The Muslim Brotherhood was established in the context of European colonial rule over large parts of the Arab and Islamic world, the growing influence of Western ideas and culture on Muslim societies and on the elite, and the abolition of the caliphate and the establishment of a secular state in Turkey. In the 1940s the committed cadres of Ikhwan fought against British occupation forces in the Suez Canal Zone and the Zionists in Palestine. Algeria’s Muslim Brothers actively participated in the anti-colonial resistance against the French forces. The organization grew rapidly and by 1945 had nearly a million members in Egypt, who set up a wide network of educational, communitarian and charitable institutions across the country. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood made inroads into universities, trade unions and the armed forces. By the end of World War II, it had an estimated two million members.
Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the most influential ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a literary writer, poet, thinker, public intellectual and activist. He was born in 1906 in the village of Musha near the city of Asyut in Upper Egypt. His father, al-Hajj Qutb Ibrahim, was a member of Mustafa Kamil’s nationalist party, al-Hizb al-Watani. Qutb memorized the Quran at the age of ten, and graduated from Darl Ulum in 1933. He then took up a job with the ministry of education. In 1948 he was sent to the United States on a fellowship to study the methods of education in Western universities. During his two-year sojourn in the country, Qutb enrolled at Wilson’s Teachers’ College, the University of North Colorado’s Teachers’ College and Stanford University, and thereafter travelled to Europe. Although Qutb was impressed by the West’s economic and scientific achievements, he was disenchanted by widespread racism and sexual permissiveness and the prevalence of anti-Arab and pro-Zionist sentiments. Qutb returned to Egypt in 1951 and joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953. He was appointed editor of Ikhwan’s weekly newspaper. After a few years he was made a member of Ikhwan’s highest body.
Egypt, which had become a British protectorate in 1914, gained nominal independence in 1922 when a constitutional monarchy was established. Disillusioned by King Faruq’s subservience to the British, a group of army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser – known as the Free Officers’ Movement -- overthrew the monarchy in 1952. The Muslim Brotherhood initially supported the movement, but the cooperation between the Nasser regime and Ikhwan came to an end due to ideological and political differences. Nasser then turned against the Muslim Brotherhood with a view to consolidate his own power, and imprisoned some 20,000 members. Qutb condemned the Nasser regime as un-Islamic and urged his followers to launch an armed resistance against it. He was arrested several times in the early 1950s and brutally tortured in prison. In May 1955 the court sentenced him to 15 years in prison, much of which he spent in hospital. He was released in 1964, but in 1965 he was arrested again on charges of terrorism and sedition. He was executed by the Nasser regime on 29 August 1966, despite tremendous international pressure.
Sayyid Qutb, who led a celibate life, was a prolific writer. He wrote 24 books, including a voluminous commentary on the Quran, Fi Zilal al-Quran, which was published in 1949 and subsequently translated into English and other languages. His most important political work is Ma’alim fi al-tariq (Signposts on the Way). Qutb’s thought was considerably influenced by the ideas of Abul A’la Mawdudi (d. 1979), the founder of Jama’ate-i-Islami. His ideas have influenced a fairly large number of Muslim thinkers and statesman, including Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A central concept in Qutb’s thought is jahiliyah (paganism or pagan ignorance), which is characterized by a mode of thinking and collective way of life that can be found not only in the West but also in many Muslim societies. He argued that the key to deliverance from the abyss of jahiliyah was a declaration and reaffirmation of the total sovereignty and authority of God. He was against the separation of religion and state, which he considered a legacy of the West. He repudiated capitalism as well as Marxism and considered it tantamount to the enslavement of human beings. He believed that it is not only justifiable but mandatory on Muslims to overthrow despotic and anti-Islamic rulers.
The Muslim Brotherhood considers the Quran and Sunnah as the foundational sources of the Islamic faith and the fountainhead of inspiration and guidance. The organisation’s well-known motto is “Islam is the solution.” It has successfully combined voluntary action and charity at the grass roots level with social and political activism. The various institutions affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood provide health care, education, day care, job training and access to credit to large numbers of people, especially the disadvantageous sections of society.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a highly disciplined organization with a dedicated leadership and committed cadre, who have shown remarkable resilience and steadfastness in the face of repression and tribulations. The head of the organization is known as the Supreme Mentor (al-murshid al-a’m). Hasan al-Banna was the Supreme Mentor for 21 years from 1928 to 1949, and was succeeded by Hasan al-Hudaybi (1949-1972). The present Supreme Mentor is Dr Mohammad Badi’ (born 1943), who succeeded Mohammad Mahdi Akef in January 2010. Dr Badi’, who is a professor of veterinary pathology at Beni-Suef University in southern Egypt, spent nine years in prison during the Mubarak era. In his inaugural address, Dr Badi’ emphasised the need for moderation and for gradual reform based on dialogue and non-violence.
Though the main sphere of influence of the organization is in the Arab world, it has a substantial following in the Arab diaspora in the United States, Latin America and Europe and has been a source of inspiration for many prominent persons and Islamic movements in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood is not a political party, its members are allowed to engage in electoral politics. As early as 1941 the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the principle of participation in electoral politics. In fact, Hasan al-Banna and five of his colleagues contested the parliamentary elections in 1945, but none of them succeeded. From 1952 to the 1980s the organization kept away from electoral politics either because it was prohibited from operating as a political organization or it boycotted the elections due to rampant malpractices in the election process. Several political parties in the Arab region, including the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, Yemen’s Islah Party, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, have been inspired by the ideology of Ikhwan.
Following the 2011 Egyptian uprising and the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood launched a new political party called the Freedom and Justice Party. In the parliamentary elections held in September 2011, the Freedom and Justice Party won 235 out of 498 seats. In the June 2012 presidential election, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammad Mursi, won with 51.73 per cent of the vote, defeating his nearest rival Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of the Mubarak regime.
Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have reiterated, during the Egyptian uprising and after their electoral victory, their commitment to the civil, non-sectarian nature of the Egyptian state. Ibrahim Zakariya, an official of the Muslim Brotherhood and a former member of the Egyptian parliament, told the Time magazine: “The Muslim Brotherhood takes Islam as a template, but we don’t have a religious state or God-ordained rule. We believe in democracy and all its rule. We believe in the principle that the people are the origin and source of sovereignty and that people choose their leaders in free and secret ballots.”
Two towering figures, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Rashid Ghannouchi, who have played a central role in the transformation of the political and social scenario in the Arab world in recent months, have been inspired by the ideology of the Muslim Brothers.
Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, 85, is the most influential scholar and public intellectual in the contemporary Islamic world. A 2008 Foreign Policy magazine poll placed him third on its worldwide list of the most influential public intellectuals. He returned to post-Mubarak Egypt after 50 years to address a mammoth gathering of Egyptian people at Tahrir Square on February 18, 2012.
Shaykh al-Qaradawi was born in 1926 in a peasant family in a small village in the Nile Delta. His father passed away when he was two, and he was brought up by his uncle. He was endowed with a precocious mind and an exceptional memory, and he memorized the Holy Quran at the age of nine. After completing primary education at a local madrasa he enrolled at the faculty of theology at the Al-Azhar University and graduated from there in 1953. In 1973 he was awarded a doctorate in Islamic studies by Al-Azhar. He worked as a government official in the Breau of Religious Endowments (Awqaf).
Quite early in his life, Shaykh al-Qaradawi came under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. His close association with the organisation earned him the wrath of the authorities and he was imprisoned during King Farouq’s reign in 1949 and later by Gamal Abdel Nasser. He left Egypt for Qatar in 1961. In 1977 he laid the foundation for the Faculty of Shariah and Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar and became the faculty’s dean. Shaykh al-Qaradawi is a prolific writer, having written nearly 100 books and tracts, which primarily focus on Islamic law. He has been honoured with several coveted awards and prizes, including the Islamic Development Bank Prize in Islamic Economics in 1991 and the King Faisal International Prize for Islamic Studies in 1994. He is the president of the International Association of Muslim Scholars. A distinctive combination of traits and characteristics sets him apart from his contemporaries and other scholars in the Islamic world. These include his balanced judgement and moderation, his unrelenting effort to present Islamic principles and teachings in the context of present times, his concern and engagement with the problems and challenges facing the Muslim ummah in the Arab and Islamic world, his emphasis on forging unity and consensus on fundamental issues among Muslims in general and among the ulama in particular, his advocacy of dialogue with non-Muslims, and his endeavour to reach out to large numbers of people through the use of modern information and communication technologies.
Shaykh al-Qaradawi has criticized narrow-mindedness, intolerance and bigotry in a section of Muslims as well as the prevalence of certain un-Islamic and retrogressive practices such as female genital mutilations, which is still widely practiced in parts of Africa. He urged the Taliban to desist from tearing down the Buddha statues at Damiyan in Afghanistan, which went unheeded. In keeping with Islamic precepts regarding the protection of the life, property, honour of non-Muslims and the protection of their judicial, religious and cultural autonomy in the Islamic state, Shaykh Qaradawi has consistently supported the protection of the rights and identities of non-Muslim minorities living in Muslim countries.
The horrendous acts of violence and wanton killing by a small group of fanatics and militants on the fringes of Muslims societies have widened the gulf between Muslims and the rest of the world. The terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, London, Mumbai and other cities have reinforced the negative perception of Muslims and have increased the mistrust between Muslims and the wider society in Europe and the US. Suicide attacks carried out by misguided youths in many parts of the world, in which innocent civilians, including women and children are killed, have heightened the atmosphere of fear and insecurity around the world. The Al Azhar University in Cairo and Darul Ulum Deoband in India as well as many prominent scholars and institutions of Islamic learning around the world have condemned reckless violence and terrorism -- hich are ostensibly legitimated in the name of jihad -- in unequivocal terms. Shaykh al-Qaradawi has unequivocally declared that violence and terrorism and the killing of innocent people are against the principles and teachings of Islam. He condemned the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 and urged Muslims to donate blood to the victims of the carnage. He stated: “Islam, the religion of tolerance, holds the human soul in high esteem, and considers the attack against innocent human beings a grave sin, this is backed by the Qur'anic verse which reads: “Who so ever kills a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and who so ever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind" (Al-Ma'dah:32). The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said, “A believer remains within the scope of his religion as long as he doesn't kill another person illegally.” Islam never allows a Muslim to kill the innocent and the helpless.” However, Shaykh al-Qaradawi has justified the armed resistance by the Palestinians against the oppressive state of Israel and by the Iraqi people against the US-led occupation forces. He has been banned from entering the United States and Britain on this account.
Shaykh al-Qaradawi’s moderation and balance and broad-mindedness are reflected in his views and in his fatawa on modern education, globalisation and Islamic law. Shaykh al-Qaradawi has issued a fatwa in favour of organ transplantation and blood donations. Interestingly, three of his daughters hold doctorates from British universities. One of them, Ilham al-Qaradawi, is an internationally recognized nuclear scientist.
Shaykh al-Qaradawi was among the first Muslim scholars to realize the great potential of modern information and communication technologies, especially satellite television and the Internet, for the dissemination of Islamic principles and teachings. His regular programme on Al-Jazeera TV “Al-Shariah wal-Hayat” (Shariah and Life) is highly popular and is watched by an estimated audience of over 40 million across the Middle East and North Africa as well as by expatriate Arabs in North America, Europe and Australia and New Zealand. Islamonline.com is a highly popular website which Shaykh al-Qaradawi helped found in 1997. The website regularly carries his fatawa on a wide variety of subjects and issues. He is the head of the Ireland-based European Council for Fatwa and Research. His speeches and sermons are regularly uploaded on YouTube.
True to the cherished tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shaykh al-Qaradawi has consistently pursued an active and relentless engagement with the pressing issues and challenges facing the Muslim ummah. However, he turned down offers, in 1976 and 2004, to lead the Ikhwan. He supported the uprising against the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and urged him to step down. At the same time, he cautioned the Egyptian people that violence against public institutions was prohibited by Islam.
Following the massive uprising of the Egyptian people which forced Hosni Mubarak to step down, Shaykh al-Qaradawi visited Cairo, after a gap of 50 years, to address a huge gathering -- estimated at between one and three million -- at Tahrir Square and to deliver the Friday sermon. “Don’t fight history, “he told the multitude of people gathered at the iconic Tahrir Square. “You can’t delay the day when it starts. The Arab world has changed,” he thundered.
In his sermon, Shaykh al-Qaradawi spoke in favour of democracy and pluralism, which have long been the recurrent themes in his writings and speeches. He began by saying “O Muslims and Copts,” referring to Egypt’s Coptic Christians who have been living in the country since the first century of the Christian era. He showered praise on both Muslims and Christians for standing together and for ushering in a democratic revolution. “I invite you to bow down in prayer together,” he told the Copts. He urged the young people to safeguard this newly-won and precious freedom. “Protect it. Don’t you dare let anyone steal it from you,” he cautioned.
Shaykh al-Qaradawi urged the Egyptian military officers to fulfill their promise to hand over power to a civilian government founded on principles of democracy, freedom and pluralism. He called on the army to immediately release all political prisoners. He voiced the feelings and sentiments of millions of Egyptians when he said, “We want a new government without any of these faces whom people no longer stand.”
Rashid Ghannnouchi (born 1941) has emerged as the most popular and powerful political figure in Tunisia as well as in the Arab region as a whole. Ghannouchi studied philosophy at the University of Damascus and graduated in 1968. He spent a year at the Sorbonne before returning to his homeland, where he and his associates established an organization for the reform and rejuvenation of Tunisian society based on Islamic values and principles. He founded the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981, which was later rechristened as Ennahda Party, which aimed, in the Tunisian context, at the “reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis, the end of single-party rule and the acceptance of political pluralism and democracy.” Tunisia’s autocratic regime perceived him and his views as a challenge and threat to its authority and Ghannouchi was sentenced to 11 years in prison. This created a huge uproar across the country, following which he was released in 1984. Ghannouchi then moved to Britain and obtained political asylum there. He returned to Tunisia on January 30, 2011 after 22 years in exile.
Ghannouchi’s writings and recorded speeches have become extremely popular in large parts of the Arab world. His writings are avidly read by educated youth in Arab countries as well as in Turkey and Malaysia. His views reflect a refreshing openness, accommodation and flexibility. He is widely credited for having emphasized the centrality of democracy, social justice, human rights and political pluralism in the current Islamic discourse and in Islam-inspired political and social movements in the Arab region in particular and in the Islamic world in general. He argues that the values of justice, human rights and public consultation are embedded in the Quran and in the Islamic tradition. For more than three decades, Ghannouchi has consistently argued that democracy and pluralism are compatible with Islamic values and principles. He espouses a tolerant and inclusive vision of society and polity and is against the forcibly establishment of an Islamic state. He has repeated denounced violence and terrorism, saying that “rulers benefit from violence more than their opponents.” He has said, “We consider that a state is more Muslim, more Islam, the more it has justice in it.” He said in an interview to BBC’s Radio 4 in February 2012 that the type of state he envisions is one that “doesn’t interfere in people’s private lives.” The state, he said, should not have anything to do with “imposing or telling people what to wear, what to eat and drink and what they believe in, and what they should not believe in.” He also said he had no plans to ban bikinis on Tunisia’s beaches or on the sale of alcohol. “I would prefer if people didn’t do that, but it is up to them,” he added.
In the Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, Kenneth Roth has written that Western governments cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well. The report calls on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect human rights. “So long as freely elected governments respect basic rights, they merit presumptive international support, regardless of their religious or political complexion,” the report says.