This is the very question many people are asking about the Muslim Brotherhood following the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011. While the world was enthralled by a peaceful youth movement to overthrow a corrupt regime, many feared then, and more fear now, that the aftermath will result in national leadership in the hands of Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some believe the Brotherhood will transform Egypt into a theocratic state as in Iran. Others believe the movement is largely moderate, compatible with a modern democratic state. Some Muslim Brothers speak of a return to a caliphate; others speak of human rights and religious freedom. Are some stuck in the past? Do others obscure their ultimate goals? Who are they, and what do they want?
Fortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a booklet answering this very question. It is subtitled: Readings from the Letters of Imam Hasan al-Bannā. Hasan al-Bannā founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and lived from 1906 until his assassination in 1949. Al-Bannā was eager to put forth his aims and understanding of Islam. He wrote:
For this reason I have wished to speak to you about the definition of Islam and its ideal picture in the souls of the Muslim Brothers, so that the foundations of which we call for, take pride in, and seek the expansion of, may be completely clear.
The booklet newly gathering his thoughts was published in April 2011, thus reflecting an effort, at least on the part of some Muslim Brothers, to make clear once again the principles of the group following the revolution. It was presented to the author of this text while attending ‘Tuesday Conversations’ at the ‘Amr ibn al-‘As Mosque in Old Cairo. A helpful young member of the organization selected it from a wide variety of books made available at the entrance to the mosque. ‘Tuesday Conversations’ was a weekly public lecture conducted by al-Bannā until it was forbidden by the government in 1948. General Guide Muhammad Badī‘ re-launched the session under the slogan, “Listen to Us, not about Us.” This is fitting with al-Bannā’s original desire to present a clear image of the Brotherhood.
The booklet is divided into two sections. The first is a general introduction to understanding the call of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the second is a more specific treatment of its definition, end, goals, means, etc. This text will provide summaries of each section which represent loose, translations of the content. It will also provide direct quotes in italics, especially in areas that appear more provocative and need further explanation. The text will follow the outline provided by the booklet.
One caveat to present the reader before beginning: The Muslim Brotherhood is a flexible and evolutionary organization which has consistently changed with the times. That the information which follows is drawn from its founder and re-presented is a fair indication this vision still drives the organization. Yet it must be emphasized the current leadership may have moved on from certain statements or understandings its founder possessed, which were forged in the period of European colonialism. This can only be assessed through monitoring their statements and direct questioning in interviews, which will hopefully be possible in the days to come.
The Muslim Brotherhood is more than a political organization, though it includes this function as witnessed in the creation of its Freedom and Justice Party. Politicians of all stripes are accused of changing their statements to suit their audience, and Brotherhood politicians should not be excused from this suspicion. Yet as Mina Majdī, political affairs coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union, a largely Coptic Christian human rights organization which rejects cooperation with the Brotherhood, says,
They interact according to what people want to hear, and maybe some of them are sincere in their kind words. But we judge them according to their books, by what is written.
This text is an effort to present one example of what is written and distributed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Who are We, and What do We Want?
Part One – A General Introduction to Understanding the Call of the Muslim Brotherhood
Many people misunderstand both Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some think of Islam as rules for worship and the provision of serenity in life. Others view it as a system of virtue and avoiding vice, while others think it is an inherited, backward tradition. As for the Brotherhood, some see it as a preaching organization for prosperity in this life and reminders of the next. Others view it as a Sufi organization promoting self-denial.
In times past Islam came under the powers of the infidel world, so that it and its empire grew weaker and lost its meaning.
The theoretical part of our call is to show people clearly the pure Islam; the practical part is to ask them to carry it out. To this we will strive, calling people to the task, expending everything for its sake, so that we live nobly either in life or in death.
The Qur’an is the measure by which we judge our call and our goals in life. It teaches that some people seek food or riches, or even to spread trouble and evil. But the Muslim’s goal is higher: It is to guide people to the good, giving them the light of Islam.
Therefore, the Qur’an has made Muslims to be the guardians for an incapable humanity, giving them the right of superintendence and sovereignty over the world. This is in service to our noble teachings and is our business, not that of the West; for the civilization of Islam, and not the civilization of materialism.
Muslims should expend themselves in sacrifice for this call, and not profit from it. As they do they create civilization, unlike Western imperialism, which promotes desires and cravings.
It is necessary we make this clear and specify it, and I think we have arrived to a place of clarity and agreed: Our duty is to have sovereignty over the world and to guide humanity to the good ways of Islam and its teachings, which alone can make a man happy.
We call people along the same path Muhammad did, so that they maintain these three strong feelings:
Part Two – Getting to Know the Call of the Muslim Brotherhood
The essence of the Muslim Brotherhood is to explain carefully the call of the Qur’an in its entirety, in accordance with the modern age.4 We seek to win hearts and souls to the principles of the Qur’an, so that we may renew our heritage and bring all Islamic viewpoints closer together.
We seek to develop and liberate the national wealth, raising standards of living, achieving social justice and security for all citizens, combating ignorance, sickness, poverty, and vice.
We wish to liberate Egypt and all Arab and Islamic lands from foreign control. We will support Arab unity and the Islamic league.
We will establish a state which implements practically the regulations and teachings of Islam, protecting them domestically and publishing them abroad.
We will support global cooperation in protection of rights and freedoms, to promote peace in the balance between faith and the material world.
Muslim Brothers are:
The Muslim Brotherhood is:
The goal of the Brotherhood is to create a new generation of believers from the teachings of Islam, in order to give the nations a complete Islamic imprint in all aspects of life.
Ruling the world, guiding all of humanity to the ways and teachings of Islam, which alone can make people happy.
For too long the civilization of materialism has divided the Muslim peoples and retarded their progress. It stands against them and the leadership of the Prophet, denying the light of Islam to the world.
We do not stand for this, but will pursue them and raid in their own lands, until the entire world celebrates the name of the Prophet and the teachings of the Qur’an. The shade of Islam will cover the earth, and then what the Muslim desires will be achieved: No sedition and all religion will be for God.
Our program has clear and specific stages and steps, since we know exactly what we want and the means by which to achieve it.
Those incapable cowards who suppose this is all fantasy or dreams are simply suffering from weakness of faith that God has cast into the hearts of Islam’s enemies. We announce clearly that every Muslim who does not believe in this program and work for its realization will have no fortune in Islam.
Those who follow this path possess a faith that cannot be shaken, confidence in God that cannot grow weak, and souls which rejoice most in their martyrdom. Furthermore, they possess great psychological power, having a strong will, firm loyalty, great sacrifice, and knowledge of faith. They implement the Qur’anic verse which states: God will not change a people until they change themselves.
As stated in the Muslim Brotherhood foundational system law, we pursue our goal through the following means:
It is true that speeches, lectures, money and other means may help identify an illness and proscribe a cure, but the only means to solve it are through deep faith, precise strengthening, and continuing work.
The general means we pursue our goals are:
We will not burden anyone but ourselves, or court favor except among our own. We know that which is God’s is best and will remain. We know expending yourself for truth is the key to immortality. There is no call except that which comes from striving for God, and there is no striving for God which is not met with persecution. But then comes the hour of victory when the Qur’anic verse is achieved:
When the apostles give up hope and think that they were treated as liars, there reaches them Our help, and those whom We will are delivered into safety. But never will be warded off our punishment from those who are in sin.
It is a call to God, resisting the materialism of the world. It is a universal call, rejecting racism or distinction between persons. Unlike other contemporary calls, it is composed of:
So that all understand Islam in the manner we do, we present these twenty foundational statements:
The Muslim should continually work to reform himself, set straight his Muslim home, guide his society, and liberate his country from any foreign, non-Muslim political, economic, or spiritual power.
He should work to reform his government until it becomes truly Islamic. Its members should be Muslims who perform the pillars of Islam and not those who willfully neglect them, to implement the regulations and teachings of Islam.
It is permissible to seek the help of non-Muslims should this be necessary, but not in the positions of general authority, as long as he agrees on the general basis of the Islamic system of governance.
The characteristics of this government are a feeling of subjection, kindness towards its subjects, just dealings with the people, keeping itself from the general wealth, and economy in working with it.
The obligations of this government are the provision of security, making laws, promoting education, keeping itself strong, preserving general health, watching over the general interest, developing wealth, protecting capital, strengthening morals, and issuing the call to Islam.
The rights of this government, when it performs its duties, include loyalty, obedience, and assistance through its people and their money.
The Muslim should then work to restore the international position of the Islamic nation, so that its lands are liberated and its glory revived in the return of the lost caliphate and all desired unity.
Then, finally, the Muslim should work for professorship of the world by spreading the call to Islam in all corners… (quoting the Qur’anic verse): Fight them until there is no sedition, and all of religion is for God.
Moving gradually in steps: All aspects of our call move in three steps:
Many times these three stages can work simultaneously. The preacher calls to Islam, while he also chooses people and educates them, while he also works to implement the goals.
He is characterized by:
In evaluating this booklet, several observations emerge, which must be carefully delineated. First of all, there is much worthy of respect. The Muslim Brotherhood commands the allegiance of its followers due to its insistence on following God and Islam completely in every phase of life. There is commitment to personal piety, family wholeness, social solidarity, and national transformation. The vision is simultaneously large and minute. Furthermore, it is advanced in transparency, as should be expected for a mission built upon fidelity to God and religion.
As an aside, this puts a question to many in the Brotherhood today. The organization is accused of acting in non-, or at best partial, transparency, especially as they argue their support for a modern, civil, democratic state. How do they respond to the more controversial remarks of this booklet? Are they willing to deny them outright? Or, are they violating the commitment of al-Bannā to clarity and transparency? More on this below.
Second of all, the reader should take care not to dismiss the Brotherhood’s portrayal in the booklet due to their insistence on partisan interests. It may be true the Brotherhood will clash with Western powers over several issues, and it may be that in some cases Western policy is in the right. Yet the Brotherhood advances a program on behalf of its different identities – Egyptian, Arab, Muslim – many of which are legitimate aspirations of a sovereign people. The issue in al-Bannā’s day was that the Arab world did not enjoy sovereignty. Arguments are possible its full sovereignty was often limited post-independence. Anti-West sentiments should not be dismissed out of hand.
As an aside, it is worthwhile to note in this particular booklet at least, there is no polemic leveled against the Jews. Al-Bannā wrote before the advent of the Israeli state, which was thereafter viewed principally as another colonialist project. There is a difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli; arguing from silence, this historical text suggests there is no necessary opposition to Jews in the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in its incarnation.
Third of all, the domestic ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood are depicted as peaceful. They begin with a call, then the formation of committed bands of believers. They seek influence in all areas of society, and eventually engage in a constitutional struggle. They wish to win the entire nation within their fold, and if successful, who can argue with their ascendance?
Addressing the question of their current transparency, then, they furthermore announce the stages of their program. Propagation, empowerment, implementation. While the stages are simultaneous, public statements about the importance of democracy may be fully transparent for a stage in-between empowerment and implementation. This does not deny them the right to further propagate – democratically and civilly – for more and more implementation. The issue, perhaps, is that their propagation has not yet been sufficient. The test will be if circumstances propel the Brotherhood to abort their methodology and grab power prematurely. Patience has been their virtue, but is the tree yet ripe?
Critical attention, then, after this sympathetic introduction, must turn to the quite objectionable statements of the booklet. These fall into two basic categories, which overlap substantially. First, there are the statements which assert not only the superiority of Islam (permissible in terms of doctrine and belief), but also its sovereignty. Second, there are the statements which envision violent promotion of international aims. There is within Islam that which can be understood as a call to unite faith with politics, religion with state. The Muslim Brotherhood clearly believes in this interpretation. Modern members of the Brotherhood, therefore, must speak clearly to the following issues extrapolated from the booklet: 11
To what degree does this involve the right of any state to monopolize violence, which would be governed by Islamic principles, to be argued as virtuous? Or, is it an invitation to carry out the principles of Islam through violent methods?
It is a far different matter to assert one’s faith is absolutely correct, than to take this principle and demand sovereignty over all others. Muslims should be free to argue the benefits of their religion, in both faith and policy. Yet assuming ‘the right’ of sovereignty precludes one from learning for others, who are then established in an adversarial relationship, unless they submit as those ‘incapable’.
Perhaps it can be semantics to argue what makes a state ‘civil’ versus ‘religious’. There is no necessary reason a civil state cannot enshrine moral or religious principles in law. The question concerns the a priori nature: Must religious regulations be implemented? Furthermore, under whose interpretation? Does this include controversial rulings such as cutting the hand of a thief and death for the apostate? Though the booklet does not answer this last question, the apparent answers for the first two are: ‘Yes’, and, ‘ours’.
Again, the preaching of Islam is free to convert the whole world, should it be successful. Yet by all appearances this statement calls for the violent, offensive, military advance of the religion. Islamic nations currently do not have the power to do so. Would they, if so equipped? Do not statements like this, unless clearly repudiated, justify those who might wish to keep the Muslim world weak and subjected, or at the least interpret the world through a clash of civilizations?
Many modern Islamic scholars, politicians, and analysts find the principles of a modern democratic system within Islamic sources and history. Their academic efforts should not be dismissed out of hand. Yet the stridency of this statement begs the question if the Brotherhood is only using democracy as an ascent to power. If established, would they allow the flourishing of the democratic necessity – political parties – seemingly declared forbidden by this statement?
There is no necessary reason why Islamic majority nations should not come together in some sort of union, as Europe has already accomplished to some degree. Yet this statement appears to resurrect the controversial idea of ‘caliphate’ (stated clearly elsewhere), and at the least indicates the Brotherhood’s ambition stretches far beyond the governance of Egypt. Their members may have legitimate answers, but they deserve to be served the question.
As above, the people of all nations should be free to choose their religion, and why should Muslims not harbor dreams of seeing their former territories reconvert to Islam? Yet the tone here is aggressive and militaristic, especially in light of earlier statements. Should the nations of southern Europe be on alert?
People in the west should be slow to judge this statement, given the policies of their nations which have sought the downfall of tyrants. It is true a tyrant can be made to peacefully submit, and this statement does lead with the priority of ‘call’. Nonetheless, the question is fair: Who would be considered a tyrant, and should non-Muslim leaders be on alert? Is a religion, in this case Islam, a fair measure in which to pursue international justice?
There have been numerous Islamist groups which do declare those of opposing orientation to be infidels, and the Brotherhood here takes a stand against this trend, consistent with historical Muslim practice. At the same time, does this statement limit what in the west would be considered legitimate academic study or religious debate concerning the Qur’an? Furthermore, does it limit the ability of a convert from Islam to publish his new or non-faith? On this point many Muslim Brothers are quite clear in the affirmative. Those who find this a threat to religious and intellectual freedom would appear right, therefore, in opposition to the Brotherhood.
This is an important point for Muslim Brothers today to be clear about, as most assert that the coming Egyptian state should be one of equal rights for all citizens. Will they then clearly denounce the founding opinions of al-Bannā – consistent with much of Islamic history – as a relic of the past? It is not necessary to condemn this history outright, as arguments are possible it was more inclusive and tolerant than other contemporary versions of governance. That it does not match the ideals of a modern, pluralistic world, however, appear clear.
In conclusion, given the growing international stature of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is incumbent not only upon Egyptians but also the world to clearly understand both the near- and far-term goals of the organization. Al-Bannā preached the Brotherhood must be transparent; do his descendants honor his example?
Yet ultimately, what is most important is not the answers which savvy Muslim Brothers might deliver to a Western audience, no matter the level of sincerity and transparency. What matters is the meaning these words convey to a Muslim audience. This text has sought to reveal what Muslims are hearing, though it is limited in precision through the interpretation of a non-Arab, non-Muslim. Yet it appears that if this booklet represents current Brotherhood philosophy, it is distinctly different than the public image displayed to Westerners and Egyptian non-Islamists.
Egypt, the region, and perhaps the world are in a crucial phase of history. Opinions and policies must be built on fact and clarity; the Brotherhood owes it to all to define who they are, and what they want.
4. The designation of ‘modern age’ moves the Brotherhood beyond the aforementioned Salafis, who generally speaking reject philosophical world advancements in favor of the original vision of Muhammad and his companions.
11. To date, one member has been addressed some of these issues specifically. Click here to see the text of an interview with Jamāl Nassār.