Saturday, 30 May 2015 00:00

The al-Banna's Surprising Family Tree

Who hasn’t at times confessed that if it weren’t for uncle so-and-so or aunt so-and-so, family reunions would be really nice? Families, like the wider concentric social circles growing around them, can be very diverse – ideologically, too, and even religiously.

We have good friends here from the Central African Republic. Like many other tribal groups in West Africa, their own extended family has Muslims and Christians, and until the recent civil strife, they all got along just fine.

But this one Egyptian family stands out, if only because one of them founded the first modern Islamic mass movement with a political edge – now called “islamism.” Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) started the first cell of the Muslim Brotherhood in Ismailiyya, Egypt, in 1928. Though he had just recently arrived as a newly minted schoolteacher in that town midway on the Suez Canal, Banna preached in the cafés his version of spiritual renewal (he was also member of a Sufi brotherhood), taught basic Islamic doctrine and practice in adult evening classes he put together, started a couple of schools (one for boys, one for girls), and raised funds for other charitable projects among the town’s wealthier citizens.

Egypt in the 1920s was in the throes of revolutionary fervor. The Revolution of 1919 sparked continuous riots until in 1922 the British were forced to dissolve the Protectorate, while continuing to pull the political strings like a puppeteer from above. Then Muslims everywhere were shocked by the new Turkish ruler’s abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. And even worse than all that for an ardent young nationalist like Banna, Christian missionaries seemed to be everywhere starting schools, opening clinics, and even a university (American Presbyterians had just founded in 1919 the American University of Cairo). In some ways, the Muslim Brotherhood began as the mirror image of Western missionary activities in Egypt. Here is Banna himself commenting on these events in his diary:


“Mustafa Kamal had announced the abolition of the Caliphate . . . [in Cairo] it was thought that the Egyptian University could never be a secular university unless it revolted against religion and waged war against all social traditions which derived from Islam . . . I saw the social life of the beloved Egyptian people, oscillating between her dear and precious Islam which she had inherited, lived with during fourteen centuries, and this severe Western invasion which was armed and equipped with all the destructive influences of money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, power and means of propaganda.”


Meanwhile, he was often traveling to Cairo and elsewhere to begin and supervise other branches of his renewal movement. From my entry on the Muslim Brotherhood in the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Modern World (Macmillan, 2003; I was asked to update it for the 2nd edition coming out later this year):


“The society enjoyed phenomenal growth right from the start. Although it could boast only 5 branches in 1930, that number had jumped to 2,000 in 1949; by 1941 the society had become so influential that the British had the Egyptian prime minister arrest al-Banna and his lieutenant, Ahmad al-Sukkari, but he soon released them without British permission, fearing that their continued imprisonment would touch off a revolt that would topple his government.”


To say the least, Banna was an organizational genius, indefatigable visionary leader, and political whiz to boot! He was assassinated by government agents in 1949, victim of his own success, and hence, his inability to control a sprawling organization, and especially its “secret apparatus” (similar to other militias at the time that took inspiration from the Hitler youths). Somebody connected to the Society of Muslim Brothers had recently assassinated the Prime Minister. Banna was then eliminated.


Jamal al-Banna (1920-2013)

None of that was new ground for me, but in writing this book (Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation) I discovered Hasan’s youngest brother Jamal for the first time. In an obituary in an English-language Egyptian newspaper, writer Noha El-Hennawy describes Gamal (the Arabic “j” in Egypt turns to “g”) as “the antithesis” of his brother Hasan. She’s not far off the mark.

Unlike his illustrious brother, he was sent to secular schools, dropped out of high school, but went on to study commerce at a technical school. His learning didn’t stop there, though. In fact, though Hasan wrote about fifteen books (and most of them were long tracts), his brother Jamal was a prolific author of over eighty books, most of them dealing with Islam and society.

Yet Jamal was self-taught, not a product of the prestigious Sunni center of learning in Cairo, al-Azhar University. His objective was to refute what he considered rigid and outdated rules from the past, while using the ulamas’ methods and writing in a way that the common people could understand. He also devoted many books to disprove the tenets of islamism. Though he always showed respect for his brother, he openly disagreed with the goals and practices of the Muslim Brotherhood – more on that below.

Jamal, like his elder, was an activist. Unlike him, his efforts were mostly in the Egyptian trade union movement, in which he became one the great leaders in the second half of the twentieth century. He was a forceful advocate for social justice, human rights, and especially, women’s rights. El-Hennawy calls him “a feminist at heart.” In particular, he argued from the Qur’an that there was no obligation for women to cover their hair and no impediment for women running for political office, even for head of state. And he was especially critical of traditional Islamic scholarship regarding the Sunna, the “exemplary model” of the Prophet’s words and deeds. Few hadiths (individual reports gathered in the main nine authoritative collections) are actually authentic, he claimed.

Eminent Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who also paid for his human rights activism with three years in prison (1999-2002), convened an “Islamic Reform” conference in Cairo in 2004. In his opening address, he saluted Banna, and as he does, notice what he says about 9/11 (keep in mind that the ME has always been rife with conspiracy theories):


“Among the first to recognize the Muslims’ crisis among modern Muslims was our great brother Jamal Al-Banna. Ever since he joined the board of the Ibn Khaldun Center, he has been insisting that we take the initiative in the challenging battle of reforming Islamic thought to renew it, and to reach a living, ever-changing jurisprudence that fits the spirit of this age and adapts to its speedy changes.

Brother Jamal Al-Banna’s insistence transformed into a deafening shout as I sat in my prison cell in Turra, after the horrifying events of September, as I read about what he wrote on those events. He did not bow to the misguided mainstream that had somehow engulfed the Arabs and Muslims, who either were in denial that the attacks had taken place or that some Muslims were responsible. He did not deny nor doubt either fact. He repeated his mantra: reform, reform, reform.”


One last quote by Jamal al-Banna, and for this purpose I’ll just lift this paragraph from my manuscript:


“A strong critic of western-led globalization and the iron rule of transnational corporations, as well as the moral decay eating away at western societies, al-Banna ends up a stronger critic of the moral complacency, political corruption and rampant injustice within Muslim countries themselves. Ironically, he writes, more justice finds its way in the mechanics and dynamics of western democratic societies. Yet Muslims should know better, he moans. And then this memorable phrase—a jarring phrase, indeed—calculated to impel Muslims to action: 'It may well be that Islam is alive in a land that ignores its name, a land in which the banner of the cross is unfurled, more than in a land that raises the banner of the crescent.'”


The enigmatic Tariq Ramadan (b. 1962)

Said Ramadan was one of Hasan al-Banna’s right-hand men and he became his son-in-law. The great “persecution” (mihna) of 1954 – when the military junta purged the government of all Brotherhood members, executing six top leaders and sending thousands to prison – scattered the movement abroad. After several years in Saudi Arabia, where he participated in the founding of the Muslim World League, Ramadan settled in Switzerland, where he founded the Islamic Center of Geneva in 1961, which his son Hani (b. 1959) continues to lead today.

While Hani has written several books on Islam in French (his center, because of its Brotherhood connections, was put on a US terrorist list – and may well remain there today), his younger brother Tariq seems to have found more inspiration from his great uncle Jamal. After obtaining a PhD in philosophy from the University of Geneva (his dissertation was on Nietsche), he spent some time studying at al-Azhar University with tutors one on one, where he obtained several certificates in Islamic science disciplines.

Tariq Ramadan taught philosophy for a while at the University of Freiburg; then in 2004 he accepted a full professorship in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University, but his US visa was subsequently revoked by the US authorities, citing the “ideological exclusion provision” based on the Patriot Act. He was alleged to have contributed to a Palestinian charity that had ties with Hamas. The lower district court’s decision was reversed by a court of appeals in 2009 and Ramadan had this to say,


“The U.S. government's actions in my case seem, at least to me, to have been arbitrary and myopic. But I am encouraged by the unwavering support I have received from ordinary Americans, civic groups and particularly from scholars, academic organizations, and the ACLU. I am heartened by the emerging debate in the U.S. about what has been happening to our countries and ideals in the past six years. And I am hopeful that eventually I will be allowed to enter the country so that I may contribute to the debate and be enriched by dialogue.”


Ramadan is undoubtedly Europe’s most visible Muslim, appearing on television interviews in France, the UK and elsewhere, and a popular speaker at venues where young Muslims gather (he tweets in French, Arabic and English to close to 300,000 followers!). Founder and president of the European Muslim network, he often advises European politicians on religious matters at the EU headquarters in Brussels.

Ramadan is also controversial, as you might gather if you know anything about Europeans and Islam. Many have called him two-faced, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He faces Muslims’ criticisms too. Though he is invited to speak all over the Muslim world, he is clearly beyond the pale for many more conservative Muslims, Salafis and other staunch textualists – and of course, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers (I wonder how he and his brother Hani carry on at family dinners!).

Yet, having read several of his books along the way, I see him using traditional Islamic methodologies to try and convince traditional Muslims to see their faith from a fresh perspective. In 2005 he issued a declaration in the form of a small book published by Oxford University Press (since 2009 he has been a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University), “An International Call for a Moratorium on Corporal Punishment, Stoning and the Death Penalty in the Islamic World.” Then in 2009 his book Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation came out. The next year he published The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.

Ramadan was a plenary speaker at the 2009 American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Montreal. Since it was in Canada, he could attend. I was there as well and I lined up after his talk to speak to him. We spoke in French, knowing that it was his “heart language” (his accent is almost Parisian, with no trace of the Swiss lilt). I showed him a proof of my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. He said, “I would very much like to have a copy of that.” He wrote down his mailing address at Oxford for me to send him the book.

Tariq Ramadan is not so enigmatic to me. Sure, he knows how to tailor his message to each of his audiences. At times he ferociously defends his fellow Muslims who in Europe are often put down, stigmatized and criminalized; at other times, he’s like a pied piper, playing his tunes of revivalist Islam with a tinge of liberation theology to woo young Muslims away from extremist screeds on the internet.

Tariq is also the philosopher of The Quest for Meaning who takes his readers on an ocean voyage in which the human quest finds commonalities in all the world’s philosophies and literature, in Eastern religions and the monotheistic faiths – each one peering through the window of her own soul, upbringing and faith, to discover others on the ocean peering out of their own windows and now in conversation. The book is both rational and mystical, and really quite accessible to the average reader, but likely baffling to the average Muslim reader. When he writes “pluralism,” he means “theological pluralism” (there is only one Absolute Reality and many paths leading to it).

Tariq, unlike his brother Hani, is marching to the drumbeat of his great uncle Jamal; but unlike him, he’s on the world stage, projecting his voice, his pen and his ideas to a global audience.

I don’t think his grandfather Hasan could even understand where he’s coming from – or where he’s going. But then again, Hasan lived in a very different world. I’m guessing, had Hasan lived several decades more, he would not have been on speaking terms with his brother Jamal.

Jamal, just two months before his death had this to say in an interview. Asked in December 2012 where the Morsi presidency was going, he answered with these prophetic words,


“The mistake of the Revolution is that there is no room for individual freedom. The politics of the leader is against that of the masses. The situation is very bad. Before the Muslim Brotherhood took charge it was bad, but now it is even worse. The minds of the people are not developed. Their way of thinking is bourgeois, not revolutionary. They are professors and lawyers whose understanding is bourgeois. We are now seeing a reaction to the revolution and this revolution is far from a traditional revolution. People are disappointed and the leader is a tyrant. People want the regime down.”