Hassan al-Banna: founder, leader and martyr

ABCs of Muslim Brothers

Three typologies, three stages, three martyrs. In the second of three articles, Jack Conrad investigates a highly variegated history of the organisation in Egypt

Whatever its undoubted limitations, we shall adapt the church-sect typology of the US Christian theologian, Helmut Richard Niebuhr, and apply it to the Islamic movement.1

Accordingly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be classified as an Islam of the transformation of culture - a revivalism or conversionism which seeks to redeem humanity through returning it to an imaginary pristine ideal. Needless to say, all such attempts necessitate radically refashioning social realities in the here and now: by definition something which requires a well-tuned political antenna and ability to rapidly manoeuvre. Not a purist withdrawal from society and separatism (Islam against culture) nor accommodation and loyalty to the existing order (Islam of culture).

Not that these types should be considered fast and fixed. No, we are inevitably dealing with a continuum whereby various schools of thought, movements and groups undergo change and in the process become their opposite. Nonetheless, classifying MB as an Islam of the transformation of culture is helpful for our purposes here, not least because it brings out both its oppositional character and its grand historic ambitions.

Some simply place MB under the heading of ‘political Islam’ - contrasted with quietist or ethical Islam. Political Islam is sometimes dated from 1979 and the coming to power of Ruhollah Khomeini and the ayatollahs in Iran: this “turned political Islam from a dream into a reality”.2 Of course, MB has rather older antecedents. But leave aside that quibble. Political Islam is a highly problematic term and those who use it certainly need to acknowledge that there is nothing new about the fusion of Islam and politics (indeed in pre-modern times it is impossible to separate politics and religion). The prophet Mohammed certainly established and ruled over an Islamic state in Medina and Mecca and his immediate successors built an extensive Islamic empire. Obviously running a state involves, by definition, politics, which is why presenting political Islam as a recent phenomenon is so crass. Not that we should get hung up on terminology.


Suffice to say, from the start, in 1928, the Brotherhood not only looked to the certainties of the Koran and the Sunna. Faith in a semi-mythical 7th century ideal was fused with the politics of purity and the patient, solid, practical work needed to establish a mass base. Its charismatic founder, Hassan al-Banna, was keenly aware that the vast majority of Egyptians, like himself, loathed with a passion the domination of their country by British imperialism and that this was felt in both national and religious terms. Not surprisingly, therefore, he championed both “defence of the homeland” and the “struggle in the path of god”.3 Put another way, Muslims were urged to join the fight for an Egyptian-centred political-religious caliphate.

Banna’s Islamic renaissance would deliver Egypt from “decadence, corruption, weakness, poverty and humiliation”.4 He wanted Egypt to be genuinely independent, freed from economic dependence and, presumably with himself as caliph, put on a par with the leading countries of the day. Simultaneously a rebellion against imperialism and an impossible bid to become an imperialism.

It is clear that the ‘puritan’ Wahabite sect - the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia - served as something of a blueprint. Following its example, Banna taught that Islam is “creed and state, book and sword, and a way of life”. Banna urged political activism and insisted that Islam went beyond the four walls of the mosque: “There is no meaning to faith unless it be accompanied by works, and no profit in a doctrine which does not impel its possessor to bring it to fruition and to sacrifice himself for its sake.”5 He wanted dedicated cadre who were willing to do their all for the sake of the cause.

Banna combined religious conviction with charity work and organising institutions which supplemented, or paralleled, the state. Male adherents were given jihad training: acquiring religious, organisational and political knowledge (later military knowledge). Crucially, Banna actively sought out the “sources of power in the community”: eg, leading families, clerics, influential elders, the shaykhs of the Sufist orders, those running religious social clubs and societies and other such traditional “opinion makers”.6

Almost from the outset students and ex-students provided the vital mediation between the MB’s leadership and the wider population. Students lived in the vast shanty towns and often came from rural areas. Once professionally qualified they were directed to take up various appointments throughout the length and breadth of the country. Not only did these doctors, pharmacists, teachers, lawyers and civil servants bring practical assistance: they brought the political-religious message of the Brotherhood.

Having been one of many Islamic grouplets, MB saw its membership soar from a mere half a dozen in 1928 to 800 in 1936, by 1938 the boast was of 200,000. This, the 1928-38 period, being what Noha Mellor calls, using the jargon of Madison Avenue, MB’s “branding stage”.7

After that came the “bargaining stage”. In mosques, universities and coffee house meetings, in leaflets, pamphlets and papers, and above all on the street, holy criticisms were fired at the debauched king Farouk, his parasitic family and his British paymasters. At the same time, the Brotherhood called upon the very same Farouk and his government ministers to resist the British infidels, redistribute land, nationalise the country’s financial institutions, including the Egyptian-owned Misr bank, abolish usury and introduce a zakat-based system of social security. There were all sorts of clandestine meetings - even secret deals and compromises.

However - and this is fundamental - democracy, class struggle and proletarian socialism were emphatically rejected as un-Islamic. MB was therefore simultaneously a rebellion against the present and a rebellion against the future.

Nazi links

In his head, body and soul Banna imagined Allah had chosen him for greatness. His account of MB’s founding has six Suez Canal Company employees coming to him as humble supplicants:

We possess nothing but this blood … and these souls … and these coins …. We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it, or know the path to the service of the fatherland, the religion and the nation as you know it.8

Duly moved, Banna agreed to become the murshid al-amm (‘supreme guide’). MB was run according to the Führerprinzip (‘leader principle’).

The Nazi connotations are not - definitely not - me mischief making. Banna openly expressed admiration for Adolph Hitler and MB willingly distributed Mein Kampf and other Nazi propaganda. Of course, rightwing nationalists did much the same in India, Ireland and South Africa - the Third Reich being seen as a potential liberator from British chains. Banna wrote glowingly to Hitler on many occasions. He too hated Jews, he too wanted the overthrow of the British empire. During the initial stages of World War II MB was considered a valuable asset by Germany. Its military wing, al-nizam al-khass (‘special organisation’) was meant to rise up on cue. Rommel’s Afrika Korps would then cakewalk into Egypt. Exposure of secret contacts with Germany did MB little or no harm - such was the popular detestation of Britain.

By 1948 there were around half a million MB members and as many close sympathisers. Banna fashioned this human mass into a social battering ram - ultimately in the heavily disguised interests of those classes and strata which opposed British imperialism and feared secularism, democracy and socialism: dissident clerics, bazaar merchants, patriarchal peasant farmers and shopkeepers, etc.

Throughout its existence, MB has faced stiff competition from various liberal, nationalist, pan-Arabic, ‘official communist’, leftist and youth movement radicals. At times this competition has seen uneasy alliances; at other times bloody confrontations. Yet, when it comes to winning mass support, the Brotherhood has often proved more successful. Rivals are typically technocratic and promise to bring about change mimicking this or that European, American or Soviet bloc model, after they have the reins of state power in their hands. By contrast, MB has had the wherewithal to provide immediate benefits in the form of schools, clinics, hospitals, food hand-outs, pilgrimages to Mecca and even arranged marriages.9 It also speaks using familiar Egyptian terms and religious phrases.

Of course, with Anwar Sadat and especially Hosni Mubarak, MB dramatically expanded its own professional and managerial class: full-time functionaries, parliamentarians, political advisors, trade union officials, publishers, journalists, technicians, accountants, charity executives, business operatives, etc. There were even MB multi-millionaires. Nevertheless, Brotherhood leaders proved highly effective in giving the impression of putting aside their own particular economic interests. Instead the sufferings, fears, dreams and longings of the masses were championed and given an Islamic coloration.

In terms of religious doctrine nothing could be easier. After all, oppression, greed and exploitation are forthrightly condemned in the Koran. Rich Muslims are told that they have binding obligations towards the downtrodden, the poor and the unfortunate.


Strange though it may seem nowadays, MB was willingly used by the British authorities against the Zionist insurrectionary movement in mandate Palestine. Members of the Brotherhood were given military training by the British army. There had, note, been a major falling out between the colonial sponsor and its colonial agent. The 1936-39 Arab revolt ‘persuaded’ the Foreign Office to clamp down on mass Jewish migration into Palestine. Even before the end of World War II Irgun had taken up armed struggle (hence Stalin’s brief moment of support, including supplying arms, albeit via Czechoslovakia, to the Zionist insurgents).

With the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, king Farouk’s government was accused of criminal passivity in face of the new Crusader state: MB mobilised some 10,000 volunteers to fight alongside the beleaguered Palestinians. While that ended in a fiasco, Palestine continues to be a cause dear to the heart of the Brotherhood. Indeed, because of the treacherous role of Farouk and his ministers, MB’s special organisation launched a wave of terrorist attacks in Egypt, which, naturally enough, led to a swift ban. In revenge, a Brotherhood assassin gunned down prime minister Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi. Tit for tat, Banna himself was killed by government agents on February 12 1949 and was instantly elevated into the top rank of Brotherhood martyrs.

MB supported the officers’ revolution in 1952 - government posts were accepted. Within a matter of weeks, however, relations soured. After general Mohammed Naguib was elbowed aside, Gamal Abdel Nasser was widely credited as being the moving spirit behind the declaration of Egypt as a republic and the promise to nationalise the Suez canal. However, as a pan-Arab socialist, Nasser refused to generalise sharia courts: indeed in 1956 he summarily abolished them. His mantra was modernisation: ie, nationalisation, industrialisation, secular education, land redistribution, the advancement of women and a strong military. A hugely popular package, which implicitly threatened classes and strata reliant on neo-colonial, pre-capitalist and religious forms of exploitation.

Unable to navigate these forward-moving currents, MB rapidly began to lose coherence. Hope was on the march. Increasingly its doctrines appeared anachronistic. The popular tide ebbed away. Exposed, confused, fearing social extinction, MB’s core constituency opted for either cringing accommodation with Nasser or violent confrontation. Ruinous internal battles and debilitating splits followed. The national HQ in Cairo was physically fought over. Embracing the cult of death, various breakaway factions transformed terrorism into their raison d’être. MB members co-organised the botched attempt on Nasser’s life in 1954. Immediately thereafter the Brotherhood as a whole was subjected to intense repression. Four thousand members were arrested and many more hightailed it to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon. What had been a mass organisation all but disintegrated. Noha Mellor calls 1949-71 the “fragmentation stage”. MB would only recover under president Sadat, Nasser’s successor.


Because of Nasser’s mass round-up of Brotherhood activists, Sayyid Qutb (1900-66) found himself arrested and imprisoned. He is, note, still considered one of the “most influential and controversial Muslim and Arab thinkers”.10 With the luxury of time provided by prison, Qutb developed his ideas. First and foremost he studied, moulded and sought to apply the seminal ideas of Syed Abul A’la Maududi (who in 1941 established the revivalist party, Jammaat-e-Islami, in British India). But Qutb forged his own unique programme and strategy. Released in 1964, he was almost immediately rearrested … then tried and - presumably on Nasser’s direct orders - executed. Another MB leader martyred.

Qutb’s key work is Ma’alim fi al-Tariq or Signposts on the road11- first published in 1964. His basic thesis being that humanity faces a crisis of leadership: “All nationalistic and chauvinistic ideologies which have appeared in modern times, and all the movements and theories derived from them, have ... lost their vitality” - Nazism, fascism, Peronism, Nasserism, etc.12

Marxism, he declared, had failed too. Not a “single nation in the world is truly Marxist”, because “the whole of this theory conflicts with man’s nature and its needs”. Marxism only prospers in a “degenerate society or in a society which has become cowed as a result of some form of prolonged dictatorship”. As proof of his contention that Marxism had floundered, Qutb pointed to the increasingly dysfunctional Soviet economy and how the USSR was “suffering from shortages of food”.

What of the west? It is, he said, “now in decline”. Not because its culture has “become poor materially or because its economic and military power has become weak”. Rather Qutb believed that the west had become morally decadent: it is “deprived of those life-giving values which enabled it to be the leader of mankind”.13

He had visited the US on behalf of the Egyptian government over 1948-50. A lifelong bachelor, and, one presumes, sexually repressed, he recoiled from the supposed libidinal wantonness and promiscuity of America’s women. As an aside, Qutb claimed a link between what he saw as sexual riot and the unnatural chastity of monastic Christianity - one excess provoking the other. Qutb argued that Christianity had still to fully free itself from paganism.

Not that the Muslim world was let off the hook. Using a combination of hard facts and dehistoricised koranic quotes, Signposts castigated all existing Muslim countries. None were Islamic. “If Islam is again to play the role of the leader of mankind,” Qutb insisted, “it is necessary that the Muslim community be restored to its original form.” The first step had to be the washing away of the “debris of the man-made traditions” and “false laws and customs”, which are not “even remotely related to the Islamic teachings”. Qutb said Muslims were living in the midst of a new “jahiliyyah.”

By tradition the jahiliyyah was originally the period of ignorance corresponding to life in Arabia before the prophet. Qutb’s new jahiliyyah was effectively everything he disliked and therefore a “rebellion against god’s sovereignty on earth”.14 He and other MB leaders were equated with Mohammed and his close companions. They must form a “vanguard” amongst the youth and single-mindedly fight to destroy the jahiliyyah. Signposts has been described as the What is to be done? of Qutbism (showing an elementary lack of knowledge when it comes to Lenin and Russian Marxism).15 Either way, Qutb advocated a purist withdrawal, a separation from society, ie, what we have called an Islam against culture.

Qutb reckoned his programme might take many years - perhaps hundreds of years - to complete. His followers were urged to approach their mammoth task of winning global leadership through a series of strategic stages: hence the Signposts or Mileposts title of his book.

Once in power, in their first national outpost, they would not simply return to the conditions of the 7th century, but creatively adapt a purified Islam to fit in with the demands of modern technology - industrial production, air travel, telephones, etc. In other words, monopoly capitalism would be embraced.

Despite that, in the meantime, Muslim mutualism serves to hoodwink: part mythologised past, part protest against existing conditions, but always hostile to working class interests. Social aid is combined with MB moral-purity campaigns directed against alcohol, prostitution, homosexuality, women’s equality, religious minorities and militant trade unionism. Such campaigns have, of course, a material base in the patriarchal economy. Shopkeepers, peasants and artisans exploit not only themselves: they traditionally rely on the labour of family members - mainly wives, children and close relatives, who work endless hours for little or no pay. Moral-purity campaigns serve to keep them in their place - under the thumb of the head of the family. Their exploited position is sanctioned by the Koran. To defy the patriarch is to defy Allah.

Militant workers

What of militant workers? The Brotherhood acts to weaken and divide. In the words of the Communist manifesto, what the Brotherhood lambastes capitalism for is not “so much that it creates a proletariat”, but that it creates a “revolutionary proletariat”.16 Muslim trade unions are therefore established, pitted against secular trade unions and united with Muslim employers. Workers and employers are told that they have mutual rights and obligations - in return for “punctually” paid wages, workers are expected to work “fully and faithfully”.17 Strikes against Muslim employers are in effect outlawed as running counter to Islamic law: eg, the right to strike is recognised, but only as long as it “does not disturb work”.18 Working class unity is thereby broken in practice, while leaving religious and state structures intact. The Brotherhood has insisted from the beginning that Islam “does not tolerate divided loyalty, since its very nature is that of total unity”.19

Qutb’s ideas proved inspirational - and not only amongst fellow Sunnis. The Islamic movement in Iran - which climbed to power in 1979‑81 - drew many of its theological innovations from Qutb. Khomeini himself translated Qutb’s In the shade of the Koran (1952) into Farsi.

Khomeini, in essence a Bonaparte figure, successfully mobilised a broad section of the urban poor - first against the shah, then against the left. Those who had fled from an impoverished countryside and scratched a living in the sprawling shanty towns of Tehran flocked to his banner. The left was hopelessly outmanoeuvred, not least because of a basic failure to grasp the politics of Khomeinism: anti-Americanism was confused with anti-capitalism. With this grossly false notion clouding minds, most left groups willingly backed Khomeini. Disgracefully, in defence of the so-called ‘imam’s line’, that included some justifying the execution of fellow leftwingers, the crushing of the women’s movement and the banning of strikes and workers’ councils.

Yet the simple fact of the matter is that the Khomeiniites accepted capitalism. Indeed the top clergy quickly merged with finance capital to form a single social amalgam. As for the rest of Iranian society, it was restructured along the vertical lines of religion. Independent working class, minority nationalist and secular forces were driven underground and a suffocating, theocratic dictatorship imposed. The only tolerated institutions were Islamic.20 Hence today the Islam of Iran’s Islamic Republic is the Islam of culture.

Like the prophet and his close companions, Qutb said MB needed to know when to withdraw from, and when to engage with, existing society. The Islamic vanguard “should keep itself somewhat aloof” from the “all-encompassing jahiliyyah”; it should “also keep some ties with it”.21 His dual approach was modelled on Mohammed’s withdrawal from Mecca in 622 and then his engagement with the Medinan city-state.

Subsequently, in Egypt, one group of Qutb’s acolytes developed an ever more rarefied purism, even rejecting objective natural laws (militant irrationalism being closely related to nihilist self-destruction). Those around Shukri Mustafa designated the whole of Egyptian society as infidel. They alone were authentic Muslims. A refusal to pray in ‘infidel’ mosques followed (government-appointed imams were not recognised). Mustafa’s sect also refused to serve in the armed forces. In effect it formed a semi-autonomous counterculture. The Egyptian press dubbed the lot of them the Takfir wal Hijra (literally ‘excommunication of holy emigration’). Shukri was executed in 1977 after kidnapping an official cleric.

Another group, led by Abd al-Salam Faraj, lurched towards terrorism … as a strategy. Four members of Islamic Jihad were responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in September 1981. He became hugely unpopular when he signed the Camp David peace deal with Israel in 1979.

The jihadists were, however, completely quixotic in their expectations. Led by lieutenant Khaled Islambouli, they infiltrated a commemorative victory parade with the intention of wiping out the entire Egyptian cabinet. They thought the population would spontaneously rise up to back their organisation’s bid for power. The town of Asyut was briefly seized. But, apart from that essentially minor incident, there was a smooth transition from Anwar Sadat to Hosni Mubarak. A not dissimilar attempted putsch occurred in Syria - members of the Brotherhood seized Hama in 1982. Around 10,000 died, as the Ba’athists re-established control.

Not that the jihadi groups should be thought of as mere isolated fanatics. After Mubarak’s forced departure many of them helped form the al‑Nour party - an unstable combination of religious traditionalists, populists and hate-mongers. And, at least in terms of my initial expectations, they did shockingly well in the post-Mubarak elections: 27.8% of the vote. Other jihadi groups continued to target the Copts (the mainly poor, 10-20% Christian section of Egypt’s population). Churches were torched, congregations attacked, etc. On new year’s day 2011, for example, an Islamic suicide bomber killed 23 worshippers at the church of St Mark and Pope Peter in the Sidi Bishr district of Alexandria. Many other such horrors followed.


During the period of persecution under Nasser, a number of leading MB figures, such as Omar al‑Talmassani and Said Ramadan, took refuge in Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the self-interested help from the royal house - terrified by Nasser’s pan-Arabism - they became superrich. When Sadat turned his back on Nasserite socialism and the Soviet Union, and opted instead for US patronage, the so-called free market and rapprochement with the oil-rich kings, sultans and emirs, he found it expedient to gradually release MB activists from jail and allow exiles to return. Sadat counted on their support in snuffing out any remaining influence of his Nasserite and pro-Soviet opponents.

As a by-product, the returnees could only but transform MB. They might have been few in number, but they had the millions of dollars in bank accounts, real estate and share ownership needed to ensure social leverage. Eg, thanks to their wealth and Saudi patronage, MB could provide the non-state, alternative system of healthcare, social security and education we have already mentioned.

Despite the embourgeoisification, MB agitators continued to condemn Israel, call for sharia law, target isolated apostates and encourage volunteers to join the holy war to ‘liberate’ Muslim lands such as Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan. This, of course, is how Osama bin Laden and al Qa’eda were made.

The Muslim Brotherhood in the Arabian Peninsula recruited the son of one of the Saudi kingdom’s aristocratic families, some time in the late 1970s. Religiously devout, studious, a little shy, bin Laden rejected the dissolute life of the typical Saudi princeling - Black Label whisky, snorting the best Peruvian, wrecking an endless supply of expensive cars, clubbing in Europe, having sex with high-class call girls - in fact, indulging every ‘how to spend it’ whim and fancy.22

Instead, determined to change the world, aided and abetted by both the Saudi royals and the CIA, bin Laden joined the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in their fight against Kabul’s communist government and its Soviet backers. He proved to be a Frankenstein’s monster. He came back to Saudi Arabia a hero, but quickly fell out with both the house of Saud and the Americans. Banished from Saudi Arabia, bombings followed in Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania and most spectacularly in the USA on September 11 2001.

Yet, despite a $50 million bounty on his head, bin Laden spent years after the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq living in a high-walled compound located just less than a mile away from the elite Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad. He was finally killed on the orders of US president Barack Obama by US navy SEALs on May 2 2011 - his body being buried at sea within 24 hours to comply with religious custom, but avoid a martyr’s grave.

  1. HR Niebuhr Christ and culture 1951 - see en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/777605. Helmut Niebuhr was a Protestant thinker of the Yale, or neo-orthodox, school that distinguished itself from liberal theology. When it comes to Niebuhr’s classificatory methodology, the influence of Max Weber is all too clear.↩︎

  2. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4424118.stm.↩︎

  3. P Mitchell The Society of Muslim Brothers Oxford 1993, p4.↩︎

  4. SE Ibrahim Egypt, Islam and democracy Cairo 2002, p53.↩︎

  5. Hassan al-Banna The messages of al-Imam-u-shaheed.↩︎

  6. P Mitchell The Society of Muslim Brothers Oxford 1993, p7.↩︎

  7. See N Mellor Voice of the Muslim Brotherhood: Dacwa, discourse and political communication London 2017.↩︎

  8. P Mitchell The Society of Muslim Brothers Oxford 1993, p8.↩︎

  9. Obviously no longer the case after the Sisi coup and the general crackdown on faith-based charities - see ‘Egypt’s war on charity’ Foreign Policy January 29 2015.↩︎

  10. AA Musallam From secularism to jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the foundations of radical Islamism Westport CT 2005, pxii.↩︎

  11. Another translation would be Mileposts.↩︎

  12. www.pwhce.org./qutb.html.↩︎

  13. Ibid.↩︎

  14. Ibid.↩︎

  15. See G Kepel The prophet and the pharaoh London 1985, p43.↩︎

  16. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p508.↩︎

  17. Quoted in P Mitchell The Society of Muslim Brothers London 1969, p253.↩︎

  18. web.archive.org/web/20170228165510/http://www.tahrirdocuments.org/2011/04/the-muslim-brotherhood-one-hand-builds-one-hand-protects-the-revolution.↩︎

  19. Hassan al-Banna The messages of al-Imam-u-shaheed.↩︎

  20. See A Mehrdad Radical Islam: a preliminary study London, nd.↩︎

  21. www.pwhce.org/qutb.html.↩︎

  22. The best account of upper class decadence and profligacy in Saudi Arabia that I have come across is by the Palestinian-American writer, Said Aburish - see The rise, corruption and coming fall of the house of Saud London 1995.↩︎