MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD (Ikhwan al Muslimin) (Religious Movement)

One of the most active and influential movements engaged in the struggle for the creation of an Islamic state, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna (1906-49), an Egyptian primary school teacher. Closely associated with Al-Banna’s teachings and ideas is Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), also an educationist by profession, who became one of the movement’s principal ideologues. The latter’s treatise Ma’alim fi al-tariq (Milestones) (1965) has assumed the status of a classic text among contemporary Muslim militants on the rationale for and the means to be adopted for the purpose of creating an Islamic state, the goal of the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood which began as a youth movement soon became the main inspiration behind the new Islamic radicalism that began to sweep across Egypt in the late 1920s and which became more widespread, determined and committed to bringing about change in the 1930s. It was fed chiefly by the deepening disillusionment with the secular nationalism and liberalism of the political elite which was accused of failing to address the extreme poverty of the masses, and by the global economic crisis caused by the Great Depression (1929).

The Brotherhood linked the serious decline of Islam as a religion and culture for which it held secularism and liberalism responsible to the poverty and economic hardship suffered by the majority of Egyptians. It described what it believed was happening to the Muslim world in apocalyptic terms. Al-Banna’s experiences in Cairo and Ismailia in the Suez Canal zone prompted him to speak of the ‘devastation’ of religion and morality. He became convinced that for Egypt the only escape from the impending catastrophe was through the radical renewal of Islam. This would also be the most effective weapon against the West which he believed had embarked on a new crusade to destroy Islam, this time by corrupting the morals of its leaders and its young and by undermining their faith.

Al-Banna adopted the dawa (calling) or bottom up approach in that he sought to reform Islam by calling Muslims to a life lived according to Islamic orthodoxy. It was through Self-change and changing the local community and Islamic society, Al-Banna was persuaded, that a genuinely Muslim society would emerge. His Islam was an ‘engaged’ Islam, one that was to be applied to all aspects of life. In addition to spiritual training, the Brotherhood sought to provide for the social and educational needs of Muslims. Organizationally, the Muslim Brotherhood resembled in several ways that of the mystical or Sufi orders. Though a powerful critic of various popular forms of Sufism which mixed Islam with what he regarded as non-Islamic practices Al Banna was himself a committed member of the Sufi order the Hasafiyyah. As in the Sufi orders Muslim Brotherhood members were obliged to swear an oath of allegiance and to perform regular spiritual exercises including dhikr, the ritual of remembrance of God, the main religious practice of Sufism. Daily readings selected from the Qur’an by Al-Banna as well as the five daily prayers (salat) were also an integral part of Brotherhood practice.

Over time the structure of the Brotherhood became more complex and formal with the setting up of the General Guidance Council, partially elected by a Consultative Assembly, to advise the final authority known as the General Guide. Organization at the regional level reflected that at the centre and at the local level the basic unit was the small group referred to as the ‘battalion’ or ‘family’ within which regular members worked.

The publications department performed the role of spreading the movement’s philosophy and its objective, which as was previously mentioned was the creation of an Islamic state, and a secret and/or special department defended it from the police and secret service.

During its early years the principal arm of the Brotherhood’s campaign to reform Islam was education. As numerous schools for both male and female students—some vocational and/or technical and some academic—were established the movement spread rapidly in and around Ismailia, the Nile Delta, Cairo and further afield. It became largely an urban-based form of fundamentalist Islam. The idea was to lay the foundations of a self-sufficient Islamic society and extricate it from what was perceived as the suffocating stranglehold caused by its dependency on the West.

From the late 1930s and during and after the Second World War (1939-45) the Muslim Brotherhood became increasingly engaged internally in a debate over the use of violence until then never formally endorsed as a tactic by Al-Banna. This period saw a rise in the number of public demonstrations against corrupt local politicians many of whom belonged to the nationalist political party the Wafd (delegation), and against the British government which, though it had unilaterally declared Egypt to be independent in 1922, continued its military occupation of the country and exercised a decisive influence over major domestic and foreign policy issues.

A turning point was reached in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood with the declaration of the State of Israel in 1947, which it regarded as an integral part of the Western, Christian conspiracy to undermine Islam. Relations with the Egyptian government worsened with the assassination by one of the Brotherhood of the Egyptian Prime Minister in 1948. This led by way of retaliation to the murder of Al-Banna in 1949. A brief truce began in 1952 with the overthrow of King Farouk by the Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser whose new Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) adopted a modern secular version of Islamic socialism as its ideology.

The uneasy alliance between the Brotherhood and the RCC ended in 1954 when the Brotherhood allegedly attempted to assassinate Nasser who had just assumed the presidency of the country. Nasser reacted by executing many of the Brotherhood’s leaders and by imprisoning others including Sayyid Qutb. He failed, however, to silence the movement as the prisons became the breeding ground for a new and ever more implacable radicalism. While in jail (1954-64) Sayyid Qutb developed his devastating critique of Nasser’s regime and of all liberal, secular, western, non-Islamic governments. This as was previously mentioned was published, as Milestones (1965), and has become one of the core texts of all radical Muslims bent on the creation of an Islamic state by both violent and other means. Qutb among others was arrested for conspiracy in 1965 and in 1966 was executed.

The Brotherhood’s mainly urban version of Islamic fundamentalism has and continues to exercise a decisive influence on the thinking of radical Muslim activists across the Muslim world. Though autonomous and not necessarily committed to every aspect of its ideology, strategy and tactics versions of this movement can be found in many parts of the Middle East, North Africa, the Sudan, South and Southeast Asia, and the West.

The ideological impact of the Muslim Brotherhood on radical Muslim groups in the contemporary world can hardly be exaggerated. Its main goal of the creation of an Islamic state by the application of Islamic law continues to inspire such Muslim groups as does its emphasis on jihad as a defensive weapon and the responsibility of every individual Muslim rather than as a collective duty. Also inspirational for such groups are notions of this age as the age of jahiliyya or ignorance of Islam and one therefore which imposes on Muslims the duty to spread their faith, and its explanation of death by martyrdom as a vital weapon in the struggle for the cause of Islam.

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