Alison Pargeter

The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition

(London: Saqi Books, 2010, 248pp.)


         Although Pan-Islamic and Pan-Arab movements have not been ‘federalist’ in the sense that federalism is usually analysed, Pan-Islamic movements have been an effort to organize political community across State boundaries.  The division of the Arab world into a host of separate States has been condemned by some Pan-Arab thinkers while separate State-structures have been accepted as inevitable by others. Efforts at State unions such as Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic did not last long.


         However, the ‘Arab Spring’ has led to important roles for Islamic movements in Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in less than a year.  It is not yet clear what the relations will be among these States and with Turkey and Iran or what the outcome of the conflicts in Syria will be. Many of the Pan-Islamic movements are influenced by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, originally formed in Egypt but as an outgrowth of the Pan-Islamic reforming efforts of Al-Afghani, a Persian-Afghan thinker who spent part of his life in Egypt.There is a good portrait of Al-Afghani and his link to theosophy in K. Paul Johnson'sThe Masters Revealed (1994)   The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan) was founded in Egypt in 1928 largely by a schoolteacher-social reformer Hasan al-Bamma in part as a reaction to the English colonial presence in Egypt and the end of the Ottoman Empire and so the end of the institution of a Caliphate.


         The Brotherhood has created a network of national branches in other Arab countries, in particular Syria, as well as units among Muslims living in Europe.  It is viewed with hope by some and by fear by others.  Thus the detailed historical analysis by Alison Pargeter of Cambridge University is welcome and will help give a balanced picture of the Brotherhood.  Al- Bamma had Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, an Afghan-Persian reformer of the 1870s-1890s period as a model.  The influence of al-Afghani is well brought out by al-Bamma’s grandson, Tariq Ramadan, himself an activist scholar in his study of his grandfather Aux sources du renouveau musulman (Lyon: Editions Tawhid, 2002, 364pp.)


         Al-Afghani was a Sufi but wanted to build a pan-Islamic movement so that while many of his views and methods of organization were Sufi, he did not stress the fact.  Thus al-Bamma created the Brotherhood on the model of a Sufi Order with an initiation ritual to enter, a Murshid as leader to whom loyalty is due, a broad ideology but with strict forms of organizational control.


         Al-Afghani was also a member of the French Masonic movement with its tradition of ‘secret’ membership, of loyalty to the leader and a spirit of cooperation and  mutual help among its members who recognize each other by codes but who do not advertise their membership.  The Masonic orders play a political role and are often feared because of their ‘secret’ nature. The Masons are found in different political parties and so cooperate across party lines.  Much of al-Bamma’s ideas on organization arise from al-Afghani’s descriptions of how Masonic orders work.


         In the same way that among the first groups outlawed in Nazi Germany and Vichy France were the Masonic orders, so too the English and French colonial administrations were none too happy to have Arab secret societies or brotherhoods running around — an attitude shared by most of the Post-Colonial Arab governments and the European security services when Muslim Brotherhood units were created in Germany, France and England.  There is a persistent fear that Brotherhood members say one thing in public and something different when in private meetings.


         As a result of these fears of not knowing what members were ‘really’ thinking, Egyptian governments have outlawed the Brotherhood, especially the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Ba’athist regime of Syria which killed thousands of residents of Hamah in 1982 in an effort to crush an uprising considered to be led by the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood.


         Repression, as is often the case, radicalizes some of the members.  The best known case is that of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb who was hanged in 1966.  His prison writings have circulated widely and became harder the longer he stayed in prison.


         The Brotherhood is based on loyalty among its members and obedience to the Murshid. Ideology plays a role, but is not the basis of the Order.  Thus within the Brotherhood, there is a fairly wide range of views concerning the nature of a desired society.  Only those who want the status quo are probably absent. As there are different views concerning the nature of society, so there are differences of views concerning the methods to reach the desired end, methods which range from long-range reforms through adult education to the use of force if an occasion opens.


         Thus, the Brotherhood is probably a fairly representative cross-section of society with a larger number of ‘social conservatives’ than in the society as a whole.  Politically in Egypt they are feared not so much for their views as for their ability to move in an organized way while no other group of civil society has that organizational unity.


         How the ‘Arab Spring’ will influence the Brotherhood and how the Brotherhood will influence the results of the ‘Arab Spring’ is still unknown. Alison Pargeter has provided a good guide to help follow events.


         Rene Wadlow



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Comment by Ferran Sanz Orriols on January 6, 2012 at 9:43am

 Yes, brotherhood has always been and still is one of the most important keys of Islam. As brotherhood is the first objective of this site, we have a chance to understand it from inside. 

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