Political Islam and Muslim Brotherhood

Military jihad and militant Salafism are by no means ageless political movements. On the contrary, they are relatively recent and are preceded by another politically active social movement — the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged and prospered from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. The founder of the movement, Hasan al-Banna, was born in October 1906 in northern Egypt. His father was a religious man and al-Banna was first educated in a mosque school before going to a public primary school at the age of 12. In 1927 al-Banna graduated from the Faculty of Dar al-Ulmm with a teacher’s diploma. During his years in Cairo he participated in religious circles, but realised these will not be sufficient to bring the society back on the right path of Islam. Convinced that a much more ambitious activism is required, al-Banna started preaching in mosques and public areas. In March 1928, al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the time when al-Banna created his organization, the shattered Ottoman Empire had lost the caliphate and its status as the symbolic centre of power of the Islamic world. The Brotherhood tried to fill this vacuum, chanting “The Quran is our constitution”. Muslim brothers brought reform ideas proposed by intellectuals to the masses, becoming a movement of the simple people in the process. Al-Banna clearly understood that the Muslim community in the Middle East had fallen behind in many areas and was in need or urgent reforms, that should not be limited only to science, economy, governance etc., but should first and foremost provide a spiritual reformation. One of the central conclusions of the Muslim Brotherhood was that the very genuine issues of the Muslim community should not be solved with borrowed tools, but by using their own cultural heritage, i.e., the solution was to be found in Islam. Since Islam is a comprehensive system of values and practices, there is no need to slavishly copy the West, although a lot could be learned from them. Al-Banna believed that the ideas described in the Quran are universal and should be applied to the Islamic society. He maintained that Islam should not be seen as a private matter separated from public life. On the contrary, Islam is a comprehensive doctrine that should be carefully adapted to present circumstances. The Muslim Brotherhood proposed “Islamic modernity” as an alternative to Western modernity. According to Gilles Kepel, a researcher of political Islam, Wester modernity is characterised by a separation of public life, politics, religion and culture, while the interpretation of modernity by the Muslim Brotherhood presents the opposite – a fusion into a unified, single and complete Islamic entity.[i] And since it has never been clearly defined, various kinds of Islamism[1] have entered under this tag.

The Muslim Brotherhood owed much of its success to its public activities. Brothers implemented various measures trying to improve Muslim living standards and battle inequality, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy etc. The Muslim Brotherhood created and maintained schools, night schools, educational courses, hospitals, small factories etc. And most importantly, it accomplished these tasks better than the corrupt official power. The brotherhood invested a lot of energy to provide education and wealth to the common folk, but religious education was also never neglected.

When analysing the ides of the Muslim Brotherhood in general and those of Hasan al-Banna in particular, researcher Ahmad Moussalli notes that this subject is determined by three fundamental problems: 1) Islamic state and Islamic law (sharia), 2) Islam and politics, 3) Democracy and shura (i.e. consultation or community representation).[ii]

Islamic state and sharia The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Banna share an unmistakable vision both in the past and in the present-day: to create an Islamic state ruled by Islamic law – sharia. This would allow for the restoration of the Islamic community – umma – and enable Islam to recover its splendour. The ultimate goal that everyone should strive towards is to restore the caliphate. Yet al-Banna had no illusions as to how hard this task would be to complete. It would require the unification of the Muslim community and the establishment of an international state, a goal that could only be achieved through sweeping reforms to build a single, international education system, economic and social cooperation, and a union of states ready and willing to create a caliphate and choose a caliph. All of this was impossible at the time. And so, the most feasible temporary objective of establishing an Islamic state became just as important as the religious imperative of dreaming about a caliphate. At the same time, the fact that the caliphate no longer existed presented and excellent opportunity to reflect on how to best create it. Muslims had an urgent duty before them – to understand how exactly an Islamic state should be governed. It had to be done in an Islamic way, that much was clear.

As al-Banna saw it, a state was to, of course, take care of the economy and laws, but, since a caliphate or an Islamic state would not separate secular and religious life, it should also tend to the virtue and morality of its residents and, especially, to the role of religion. The state would, essentially, be closely linked with the moral condition of its people. And since the call of Islam is considered to have no limitations, a caliphate as the embodiment of spiritual (as well as political and economic) wealth would have a moral obligation towards humanity as a whole to spread the true faith. Such perception of a state fundamentally binds politics and religion together. A state matters, but what matters even more are the divine laws as they make the state possible and justifiable. Without sharia a state loses its purpose. However, the Muslim Brotherhood does not consider sharia to be a code of immutable laws. On the contrary, the divine laws provide guidance that can and should be interpreted in line with the times. Many laws in Islam are indeed ageless, but not all that is Islamic is divine and thus unchanging. Al-Banna correctly indicated that any system, be it Western, philosophical, religious or political, there are certain indisputable fundamental ideas, but that are not reactionary. Islam politics are similar in this sense and anyone holding a different opinion only demonstrates their ignorance.[iii]

Islam and politics Under the leadership of al-Banna the Muslim Brotherhood stipulated that one of the main tasks of the state is to maintain and spread its religion, i.e., Islam, since an Islamic society cannot be created without assistance from the state. And according to al-Banna faith without political activism is not good enough, because faith is not practised in seclusion. Therefore, politics is seen as an attempt to bring together faith and action. The development of faith leads to the idea that a believer acts on behalf of society. Al-Banna even claims that Islam differs from other religions by being a comprehensive doctrine which applies not only to the cult, but also to public administration. Consequently, Islam by its very nature is political, collective and national. The greatest burden, however, rests on the state as it has to sustain the faith. This means that, as a matter of principle, an Islamic state is not and cannot be a secular.[iv]

Democracy and shura Al-Banna considered constitutional democracy to be a perfectly acceptable form of public administration, as long as it respects the role of Islam in legislation and public education. He even went as far as to say that democracy and constitutionalism are essentially the closest forms of administration available to Islamic politics. And yet his intention was never to copy the West.

In Islam the Arabic word shura stands for consultation or council, and even a caliph should heed its advice. The Muslim Brotherhood interpreted this concept to be similar to that of democracy. Namely, shura contains within it a rejection of authoritarian power, placing the source of power in the community instead. In this way, the concept of democracy is also a part of shura. And yet any leader of an Islamic state who consults the shura, would still have to prioritise his duty to ensure the observance of Islamic laws and virtues. Besides, this task should not be difficult, since human laws as opposed to divine laws, are in their very essence erroneous and thus intuitively unacceptable. Finnish Islam researcher Jaakko Hameen-Anttila writes: “In its deepest sense, Islam is a theocratic democracy where the law is above the ruler.”[v]

In his explanation of the position of al-Banna and The Muslim Brotherhood, Moussalli writes that the authorities of an Islamic state have a dual responsibility: religious (before God) and political (before society). The power of a ruler is provided through a social contract which states that the ruler shall obey the requirements of the Islamic community and the laws of Islam. Another element, bringing Islam and politics closer together, is al-Banna’s belief that a good and successful secular governance is actually the same as a good and holy religious governance. Since the core of Islamic politics is formed by hakimiyyah (God is the sole and absolute sovereign of the state), no one can directly represent God and in that way usurp God’s authority. Therefore, a ruler possesses human hakimiyyah, i.e., he is responsible before society. Times pass and the form of power changes, yet they all must respect the Islamic community which expresses itself through shura. The legitimacy of power is supplied by shura, but its existence is determined by following sharia. This is how al-Banna’s perception of Islam and politics captures the idea of democracy, reinterprets and integrates it as an organic component of Islam. The concept of ‘shura’ plays a vital role in the reformation project proposed by al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood as it creates a balance between eternal and temporal laws. God bestows the universal laws, while the community requests and secures innovations through shura.[vi]

As time went on, the influence of Hassan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt grew ever greater, until it became a serious threat to state authorities that were themselves on the brink of collapse at the end of 1940s. The Muslim Brotherhood had by then gotten involved in the conflict in Palestine (Israel) and, following in the steps of many a political movement of its time, created its own military wing, which also carried out acts of terrorism. Al-Banna even started talking about the need to soon replace secular structures with Islamic ones. Yet he never called for a violent change. And this position still stands today. The Muslim Brotherhood pursues its aims peacefully and within the framework of the existing system.[2] Even though al-Banna was savage in his criticism of competing parties, this was mostly due to their corrupt or preposterous behaviour. Al-Banna respected the multi-party system, even if he believed that in the ideal case all political players should move towards an Islamic unity with only minor differences regarding executive powers.

Al-Banna was killed by state security services on 12 February, 1949, but the Muslim Brotherhood lived on. In 1952 Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was jubilant for power now rested with an Egyptian determined to protect the independence of Egypt from Western influence. In pursuit of unity and order, Nasser scattered the squabbling parties. Their joy did not last, as the brothers soon discovered that Nasser holds no warm feelings for them and they could not stomach his secular nationalism. The conflict culminated in 1954 with an attempt on Nasser’s life that was blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood. What quickly followed were persecution, prohibitions, arrests and even the hanging of several influential members. It seemed like the organization had met its end and would never recover. The Egypt of Nasser was rapidly moving towards socialism, nationalism and partnership with the USSR. The Muslim Brotherhood managed to survive again, learned from its mistakes and became even more powerful.

This self-evaluation is especially important in the context of the terrorist organization Islamic State, and not so much its executive summary as some specific interpretations done throughout the 20th century. In 1940s Pakistani journalist, philosopher and imam Maulana Abul Ala Maudidi published his most significant works. In 1960s Sayyid Qutb became immensely popular in Egypt, and at the end of 1970s Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini became the leader of political Islam in Iran. While al-Banna had humanised the principle of hakimiyyah and tried to harmonize Islamic and Western values, the more radical reformers denied any possibility of concord, pronounced attempts at democracy to be a waste of time and indicated that the Islamic community should rigorously uphold its religion. The overall direction of the Muslim Brotherhood remained within the outlines of the al-Banna program, but along with a greater influence of other prominent members, especially Qutb, violent revolutionary movements emerged that are closely linked with Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other groups of modern military jihad.

The assessment of the ideological legacy left by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Banna has always been a contentious subject. Those who saw the Brotherhood as a progressive force fighting for equality and prosperity are convinced that only its extremist wing was engaged in terrorist activities, while other argue that the internal logic of al-Banna’s ideas could only lead to violence. Gilles Kepel, for example, writes that the vague ideological position of the Brotherhood left it open to diverse interpretations. Some left-wing socialists criticized the Muslim Brotherhood as a populist movement that craves to capture the consciousness of the working-class and supersede class affiliation with moderate religiousness. In 1980s a new interpretation appeared stating that al-Banna’s organization is simply doing what it had promised, namely, providing the marginalised Muslim masses with an opportunity to practice Islamic culture and to become politically active.[vii] On other occasions it is seen as a vile conspiracy, concealing repressive Islamism and even terrorism beneath a mask of democracy. In any case, the broadness of its ideological position brought in a diverse cast of people, who dispersed the moment their interests collided. The latest act in the story of the Muslim Brotherhood took place in 2011 when the movement was legalised again and its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won the first democratic presidential elections in the history of Egypt. This victory was a bewildering surprise to the West, which considered the then-ongoing Arab Spring protests across the Arab world as an ‘undeniable’ effort to move closer to Western liberalism and secular capitalism. Morsi’s rule was very short as the military removed him from office and then jailed him in 2013, and the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization. Almost six years after Morsi was forced from power, he fainted during a court session inside the defendant’s “cage” and died on arrival at a Cairo hospital. According to researcher Khalil al-Anani, the future of the organization is uncertain. Once again persecuted by the authorities, its members now have to choose whether to steer the Brotherhood back to the economic approach of the past or towards a more aggressive and revolutionary path. Moreover, during its brief reign the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be little more than a talking shop as it failed abysmally to improve social and economic conditions. The organization’s reputation was severely tarnished and it is still relentlessly harassed by the ruling military junta.[viii] Ironically, the relatively open and tolerant Islamic movement created by al-Banna would over time become one of the major sources of radical political Islam and militant jihad.

[1] “Islamism” here is understood as a political orientation rooted in Islam, i.e., the Koran and Sunna. Therefore the concepts of “Islamism” and “political Islam” are synonyms and their use in this book is interchangeable. The relationship between the religion of Islam and politics is a contentious issue, all the more so since the state and religion are separated in the Western world and in modern political theory, i.e., the state is secular.

[2] This argument might be refuted by stating that the Muslim Brotherhood has promoted terrorism despite not engaging in it itself. What is reflected here, however, is the position of the majority – and it is peaceful.

[i] Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. London; New York: I.B.Tauris, 2006 — p. 28.

[ii] Moussalli, Ahmad. “Hassan al-Banna.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, edited by John L. Esposito and Emad El-Din Shahin, 129–143. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[iii] See.: Moussalli, Ahmad. “Hassan al-Banna.” — pp. 131–134.

[iv] See.: Ibid. — pp. 134-136.

[v] Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila. Islamin käsikirja. Helsinki: Otava, 2004. Quoted from: Hemēns-Antila, Jāko. Islāma rokasgrāmata. Tulk. Ingrīda Peldekse. Rīga: Neputns, 2017 — 27. lpp. On historic and present-day relationship between Islam and democracy, see: Hashemi, Nader. “Islam and Democracy.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, edited by John L. Esposito and Emad El-Din Shahin, 68-88. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[vi] See.: Moussalli, Ahmad. “Hassan al-Banna.” — pp. 136-140.

[vii] Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. — p. 28–29.

[viii] Al-Anani, Khalil. Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016 — pp. 160-161. For more on the Muslim Brotherhood today, its political and religious ideas, see also: Kandil, Hazem. Inside the Brotherhood. Cambridge: Polity, 2015. For a summary on the Muslim Brotherhood, see.: Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. London: Phoenix, 2001 — pp. 132-133.