Islamism & Its Roots: The Muslim Brotherhood

By Sandhya Ravishankar 

This is Part 2 of our series on Understanding Israel-Palestine 

The global debate over the Israel versus Palestine issue has thrown up as many false narratives as it has real ones. As tensions remain heightened in the Middle East, The Lede attempts to unravel the basics and get to the root of the issue so that an informed debate is made possible. 

In this part, we explain the beginnings of the concept and idea of Islamism and the social conditions that forced its emergence in Egypt in the aftermath of the First World War. 

Let us first understand the term Islamism – it is the concept that Islam is the only ideology that can govern all walks of life i.e. social, political, economic and religious. It is the tenet that the Quran and the Sunnah have all the elements to administer a nation effectively and that there needs to be no separation between religion and the state. 

To break it down further, Islamism is a political ideology that believes all aspects of society should revert to a state that adheres to traditional Islamic practices as they were during the time of Prophet Mohammed and his earliest followers. 

The roots of this idea took shape in the 1800s and found followers in the early 1900s. Before the advent of Islamism, many nations like Turkey had declared themselves secular states and had a constitution and laws which were not based on religious texts. Islamism, however, advocated Muslim unity in more ways than one. 

The man who lit the spark of Islamism just after the First World War was Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), a schoolteacher in Egypt, which was at that time a British colony.

Hasan al-Banna; Wikipedia

al-Banna is the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also the ideological fount for the Islamic State (IS), Hamas and the Taliban, among other groups. 

al-Banna grew up in impoverished rural Egypt, though his family was fortunate enough to be considered reasonably well off. His father, a watch repairman, was an avid reader of Islamic philosophical texts. Hasan al-Banna inherited his love for the written word and studied to become a teacher of Arabic at Dar al-Ulum centre. 

al-Banna then moved to the small town of Ismailiyya and began to put together his ideology of Islamism and propagate it. 

Egypt then, was at a crossroads – there was unrest in society against the British rulers, disillusionment among the conservative masses over Western modern society and poverty, made worse by the First World War, was everywhere. 

al-Banna veered away from his ideological inspirations such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Rashid Rida, as they were too academic and were incomprehensible to the commoners who were largely uneducated. 

Instead, al-Banna simplified the teachings of the Quran in the language of the day. At the peak of nationalistic fervour in Egypt and discontent against the British conquerors, severe restrictions had been placed on freedom of speech, by the colonial masters. 

As a result, Egypt’s famed coffeehouses became the only spaces where the middle and lower classes could come together and discuss revolutionary ideas. Newspapers would be read out for the illiterate and rousing speeches would be given against the colonial powers. 

al-Banna favoured these coffeehouses for his lectures. He also gave talks regularly at mosques and local events. 

The key points of his lectures were: 

  1. Islam contained within itself all the necessary aspects to deal with all walks of life.
  2. There would be no political parties in the Islamic nation but a common front that followed the teachings of the Prophet. 
  3. The law would be reformed to conform with the Islamic Sharia law. 
  4. Youth groups would be formed and the army would be strengthened and trained in jihad.
  5. Relations between Arab and Islamic nations to be strengthened and all of them be put on the path to an Islamic Caliphate. 
  6. Educate men and women in the Quran, merge local mosques with schools. 
  7. The Muslim Ummah or order meant that all Muslims across the world were brothers. 

al-Banna initially followed Sufism and later turned Salafist – meaning that he proposed following a literal translation of the Quran and the Sunnah, as opposed to more modern interpretations. Salafism was founded on the premise that the ideal society was during the time that the Prophet Mohammed and the first three generations of his disciples had lived in. Salafists advocated a return to that time. 

al-Banna cited the “decadence” of Western civilisation and expressed anger at the brutalities of colonialism. He wrote that Western civilisation was “dying out” because of capitalism, greed, the immersion of society in carnal pleasures and that Egyptian society too was in danger of being subsumed by it. 

What Hasan al-Banna started in 1928 was a movement of young Muslim men intent on charitable work. Over time, the movement became hugely popular – the Egyptian economy and culture was suffering greatly under the British and the wealthy Egyptian elite, who had adopted Western ways and were greatly detached from the religious commoners. 

The Muslim Brotherhood was not just a charitable movement – it also set up “cells” that would train young men in the art of war and survival i.e. in jihad. 

As the decades rolled by, the Muslim Brotherhood would contest elections, send its volunteers to war zones to fight and inveigle itself into every aspect of Egyptian society, even crossing borders to penetrate Yemen, Sudan and Iraq among other countries. 

al-Banna, the founder, was assassinated in 1949, at the age of 42. But his work survives and continues to influence generations of Muslims to take up the cause of Islamism.

In the next part, we shall see how the Muslim Brotherhood created by al-Banna influenced generations of young Muslims of whom one went on to found the Hamas which is battling Israel today. 
Read Part 1 here.