Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal El-Banna: A lifetime of Islamic call

A scholar who dedicates his life to his vision of Islamic renaissance

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'The Muslim Brotherhood is a huge structure, but it lacks a deep, comprehensive and genuine theoretical basis... Hassan [El-Banna] realised this, and he always intended to build the theory and leave it to mature. He believed the work should be implemented in phases. But he did not live to fulfil this mission. He was assassinated too soon'

Of the thousands of passers-by who walk past an old building on Al-Geish Street, near Bab Al-Sheariya Square in Downtown Cairo, very few can realise that on the fifth floor there is a huge flat that acts both as a library and a home. It contains 15,000 books in Arabic and 3,000 others in English, among them hundreds of rare books and reference works. The flat is also home to Gamal El-Banna, who has read the majority of the books his library contains.

El-Banna is almost 90 years old now, and he tells Al-Ahram Weekly that ever since he was 15 he has made a habit of reading two books in Arabic a day and one book in English every two days. He started collecting the treasured contents of his library in 1940, adding to the books his father and his brother had already gathered.

The library is impressive indeed. Every wall in El-Banna's flat is covered top to floor with shelves, and even the bedroom is filled with books, except for a gap in the shelves on one of the walls, which contains a photograph of his beloved younger sister Fawzia.

"I am a writer. It's the only job I've ever had. It's even written on my ID card. The only thing I wanted to do in my life is read and write," El-Banna says. "It is problematic, because I am a writer in a country where few people read. I was a weak child and was never fit enough to play with the other children in the streets or to ride a bicycle. I was fit for nothing but to sit and read and write. I spent most of my childhood in my father's huge library."

Though he is best known today as a prominent Islamic scholar, El-Banna in fact has written over 50 books that deal not only with Islam, but also with politics, economics and the trade union movement. If certain concerns characterise all his books, they are with freedom, religious revival, and the use of the mind to find new solutions to old problems.

El-Banna's fatwas (religious judgements) have often been controversial, and they have even been rejected by other Islamic scholars. They have also sometimes incited angry reactions because they have been so different from those that count on consensus among scholars. This is not to mention the fact that Gamal El-Banna is the brother of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and himself a controversial figure.

In Gamal El-Banna's view, for example, the veil, or hejab, cannot be considered as compulsory for women in Islam, because it is not mentioned in the Quran . Furthermore, he says, the hejab is not exclusive to Islam and is an institution that predates it. El-Banna also says that a Muslim woman can marry a Christian or a Jewish man, and he is also on record as allowing "marriages of pleasure" for members of Muslim minorities in foreign countries, while stating that such relationships are not permissible for Muslims living in Muslim countries.

El-Banna has stated that properly trained women can lead daily prayers, and so act as imams. Further, he says, marriages can only be religiously sanctioned, or halal, if both partners accept them: other common procedures, such as producing two witnesses, paying a dowry, or ensuring the acceptance of the bride's father, are all regulatory social procedures used to maintain the rights of couples, but, in El-Banna's view, they have nothing to do with Islam. In another fatwa, El-Banna has said that so long as a marriage has taken place by mutual consent, divorce cannot take place except if both the husband and the wife agree. Divorce, in other words, cannot be decided by the husband alone.

Some of El-Banna's fatwas are even more controversial. People fasting during the holy month of Ramadan are not required to abstain from smoking, he says, since the Quran only asks that fasters abstain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse. He rejects the notion that apostasy should be punished by death. Supporters of this view rely on two hadiths, or substantiated sayings of the prophet, but these, El-Banna says, are not consistent with what it says in the Quran , where there is no punishment for apostasy.

According to El-Banna, all his religious judgements, together with his wider desire to see what he calls an Islamic renaissance, are based on the fact that Islam is a natural path for human beings to take and that it is a religion that is in the interest of human beings. "God has deputised human beings on earth. In the allegory of creation, God made the human being his khalifa, or, literally, his successor," he says. In this context, the religion of Islam came to guide humanity towards establishing a just and virtuous society that would enable human beings to perform righteous deeds and to use the world created for them in the best possible way.

The Quran contains numerous verses associating religious belief with the performance of constructive deeds, El-Banna points out, and "Islam is a means for guidance, not a goal in itself." He stresses that Prophet Mohamed himself understood this very well, as he endeavoured to establish a society in Medina where people would have full human dignity, and he helped to identify the values required to build such a society.

This ideal society, however, lasted only a quarter of a century, and after the prophet's death Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan established the Umayyad Dynasty in 660 CE, which was explicitly based on the idea that Islam, instead of being a religion benefiting humanity as a whole, became one in which it benefited first and foremost the ruler, or sultan. Religious scholars in different countries then unwittingly introduced ideas from their own civilisations into their religious writings, including those dealing with the interpretation of the Quran, Islamic jurisprudence, or the collection and interpretation of hadith. This process of adulteration, El-Banna argues, distanced Islam from its true spirit and resulted in the rise of factions, divisions and different sects, the whole process being exacerbated by the introduction of Greek philosophical notions into Islam during the Abbasid period.

Over the course of the centuries that followed, El-Banna goes on, the "Islam of the sultans", as he calls it, was built up and strengthened, eventually becoming a "petrified reality" and one based on a set of dogmatically held beliefs and doctrines that everybody had to follow and no one dared depart from. This was the case until the late 19th century, when the Islamic renaissance began by the Islamic reformer Gamaleddin El-Afghani called for the reform of Islam. El-Afghani's own call failed because of European colonialism, El-Banna says, but its influence was strongly felt. "My father named me after Gamaleddin El-Afghani," he states. "He used to call me 'El-Afghani', and imbued me with El-Afghani's spirit of revival."

El-Banna's own work for an Islamic renaissance started in the 1940s with the publication of his book A New Democracy, which argued for a new understanding of religion. Later, in 1972 El-Banna published The Spirit of Islam, in which he issued a call for a renaissance, and most recently in 2000 he published Towards a New Islamic Jurisprudence. However, throughout his career his brother, Hassan El-Banna, and his father, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, always had a great influence on him.

"I have a rebellious spirit, and I refused to follow a bourgeois life from the very beginning. I refused to have a 'normal life' -- completing an education, getting a government job, getting married and having children. Perhaps my lifestyle gave me the chance to stay close to my father and brother for longer. During Ramadan in particular I would see my father almost daily," El-Banna remembers.

El-Banna admires both his father and his brother greatly because both of them had great strength of will. They also both initiated original work that was not aimed at any worldly advantage. Neither fame, nor money, nor power attracted them. What he likes most about them is their missionary spirit and the objectives to which they dedicated their lives.

El-Banna's father, for example, who died in 1960, collected and interpreted the 30,000 sayings of Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, founder of one of the four main mazhebs, or streams, of Sunni Islam, in 22 volumes. It took him 35 years to complete the work. "My father decided to complete his project whatever it took him. He was a poor man with a large family of six children living in one of the poorest areas in Cairo. He was a humble religious man, who had read the basic religious texts, and he never belonged to the prestigious community of Al-Azhar. He even printed the finished volumes of his work at his own expense, and he would often work at night after he had finished his reading and writing. He started working very early in the morning and continued to 11 at night in a badly lit room on the ground floor of an old building. It was practically empty, bar a desk full of references books, and he would only leave his room to pray at the nearby mosque."

El-Banna's father led a pious, ascetic life, and he seemed indifferent to worldly concerns. When the family moved to Cairo in 1924, for example, he did not think of buying a house, though houses were cheap at the time, but rather he bought a plot in a cemetery for the family. "Even when the Muslim Brotherhood was among the strongest groups in society, and his son was at the top of it, he was not really interested. He only visited the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters a few times," El-Banna says.

As for his brother Hassan who founded the Brotherhood, in El-Banna's eyes he was a genius. "It was a miracle that he could establish such a strong movement in just 20 years. The movement was so strong that it has resisted the hostility of numerous regimes from its establishment up until today." Before the foundation of the Brotherhood proper, the movement consisted of local charitable associations, from which Hassan El-Banna founded the Brotherhood in 1928. At first, it had just six members and met in a local café. Just 20 years later in 1948 the Brotherhood had become an international body, with half a million members worldwide.

In Gamal El-Banna's view, the Brotherhood was successful because Hassan El-Banna adopted two strategies. First, he set criteria for his Islamic mission, which were then adopted and implemented by Islamic movements worldwide. Second, he encouraged the adoption of Islam as a lifestyle for all. This was a powerful idea, because at the time only religious scholars were concerned with religion. El-Banna, on the other hand, wanted to make religion part of everyday life, and he was keen to bring up students who could deliver fluent religious speeches about daily life. He empowered them with his faith, knowledge and sincerity and spent many nights praying side by side with them.

"Hassan's call was very clearly defined from the beginning, and he never deviated an inch from what he called for, from the Muslim Brotherhood's birth until his assassination. He was a leader who shouldered all the responsibilities of his call. He used to work with his followers through the daylight hours, and then he prayed and preached throughout the night. Hassan's relation to his followers was controlled by common bonds of love for God," El-Banna says.

In his view, religion for his father and his brother meant something different from what it meant for Al-Azhar. Both called for a more practical Islam. They rose above sectarian differences and adhered only to the Quran and Sunna, or the teachings of Prophet Mohamed. "I lived in a time when imams in mosques used to give sermons holding wooden swords in their hands to scare people and used to read out from the faded pages of old religious books," El-Banna recalls. Both his father and his brother rejected this practice of Islam, but neither was in any way narrow- minded. El-Banna recalls that his father used to keep the translated chapters from "masterpiece novels" published in Al-Ahram, for example.

"I sometimes wonder what it was that produced this simple, religious villager, who dedicated his life equally to Ibn Hanbal and to world literature," El-Banna muses. "My father had his own unique cultural project of enlightenment." His brother's most distinguishing trait, on the other hand, was his capacity for organisation, El-Banna believes, he himself being more inclined to debate. It was because of his talent for organisation that Hassan was able to set up a lasting, successful movement -- whereas Gamal failed in his attempts to establish a small movement called the "National Party for Social Work" aimed at students and workers, the party disappearing just two years after its inception.

When Gamal was arrested for circulating material calling for strikes against the British fleet in Alexandria, Hassan sent one of his assistants to the police commander in Cairo to have them set free. Hassan then told his brother that "you are working in a fruitless, rocky land, whereas we have gardens full of trees and fruits just waiting to be picked." Gamal replied that "the fruits of the Muslim Brotherhood are not the ones I want," and speaking about his brother today he is not afraid to criticise his ideas.

Hassan El-Banna was broadminded enough to understand his brother's refusal to join the Muslim Brotherhood, but when Gamal criticised the Brotherhood's ideas, especially regarding politics or women, "Hassan used to smile, but never commented on my criticisms." He also used to support Gamal financially and even employed him to run the Brotherhood's publishing house. However, though he admires his brother deeply, El-Banna criticises what he perceives as a core failure of the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is a huge structure, but it lacks a deep, comprehensive and genuine theoretical basis," he says. "Hassan realised this, and he always intended to build the theory and leave it to mature. He believed the work should be implemented in phases. But he did not live to fulfil this mission. He was assassinated too soon."

Gamal El-Banna was imprisoned in 1948 on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and remained in prison until 1950. He was therefore still in prison when Hassan El-Banna was assassinated in 1949, and he remembers how the pain of learning of his brother's death was somewhat soothed by his being told how Hassan, prior to his death, had been suffering from deep anxiety about how he could provide for the needs of the families of his detained followers, while at the same time resisting the manipulations of the regime and holding fast to his refusal of any form of compromise. Under these circumstances, El-Banna was told, Hassan's assassination came as something of a way out.

During his time in prison, El-Banna remained faithful to his love of reading. "I used to learn poems by the great Arab poets, such as El-Moutanabbi, as well as poetry in English. I also read books on the former Soviet Union." Although there have always been deep ideological barriers between him and the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamal El-Banna says, and although he has never believed in its Islamic project, he has had strong bonds with many of its members. "I was never a member of the Brotherhood, but there were strong bonds with them, both because I was the founder's brother and because I worked with them."

From his earliest years, El-Banna remembers, he has been interested in the workers, and he has always been a great believer in trade union movements, even to the extent of writing a book entitled The Union Movement is After Religion and Before Democracy and Socialism. Trade unionism, in his view, is part of a strategy to rescue the workers from an otherwise brutal capitalism. By his own account he has read thousands of books on workers and trade union movements all over the world, translating many of them and then writing his own.

"I fell in love with the workers to the extent that I asked one of the members of the Brotherhood who owned a factory for a job so that I could learn how to work the machines," El-Banna says. He lectured at the Cairo Institute of Trade Union Studies for 30 years from 1963 to 1993 and was also a lecturer at the Workers University. "Many of the labour ministers and leaders of the workers' unions in Egypt and the Arab world were my students, including the current minister of labour, Aisha Abdel-Hadi," he says. Among his writings on this subject are reference works like Freedom of Association and A History of the Egyptian Trade Union Movement over the last One Hundred Years.

Perhaps El-Banna's fondest memories, however, are of his sister Fawzia. "My sister Fawzia rescued me from poverty and helped me spread my call for an Islamic renaissance," he says. "Shortly before her death in 1997 she gave me LE250,000 to establish the Gamal and Fawzia El-Banna Institute for the Revival of Islam," and he is currently writing a book on his sister, who worked for 30 years as a teacher in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Towards the end of our interview, El-Banna was keen to clarify that his fatwas, controversial though they may seem, are the outcome of 70 years of research and reading and writing on Islam. "My call for the revival of Islam is based on the Quran and the Sunna. In my view, all hadiths inconsistent with the Quran should be omitted, and I am currently writing a book calling for the verification of many of them. All my writings on Islam concentrate on human freedom," he says.

Although he has worked on the subject all his life, it was only in his 80s that El-Banna started to become known for his call for an Islamic renaissance. Now that he is almost 90 years old, he continues to work hard to spread his call. "I am simply trying to revive the Islam that existed 14 centuries ago. My fatwas, released decades ago, are more popular now because of the dominance of Salafi ideas and the attempts of liberal voices to escape that dominance," he emphasises.

When asked whether his call has born fruit, El-Banna replies that "like all other attempts to bring about a revival, it will take time. When I go through websites to look at comments on articles I have published, I feel happy if I find one supporting voice among 100 opposing ones. The main problem is the time we are living in. We live in an age when every minute has a price. As developing countries we have been left behind, while other countries have been rapidly progressing."

Interview by Sahar El-Bahr

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