Brotherhood’s journey from ideology to pragmatism

By Seraj Ahsan

What is happening in Egypt as well as the rest of the Middle East and North Africa requires a differentiated and nuanced understanding, instead of trying to see it exclusively in the light of the writings of the Brotherhood’s founding leaders.

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The Brotherhood has changed the politics of the region over the last eight decades. More importantly, it has changed itself also over the same period. Morsi’s Brotherhood is not that of Hasan al-Banna or Sayyid Qutub in so many ways, yet it retains some of the core values of the original.

It is interesting to look at the Brotherhood’s background to see how far it has changed and what it augurs for Egyptian democracy and its relationship with Israel and its backers, the United States and the European Union.

The constraints within which the Morsi government would be working would not allow it to have a clear breakthrough on Egypt’s relations with the US, European Union and Isreal. The Brotherhood has matured enough over the decades to know that it will need compromises within Egypt and outside to rule. That knowledge will keep it from too many adventures.

Since it’s founding in 1928 it has come a long way, from an ideology-driven romanticism to a pragmatic view of politics which, as we all know, is the art of the possible.

It is worthwhile to note that major Islamic movements emerged after the abolition of Ottoman caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by an Egyptian school teacher, Hasan al-Banna, who was born in 1906 in the town al-Mahmodiyya. He received his early education at a local school. In 1920, he joined a teacher training school at Damhor and later went on to Dar-al- Uloom Cairo for further study. Here he came under the influence of Pan-Islamist Salafi thought of Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Mohammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida. During his stay in Cairo, he was a frequent visitor of Rida. In the beginning al- Banna was seen as heir to al-Afghani and Abduh. However, he happened to be quite different from them in important ways. Afghani and Abduh emphasised the rational interpretation of Islam and accepted the significance of Western rationalism, Abduh accepted the fact of British rule in Egypt just like Sir Syed in India. In contrast to them, al-Banna was fiercely anti-imperialist and perceived Western culture and civilisation as threat to Islam. Like Maulana Maududi in the Indian/subcontinent, his interpretation of Islam was not only opposed to the liberal articulation of Sir Syed but also to that of the Islamic modernist Iqbal. Maududi’s writing facilitated the creation of Jamaat-e-Islami in Indian subcontinent like Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s basic aim was to reform the Muslim state and society. The movement believes that Islam has declined because of the spread of blind imitation of earlier generation along with excesses of Sufism. In addition, they argued, Western missionary activities and imperial domination had brought in alien values and immorality. To remedy the situation, it was advocated that Muslims should return to the original teachings of the “Qur’an and Sunnah” and try to apply them to every aspect of their lives.

The Muslim Brotherhood participated in the Arab uprising in Palestine between 1936 and 1939, and Arab-Israel war of 1948. Al -Banna tried to disseminate Brotherhood ideas in other parts of the Arab world through two periodicals, Risalatul Ikhwan and al- Nazir.

After end of the monarchy in 1952, the Muslim Brotherhood offered guidelines for the policies of the new nationalist revolutionary government of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was rejected by Nasser and a majority of his colleagues, as unwelcome interference in matters of state by non-state actors. The Brotherhood, which was supportive of Nasser and his fellow military officers in their coup and abolition of monarchy, soon came in conflict with the revolutionary government. In 1954, after an attempt on Nasser’s life stage managed by government to curb the Brotherhood’s criticism of the revolutionary regime, the government launched a campaign of repression. Brothers leaders, including “general guide” Hasan Hudaybi, Abdul Qader Awdeh, Hasan al-Ashmawi, Salih-al Ashmawi, Said Ramadan and Mustafa al-Alim were imprisoned, exiled or driven underground.

After the assassination of al-Banna in 1949, Sayyid Qutub became one of the prominent ideologues of the Brotherhood. He is generally regarded, along with Maulana Maududi, as the most influential and widely-read Islamist intellectual of the twentieth century. Sayyid Qutub in his writing on the nature, function and mission of Islam, appears to have passed through several stages in which he became progressively radicalised. His early, relatively liberal, views are set out in al-Adala al-Ijtima iyya fil Islam (Social Justice in Islam), first published in 1951. His more mature and rigid views are set out most clearly in two volumes: Fi zilal al Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur’an), a commentary on the Qur’an. Qutub, like Maududi also advocated active jihad against the tyrannical state and society (taghoot), which they regarded as unIslamic.

Around this time, yet another significant ideological development was taking shape among the Muslim Brothers, which aimed at a narrow and rigid articulation of the political framework in Islam, the intention being to enhance its appeal on a purely religious basis. The new formulation was significantly influenced by the political ideology of Jamaat-e-Islami as presented in the writings of Maududi. Qutub wrote a comprehensive account of what he called modern Jahiliya ( pre- Islamic age) in Ma’alim fil-tariq in which he claimed that today the entire world lives in Jahiliya, because of the root from which its formative elements of life and its system emanated.

He suggested that this Jahiliya established itself on the basis of aggression on the authority of Allah on earth, His Sovereignty. To him the new Jahiliya entrusted sovereignty to the human being, not in the primitive simple form which the first Jahiliya had known, but in the form of claim of the right to lay down values, laws and rules. He advocated the creation of a new elite among Muslim youth that would fight the new Jahiliya as the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions had fought the old one, this elite must choose when to withdraw from the Jahiliya and when to seek contact with it.

Qutub was imprisoned in 1960 due to his political approach and activism. Later he was released on health grounds. Again he was arrested with Abdel Fattah Ismail and executed in 1966 for his alleged role in a bid to overthrow the Nasser government. Many Brothers arrested on charges of conspiracy to topple Nasser’s government died in the course of third degree methods of police interrogation.

A large number of female activists were also arrested, for doing organisational work in the absence of the imprisoned male members. Among them were Amal al Ashmawi, wife of Munir Dilla, Hudaybi’s daughters Khalida and Aliya and Qutub’s sisters Amina and Hamida.

During the presidency of Anwar Sadat (1970-81) and throughout the early years of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, the leaders of Brotherhood, including Hasan Ismail al-Hudaybi (1951-73), began to express their desire to achieve the movement’s goals gradually and legally. This change of strategy came in the wake of the assassination of Sadat by Brotherhood-members and the attempt on the life of his successor, Mubarak, by this group. The brutal reprisals by the state led to change in their stance. The parliamentary elections of 1984 and 1987 were significant events in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and the development of its political ideology. The group’s participation in the electoral process demonstrated that it saw engagement in democratic elections as consistent with their Islamic ideology. That was not the case earlier. The Brotherhood’s participation in the elections served the purpose of signaling a commitment to work within Egypt’s existing political system to pursue its goals. The 1987 elections also marked the first time in the Brotherhood’s history that it campaigned on the slogan “Islam is the solution”. They also campaigned in 1987 on a platform of implementing Islamic law (Sharia), if elected.

The use of the slogan “Islam is the solution” and a continued commitment to establishing a legal system based on Sharia demonstrates that although the Brotherhood was willing to engage in electoral politics, it did not abandon its core ideology.

Now Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt has given it an opportunity to show its democratic credentials by asserting three things sincerely.

First is the movement’s attitude toward minorities, especially non-Muslims and women. Equality under the law for minorities, for women and for every individual, regardless of his or her beliefs or ethnic origin, is a basic tenet of liberal-democratic politics. Second, the focus of attention in determining a movement’s relative moderation is its attitude toward political pluralism. That is, how much of the original Islamist perspective and legacy has been modified and to what extent has pluralism been fully embraced. Third, an attitudinal question especially relevant to Islamist movements is whether they believe that some religious authority should have veto on the democratic process.

The author is a scholar with a Ph.D. in Islamic revival movements from JNU, New Delhi.