He co-founded the Muslim Youth Association in 1927, restored the newspaper Al-Manar created by Rashid Rida and Muhammad Abduh, as well as the weekly al-Shehab, a magazine founded by Imam Abdul Hamid Ben Badis [more info here], and then launched the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1928.
In the 1932, al-Banna moved to Cairo. At the time, Egypt was still under British colonial rule, and it was modernizing quickly, going through wrenching economic and social changes: Cairo was industrializing, the peasants were moving to cities, traditions were breaking up, and cultural habits were in flux. Banna was appalled by this combination of colonialist oppression and rapid cultural change. He began to organize and do some writing of his own, attacking the British but also especially the “immorality” that had arisen in Cairo, the capital. Al-Banna emphasized the universality of islam (شمولية الإسلام) and the importance of fighting all manifestations of moral decay and of alienation in society (مظاهر الانحلال الخلقي، وجميع مظاهر الاغتراب في المجتمع). The way of islam should be the way of life for all (ضرورة تطبيقه كمنهج حياة،). Al-Banna’s answer was islam, and the leader of the Brotherhood required complete submission to islam (الولاء الكامل للإسلام).
It is the nature of islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.
Al-Banna talked of islam less as a religion than as a political project. What made al-Banna uniquely successful was that he was an islamic populist and political activist. Grassroots-oriented, members of the Muslim Brotherhood did not aspire to become intellectuals like the old community of muslim scholars; they spoke in simple sentences, and they usually adopted Western dress and modern rhetoric. There is no division between state and islam, Al-Banna said. In one tract, he wrote: “If someone should say to you ‘This is politics, not religion!’ say: ‘This is islam and we do not recognize such a division.” In another he said, “Oh Brother, tell me: if Islam is something other than politics, culture, economy, law, and society, then what is it? Is it only acts of prostration, devoid of a pulsating heart?”
Al-Banna’s method to win members was to identify a practical problem in a community and then solve it. The Brotherhood would help build a new clinic or school or mosque or develop a local industry. This would convince folks that al-Banna’s movement was solution-oriented and its members sincere. New members were recruited directly in mosques, but also in coffee shops and the market.
Al-Banna casted the islamic (المشروع الإسلامي) project of the Muslim Brotherhood as twofold:
a) to resist Western colonialism (الاستعمار) in its attempt to conquer the peoples of muslim faith (الشعوب المسلمة), and
b) to implement Islamic law (Sharia, الشريعة) in the affairs of life (شؤون الحياة).
Said Ramadan first saw Banna speak at an outdoor revival-style meeting in 1940. After each such gathering, Banna would ask people to come up on the stage — almost like a pledge to the movement. After about five meetings, the fourteen-year-old Ramadan, not much over five feet tall but powerfully built from wrestling, finally decided to go forward.
“What took you so long?” Banna said. The sheikh had known all along that his future protege was in the crowd. He had just been waiting for him to take the first step.
It was a story that Ramadan liked to tell his friends and acolytes. Banna, he felt, was often misunderstood as purely a political figure. The man had a deeply spiritual, mystic side as well and, as Ramadan tells it, he slept in a graveyard once a month to remind him of his ultimate fate.
By the advent of World War II the Muslim Brotherhood had grown enormously, attracting huge numbers of students, civil servants, urban labourers, and others elements of the egyptian landscape. It then spread rapidly throughout Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and North Africa.
“We want to raise the banner of Islam in Andalusia and Seville, the Balkans, and the coasts of Italy and the Mediterranean islands, they are all Islamic colonies to be returned to the bosom of Islam”(نحن نريدرفع راية الإسلام في الأندلس وأشبيلية والبلقان، وسواحل إيطاليا، وجزر البحر المتوسط، فكلها مستعمرات إسلامية يجب إعادتها إلى حضن الإسلام), — Al-Banna
Members of the Brotherhood built up Western-style organizations such as political parties, youth groups, women’s groups, and paramilitary wings. The Muslim Brotherhood became an alternative, non-state organization able to provide what the government could not, and this allowed the Brotherhood to appeal to the muslim world’s rising middle class. They vocalized the anger of the poor but drew their leadership from the educated classes.
Gamal al-Banna, the younger brother of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder
The Muslim Brotherhood was established as a secret society.
Mahmoud Sabbagh (محمود الصباغ), an active member of the organization, wrote about the pledge of allegiance the members must make : “The brother will then be reminded that as long as he is a believer, he will be determined for jihad for allah, to work in the ranks of the Mujahideen. We take a pledge to jihad in the way of allah until islam is victorious or we perish without victory but with a commitment to secrecy and obedience.”
See Leadership and Allegiance in the Society of the Muslim Brothers by Lella Landau-Tasseron for more details on the secret organization
When he was president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, himself an ex-member of the Muslim Brotherhood, denounced the organization, and pointed to this practice of the pledge of allegiance as its most dangerous dimension:
As the Brotherhood grew, it focused against two causes. One was anti-colonialism, another was anti-semitism. The Muslim Brotherhood was at the forefront of a rising anti-Semitism in Egypt. In 1937 and 1938 the Brotherhood attacked shops owned by Jews as well as other targets in Cairo. Even if Banna could not accept the Nazi idea that the Germans were a master race, Nazi agents still supported him, since anti-Semitism formed a key part of his political activity. This activity crystallized in the Brotherhood’s close association with Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
The Brotherhood developped a paramilitary arm responsible for assassinations and terrorist attacks, secret formations of Fedayeen, prepared for jihad (جهده لإنشاء تشكيلات سريّة من الفدائيين، وإعدادها للجهاد). By the 1930s, the Brotherhood received significant funds from a German journalist affiliated with the Nazi legation in Cairo to establish the Brotherhood’s para-military “Special Apparatus.”
In the late 1940s, Al-Banna led brigades of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1948 Palestine War to fight against the birth of the Israeli State under the slogan “to die for allah is our loftiest aspiration.” Several units of volunteers in Palestine belonged to the Brotherhood.
Banna with Amin al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem (source)
In 1948, al-Banna called for kings (الملوك) and rulers (الحكام) to implement Islamic law in the affairs of life, and preached for an islamic state (بالدولة الإسلامي) in the form of an islamic caliphate (الإسلامية في صورة الخلافة). “If the governments do not implement Sharia, then all Muslims are sinners (إذا لم تقم الحكومة الإسلامية فإن جميع المسلمين آثمون),” he said.
By the end of the 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood had become a threat to the central authorities of Egypt. The New York Times described it in 1948 as “the largest terrorist organization in Egypt,” and reported it was involved in “a series of bombings, political assassinations and attempted assassinations”.
New York Times:
The following list of outrages was attributed to the terrorist organization: the explosion outside the house of [former Prime Minister]Mustapha El Nahas, president of the WAFD, early in the year; the attempted bombing of the Sudan Agency; bombing of department stores of Ades, Ben Zion, Gettegno, the Delta Land Company and the Société Orientale de Publicité and the most recent tommy-gun attempt on the life of Nahas Pasha.
On May 14, 1948, following the invasion of Palestine by Egypt and the proclamation of a state of siege, Prime Minister of Egypt Nokrashy was appointed Military Governor of Egypt. On December 9, 1948, Nokrashy ordered “the dissolution of the Moslem Brotherhood,” confiscating and liquidating all the Brotherhood’s premises, including “several farm and manufacturing cooperatives and a group of medical dispensaries.”
The Egyptian Ministry of Interior, reports the NYT,”accused the Brotherhood of ‘aiming at seizing power and overthrowing established order in the country‘. He charged the Brotherhood with being responsible for a six months’ series of bombings, assassinations and riots” and “proclaimed a ‘state of emergency throughout Egypt‘ just before midnight as the police moved to surround the Brotherhood headquarters and post guards at all of its branches, estimated to number about 300.”
Brotherhood members were forbidden to continue any form of political activity.
Soon after, Prime Minister Nokrashy was assassinated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian government had al-Banna assassinated the following day.
Mayor Mahmoud Abdul Majeed was involved in the plot against Banna (source)
Encyclopedia Britannica “estimated that at its height in the late 1940s [the Muslim Brotherhood] may have had some 500,000 members.”
In the next part, we will see how Saïd Ramadan revived the Muslim Brotherhood from abroad.
Said Ramadan joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was 14. After graduating from Cairo University, he became al-Banna’s personal secretary. A year later, Ramadan was named editor of the Muslim Brotherhood weekly, Al Shihab, and he married al-Banna’s daughter.
Ramadan will become the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organizer, from Pakistan to Switzlerland, Palestine and the United-States.