Hasan al-Banna was born to a poor family in southern Egypt on October 14, 1906. As a child, he was attracted to the extremist and xenophobic aspects of Islam which were hostile to Western secularism and its system of rights, particularly women’s rights. By the age of 14, al-Banna had memorized the Koran in its entirety. While still in his teens, he and friends — they referred to each other as “brethren” — met frequently to discuss Middle Eastern affairs, argue about the ills of Arab society, and lament the declining influence of Islam. Their angst was in large part a reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the end of the Muslim Caliphate, the British occupation of Egypt, and the resulting exposure of Arab society to Western values.
For al-Banna, as for many other Muslims worldwide, the end of the Caliphate—although brought about by secular Muslim Turks—was a sacrilege against Islam for which they blamed the non-Muslim West. He saw the Caliphate’s demise as part of a larger “Western invasion which was armed and equipped with all [the] destructive influences of money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, power and means of propaganda.” “[A] wave of dissolution which undermined all firm beliefs was engulfing Egypt in the name of intellectual emancipation,” al-Banna wrote. “This trend attacked the morals, deeds and virtues under the pretext of personal freedom. Nothing could stand against this powerful and tyrannical stream of disbelief and permissiveness that was sweeping our country.”
To strike back against these evils, al-Banna in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, which began as a kind of youth club whose members preached, to anyone who would listen, about the need for moral reform in the Arab world.
In a 1928 article, al-Banna decried the complacency of the Egyptian elite: “What catastrophe has befallen the souls of the reformers and the spirit of the leaders?… What calamity has made them prefer this life to the thereafter [sic]? What has made them … consider the way of struggle [sabil al-jihad] too rough and difficult?” When the Brotherhood was criticized for being a political group in the guise of a religious one, al-Banna met the challenge head-on: “We summon you to Islam, the teachings of Islam, the laws of Islam and the guidance of Islam, and if this smacks of ‘politics’ in your eyes, then it is our policy. And if the one summoning you to these principles is a ‘politician,’ then we are the most respectable of men, God be praised, in politics … Islam does have a policy embracing the happiness of this world…. We believe that Islam is an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life, adjudicating on every one of its concerns and prescribing for it a solid and rigorous order.”
Emphasizing the importance of spreading the Muslim faith aggressively and by force, al-Banna told his followers: “Islam is faith and worship, a country and a citizenship, a religion and a state. It is spirituality and hard work. It is a Qur’an and a sword.” “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,” he said on another occasion.
“We want the Islamic flag to be hoisted once again on high,” al-Banna declared, “fluttering in the wind, in all those lands that have had the good fortune to harbor Islam for a certain period of time and where the muzzein’s call sounded in the takbirs and the tahlis. Then fate decreed that the light of Islam be extinguished in these lands that returned to unbelief. Thus Andalusia, Sicily, the Balkans, the Italian coast, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean, are all of them Muslim Mediterranean colonies and they must return to the Islamic fold. The Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea must once again become Muslim seas, as they once were.”
Al-Banna’s antipathy towards Western modernity soon moved him to shape the Brotherhood into an organization that sought to check the secularist tendencies in Muslim society by demanding a return to ancient and traditional Islamic values. He recruited followers from a vast cross-section of Egyptian society by addressing issues such as colonialism, public health, educational policy, natural resources management, social inequalities, Arab nationalism, the weakness of the Islamic world, and the growing conflict in Palestine. Among the perspectives he drew on to address these issues were the anti-capitalist doctrines of European Marxism and especially fascism.
As the Brotherhood expanded during the 1930s and extended its activities well beyond its original religious revivalism, al-Banna began dreaming of the restoration of the Caliphate. And it was this dream, which he believed could only become a reality by means of the sword, that won the hearts and minds of a growing legion of followers. In a host of inflammatory speeches, Al-Banna described the horrors of hell expected for heretics, and consequently, the need for Muslims to return to their purest religious roots, re-establish the Caliphate, and resume the great and final holy war, or jihad, against the non-Muslim world. He spelled out his ideas in a major document titled “The Way of Jihad.” Throughout his public life, al-Banna made it explicitly clear that jihad, by definition, was to be a brutally violent, murderous form of warfare.
In 1934, al-Banna wrote that “it is a duty incumbent on every Muslim to struggle towards the aim of making every people Muslim and the whole world Islamic, so that the banner of Islam can flutter over the earth and the call of the Muezzin can resound in all the corners of the world: God is greatest [Allahu akbar]! This is not parochialism, nor is it racial arrogance or usurpation of land.” In the same article, al-Banna insisted that “every piece of land where the banner of Islam has been hoisted is the fatherland of the Muslims”—hence the impossibility of accommodation with Israel.
The first big step on the path to the international jihad that al-Banna envisioned came in the form of trans-national terrorism during “The Great Arab Revolt” of 1936-39, when one of the most famous of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders, Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, incited his followers to a three-year war against the Jews in Palestine and against the British who administered the Palestine Mandate.
It was at this point that the charismatic al-Banna attracted massive numbers of followers to his movement. In 1936 the Brotherhood had only about 800 members, but by 1938, just two years into the “Revolt,” its membership had grown to almost 200,000, with fifty branches in Egypt alone. The organization established mosques, schools, sport clubs, factories and a welfare service network. By the end of the 1930s there were more than a half million active members registered, in more than 2,000 branches across the Arab world.
Also under al-Banna’s stewardship, the Brotherhood developed a network of underground cells, stole weapons, trained fighters, formed secret assassination squads, founded sleeper cells of subversive supporters in the ranks of the army and police, and waited for the order to go public with terrorism, assassinations, and suicide missions.
In the late 1930s as well, the Brotherhood found a soulmate in Nazi Germany. And while the Reich offered great power connections to the movement, the relationship brokered by the Brotherhood was more than a marriage of convenience. Long before the war, al-Banna had developed an Islamic religious ideology that foreshadowed Hitler’s Nazism. Both movements sought world conquest and domination. Both were triumphalist and supremacist: in Nazism the Aryan must rule, while in al-Banna’s Islam, the Muslim religion must hold dominion. Both advocated subordination of the individual to a folkish central power. Both were explicitly anti-nationalist in the sense that they believed in the liquidation of the nation-state in favor of a trans-national unifying community: in Islam the umma (community of all believers), and in Nazism the herrenvolk (master race). Both worshiped the unifying totalitarian figure of the Caliph or Führer. And both rabidly hated the Jews and sought their destruction.
As the Brotherhood’s political and military alliance with Nazi Germany developed, these parallels facilitated practical interactions that created a full-blown alliance, with all the pomp and panoply of formal state visits, de facto ambassadors, and overt as well as sub rosa joint ventures. Al-Banna’s followers easily transplanted into the Arab world a newly Nazified form of traditional Muslim Jew-hatred, with Arab translations of Mein Kampf (translated into Arabic as My Jihad) and other Nazi anti-Semitic works, including Der Sturmer hate-cartoons, adapted to portray the Jew as the demonic enemy of Allah.
When World War II broke out, al-Banna worked to firm up a formal alliance with Hitler and Mussolini. He sent them letters and emissaries, and urged them to assist him in his struggle against the British and the westernized regime of Egypt’s King Farouk. The Intelligence Service of the Muslim Brotherhood vigorously collected information on the heads of the regime in Cairo and on the movements of the British army, offering this and more to the Germans in return for closer relations.
When the question of Palestine came before the United Nations, al-Banna and al-Husseini jointly urged the Arab world to unite in opposition to the creation of Israel. The two men saw in the UN resolution for the partition of Palestine an example of the “Jewish world conspiracy,” even though the plan provided for an Arab state in Palestine alongside the Jewish one. But in al-Banna’s estimation, the creation of a state for the Arabs of Palestine was less vital than the eradication of Zionism and the annihilation of the region’s Jews. In his book Fee Qaafilatil-Ikhwaan al-Muslimeen, al-Banna characterized Zionists and Jews as “the enemies of Allah.” With regard to the Jewish state in particular, he said: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Notably, this maxim was later incorporated by the terrorist group Hamas in its founding charter.
Troubled by the Brotherhood’s rising influence and popularity, as well as by rumors that that the organization was plotting a coup against the Egyptian government, Prime Minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha disbanded the group in December 1948—seizing its assets and incarcerating many of its members. Less than three weeks later, Pasha was assassinated by a member of the Brotherhood.
Then on February 12, 1949, al-Banna was shot dead by an assassin—most likely an Egyptian government agent—in a crowded Cairo market.
Al-Banna was the grandfather of Tariq Ramadan.
Further Reading: “The Nazi Roots of Palestinian Nationalism and Islamic Jihad” (by David Meir-Levi, 2007; “Obama’s Brotherhood Moment (by Robert Spencer, 2-2-2011); “Hasan al-Banna” (Encyclopedia.com).