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Bannā, Ḥasan al-

Olivier Carré, Elizabeth Keller, Liv Tønnessen
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Bannā, Ḥasan al-

Ḥasan al-Bannā (1906–1949) was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the largest and most influential religious movement in the Islamic world. Bannā was born in Maḥmudīyah near Alexandria in Egypt to the family of the local religious notable Shaykh Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bannā (1881–1958). From his youth onward, he took part in the Ḥaṣāfīyah Ṣūfī Welfare Society, which was the predecessor of the Muslim Brotherhood. After attending the Damanhūr teachers’ training college from 1923 to 1927, he went to the Dār al-ʿUlūm in Cairo, founded by Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) and made famous by Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, who taught there until his death in 1935. In September 1927, al-Bannā began teaching primary school in Ismailia. There he was known to be skeptical toward official Islam, and he started an unconventional preaching campaign in coffee shops. In March 1928 six followers of Bannā urged him to found a “religious association devoted to the promotion of good and the rooting-out of evil.” Bannā agreed to be their leader and named the society the Muslim Brothers (Jamʿīyat al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn). Bannā was the acknowledged leader of the Brotherhood as it expanded into other parts of Egypt. During the 1930s and 1940s, Bannā started a publishing house, which put out the newspaper Al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn (The Muslim Brotherhood) from 1933 to 1938 and 1942 to 1948, as well as the weekly magazine Al-Taʿāruf (The Instructions) from 1940 to 1942. Additionally, it published Al-Manār (The Lighthouse), inherited from Rashīd Riḍā, from 1939 to 1941.

The Formation of a Political Movement and a Military Wing.

In 1933, Bannā transformed the Muslim Brotherhood into a political movement. After the 1931–1932 internal crises described in a pamphlet written by Musṭafā Yūsuf, one of the secessionists who left the society in 1932, the movement gave increasing attention to political affairs and defined Islam as a comprehensive system that included political affairs, despite the fact that involvement in politics was forbidden for Islamic welfare societies. Additionally, it started to move toward a more charismatic organization centered on Bannā himself. The Qānūn al-Ikhwān al-Muslimīn al-ʿAmm (General Law of the Society of the Muslim Brothers), drafted by Bannā in 1934, allotted extensive powers to the executive body, whose members were chosen directly by Bannā himself. Decisions made by the executive committee required unanimity, and Bannā alone had final decision-making power. Bannā believed that the Muslim Brother-hood could never be successful unless it commanded its members’ total confidence and obedience, and unless all demands for consultation (shūrā) were rejected as criticism. Bannā was skeptical of democratic elections within the organization. In his memoirs, he portrayed himself as a God-inspired leader, and he took the title of guide (murshid).

Another and equally important result of the 1931–1932 crises was the victory of pan-Islamic ambitions over the local focus in Ismailia. The growth of the movement, which moved its base to Cairo in 1933, was rapid, numbering four branches in 1929, fifteen in 1932, one hundred–fifty in 1936, three hundred in 1938, and eventually two thousand in 1948, according to its own journals. Estimates of the total membership in July 1944 ranged from a hundred thousand to half a million, many of whom were students. Bannā attached a fundamental importance to student cadres in the Islamic mission. The Muslim Brotherhood was able to expand its organization from Ismailia to all parts of Egypt and to recruit a mass following. Additionally, the Muslim Brothers established branches in Palestine, Sudan, Iraq, and Syria. These appear to have been established mainly by foreign students who had been influenced by the Muslim Brothers’ teachings in Cairo.

Parallel to the political organization was a military wing, the special apparatus. Bannā's Letter of Teachings (c.1943) explicitly addresses the “fighting” brothers, ranked fourth after the assistant brothers, the affiliated brothers, and the active brothers. There was strong internal pressure for more military activism from more radical members prior to the Fifth Congress in 1939. The formation of the special apparatus offered a temporary solution to resolve this internal friction, as it offered opportunities for those who wished to prepare for armed struggle. At the same time it strengthened the image of the Muslim Brothers as a movement that was preparing its members for armed struggle against the British. Moreover, the rumors surrounding the military wing also gave the society a touch of mystique and secrecy. The armed units of the special apparatus demonstrated their ability and their stock of weaponry when they took part in the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936 and later in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948–1949.

By late 1939 some of the society's radical cadres had seceded and formed the rival society Muḥammadan Youth (Shabāb Muḥammad). The dissidents voiced their grievance against Bannāʾs autocratic leadership and his willingness to enter into political compromise.

Political Alignments.

The formal independence of Egypt, declared in 1922, and the 1923 constitution were both attributable to the al-Wafd party, a popular movement born in 1919 during nationalist demonstrations and riots. Both were eroded by the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty that confirmed Egyptian dependence. From that time onward, the al-Wafd party increasingly lost its credibility and popularity. The enthronement of the young King Farouk (Fārūq) I in 1937 gave Bannā the opportunity to acclaim him enthusiastically, in hopes of being able to manage him and to replace the al-Wafd party with the Muslim Brotherhood. The al-Wafd party was harshly criticized by the Brotherhood, which was beginning to prepare itself for a larger role in the Egyptian political arena. In an internal document from 1939 (later published in the Sixth Congress in 1941) it was declared that the Muslim Brotherhood intended to present candidates for the next parliamentary election. During these years of alignments with the palace, Bannā stressed the right to criticize the palace if the Muslim Brothers deemed it necessary. In 1939, Bannā stated that he was both separate from and close to the Muslim Youth and Young Egypt, the future Socialist Party from which Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), the second president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970, and several Free Officers were later to emerge.

World War II presented immediate obstacles for the realization of the Muslim Brothers’ political ambitions. In 1942 Great Britain demanded general support for the Wafdist government it had installed in February of that year. Bannā, alongside all the members of the Egyptian nationalist movement, felt sympathies for the Nazis and fascists, because they were Britain's enemies. But Bannā condemned the racism underpinning their ideologies. At the beginning of the war, Bannā relied on the support of King Farouk and his prime minister, ʿAlī Māhir Pasha. When the king was forced to submit to British authority in 1941–1942, Bannā found himself harassed and even incarcerated briefly in Cairo in 1941 and again in 1945. Muslim Brothers were subjected to government harassment and restrictions because of their anti-British propaganda. This did not, however, prevent Bannā from maintaining close contact with the government during these years.

In his letter to the Fifth Congress of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1939, Bannā was already advising the king to dissolve the parties and to form a “People's Union” that would “work for the good of the nation in conformity with the principles of Islam.” Bannā's criticism was directed toward the corrupt Egyptian party system, and he did not reject a multiparty system as such in an Islamic state. Bannā successfully formed the Muslim Brothers’ program independent of names, families, and parties, which was pivotal for strengthening the organization's support base, which consisted of the educated lower middle class.

The Muslim Brotherhood weakened in the 1940s. Bannā withdrew from the 1943 elections in favor of the al-Wafd party. Having lost the king's support, he suffered outright defeat in the 1945 elections. Bannā again advocated forming a “People's Union” and refused to join the al-Wafd party as his friend Aḥmad al-Sukkarī had suggested. Sukkarī left the Muslim Brotherhood in 1947. Bannā reassured the king and the British that there was no threat of military action by the Muslim Brotherhood against the government. Nevertheless, in 1946 the Muslim Brotherhood served to back up demonstrations in favor of the king against the al-Wafd, and even against the Young Egypt (later Socialist) party. In the same year, the Muslim Brotherhood organized student demonstrations and independent workers’ strikes.

A crisis with the government developed in 1948, after Bannā tried in vain to regain the favor of the king and Prime Minister Nuqrāshī Pāshā. The volunteer units of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948–1949 were compelled to become part of the Egyptian army and to observe the ceasefire against their will. Although Bannā submitted, not all of the fighting members of the Muslim Brotherhood followed him. They kept their weapons. Under the leadership of Shaykh Farāghlī, they withdrew to the Suez Canal until 1952, with the intention of armed struggle against the British. Faced with the al-Wafd party and the Socialist (formerly Young Egypt) party in 1948, Bannā even allied himself with the Communist groups in participating in demonstrations and writing tracts against the British and the government, but not the king.

The assassination on March 22, 1948, of a judge by a young Muslim Brother seems to have occurred completely independently of Bannā's authority. In November 1948, a large student demonstration of Muslim Brothers ended in the deaths of two British officers, and a jeep loaded with explosives and weapons, on its way to Brotherhood members, was intercepted in Cairo. A military decree dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood on December 6, 1948. On December 28, Prime Minister Maḥmūd Fahmī al-Nuqrāshī, who had issued the decree, was assassinated by a student affiliated with the Brotherhood. Bannā denied responsibility for any of these actions in three papers that were only printed after his death. These were Al-Qawl al-Faṣl (The Conclusive Word), Al-Bayān (The Declaration), and Laysū Ikhwānan wa-Laysū Muslimīn (They are Neither Brothers nor Muslims). The secret police assassinated Bannā in the street on February 12, 1949. The funeral ceremonies took place under heavy military escort and without a procession. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood was regarded as a martyr, and a 1951 trial found him innocent of the criminal actions of 1948. After 1954 Nasser and his associates, who were at first respectful of Bannā and his memory, wrongfully imputed the 1945 assassination of Prime Minister Aḥmad Māhir to him. The beliefs about Bannā and his movement held by Nasser and his circle were often echoed in general works on contemporary Egypt.

Bannā's Successors.

Replacing Bannā was to prove difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1951, as an underground movement, it was moving in two different directions. One school of thought, that of the Bannā family (expressed in Bannā's son-in-law Saʿīd Ramaḍān's journal, Al-Muslimūn), was moderate and loyal to the reformist policy of the majority of Bannā's writings. The new guide of the Muslim Brothers, Ḥasan al-Huḍaybī, who was appointed in 1951 after the re-legalization of the movement, also represented a moderate tendency. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Bannā's moderate stance is the guiding principle of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. His Islamic mission also lives through his grandson, Ṭāriq Saʿīd Ramaḍān, who advocates Euro-Islam and emphasizes the necessity for Muslim engagement in European society.

A more radical school of thought was led by Ṣāliḥ ʿAshmāwī, who was Bannā's successor in the underground movement. He started the publication Al-Daʿwāh (The Call) in 1951. Sayyid Quṭb, who officially rejoined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1951, was to inspire radical groups from the 1970s to the 1990s. The ideologue of the Organization of the Islamic Jihad, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj, in his 1981 tract Al-Farīḍah al-Ghaybah (The Missing Precept), deemed Bannā and the Muslim Brotherhood to have compromised with “the pagan power” and become enemies of the “minority of activist believers.” However, the Muslim Brotherhoodʾs traditional adversaries mistakenly believed that violent extremism was contained in letters written by Bannā himself, in particular the Letter of the Jihād and the Letter of Teachings.


Bannā's writings marked a watershed in modern Islamic discourse by making the successful transition of Islam into an ideology. Bannā regarded Islam as “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,” and he called for the Islamization of the state, the economy, and society (see the letter Our Mission). Bannā shared with earlier Muslim reformers like Jamāl al-Dīn al-ʿAfghānī and Muḥammad ʿAbduh the belief that Muslim weakness in the face of European domination stemmed from Muslims’ deviation from “true” Islam. The solution to Egypt's political, economic, and social problems lay in a return to Islam as a comprehensive system and in making “the Qurʿān our Constitution.” However, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood does not represent a stern anti-Westernism. For example, in one of Bannā's theological treatises, al-ʿAqāʿid (dogmas), he quotes extensively from Réné Descartes, Isaac Newton, and Herbert Spencer to underpin his arguments about the existence of God. Although the ideology called for anti-imperialism, his thinking was marked by an openness to ideas from the West. His pamphlet from 1929, Muḍhakkirah fī al-taʿlīm al-dīnī (A Memorandum on Religious Education), does not quote the Qurʿān or the sunnah. It refers exclusively to Western sources and Western examples. Bannā ensured in other writings that “Islam is not a disturbing influence on relations with the West” and that “Islam protects minorities and safeguards the rights of foreigners” (Letter Toward the Light).

An important element in the ideology was pan-Islamic nationalism with a strong emphasis on Islamic unity. Bannā considered all Muslims to exist in a sole ummah (nation-community). For Bannā, “Islam knows no geographical frontiers, nor racial or civic differentiations” (Letter to the Fifth Congress). However, Bannā recognized the pivotal role of the state in the making of an Islamic system in modern times. His message was tailored to a specific Egyptian audience with a strong focus on the liberation of Egypt from the British colonial powers through jihād. According to Bannā, it was necessary to “free the Islamic homeland from all foreign authority, for this is a natural right belonging to every human being which only the unjust oppressor will deny” (Letter Between Yesterday and Today).

The Muslim Brothers attached far more importance to the Islamic duty of struggle than was the tradition in Islamic circles at that time, and they made jihād one of the essential pillars of the ideology. Bannā's texts do not demonstrate that he preached terrorist violence. He did not merely assert that jihād was a duty to wage war against the British colonial power; “jihād of the spirit” became a keyword denoting self-initiated productive work or activities aimed at bettering the conditions of the Islamic community. Bannā stipulated that “God ordained jihād for the Muslims not as a tool of oppression but rather as a defense for the mission, a guarantee of peace” (Letter of the Jihād). Furthermore, “the greatest struggle to utter a word of truth in the presence of a tyrannical ruler” became one of the guiding principles of the Muslim Brothers and continued to serve as such into the twenty-first century. It was in this spirit that they began from the mid-1930s to submit their reform proposals and letters of protest to the government. Bannā did not call for the overthrow of Egyptʾs political order; rather, he sought to reform it from within. He considered Egypt's Constitution of 1923 as valid because it stated that all legislation had to conform to Islamic principles. For Bannā, the fundamental flaw in Egypt's political order was that its laws did not strictly forbid things prohibited in Islam like alcohol, prostitution, gambling, and usury (ribā).

Bannā also rejected the adoption of foreign law codes for commerce and banking, because Islam possessed regulations for all matters. He therefore condemned bonds at a fixed interest rate, but not stock dividends. Bannā envisioned an Islamic economic reform in Egypt. In the Muslim Brotherhoodʾs political program of 1943 he pointed to the failure of the Egyptian state to provide welfare for its citizens by stating, “Remember brothers, that more than 60 percent of Egyptians live in conditions worse than those in which animals live; they can only get their food by breaking their backs. Egypt is threatened with deadly famine, exposed to economic problems which have no solutions except through God” (Letter From Yesterday to Today). Bannā constructed a rigorous fiscal system where “Islam consecrates the alms (zakāt) entirely to social expenses,” which would strive to reduce the inequalities between rich and poor (Letter Toward the Light).

Bannā also put emphasis on a social and educational reform of society where the Islamic state should guarantee public morality. The state should also exercise the power to censor songs, lectures, films, plays, and books. According to Bannā, no society can run its affairs in an Islamic manner without an Islamic state. Conditioning the people to respect public morality, Bannā advocated for the application of the ḥudūd (Qurʿānically prescribed penalties). In general the state should encourage Egyptians to abandon Western customs, for instance in dress, and return to Islamic ones in their homes and in public. Women were regarded as the guardians of Islamic morality, and Bannā spoke of “the problem of woman,” which was described as “one of the most important social problems” of the day. Furthermore, religious instruction, such as memorization of the Qurʿān, Arabic grammar, and Islamic history, should be part of the education from primary school to university. Bannā encouraged the separation of male and female students and stated that inappropriate private meeting between men and women should be “counted as a crime” (Letter Toward the Light).



  • Carré, Olivier, and Gérard Michaud. Les Frères musulmans: Egypte et Syrie, 1928–1982. Paris, 1983.
  • Commins, David. “Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949).” In Pioneers of Islamic Revival, edited by Ali Rahnema, pp. 125–153. New York, 2005.
  • Delanoue, Gilbert. “Al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 3, pp. 1068–1071. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–.
  • Harris, Christina Phelps. Nationalism and Revolution in Egypt: The Role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Hague, Netherlands, and Stanford, Calif., 1964. Informative, in particular on the connections between al-Bannā and the Free Officers.
  • Husaynī, Isḥāq Mūsā al-. The Moslem Brethren: The Greatest of Modern Islamic Movements. Beirut, Lebanon, 1956. Detailed information on Bannā and his relations and actions throughout the Arab East.
  • “IkhwanWeb—The Muslim Brotherhood Official English Website.”ikhwanweb.com.
  • Imām, ʿAbd Allāh. ʿAbd al-Nāṣir wa-al-Ikhwān. Cairo, Egypt, 1981. Well-documented, pro-Nasserist view.
  • Jansen, Johannes J. G.“Ḥasan Al-Bannā's Earliest Pamphlet.”Die Welt des Islams, New Series, 32, no. 2 (1992): 254–258.
  • Kotob, Sana Abed. “The Accommodationists Speak: Goals and Strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.”International Journal of Middle East Studies27, no. 3 (Aug., 1995): 321–339. For information on the contemporary Muslim Brothers.
  • Lia, Brynjar. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928–1942. Reading, U.K., 1998. The book includes new sources: the collection of Bannā's letters to his father (compiled by his younger brother Jamāl) and a pamphlet written by one of the secessionists (Musṭafā Yūsūf), who left the society in 1932. This material provides critical alternatives to Bannā's autobiography, and it sheds light on the society's early history.
  • Mitchell, Richard P.The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London, 1969. Reprint, New York, 1993. Classic, well-informed study of Bannā and the organization of his movement up to 1955.
  • Moussalli, Aḥmad. “Ḥasan Al-Bannā's Islamist Discourse on Constitutional Rule and Islamic State.”Journal of Islamic Studies4, no. 2 (1993): 161–174.
  • Saʿīd, Rifʿat al-. Ḥasan al-Bannā: Matá—kayfa—wa-li-mādā?Cairo, Egypt, 1990. Open-minded, Marxist biography; includes the last three writings by al-Bannā.
  • Wendell, Charles, trans. Five Tracts of Ḥasan al-Bannā (1906–1949): A Selection from the Majmūʿat al-rasāʿil al-Imām al-Shahīd Ḥasan al-Bannā. Berkeley, Calif., 1978.
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