In every era, intellectual trends and political factions naturally come into conflict with one another. The Arab world’s political landscape, rife with its conflicting ideas, visions, and interests, is no different. Examining the history and nature of these intellectual trends, factions, and ideas, even if only in passing, is an important step towards gaining a better understanding of the current situation in which the Arab World finds itself.
More emphasis should be given to analyzing the history of the various organizations affiliated with political Islam which managed to successfully co-opt the Arab Spring. During the 19th Century and most of the 20th Century, Egypt led the Arab world in a number of fields. Looking back at that period, which stretched up until the 1950s, we find that there were three major trends competing in the political, religious, and cultural arena.
First were the educated elite, who had fashioned new and complex perspectives on religious matters. Second was Al-Azhar, which maintained its traditionalist interpretation of religion. And third were the Muslim Brotherhood, which created a hybrid religious discourse, the details of which will be discussed later.
After lifelong pursuits in philosophy, a number of intellectuals and authors of the time took to writing on religious matters. They produced a great number of works that strove to better understand Islamic heritage. This included works on specific Islamic historical figures, such as Abbas al-Akkad’s The Genius series, books about the life of the Prophet and the early stages of Islamic history such as Taha Hussein’s The Prophet’s Life, Al-Shaikan, and The Great Upheaval, or works on Islamic history in general such as Ahmed Amin’s Fajr al-Islam, Duha al-Islam, Zuhr al-Islam, and Youm al-Islam series. Each sought a new perspective from which to view religious discourse and Islamic interpretations; however their works only achieved widespread popularity among society’s elite.
Al-Azhar failed to propagate its religious message mainly because it clung to what many historians have referred to as its traditionalist approach. From Hassan Al-Attar, Sheikh of Al-Azhar in the 1830s, to Muhammad Abdu, attempts to advance and reform Al-Azhar were largely disregarded. Moreover, Al-Azhar’s deference to the ruling political powers, especially during times of military rule, muffled its voice and mitigated its influence.
But the Muslim Brotherhood’s message enjoyed considerable popularity, which brings up the question: Why did the ideas of Hassan Al-Banna and the message of his organization enjoy such widespread acceptance while other more academic and refined ideas failed to get off the ground?
Or to be more precise; Why were the efforts of some intellectual giants to revise Islamic heritage and fashion a new religious discourse largely ignored, while the Muslim Brotherhood successfully disseminated its worldview?
Is it their powerful and easily explained ideology, their efficient organizational structure, or their pliable message that can be molded as needed?
It seems that the answer is a mixture of all of these aspects. While breadth of knowledge, academic integrity, and cohesive discourse are extremely important in determining a thinker’s position, they do not, however, guarantee that his message will resonate with the masses.
Hassan Al-Banna’s writings and Muslim Brotherhood theory in general were influenced by a number of sources. First we find Sufi influence, a topic which Banna and other prominent Muslim Brotherhood thinkers acknowledged. Salafist influence can be traced to several sources, most prominently Muhibb Al-Din Al-Khatib and Muhammad Rashid Rida. Hassan Al-Banna’s father Abdul Rahman Al-Sa’ati in fact is considered by many to have been a Salafist. He was a hadith scholar and his works are well known among Salafists, specifically Salafi hadith scholars.
Hassan Al-Banna was an excellent organization builder, but was by no means a crafter of ideologies. Aside from Sayyid Qutb, Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood adopted an ideology that concentrated on politicizing religion. In other words, the focus on harnessing new interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence concerning political issues and the role of clerics can be easily traced to a number of sources.
First, there is a clear connection between Omar Makram and his position regarding Hurshid Pasha and the religious justifications he provided for Muhammad Ali’s coup against him, followed by the writings of Rifa’a Al-Tahtawi and the controversial Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani whom Banna seemed to consider a role model, and lastly, the writings of Muhammad Abduh before he famously denounced all things political.
Hassan Al-Banna did not have the wisdom, influence, or charisma of Al-Afghani, but elements of the latter’s influence can be seen throughout Banna’s lifework. In addition to the use of religion to achieve political gains, Banna tried to emulate Afghani in a number of ways. For instance, while Afghani left the Masonic Lodge to form what was known as the ‘Free National Lodge,’ Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood. While Afghani and Abduh plotted to assassinate the Khedive Ismail Pasha with the French and Crown Prince Tawfiq, Banna established a clandestine organization for the specific aim of assassinations and bombings. In the same manner that Afghani plotted against the Khedive Ismail Pasha with the French and Crown Prince Tawfiq, Banna conspired with officials in Yemen against Imam Yahya in what came to be known as the 1948 revolt.
Moreover, Afghani was able to the mold his political positions to conform to and exploit the parties of whatever country in which he was residing; Banna did just that when he kept switching allegiances between the Palace, the ruling Wafd Party and the British. Lastly, both Afghani and Banna founded a number of newspapers.
These are just small examples that show the extent of the overlap between Afghani and Banna, something that the latter most likely sought out, while also being mindful not to overlook the differences between the historical periods and political environments in which they each lived.
Among the most important differences between the two men is that Afghani was an academic, a thinker, and always sought to inform and influence the elite.However, Banna was not. He only strove to manipulate and use the political elite, as he did with the king and his cronies, while groveling to win over the cultural elite, as he did with Taha Hussein and Ahmed Amin.
These are just some reflections that have not received much attention from the academic arena regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder.