German Islamic scholar Gudrun Krämer recently published Der Architekt Des Islamismus (The Architect of Islamism), a biography of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna. The book offers a wealth of details on the people, structures, and evolution of the Brotherhood. For all that this considerable work provides, however, there are also many questions that it leaves unanswered. While there are issues in the book with poor source citation, some of the problems with it are of a more tendentious kind.
The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the most important currents in Islam worldwide today, less because of the number of signed-up members, but because in many countries the underlying ideology—preaching an Islamization of society from the bottom-up—has become so widespread, guided by the Brotherhood. At the time it was founded in 1928, it was not foreseeable that the movement, which was one of many revivalist organizations founded in Muslim-majority states at the beginning of the twentieth century, would survive into the twenty-first and be exported to over seventy countries (by its own account).
It should be noted that “Islamization” as understood by the Brotherhood and its derivatives and sympathizers is directed not only against secular Western societies, but against Muslim-majority states; indeed, in many ways the Brotherhood’s focus is more on the latter than the former. Al-Banna taught that “true Islam”, i.e. the Brotherhood’s interpretation of the faith, was not being practiced by Muslims in everyday life, even in countries where they were the majority, and it was the Brotherhood’s job to “correct” this. For this reason, while the Muslim Brotherhood clashes with the laws and customs of secular Western countries, it also conflicts with the governments in Muslim-majority countries, where it is seen as a subversive force. One of Al-Banna’s successors, Sayyid Qutb, who developed his concept of the need for “Islamization” by arguing that ostensibly Muslim countries had fallen into jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ignorance), was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966 for his activities.
About a decade ago, Krämer wrote a brief biography of Al-Banna, which was, until this greatly expanded version, the only biography of Al-Banna in a European language. From 1996 to 2019, Krämer was the head of the Institute for Islamic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, and draws on decades of research about the modern history of the Middle East and Islamic trends. Krämer has also been the Director of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS), and advises research institutions and politicians. There is, in short, nobody better-placed to write about Al-Banna’s life.
Over 400 pages, Krämer provides an in-depth account of Al-Banna’s public ministry, politico-religious activities and beliefs, and who he worked with in this cause. Yet, the man behind the public persona of Al-Banna remains strangely elusive in this biography. Some of this is understandable. The Brotherhood was born as a conspiratorial movement, and its leaders tried to keep their private lives as secret as possible; in this, Al-Banna succeeded rather well. It is said that Al-Banna was steeped in religion from an early age, and attached very little importance to the externals of life, which can either be interpreted to mean that Al-Banna had very little life away from the Brotherhood and its godly mission, or it can be read as a trope that is often invoked about Prophet-like figures.
There is a standing problem with archives. Krämer mentions in the foreword and then repeatedly throughout the book that, for many events, only the Muslim Brotherhood’s version is available, since its sources are publicly published, while British and Egyptian sources remain under lock and key. That is clearly a problem for any biographer. What is less defensible is that Krämer insists she did not want to work from “colonial archives”. A historian should be approaching all sources critically, and in this case it should be obvious that Brotherhood sources are not—in an evidentiary or ethical sense—superior to, say, those of Britain during the colonial era. Krämer surely does not wish to imply that she accepts Islamist historiography uncritically, which makes her refusal to use the colonial records incomprehensible.
The use of “architect” in the title of the book—Krämer’s own choice—is a good metaphor for the years of Al-Banna’s public mission: putting up buildings, adding extensions, working out of basements, and sometimes collapses. Krämer’s accounts shows the experimental nature of Al-Banna’s work: a lot was tried and then set aside when it did not work. Still, there have been continuities, above all Al-Banna’s rejection of a separation between religion and politics, and his lifelong attempt to have this understanding of the faith achieve social recognition.
This is an area where source evaluations are critical, and thankfully Krämer’s choice to rely substantially on Brotherhood documents does not do damage. It is from the Brotherhood’s statements—to its own members and prospective members—that we can get the best idea of what it believed and wanted during its founding phase, and the findings clearly show that spreading “true Islam” and jihad were twin pillars of the Brotherhood’s doctrinal and strategic thinking from the beginning in ways that are reflected in the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood to this day. For example, the Brotherhood practices of creating sub-organizations, “deniable” media and educational institutions, and to strengthening group cohesion through marriage were all things Al-Banna pioneered that continue up to the present time. Likewise, the process of actually becoming a Brother seems largely unchanged.
The Brotherhood’s enemies list has remained stable, too, albeit with slight differences of emphasis: Communism was a real concern in the era that the Brotherhood was created, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union that is now less central. Secularism remains a primary foe for the Brethren, though, as does Europeanization, or what would later be called by the Brotherhood-influenced Iranian Islamist revolutionaries in the 1970s “Westoxification”.
As mentioned, there was a lot of trial and error in Al-Banna’s ministry, but he never seems to have doubted his mission—and he seems to have been persuasive to others on the point. Krämer describes Al-Banna’s wife, children, parents, and siblings all subordinating themselves to the needs of his ideological purpose. Whether Al-Banna personally believed himself to be a divinely chosen leader, some of the sources highlighted by Krämer show that Al-Banna was comfortable drawing analogies that made his followers believe so. This is another aspect of the Brotherhood borrowed by the Iranian revolutionaries and their leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Al-Banna’s lack of self-doubt—there is not a single recorded instance in the biography—provides its own glimpse of him as a person: he comes across as a rather one-dimensional and narrow-minded know-it-all, despite all his formal education and—albeit thematically limited—erudition. There is diligence, perseverance, and a certain superficial charisma shown in his personality, but it is still doubtful that without conditions beyond his control, like the political conditions in Egypt, and a certain amount of luck, he would have become the founder of such an influential movement. It is easy to see how Al-Banna would have remained in history’s shadow, just one more fanatical bigot.
In terms of Al-Banna’s emotional life, Krämer makes a few mention of Al-Banna’s habit of publicly weeping, something still seen in jihadist groups. But once again the evidence does not really shed any light on Al-Banna the person, since the weeping was part of his public demonstration of his relationship with his God. And there are other instances that show a decided coldness, that of the fanatic who puts the cause above humans. Krämer notes a case where, even though his child had just died, Al-Banna continued his preachments, showing he was a man of duty—that is, duty to God. This duty was self-imposed, of course. The actual professional duties that Al-Banna had as a teacher do not seem to have taken up much of his time or thoughts, reflected by the fact Al-Banna’s role as a teacher receives only a cursory mention in the book. It is unclear whether this is because the sources were lacking to say more about what Al-Banna did as a teacher, or whether it is because his work as a teacher was largely irrelevant to his life since it was only a way to earning a living to sustain his religious mission. Al-Banna does seem to have valued the teaching professional, but, again, only for the advantages it conferred on his Brotherhood work: it provided him a lot of freedom to carry out his mission, and it gave him access to impressionable young recruits and their families.
One of the most serious flaws in the book is what is not in it. There is very little discussion of the Brotherhood’s beliefs about, and relationship with, Jews and Judaism. Did Al-Banna innovate in his approach to Jews? Did he follow the consensus of Islamic scholars? The book is vague on this topic in general. The word “Jew” appears frequently in the index, but when one looks it up in the text it appears as part of descriptions of general events or highlighting Jews in list of religious minorities present in Egypt. When the book does discuss the issue that became so central at the end of Al-Banna’s life—the recreation of Israel and the “Palestinian cause”—the author is clear, if not explicit, about where ultimate responsible for the conflict lies. There is, further, an unmistakable shading to the presentation, with Al-Banna’s fight presented as one against “Zionism”. This deficiency may be due to the author’s own political views, which refuse to interpret anti-Zionism per se as antisemitism, as has emerged in recent years with Krämer’s stance on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Whenever Krämer mentions antisemitism, she is quick to follow-up with the claim that antisemitic racism was as widely rejected as it was accepted in Egypt in the middle of the last century. The implication is that the levels of hatred were lower before 1948. The book also claims that Al-Banna’s Egyptian Jewish contemporaries were “resolutely anti-Zionist”. In both cases, the references for what are, by any definition, controversial and contested claims, cite earlier works by Krämer.
Here, we return to an issue with the sourcing. Krämer would have made it easier in places for the reader to understand the state of the evidence for claims and arguments if she had not cited her own publications, but had given the primary sources. On the other hand, where primary sources are used, that might account for the fact that sometimes the necessary distance and objectivity of author to subject seems to be missing. It is a small thing, but telling, that throughout the second half of the book the word “Murshid” (supreme leader), the internal rank of Al-Banna within the Brotherhood, is used without qualification, as it would have been by his followers. (This also has a parallel in the Iranian Revolution: it was a tell-tale sign when Khomeini was referred to as “the Imam”.) Overall, although the level of detail in the book is impressive, sometimes there is too much closeness and sympathy for Al-Banna’s missionary work.
Even with these drawbacks, the extensive bibliography and numerous notes accompanying the references provide an opportunity for readers to pursue a deeper understanding of Al-Banna, and for the non-specialist reader the book is a readable introduction to the subject.
The book ends somewhat abruptly after Al-Banna’s death. There is no evaluation of his successors, and not even a rough sketch of how his legacy has impacted the present day. A reader has to draw their own inferences about what has remained relatively unchanged of Al-Banna’s missionary work, and what has been dropped. This is a notable omission. After all, Al-Banna is not just a historical figure; he is the founder of a movement that is still extremely active and influential today.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.