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Hassan al-Banna

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Hassan al BannaHassan al-Banna - Hassan al-Banna  (Arabic: حسن البنا) was born October 14, 1906 and died February 12, 1949. Al Banna was a radical Islamist and founder of  the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Jamaat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun).

Hassan al-Banna was born in Mahmudiyya, Egypt, north-west of Cairo. His father, Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna, was a well regarded and pious local Imam and mosque teacher of the Hanbali Madh'hab (school of Fiqh - jurisprudence). He was a scholar of Islam who wrote and collaborated on books on Muslim traditions, and he also had a shop where he repaired watches and sold record players. Shaykh Ahmad al Banna and his wife owned some property, but they were not wealthy.

By age thirteen, al-Banna was already involved in politics, and participated in demonstrations during the revolution of 1919 against British rule. Hassan al-Banna joined the Hasafiya Sufi order when he was 15, having become interested at age 12. He entered the State Teacher's Training Center and graduated first in his class in 1923 at the age of 16.

Al-Banna moved to Cairo to enter the Dar al-Ulum college in 1923. Because of his father's connections in the religious community, he met prominent Islamic scholars. He was also exposed to the breakdown of Islamic society in the city, and the trend to secularization, which shocked him. He was very concerned over the abandonment of Islam by younger people. He saw Islam as a religion besieged by the onslaught of Western culture, an onslaught that must be met by re-educating the young.

Al-Banna became an eager student of Islamic reformists, especially the Egyptian Muhammad 'Abduh, and 'Abduh's disciple, the Syrian Rashid Rida. Al-Banna was a dedicated follower of Rida and reader of Al-Manar, Rida's magazine.

Rida's major concern, like that of Muhammad Abduh, was the decline of Islamic civilization relative to western countries. They both believed that this trend could be reversed only by returning to a "pure"  form of Islam, free of all the exegesis and innovations that had diluted the strength of its original message. But while Abduh had wanted to use what he thought of as the original principles of Islam to forge reform and liberalism, Rida and especially Banna identified different original principles and had a different program entirely.  Al-Banna believed  that the main danger to Islam was not the conservatism of Al-Azhar and the Ulema. Though he criticized the conservatives, Al-Banna was more afraid of the ascendancy of the West and secularism. He wanted the conservatives to be more active in condemning atheism and Christian missionaries, and in combating colonialism.

Al Banna decided to dedicate himself to becoming "a counselor and a teacher" of adults and children, to teach them "the objectives of religion and the sources of their well-being and happiness in life". He graduated from Dar al Ulum in 1927 and took a position as an Arabic language teacher in a state primary school in Isma'iliya, near the Suez Canal Zone.

In Isma'iliyya, in addition to his teaching duties, Al-Banna gave night classes to his pupils' parents. He also preached in the mosque, and in coffee-houses. He placed himself at shrines where pious Muslims were likely to congregate, and put an eclectic face on his teachings, avoiding disagreement with traditions and local customs. For example, the worship of dead Muslim saints is considered shirk, that is polytheistic. Pious but ignorant people nonetheless made cults centers out of the grave sites of holy men, which in theory threatens tawhid - monotheism. Al-Banna appeared at these sites and did not criticize the practices. He used the gatherings to draw people into his movement and hold meetings explaining his views about Islam. He also downplayed his  disagreements with the religious élite, who were not happy with his free introduction of Ijtihad - innovation in Islam. Al-Banna adopted semi-western dress rather than traditional robes, and a modest beard, to appeal to the widest Egyptian audience and look modern.

Al Banna was repelled by the British and other colonial presence in Ismailiya, including the military camps, ownership of utilities by foreign concessions and the luxury hotels that contrasted with the slum housing of Egyptian workers.

Al-Banna launched the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood in March of 1928. The brotherhood was extremist and violent from its inception. It's motto is, "God is our purpose, the Prophet our leader, the Qur'an our constitution, Jihad our way and dying for God's cause our supreme objective."

Al-Banna was quite clear that his goal was not solely an anti-colonialist struggle in Egypt nor the refurbishment of Islam, but rather a world revolution that would establish Islam as the dominant religion of the entire world:

we will not stop at this point [i.e., “freeing Egypt from secularism and modernity”], but will pursue this evil force to its own lands, invade its Western heartland, and struggle to overcome it until all the world shouts by the name of the Prophet and the teachings of Islam spread throughout the world. Only then will Muslims achieve their fundamental goal… and all religion will be exclusively for Allah. (Habeck, Knowing the enemy p. 120)

The key themes of radical Islamism and Jihadism were reiterated in numerous quotes by Al Banna, including:

Central importance of violent Jihad - In traditional Islam, Jihad, which means "struggle" was divided into "Greater Jihad," an inner struggle to achieve sanctity and religious truth and a "Lesser Jihad" - war against enemies of Islam or Jihad Musallah. Al-Banna reversed the priorities. He relegated inner spiritual struggle to Jihad al-asghar, the lesser Jihad, and elevated violent war against enemies of Islam to Jihad al akbar, the great Jihad.  His stance on this point is explicit. Al-Banna wrote:

Many Muslims today mistakenly believe that fighting the enemy is jihad asghar (a lesser jihad) and that fighting one's ego is jihad akbar (a greater jihad). The following narration [athar] is quoted as proof: "We have returned from the lesser jihad to embark on the greater jihad." They said: "What is the greater jihad?" He said: "The jihad of the heart, or the jihad against one's ego."

This narration is used by some to lessen the importance of fighting, to discourage any preparation for combat, and to deter any offering of jihad in Allah's way. This narration is not a saheeh (sound) tradition. (source: see Jihad )

The cult of martyrdom - Al-Banna wrote:

My brothers! The ummah that knows how to die a noble and honourable death is granted an exalted life in this world and eternal felicity in the next. Degradation and dishonour are the results of the love of this world and the fear of death. Therefore prepare for jihad and be the lovers of death. Life itself shall come searching after you.

My brother, you should know that one day you will face death and this ominous event can only occur once. If you suffer on this occasion in the way of Allah, it will be to your benefit in this world and your reward in the next. (source: see Jihad )

The supremacy of Islam - "Islam must dominate and is not to be dominated."

Restoration of the lost caliphate - i'adat al Khalifa al Mafqudah -  is the chief immediate political goal of the Islamist movement. 

The decadence and imminent demise of the west - "The civilization of the West, which was brilliant by virtue of its scientific perfection for a long time, and which subjugated the whole world with the products of this science to its states and nations, is now bankrupt and in decline. "

Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism - The Jews are the agents of change and westernization, and responsible for the decline of the west as well as Islam. This was not a new theme in the Muslim and Arab world.

Initially,  the Muslim Brotherhood society seemed to be one among many small Islamic associations. These associations promoted personal piety and engaged in charitable activities. But the Muslim brotherhood was different. Al-Banna injected social content and economic messages into the Muslim brotherhood, making it into a channel for political discontent.  Al-Banna's big chance came during the Arab Revolt in Palestine, and the rise of the Axis powers. For Al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jewish presence in Palestine was another Westernizing colonialist influence that had to be stopped simply because it was Western.

In 1936, the Muslim Brotherhood had about 800 members around Cairo. By 1938,  it boasted nearly 200,000 members, with fifty branches in Egypt alone, as well as numerous branches in Jordan and Palestine. The organization established mosques, schools, sport clubs, factories and a welfare service network. On the eve of World War II there were more than a half million active members registered in more than two thousand branches across the Arab world.

As noted, the purpose of the group was inherently subversive. Alongside the open layer of legitimate activities, the Brotherhood developed a network of underground cells (usar, singular usrah), They stole weapons, trained fighters, formed secret assassination squads, founded sleeper cells of supporters in the ranks of the army and police, and waited for the order to go public with terrorism, assassinations, and suicide missions.

Al Banna claimed to be a Salafi, but a Salafi group has published a detailed critique of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Banna: Historical Development of the Methodologies of the Ikhwan al Muslimeen and their effect on contemporary Salaafi Dawah. They maintain that Muhammad Abduh, Hassan al-Banna and Muhammad Rashid Rida created an activist movement that was falsely presented as Salafiyyah, but that al-Banna's pretensions were purely a matter of political expediency.

Al-Banna and Nazism

The growth of the Muslim Brotherhood was accompanied or caused in part by the fact that Al-Banna associated it with the German Nazi party and the Third Reich. From the ideological point of view, the Jew hatred, authoritarianism, addiction to violence and desire to defeat the British of both the Muslim Brothers and the Nazis were quite enough to make the two movements find common cause.

The Brotherhood’s political and military alliance with Nazi Germany blossomed into formal state visits, de facto ambassadors, and overt and covert joint ventures. The Muslim Brotherhood transformed Nazi anti-Semitism into a Muslim version, providing Arab translations of Mein Kampf (translated into Arabic as “My Jihad”) and other Nazi anti-Semitic works, including Der Sturmer hate-cartoons, adapted to portray the Jew as the demonic enemy of Allah rather than the German Volk.

When World War II broke out, al-Banna worked to firm up his alliances with Hitler and Mussolini. He sent them letters and emissaries, and urged them to assist him in his struggle against the British and the westernized regime of Egypt's King Farouk. The Intelligence Service of the Muslim Brotherhood vigorously collected information on the heads of the regime in Cairo and on the movements of the British army, offering this and more to the Germans in return for closer relations.

Al-Banna in Politics

Hassan al-Banna attempted to run for parliament in 1942, but was dissuaded from doing so. Side by side with the clandestine network, al-Banna built a grass roots propaganda apparatus and a highly structured mass movement.  Like the Soviet Communist Party, the Muslim Brothers targeted specific groups in society. They had separate sections in charge of furthering the society's values among peasants, workers, and professionals. Similar to the Soviet Comintern and Agitprop and the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, Al-Banna also created units entrusted with specified functions such as propaganda, liaison with the Islamic world, and press and translation.

The Muslim Brotherhood organization became a model for later Islamist movements. In addition to Comintern style "sections," Al-Banna relied heavily on pre-existing social networks, in particular those built around mosques, Islamic welfare associations, and neighborhood groups. Directly attached to the brotherhood, and feeding its expansion, were numerous businesses, clinics, and schools. This open layer of support was directly affiliated with the network of underground cells and helped to finance it. It formed both a recruiting ground and a mechanism for funneling money from charity into subversive activities.


The denouement of Al-Banna

The underground cells of the Muslim Brotherhood began to carry out major acts of violence in the 1940s. The relaxation of military rule following the war made it easier to carry out these attacks. In a single  week in 1946, four attacks, in which guns and explosives were used, were directed at British occupation forces, wounding 128 people. A group of Brotherhood figures were put on trial and found guilty by judge Ahmed El-Khazindar. Eight months later, the judge was assassinated by two Brotherhood members.

In 1947 and 1948 several Jewish-owned businesses in Cairo were bombed by the Brotherhood, which also sent volunteers to fight in the first Arab-Israel war. The volunteers were incorporated in the Egyptian attack plans. However, the Egyptian government also announced that a large cache of weapons had been discovered at the home of a Brotherhood member in Ismailia.

When it became evident that the war against Israel was an ignominious failure, agitation against the government and dissatisfaction increased, and the Muslim Brotherhood was prominent in leading it. On December 18, 1948, Prime Minister Mahmoud El-Noqrashi Pasha issued a military decree dissolving the group. Ostensibly, it had secretly plotted to overthrow the monarchy. Twenty days later, a young Brotherhood member assasinated Noqrashi Pasha inside the Interior Ministry building.

Al-Banna was quick to try to dissociate himself from the assassination, which was in fact, in keeping with the teachings of the brotherhood and Al-Banna. He declared that those who had carried out the assassination were "neither brothers nor Muslims". The government was not convinced.  Al-Banna was killed at the age of 43, apparently by government agents on February 12, 1949.

Ami Isseroff

December 17, 2008

References and Reading List

Bari, Zohurul , Re-Emergence of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Lancers Books, New Delhi, 1995.
Chasdi, Richard J. Tapestry of Terror: A Portrait of Middle East Terrorism, 1994-1999, Lexington Books, Lanham Maryland, 2002.
Choueiri, Youssef M., Islamic Fundamentalism, revised edition, Pinter (Cassell), London, 1997.
Davidson, Lawrence , Islamic Fundamentalism: An Introduction, revised and updated edition, Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut, 2003.
Esposito, John L., Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.
Hussain, Asaf, Political Terrorism and the State in the Middle East, Mansell Publishing Limited, London and New York, 1988.
Kepel, Gilles,  Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh, translated from the French by Jon Rothschild, University of California Press, London and Berkeley, 1985.
Stanley, Trevor, The Quest for Caliphate: Islamist Innovation from Qutb to al-Qaeda, Honours Thesis, La Trobe University, Bundoora (Melbourne), 2003.


Hassan Al-Banna

Hasan Al-Banna 

Hasan al-Banna and the Ways and Means of Da'wah  

Politics in God's Name (Al Ahram Weekly, 247, 16-22 November, 1995)

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Hasan El Banna, Hasan Al Banna, Hassan El Banna.

Further Information: Muslim Brotherhood Qutb, Sayyid  History of Islam and the Arabs  Islamism Jihad Maududi, Abul ala  Al-Afghani, Jamal_al-Din Muhammad Abduh Muhammad Rashid Rida

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

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Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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Hassan al-Banna