Hassan al-Banna

January 13, 2007

Hassan Banna Hassan al Banna (October 14, 1906 – February 12, 1949, Arabic: حسن البنا) was an Egyptian social and political reformer best known as founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hassan al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood or Society of the Muslim Brothers, the largest and most influential Sunni revivalist organization in the 20th century. Created in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood became the first mass-based, overtly political movement to oppose the ascendancy of secular and Western ideas in the Middle East. The brotherhood saw in these ideas the root of the decay of Islamic societies in the modern world, and advocated a return to Islam as a solution to the ills that had befallen Muslim societies. Al-Banna’s leadership was critical to the spectacular growth of the brotherhood during the 1930s and 1940s. By the early 1950s, branches had been established in Syria, Sudan, and Jordan. Soon, the movement’s influence would be felt in places as far away as the Gulf and non-Arab countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Driving this expansion was the appeal of the organizational model embodied in the original, Egypt-based section of the brotherhood, and the success of al-Banna’s writings. Translated into several languages, these writings have since shaped generations of Sunni religious activists across the Islamic world.

Banna was born in 1906 in Mahmudiyya, Egypt (north-west of Cairo). His father, Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna, was a respected local imam (prayer leader) and mosque teacher, educated at Al-Azhar University, who wrote and collaborated on books on Muslim traditions, and also had a shop where he repaired watches and sold gramophones. Though Shaykh Ahmad al Banna and his wife owned some property, they were not wealthy and struggled to make ends meet, particularly after they moved to Cairo in 1924. Like many others, they found that Islamic learning and piety were no longer as highly valued in the capital, and that craftsmanship could not compete with large-scale industry.[1][2]

When Hassan al-Banna was twelve years old, he became involved in a Sufi order, and became a fully initiated member in 1922.[3][4]

When he was thirteen, Banna participated in demonstrations during the revolution of 1919 against British rule.[5][6]

In 1923, at the age of 16, Al-Banna moved to Cairo to enter the famous Dar al-‘Ulum college. Life in the capital offered him a greater range of activities than the village and the opportunity to meet prominent Islamic scholars (in large measure thanks to his father’s acquaintances), but he was deeply disturbed by effects of Westernisation he saw there, particularly the rise of secularism and the breakdown of traditional morals.[7][8] The four years that Al-Banna spent in Cairo exposed him to the political ferment of the Egyptian capital in the early 1920s, and enhanced his awareness of the extent to which secular and Western ways had penetrated the very fabric of society. It was then that Al-Banna became particularly preoccupied with what he saw as the young generation’s drift away from Islam. He believed that the battle for the hearts and minds of the youth would prove critical to the survival of a religion besieged by a Western onslaught. While studying in Cairo, he immersed himself in the writings of the founders of Islamic reformism (the Salafiyya movement), including the Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh, under whom his father had studied while at Al-Azhar. But it was ‘Abduh’s disciple, the Syrian Rashid Rida, who most influenced Al-Banna. Al-Banna was a dedicated reader of Al-Manar, the magazine that Rida published in Cairo from 1898 until his death in 1935. He shared Rida’s central concern with the decline of Islamic civilization relative to the West. He too believed that this trend could be reversed only by returning to an unadulterated form of Islam, free from all the accretions that had diluted the strength of its original message. Like Rida at the end of his life — but unlike ‘Abduh and other Islamic modernists — Al-Banna felt that the main danger to Islam’s survival in the modern age stemmed less from the conservatism of Al-Azhar and the ulama (which he nevertheless criticized) than from the ascendancy of Western secular ideas.

He was equally disappointed with what he saw as the failure of the Islamic scholars of al-Azhar University to voice their opposition to the rise of atheism and to the influence of Christian missionaries.[9]

In his last year at Dar al-‘Ulum, he wrote that he had decided to dedicate himself to becoming “a counsellor and a teacher” of adults and children, in order to teach them “the objectives of religion and the sources of their well-being and happiness in life”. He graduated in 1927 and was given a position as an Arabic language teacher in a state primary school in Isma’iliyya, a provincial town located in the Suez Canal Zone.[10]

It was to spread this message that Al-Banna launched the Society of the Muslim Brothers in March 1928. At first, the society was only one of the numerous small Islamic associations that existed at the time. Similar to those that Al-Banna himself had joined since he was 12, these associations aimed to promote personal piety and engaged in charitable activities. By the late 1930s, it had established branches in every Egyptian province. A decade later, it had 500,000 active members and as many sympathizers in Egypt alone, while its appeal was now felt in several other countries as well. The society’s growth was particularly pronounced after Al-Banna relocated its headquarters to Cairo in 1932. The single most important factor that made this dramatic expansion possible was the organizational and ideological leadership provided by Al-Banna.

In Isma’iliyya, in addition to his day classes, he carried out his intention of giving night classes to his pupils’ parents. He also preached in the mosque, and even in coffee-houses, which were then a novelty and were generally viewed as morally suspect. At first, some of his views on relatively minor points of Islamic practice led to strong disagreements with the local religious élite, and he adopted the policy of avoiding religious controversies.[11][12]

He was appalled by the many conspicuous signs of foreign military and economic domination in Isma’iliyya: the British military camps, the public utilities owned by foreign interests, and the luxurious residences of the foreign employees of the Suez Canal Company, next to the squalid dwellings of the Egyptian workers.[11]

Hassan al-Banna is known to have great impact in the modern Islamic thought. He managed to (re)introduce Islam as an all-inclusive system of life, providing a practical example through his society.

He endeavored to bring about the changes he hoped for through institution-building, relentless activism at the grassroots level, and a reliance on mass communication. He proceeded to build a complex mass movement that featured sophisticated governance structures; sections in charge of furthering the society’s values among peasants, workers, and professionals; units entrusted with key functions, including propagation of the message, liaison with the Islamic world, and press and translation; and specialized committees for finances and legal affairs.

In anchoring this organization into Egyptian society, Al-Banna skillfully relied on pre-existing social networks, in particular those built around mosques, Islamic welfare associations, and neighborhood groups. This weaving of traditional ties into a distinctively modern structure was at the root of his success. Directly attached to the brotherhood, and feeding its expansion, were numerous businesses, clinics, and schools. In addition, members were affiliated to the movement through a series of cells, revealingly called usar (families. singular: usrah). The material, social and psychological support thus provided were instrumental to the movement’s ability to generate enormous loyalty among its members and to attract new recruits. The services and organizational structure around which the society was built were intended to enable individuals to reintegrate into a distinctly Islamic setting, shaped by the society’s own principles.

Rooted in Islam, Al-Banna’s message tackled issues including colonialism, public health, educational policy, natural resources management, Marxism, social inequalities, Arab nationalism, the weakness of the Islamic world on the international scene, and the growing conflict in Palestine. By emphasizing concerns that appealed to a variety of constituencies, Al-Banna was able to recruit from among a cross-section of Egyptian society — though modern-educated civil servants, office employees, and professionals remained dominant among the organization’s activists and decisionmakers.

As the society expanded during the 1930s, it quickly changed from a movement for spiritual and moral reform into an organization directly active on the Egyptian political scene. Concurrent with that transformation, radical tendencies asserted themselves within the organization. A “secret apparatus” (al-jihaz al-sirri) was formed that engineered a series of assassinations of enemies of the brotherhood.

Between 1948 and 1949, shortly after the society sent volunteers to fight in the war in Palestine, the conflict between the monarchy and the society reached its climax. Concerned with the increasing assertiveness and popularity of the brotherhood, as well as with rumors that it was plotting a coup, Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha disbanded it in December 1948. The organization’s assets were impounded and scores of its members sent to jail. Less than three weeks later, the prime minister was assassinated by a member of the brotherhood. This in turn prompted the murder of Al-Banna, presumably by a government agent, in February 1949, when Al-Banna was still only 43 and at the height of his career.

He is the grandfather of Tariq Ramadan.

For further information about Hassan al-Banna, see the History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt article.

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