Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

A new Islamist course

 Obituary: Gamal Al-Banna: (1920-2013)

Al-Ahram Weekly

Whenever I visited Gamal Al-Banna, who passed away last week, his head would be buried in newspapers or books. His crammed bookshelves cast a shadow over his thin frame as he intently took notes or penned his thoughts with the energy of a man still in his prime, determined to achieve, and set upon making his mark on the crowds.
Through the small window behind him you could see the Khalil Agha secondary school, the alma mater of Kamal Abdel-Gawad, the protagonist of Naguib Mahfouz’s famous novel Bayn Al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk). In front of his desk there were a few chairs, the upholstery worn and sunken, the legs rickety. The low-wattage bulbs in the ceiling lamps did their best to dispel the darkness between the couple of bookshelves stacked with assorted reference works.
Below these there was another small desk upon which former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser had once placed his hand while reading the fatiha — the opening verse of the Quran — with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. That was before the historic rupture, the ostracism, the flight, the sworn adversity and the strife between the Nasser regime and the Brotherhood.
Al-Banna would always wake up at dawn, pray and then proceed to his study to read or write. He would resume these activities after a couple of hours of siesta in the late afternoon. From his simple bed, which was also surrounded by books, he could watch television or revisit recordings of the series he had made on the renovation of Islamic thought and jurisprudence, which ran to 90 episodes.
He was a brave and dauntless man, and he was someone who was unintimidated in his pursuit of truth. Threats or imprecations from his adversaries he would shrug off with a joke; if they can’t do anything for themselves, what could they do to him? At all events, he had nothing to lose. He had no political office, no wealth and no children. He passed through the world on his own, and he left it as simply as he lived.
Often, he would say, people who had publicly criticised or denounced his views or had attacked him personally would call him up later to apologise. They would say, “forgive me, but I have a lot to lose,” and they would then talk about their jobs or their money, and of the powers that had once hounded the likes of Mohamed Abdu and Abdel-Mutaal Al-Saidi.
Al-Banna used to smile and say, “I didn’t invent the things they are accusing me of saying. They exist in the old books they know by heart and which they recite verbatim before anyone in hearing distance.” He would then cite Zaki Naguib Mahmoud’s description of them as “pseudo-intellectual memorisers by rote”.
I sometimes asked him why he apparently allowed himself to fall into such traps. “Anyone who wants to know me as I really am has only to read the more than 100 books I’ve written,” he would answer confidently. Then he would raise his head and look into the distance. “They’ll know me as I really am 50 years from now,” he would add. A moment later he would say, “I’m not a jurist or a mufti. I’m a writer.”
He would read about the palatial villas and elegant cars owned by today’s merchants of religion and laugh. “Where’s the asceticism of the religious scholar and the devout believer? Where are the books that contain their own views, instead of the opinions of the ancients that they reiterate like parrots,” he would ask.
Not long ago he remarked on the Islamist movement’s flip-flopping and bungling in political, economic and social policy. “I tried to give them advice, but they’re stubborn and rigid, and their personal interests cloud their minds and feelings,” he said. After a brief excursion, he resumed by saying that “if Hassan [Al-Banna] had been fated to live longer he would have changed many of his ideas. Unfortunately, he left this world early and left them to their bungling.”
Al-Banna was born on 15 December 1920, in Mahmoudiya, a city in the Delta at the intersection of the Nile and the Mahmoudiya Canal. His father, who dedicated much of his time to religious study, was the first to classify the lineage of the hadiths, or religious sayings, compiled by Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal.
Gamal, the youngest brother of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was an avid reader from an early age. After completing his primary school studies, he enrolled in the Khedival Secondary School, but dropped out following an argument with his English-language teacher.
He completed his studies independently, and at the same time he refused to live in the shadow of his elder brother.
An ardent advocate of social justice and long committed to the labour movement, Al-Banna founded the International Islamic Confederation of Labour. He also helped translate for the International Labour Organisation and served as a consultant to the Arab Labour Organisation.
In 1997, he and his sister Fawzia founded the Fawzia and Gamal Al-Banna Institute for Islamic Culture and Media, a publishing house and Islamic library containing over 10,000 books in Arabic and 3,000 in English.
Al-Banna initiated an appeal for Islamic revival — al-ihyaa al-Islami. Emanating from his core beliefs on, and interpretations of, the nature of Islam and its relationship to politics and culture, this appeal was initially ignored, but eventually it made inroads in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world and was particularly important in various international organisations.
Al-Banna defined his appeal in a document akin to a manifesto. In it, he wrote that “it is not an organisation, a society or other type of administrative entity. It does not have a charter and internal bylaws, as is normally the case with organisations, political parties and societies. Instead, and quite simply, it is a calling, a movement or an ideological trend that has reached the stage of crystallisation and theorisation, and it is this that gives it a special and distinct existence and that frees it from superficiality, selectivity and derivativeness.
“Since this appeal for Islamic revival is an intellectual and theoretical trend in the understanding of Islam, it is the property of all who believe in it. Ideas are not something that can be monopolised. Once their original author makes them public, they become the property of all. Although I have done everything in my power to be as thorough as possible, this does not exclude the possibility that someone may emerge to enrich the call with a new contribution or to expose a flaw in it.”
Al-Banna began writing at an early age. At the time of his death he had more than 100 books in print, 10 of which have been translated into foreign languages. His first book, Social Reform, appeared in 1945, and this was quickly followed by A New Democracy, in 1946.
Among his most important works are Towards a New Islamic Jurisprudence, Islam is a Religion and a Community: Not a Religion and a State, Renovation in Islam, Islam and Rationalism, Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic Empire, No, and Again No, Islam and Freedom of Thought, Islam as Presented by the Appeal for Revival, The Spirit of Islam, The Exegesis of the Holy Quran: Between Ancients and Moderns, Islam and the Syndicate Movement, Jihad, The Veil, The Muslim Woman: Liberation by the Quran and Restrictions by Jurists and My Brothers, the Copts.
As the foregoing titles suggest, Al-Banna favoured renovation and reform, and he opposed mindless compliance with the rulings of the early jurists. He encouraged going straight to the “foundational text”, namely the Quran, for guidance, and he maintained that anything that was outside the established and incontrovertible articles of faith could be, and, indeed, should be, submitted to rational critique and the processes of reason with an eye to promoting the general welfare of the community.
Accordingly, the essence of his appeal for Islamic revival was “to transcend the Salafist frameworks and to return to the Quran for guidance, and to regard the appeal as a cry for salvation, an appeal to divine guidance, a will to change and a mission. In short, it is a call to revolutionise the Quran, not just to interpret the Quran.”
Al-Banna sought to apply his views by turning his erudition and intellectual powers to frank and extensive treatments of contemporary political, economic, social and cultural issues. However, he was never a “Westerniser”, as many of his detractors have charged. This is more than apparent in his celebration of cultural specificity and his criticisms of globalisation.
This latter question of globalisation assumed considerable importance in his later thinking. He regarded this phenomenon as a last cry, or third and final stage, of the capitalist order, the first stage of which was colonialism, which had plundered the resources of the colonised countries, and the second phase of which was the establishment of industrial and commercial ventures.
In Strategy for the Islamic Calling in the 21st Century, Al-Banna remarks that globalisation is waging a three-pronged attack that no country can oppose. “The first is the penetration of the stock markets and the free transfer of capital; the second is the introduction of products onto world markets under the umbrella of the GATT and WTO; and the third is the media that relies on satellites and conducts the ideological and psychological invasion of globalisation, such that ultimately the whole world will be eating hamburgers, drinking coca-cola, wearing jeans and watching American films.”
Yet, Al-Banna did not succumb to pessimism or to Al-Qaradawi’s fear of globalisation. Instead, he observed that “no religion or political system has yet been able to unify the entire world. The forces of religion, language, heritage and other culturally specific properties will resist the flood of globalisation. This will never take possession of African or Asian people, and for the Muslim, Islam offers the greatest immunity against assimilation.”
That said, Al-Banna’s Islamic revivalist discourse does interact positively with many Western ideas and thought systems. For example, it acknowledges the part that socialist thought has played in human history, and it predicts that socialism will have further successes in the future because it exists in a dialectical relationship with capitalism.
In like manner, Al-Banna’s thinking holds that nationalism as a philosophy and mode of politics has many strengths, and that these in many cases have led to important achievements. Regarding secularism, Al-Banna said that there was a need for reconciliation. He saw no inherent conflict between secularism and Islam at many levels, and he held that while secularism differed with Islam on many things, it was important enough not to be submerged beneath the “religiosity of the hereafter”.
Nevertheless, he did not believe that socialism, nationalism or secularism offered an alternative to Islam. “Religions are richer and more enriching than any man-made thought system,” he said. At the same time, he held that while these three worldly “sects” had originated in Europe, which is to say that “they had germinated and developed in soil that was not our soil”, it was important that “we attempt to grasp some of their lessons, the ones that are most appropriate to us, and then to focus on Arabising them.”
As his erudition testifies, Gamal Al-Banna was an ardent advocate of open-mindedness and interacting with the ideas and cultures of others. In his book No, and Again No, he wrote that “I call for acquiring proficiency in foreign languages and familiarising ourselves with European culture. However, there is a difference between acquisition in favour of our particular culture and acquisition at the expense of this culture. We should learn as much as we can about all cultures and bodies of knowledge, because this is all part of the wisdom that we seek and that is one of the components of Islam.”
Al-Banna goes a step further to make “wisdom”, part of which derives from “useful borrowing” from other cultures, a source of jurisprudence on the grounds that the pursuit of wisdom is an authentic principle of Islam, and he faults the Muslim jurists for ignoring this essential principle.
In his work, The Principles of Sharia Law, he observes that “most likely they [the Muslim jurists] were reluctant to recognise a loose, unspecified or indefinite principle and source that could permit openness and plurality, qualities that jurists are generally uncomfortable with because they open the door to something they cannot control.”
Al-Banna himself defined wisdom as follows: it was “the intellect, knowledge, understanding and awareness of the spirit and higher purposes and values of Islam.” This is a definition that should compel us to “drink from all the fonts of wisdom, from the sciences, philosophy, literature and the arts, without reserve... There is no monopoly on knowledge, and there are no barriers that impede us from benefiting from the storehouses of human civilisation.”
Such ideas apply particularly to the present day. “The contemporary knowledge revolution, with its influx from the four corners of the world through the press, the satellite television networks, the Internet and the rating agencies, has put all the treasures of the ancient world and all the novelties of the modern world at the disposal of scholars and researchers. The Book, which is to say the Quran, is our working guidebook; it provides a general framework and a major outline. But what fills life are the sciences, arts and knowledge that flow from all the advanced nations and that have become the symbols of wealth, power and modernity.”
Al-Banna died with the conviction that his ideas would be rediscovered and accepted, even if only 50 years hence. Therefore, in what might be seen as a last appeal before he passed away, he said, “to all who believe that Islam is a mission, yet are tormented by the question of how, do not despair. I have drawn a path and begun a process. Now I urge you to take part.”
Perhaps the near future will supply an answer as to whether Al-Banna’s expectations will prove true and whether his appeal will acquire an impetus of its own.

Ammar Ali Hassan

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