Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, not only in Egypt and the Gaza Strip, where it has won elections and assumed power, but also in Europe and North America, where it has been very successful at forming national Islamic organizations claiming to represent Muslims in non-Muslim countries.1 It is more important than ever to understand this group and its ideology. A natural starting point in this effort is to examine the writings of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Sunni Muslim Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949).2 Al-Banna’s worldview may be summarized in four main propositions: First, Islam is a perfect and complete way of life; second, Islam must be the basis of all legislation; third, Western societies are decadent and corrupt; and fourth, God has commanded Muslims to conquer and rule the earth. Each of these propositions is deeply rooted in the worldview of classical Sunni Islam.
- Islam is a perfect and complete way of life.
Al-Banna stresses that “Islam is a perfect system of social organization, which encompasses all the affairs of life.”3 Speaking on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, he asserts, “We believe that Islam is an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life.”4 Because Islam is all-encompassing, it is impossible for Muslims to separate politics and religion. Al-Banna advises his fellow Muslim Brothers: “If someone should ask you: To what end is your appeal made? Say: we are calling you to Islam…: government is part of it…. If someone should say to you: This is politics!, say: This is Islam, and we do not recognize such divisions.”5
- Islam must be the basis of all legislation.
Because Islam is a complete way of life, encompassing law and politics, all constitutional and positive law must be based on it:
Every nation has a body of law to which its sons have recourse in their legal affairs. This body of law must be derived from the prescriptions of the Islamic Sacred Law, drawn from the Noble Qur’an, and in accordance with the basic sources of Islamic jurisprudence. For the Islamic Sacred Law and the decisions of the Islamic jurists are all-sufficient, supply every need, and cover every contingency, and they produce the most excellent results and the most blessed fruits. If the punishments prescribed by God[note omitted] were carried out, they would be a deterrent dismaying even the hardened criminal…6
It is striking that al-Banna mentions “the punishments prescribed by God” as an example of positive laws that must be derived from Islamic law. These are the so-called hadd punishments (plural hudud), specific punishments like stoning, crucifixion, amputations, or lashes for specific crimes like illicit intercourse, drinking of alcohol, theft, or highway robbery. Under Islamic law, these punishments have a special status because they are directly prescribed by God, either in the Koran or in the teachings of Muhammad.7
As the above quotation makes clear, al-Banna is very scrupulous in adhering to the traditional prescriptions of classical Islamic law. In 1936, al-Banna wrote a letter to King Faruq of Egypt, as well as to the other rulers of Islamic countries, in which he laid out in some detail his program for Islamic government.8 In this letter al-Banna called for
- “a reform of the law, so that it will conform to Islamic legislation in every branch;”
- “The diffusion of the Islamic spirit throughout all departments of government, so that all its employees will feel responsible for adhering to Islamic teachings;”
- “The surveillance of the personal conduct of all [government] employees, and an end to the dichotomy between the private and professional spheres;”
- Action by Islamic countries to pave the way for the restoration of the Caliphate;9
- “the imposition of severe penalties for moral offenses” and the prohibition of prostitution, gambling, drinking of alcohol, dancing; and the criminalization of “fornication, whatever the circumstances, as a detestable crime whose perpetrator must be flogged;”
- “Treatment of the problem of women…in accordance with Islamic teaching” and “segregation of male and female students; “private meetings between men and women,” except for family members, are “to be counted as a crime…”10
- “The surveillance of theatres and cinemas, and a rigorous selection of plays and films;”
- “The regulation of business hours for cafes; surveillance of the activities of their regular clients; instructing these as to what is in their best interests…;”
- “The expurgation of songs, and a rigorous selection and censorship of them;”
- “The confiscation of provocative stories and books that implant the seeds of skepticism in an insidious manner, and newspapers which strive to disseminate immorality…;”
- “[P]unishment of all who are proved to have infringed any Islamic doctrine or attacked it, such as breaking the fast of Ramadan, willful neglect of prayers, insulting the faith, or any such act.”
- “The annexation of the elementary village schools to the mosques…;”
- “Active instigation to memorize the Qur’an in all the free elementary schools;”
- “The prohibition of usury, and the organization of banks with this end in view.”
Al-Banna’s program is perhaps more readily understood in the context of a central provision of classical Islamic law, the duty to command the right and forbid the wrong.11 Firmly rooted in the Koran (e.g. 3:104), classical sharia prescribes this as a communal obligation12 of the Islamic umma, and indeed as “the most important fundamental of the religion,” such that “if it were folded up and put away, religion itself would vanish, dissolution appear, and whole lands come to ruin.”13 Gudrun Krämer writes that this Koranic injunction to command the right and prohibit the wrong “was to play a central role in al-Banna’s career as an Islamic activist.”14 The duty to command the right and forbid the wrong amounts to a communal duty of the whole Muslim umma to police the behavior of all is members, intervening verbally and even physically when seeing violations of Islamic law such as drinking wine, eating during Ramadan, playing illicit music, and so forth.15
- Western societies are decadent and corrupt.
Al-Banna is acutely aware that his program for Islamic government is radically at odds with Western values, like personal liberty and secular government. In his writings one finds a scathing critique of Western culture in general. He lists what he takes to be the defining traits of Western society, all of which are negative.16 European life and culture “rest upon the principle of the elimination of religion from all aspects of social life, especially as regards the state, the law-court, and the school.” European society is inherently materialistic, retaining its Christianity “only as a historical heirloom.” It is marked by “Apostasy, doubt in God, denial of the soul, obliviousness to reward or punishment in the world to come, and fixation within the limits of the material, tangible existence…”
Other defining marks of European civilization are “licentiousness, unseemly dedication to pleasures, versatility in self-indulgence, unconditioned freedom for the lower instincts, gratification of the lusts of the belly and the genitals, the equipment of women with every technique of seduction and incitement…” European culture is marked by “individual selfishness,… and class selfishness…, and national selfishness, for every nation is bigoted on behalf of its members, disparages all others, and tries to engulf those which are weaker.” Its addiction to usury is a natural expression of its selfishness and materialism.
Al-Banna sums up: “These purely materialistic traits have produced within European society corruption of the spirit, the weakening of morality,” “impotence to guarantee the security of human society” and “failure to grant men happiness.”
What is worse, the entire Muslim world is being corrupted by Western decadence: Muslim countries are being flooded with Western capital, banks, and companies; Westerners have invaded Muslim lands with “their half-naked women, their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels.” Westerners have even “founded schools and scientific and cultural institutes in the very heart of the Islamic domain, which cast doubt and heresy into the souls of its sons.”17 This cultural infection of the Islamic world by Western decadence is even more dangerous than the political and military imperialism of the West.18 Consequently, the Muslim Brotherhood has two fundamental goals: “(1) That the Islamic fatherland be freed from all foreign domination,… [and] (2) That a free Islamic state may arise in this free fatherland, acting according to the precepts of Islam…”19
- God has commanded Muslims to conquer and rule the earth.
Since divinely revealed law is superior to man-made law; and since Islam is a complete and perfect way of life, encompassing the political sphere; and since materialistic European civilization cannot but cause unhappiness, it follows that Islam must rule the world:
[T]he Noble Qur’an appoints the Muslims as guardians over humanity in its minority, and grants them the right of suzerainty and dominion over the world in order to carry out this sublime commission. Hence it is our concern, not that of the West, and it pertains to Islamic civilization, not to materialistic civilization.20
[I]t is our duty to establish sovereignty over the world and to guide all of humanity to the sound precepts of Islam and to its teachings, without which mankind cannot attain happiness.21
The founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 is often explained as a reaction against Western imperialism. This is certainly true. However, one searches in vain in al-Banna’s writings for any principled critique of imperialism per se. What al-Banna criticizes is non-Muslim, especially Western, imperialism. For Islamic imperialism al-Banna has only the most effusive praise.22 Imperialism to impose Islamic rule on non-Muslims is altogether to the good. Al-Banna is fully aware that Islam was born not only as a religion but also as an imperialistic ideology mandating the conquest of non-Muslims. The first Islamic conquerors, he writes, “produced the maximal justice and mercy reported historically of any of the nations.”23
Al-Banna is also fully aware that classical Islamic law imposes offensive war to expand the borders of the Islamic state as a communal obligation (fard al-kifaya) on the entire Muslim community.24 Indeed, al-Banna wrote an entire essay “On Jihad”25 in which he gives a survey of the Koranic verses and prophetic traditions (hadith) on jihad as well as the teachings of all four of the classical schools of Sunni jurisprudence on this topic. He reaffirms the classical teaching that “Jihad is not against polytheists alone, but against all who do not embrace Islam.”26 “[I]t is obligatory on us to begin fighting with them after transmitting the invitation [to embrace Islam], even if they do not fight against us.”27 Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” are not to be forcibly converted to Islam (unlike polytheists), but are to be forced to pay the jizya or tribute tax, as mandated by the Koran (9:29), as a sign of their humble acceptance of Islamic domination.28 Imperialism, therefore, is an obligation under Islamic law, and is wrong only when carried out by non-Muslims.
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Joseph S. Spoerl is professor of philosophy at Saint Anselm College.