna was shaped by burgeoning Egyptian anti-colonialism, which he later referred to as "jihad" in an even more pronounced manner than the Islamic reformers before him.

And although al-Banna, like the reforming figures he looked up to, considered an education based on the Islamic scriptures to be of vital importance to the propagated re-education of society, he quickly recognised that an in-depth study of these scriptures was the wrong way to get the Egyptian masses excited about Islam.

Roots in Sufism

This conviction also stemmed from al-Banna's roots in Sufism, to which the author devotes much attention. The Sufi preference for simplicity, spontaneity and prayer rituals accompanied by music and song meant that the Sufis were very close to the people.

It was exactly this kind of closeness to the people that al-Banna wanted when he set out in Ismailia in 1927 to share with people a simple, universally understandable version of Islam. At the time, he was working as a primary school teacher for Arabic – a job he held until 1947.

All of this was evident in his short sermons, which al-Banna regularly gave in the coffeehouses of Ismailia, which had been so strongly shaped by colonialism, and quickly made him known among the people on the street. This explains why the six co-founders of the Muslim Brotherhood were not intellectuals, but workers, employees and tradesmen, most of whom were employed by foreign companies. In 1931, they opened their own mosque, which was followed a short time later by a school for boys and a school for girls.

Despite the fact that iron discipline was the order of the day at these schools, the principles of modern European reformist education, which al-Banna considered compatible with the principles of Islamic education, were applied. Modelled on this, the Brotherhood's first branch offices in the eastern Nile Delta were opened. Where possible, these offices also ran textile- or carpet-weaving workshops.

Insignia "like in a judo club"

Thanks to al-Banna's extended missionary trips, which he generally undertook during the school holidays, the brotherhood continued to grow after its move to Cairo in 1932 and even set up its own magazine.

As a charitable organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned from all political activity. The continual growth of the organisation was accompanied by the streamlining of its structures. As the "supreme leader" with comprehensive powers, al-Banna now watched over the brotherhood's members, who were divided into three categories and ten ranks, "each of which," writes Gudrun Kramer, "had its own obligations and insignia, which – almost like a judo club – made its members identifiable at a glance."

The association with sport is not just intended ironically, because as Kramer explains, the Muslim Brotherhood placed great emphasis on physical exercise. With the establishment of its own scouting organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the cult of masculinity influenced by the West, albeit making it Islamic at the same time: to al-Banna's mind, the Prophet Muhammad had been a kind of scout.


When Egypt came under the influence of fascism, and youth culture assumed paramilitary traits, the Muslim Brotherhood was also affected. Al-Banna, however, positioned himself squarely in opposition to fascist and racial biology-based ideologies: the Muslim Brotherhood did not support a feeling of togetherness that was built on race or skin colour, but called for fair fraternalism among people.

While this also included non-Muslims, following the pressure exerted by growing political tension in the country, where calls for national independence were just as loud as calls for Islamisation, the Muslim Brotherhood too soon identified Egyptian Jews as its enemies as part of its campaign against the "Zionist world conspiracy" in Palestine. This campaign, which was dealt with a little too briefly in the book, ultimately culminated in the dispatch of volunteer fighters to Palestine during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948.

Open rebellion against the "supreme leader"

Attempts by some of al-Banna's allies to stand for parliamentary election failed. Al-Banna himself even spoke about running for public office despite the fact that he called for the dissolution of all parties in the name of Islamic unity.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood grew rapidly during the Second World War thanks to the support of sympathetic politicians and is estimated to have had several hundred thousand members, it was around this time that the first cracks began to show. Kramer is convinced that the gradual loss of control by the "supreme leader", against whom some members openly rebelled, was down to his inconsistent policies. Al-Banna sometimes called for jihad and sometimes for prudence and calm. On the question of the enforcement of Islamic legislation, he also made contradictory statements: in 1936, he spoke in favour of corporal punishment (hudud) only to reject it again in 1948. His attitude to terrorism – to which he himself would ultimately fall victim – was also ambivalent.

Gudrun Kramer's study, which draws on a huge number of sources, provides a much more nuanced view of the often-demonised Muslim Brotherhood and its founder than has been written to date. It would have been good if the book had included information on the way the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Islamic movements are cultivating Hasan al-Banna's legacy today.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan


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