The Muslim Brotherhood’s history and fundamental doctrines point in the direction of attempts to legitimate violence, writes Heba Sewilam
For those who have only heard of the Muslim Brotherhood as a missionary organisation calling for the revival of Islamic thought and civilisation, they may be surprised to learn that the Brotherhood since its inception in 1928 had been involved in a spiral of violence and bloodshed in Egypt until its member and theoriser, Sayed Qutb (1906-1966), indoctrinated Brotherhood violence in the 1960s. Since then, terror has been the Brotherhood’s standby doctrine, unleashed through the organisation’s militant allies against the Egyptian state and population whenever it wishes to escalate a confrontation with its alleged Egyptian “enemies.”
Schoolteacher and preacher Hassan Al-Banna founded the Brotherhood in 1928 for the express purpose of driving British troops out of Egypt in general and the Suez Canal region in particular. Richard Mitchell, in his seminal work The Society of the Muslim Brothers, narrates that the Brotherhood created an armed resistance group to fulfil its aim. The group later developed into an organised body known as the Secret Apparatus. Mitchell takes it that the apparatus existed as an idea in the 1930s, conducting terrorist operations against British officials and military in Cairo and the Canal region.
In around 1942, the apparatus became a recognised body within the Brotherhood, this time assassinating Egyptian state personnel for attempting to stop the organisation’s operations against the British. Some of its victims were judge Ahmed Al-Khazindar Bey, shot down on his way to work in 1947 on the grounds of sentencing Brotherhood youth to prison for killing British personnel in Cairo, and prime minister Mahmoud Al-Nuqrashi Pasha, assassinated in 1948 for disbanding the organisation and putting its personnel on trial on criminal charges.
For years, the Brotherhood gained sympathy among the Egyptian population for: selling itself as a resistance group first against the British occupation of Egypt and then against Jewish ultra-nationalists in Palestine; appealing to the Islamic sensibilities of Muslim Egyptians by preaching Islamic morals and ethics; distributing charitable funds to the poor and needy; opposing consecutive Egyptian dictatorships; and, most importantly, suffering detentions, torture and imprisonment during the rule of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Nasser’s period was par excellence the most violent in the history of the Brotherhood. As a result of plotting an assassination attempt on Nasser’s life in 1954, some Brotherhood members, including the renowned judge Abdel-Kader Awda (1906-1954), were sentenced to death, and others like Qutb were incarcerated. The Brotherhood showdown with the Egyptian government instigated the narrative of violence in the organisation’s politico-religious doctrines.
PRISON WRITINGS: The incarcerations of the 1960s witnessed the production of prison writings by Brotherhood members. Qutb’s Milestones on the Road was incontestably the most famous. It indoctrinated violence as the main intellectual staple of the Brotherhood organisation. Its methodology banked on reviving controversial or even defunct Islamic doctrines to serve Qutb’s political ideology. In Milestones, Qutb denounces the Muslim society of Egypt as living in jahiliya (ignorance), a term that refers to the pre-Islamic period in which people were ignorant of Islam and its ethos.
Qutb uses the term jahiliya to stigmatise Western-educated elites in Egypt and around the Muslim world. According to Qutb, secularised Western education during the colonial period corrupted religious learning and practice. Egyptian Muslims became ignorant of Islam and thus ready for a Western intellectual invasion, manifested in their adoption of foreign political institutions, such as codified French law, parliamentary legislation and national citizenship. These institutions defy God’s hakamiya (rulership/exclusive jurisdiction), another term which Qutb uses to mean the exclusive application of Islamic law and institutions in the Muslim community.
Hakamiya was first voiced in the seventh century, when a rebellious group known as the Khawarij (the dissenters) fought the fourth rightly guided caliph Ali bin Talib. The group censured Ali’s acceptance of arbitration with his rebellious Damascus governor Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan after winning the war against him. The Khawarij argued that the arbitration defied God’s hakamiya, which designated him the ruler and not Muawiya. Following the Khawarij incident, hakamiya seems to have faded away in Islamic history before Qutb revived the term and its significance in the 20th century.
Hakamiya, in Qutb’s view, must be restored to “revive Islam” among the “misguided” Muslim Egyptians, who “worship” Western thought and institutions instead of God. The final goal is to renounce parliamentary legislation and Western-based laws in Egypt and to institute those of Islam. In Islamic political thought, Qutb’s hakamiya is counted as the Sunni equivalent to the Shia doctrine of vilayet-e faqih (the guardianship of the jurists). The latter empowered a group of Shia jurists to practise Sharia-based judicial review of state laws in post-revolutionary Iran.
The steps to realise hakamiya follow a Qutbi procedure that simulates the history of seventh-century Muslims: a community of “true” Muslim believers expressing full submission to hakamiya is to be founded; the community would emigrate from the jahiliya society to an Islam-receptive region; it would then call for jihad (peaceful or armed struggle) against the jahiliya Muslims and non-Muslims until they submit to God’s rule. Qutb facilitates these steps with a new religious classification of citizenship or what he calls asirat Al-tajammu (the social tie). The classification recognises “religion” versus “nationality” as the basis of citizenship around the world. As Qutb argues, religion, not the place of birth, is a human choice and thereby ought to be the grounds for communal identity.
Qutb furthers his religious classification by demanding proper “Islamic behaviour and action” from every Muslim member of the community as proof of his/her faith. In his view, the classical pronunciation of the shahada (the admission of the unity of God and the prophethood of His Messenger Mohamed) is not enough to verify the Muslim’s faith in Islam. Further behavioural proof, like submitting to Sharia law, is needed to ascertain such belief.
This action-based classification may be one of Qutb’s most dangerous doctrines, albeit not the most famous. Here, Qutb’s theology of faith pursues that of the radical Pakistani theologian Abul-Ela Al-Mawdudi (1903-1979) in reviving a philosophical debate on faith and adopting a rare position on it to suit some ideological purposes. Around the eighth century, mediaeval Islamic theologians marshalled three components of faith: belief in the heart, the pronunciation of the tongue (ie, that of the shahada) and the action of the limbs. The components, later shortened to heart, tongue and action, had their historical raison d’être. They sought to define the true Muslim believer after the Companions of the Prophet Mohamed had fought over the caliphate, as in the case of the Prophet’s cousin Ali bin Abi Talib and the Prophet’s wife Aisha in the Battle of the Camel, as well as Ali and Muawiya in Siffin.
Logic among eighth-century theologians and jurists had it that fighting meant injustice on either of the belligerent sides. Yet, the revered Companions had to remain the icons of faith in Sunni history for they transmitted the hadith of the Prophet, a major source of Islamic law until the present day. Insisting on “action” as part of the faith component would drive Islamic jurists to a chain of disfavoured conclusions: opposing the Quranic limitation of disbelief to the sin of shirk (associating other gods with the one and only God); discrediting the hadiths narrated by doubted Companions; re-evaluating and sometimes deconstructing the legal and moral positions built on these hadiths; conducting endless inquisitions; and blurring the distinction between criminal behaviour and acts of disbelief.
It is not certain how the faith taxonomy died out, but it did at the satisfactory settlement that “heart” and “tongue” make up a “Muslim believer,” while the sum of “heart”, “tongue” and “action” defines a “faithful Muslim believer”. In the 20th century, Mawdudi and Qutb revived the entire faith-component category to discredit Muslims who embraced Western-oriented thought and institutions and hence defied hakamiya.
FAILURE OF ANTI-QUTB PROPOSITIONS: Anti-Qutbi currents within the Muslim Brotherhood grew in Qutb’s time but none managed to silence his theology.
The second Brotherhood leader, Hassan Al-Hudaybi (1891-1973), in his prison writing Preachers not Judges deconstructed Qutb’s doctrine in order to circumvent the hakamiya. Hudaybi preached the shahada with its two components of “heart” and “tongue” as the basis for categorising a Muslim believer. He consigned disbelief to the sin of associating with God in “tongue” or “action,” ie, only a shirk saying or doing would be counted as disbelief. In this way, Western-oriented thought and laws could be integrated into the modern application of Sharia law insofar as they did not prove repugnant to its prohibitions.
The third Brotherhood leader Omar Al-Tilmisani (1904-1986) further attenuated hakamiya by modifying Brotherhood political thought. Prior to Al-Tilmisani, the Brotherhood fashioned its politics on a communist, single-party ideology of political domination. The plan was that the Brotherhood’s ideology would lead the entire Egyptian society towards the realisation of its Islamic ideals. Al-Tilmisani proposed a multi-party tolerance instead that would allow the Brotherhood to run for parliamentary elections alongside opposing political candidates. Al-Tilmisani’s proposal has thus succeeded in creating a tolerant hakamiya ready to coexist with Western thought and ideology.
For a while Hudaybi/Al-Tilmisani thought led the Brotherhood policy of accepting political pluralism and accordingly running for parliamentary elections in 2005, 2010 and 2011. Qutb’s views, on the other hand, received outstanding recognition from various militant groups in Egypt and around the world. By the 1970s, Qutb’s Milestones had become the manifesto for jihadi terrorists who sought religious legitimacy for their operations. Its followers range from famous Al-Qaeda members to the lesser-known members of the Takfir wal-Hijra organisation. The latter, which, as its name indicates, denounces the community as infidel, calls for emigration, and, of course, a return to purify the Muslim community of paganism.
In 1977, the group’s leader, Shukri Mustafa (1942-1978), was put on trial for the kidnapping and murder of former minister of religious endowments Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Al-Dhahabi. Some of Qutb’s internationally known followers are the Jihad organisation that assassinated former Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, responsible for the murder of over 60 people, mostly tourists, in the 1997 Luxor attacks in southern Egypt. The Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader Omar Abdel-Rahman is currently imprisoned in the US for seditious conspiracy related to the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Centre in New York.
EMERGENCE OF QUTB’S THEORIES: Qutb’s theorisation was never just a manifesto of violence for militant followers, but rather was a disciple’s indoctrination into the Muslim Brotherhood’s methods of political activity.
The fact that the temporary following of the Hudaybi/Al-Tilmisani reforms was apparently just a short respite for the way Brotherhood history unfolded indicates that Qutb’s theories of jahiliya and hakamiya dwelled in the subconscious mind of the Brotherhood collective: only political occasion decided when the Brotherhood would submerge or emerge these theories. The Brotherhood even excelled in further abusing Sharia doctrines beyond Qutb’s ingenuity. It employed, for instance, the classical Islamic tactics of taqiya (momentarily hiding one’s intentions in order to avert harm) to preserve its eventual goal of forming an Islamic-state. Taqiya is commonly associated with the historical Shia doctrine of not declaring Shia belief in the “designated imams” in order to escape Sunni reprisals. Despite its Sunni-orientation, the Brotherhood espoused a taqiya strategy, deferring any confrontation with the state’s institutions and officials until the time was ripe for an Islamic-state replacement.
More beneficial was the image of pragmatism that taqiya gave to the Brotherhood versus the radicalism of other Islamist groups. To an outsider, taqiya-practicing Brotherhood members appeared as Al-Tilmisani-like modern reformists. Long before Milestones, however, the Brotherhood literally followed Qutb’s purist thinking in creating the kernel of the jahiliya-fighting Muslim community represented by Brotherhood members.
First, the group views itself as the community of pure religion, a fact which explains the phenomenon of intra-Brotherhood marriages and the employment of Brotherhood members in various state positions to the exclusion of non-Brotherhood members. Second, the organisation conducts missionary work in its Egyptian Muslim milieu instead of the classical call for Islam in a non-Muslim community. At political confrontations like those witnessed in July 2013, Brotherhood preachers and allies split the society into two camps: the “us” camp, the Brotherhood defenders of Islam, and the “them” camp, Islam’s disbelieving enemies. Accordingly, Qutbi radicals could suspend the taqiya doctrine and emerge as the official leaders of Brotherhood policy.
In the current crisis, for instance, the new Brotherhood leader Mahmoud Ezzat, allegedly appointed last week following the arrest of leader Mohamed Badie, is a disciple of the aforementioned Shukri Mustafa and a true Qutbi believer.
In Qutb’s hakamiya, the Muslim Brotherhood at least nominally advocates the application of Sharia law, especially the hudud laws (corporal punishments). The abovementioned judge Abdel-Kader Awda, for instance, had codified the hudud laws in a famous code known as the al-tashri’ al-ginaai (criminal legislation). The code recognises capital punishment, stoning, flogging, banishment and severing limbs as legitimate penalties for criminal actions including apostasy, slander, fornication and political crimes (armed opposition). The code was designated as a second step to the future recognition of Sharia law as the “sole” source of legislation in the Egyptian constitution.
Reinforcing the hakamiya is the renunciation of liberalism, nationalism and secularism as kufr (apostasy) by Brotherhood supporters. According to revived Islamist doctrines, disbelief in God has penal repercussions. At the personal level, a politician propagating ideas of disbelief may face death if he/she does not stop his advocacy after receiving fair warning. At the communal level, the doctrines require banning kufr thoughts and ideas.
Crowning Brotherhood steps towards hakamiya is the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate in place of the current Muslim majority nation-states. Although, the Brotherhood has not yet delineated the outline of this polity, Qutb’s religious distinction is likely to form the basis for its definition of citizenship. The first steps were expressed by reinforcing the religious articles of the Egyptian constitution drafted and ratified during Brotherhood rule in 2012. Article 219 identified the Sunni creed vis-à-vis the Shia as a limitation to the interpretation of article 2, which recognises the Sharia as the main source of legislation. It refers to Sunnism in the revived term ahl al-sunna wal-gamaa (the people of the Prophetic traditions).
Again, this term appeared at around the ninth-10th century as an outcome of sectarian strife among Muslims. Any group defined as such was seen to be al-firqa al-nagiya (the saved group) from among the hell-dwelling others. The term thus reflects a purist anti-Shia bias, for it tacitly condemns its opponents for not following the Sunna or the consensus of Muslims in claiming the divine designation of imams or adopting “un-Islamic” customs and habits. Another step in the Islamic-state direction is article 43 protecting freedom of religion, wherein “religion” is understood to be one of Islam’s other recognised revelatory religions: Christianity and Judaism. Other religions have no place in the Brotherhood’s 2012 constitution.
On the administrative side, the Brotherhood has legislative and administrative organs that simulate those of the state. It is constructed in state-like form, based on uncontested obedience to its leader/preacher, referred to as the al-murshid al-aam (the supreme guide). On joining the Brotherhood, a new member must swear the oath of loyalty, which reads as follows: “I contract with God… to adhere firmly to the message of the Muslim Brotherhood, to strive on its behalf, to live up to the conditions of its membership, to have complete confidence in its leadership and to obey absolutely, under all circumstances. I swear by God on this and make my oath of loyalty by Him. To what I say, God is my witness.”
This oath morally obligates Brotherhood members to surrender their will to their leadership in the service of the group and ultimately Islam. The motto of al-sama wal-taa (listening and obeying) forces Brotherhood members to dedicate time, service and religious alms to the organisation and in contrast trumps state symbols like the Egyptian national anthem and flag as being signs of “paganism”. A gradual Brotherhood take-over plan of the state’s powers comprises instituting Brotherhood members in key official posts. Head of the Salafist Nour Party, Younis Makhyoun, is said to have claimed that 13,000 jobs went to Brotherhood members and supporters during the organisation’s rule in 2012-2013, making the Brotherhood’s administration one of the largest acts of nepotism in the modern history of Egypt.
The new Brotherhood officials would run the state to the benefit of the organisation and its goals, while the old officials would remain in disempowered positions in accordance with the Islamic doctrine of al-mualafati qulubuhum (those whose hearts are to be reconciled). This doctrine historically recognised the obligation to financially compensate aggrieved Muslims who had lost privileges due to their conversion to Islam. Once Islam was in no need of buying their loyalty, the doctrine was suspended. This reportedly happened at the time of the second rightly guided caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab. The Brotherhood’s favouring of Essam Haddad, the presidential advisor for foreign affairs and a member of the group’s Guidance Bureau, was one stark example of the practice of the al-mualafati qulubuhum doctrine.
Haddad led Egyptian foreign policy alongside the disempowered, yet still paid, Egyptian Foreign Ministry. On the fall of the Brotherhood, Haddad used his international connections to conduct a global pro-Brotherhood campaign against Egypt, projecting the “victimisation” of the organisation in the face of its “aggressive” opposition. By distributing zakat (religious alms) among the destitute and the needy, the Brotherhood further applied the Al-mualafati qulubuhum doctrine among the impoverished in Egyptian society. It bought these people’s loyalty with charitable work in return for their votes at the ballot box.
Alarmingly, the Brotherhood’s obsession with charitable work and its lack of interest in economic solutions and finding job opportunities for non-Brotherhood members indicates that it has no intention of suspending the al-mualafati qulubuhum doctrine in the way that Omar Ibn Al-Khattab did in early Islam. Had the Brotherhood remained in power, the Secret Apparatus, which conducted many of the group’s terrorist operations, would have likely infiltrated the state’s police and army and finalised the first phase of Qutb’s “perfect” Islamic state.
The writer is the holder of a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles.