Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamist movement of the twentieth century, and its influence spread across the Arab world. The movement originated as a Muslim social service and educational movement, and it reflected the anticolonialism of midcentury Egypt. Its ideology survived and became a major component of the later global jihad movement.

Summary of Event

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher named Ḥasan al-Bannā՚, who was motivated by a sense of disarray in the Muslim world: He saw the dissolution of the caliphate in 1923 by Turkey’s secular reformer Atatürk and the occupation of the Islamic heartlands by France and Britain as disastrous events. Stressing anti-imperialism and Islamic renewal, Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ and six followers, employees of the Suez Canal Company, founded the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Ismailia, a commercial city on the canal and the epicenter of British occupation and foreign influence. Taking an old house as headquarters, the Brotherhood then raised money to build mosques and schools. Early on, the Brothers focused on service facilities, schools, workshops, and mosques that served their lower-middle-class base. The organizational pattern that developed at Ismailia spread to other centers throughout the country. [kw]Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in Egypt (Mar., 1928)
[kw]Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in (Mar., 1928)
Muslim Brotherhood
Religious movements;Muslim Brotherhood
Society of the Muslim Brothers
[g]Africa;Mar., 1928: Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in Egypt[07000]
[g]Egypt;Mar., 1928: Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in Egypt[07000]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar., 1928: Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in Egypt[07000]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar., 1928: Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in Egypt[07000]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Mar., 1928: Muslim Brotherhood Is Founded in Egypt[07000]
Ḥasan al-Bannā՚
Farouk I
Nasser, Gamal Abdel
Quụtb, Sayyid
Ṣidqi, Ismāՙīl
Nuqrāshī, Maḥmūd Fahmī al-

In 1932, Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ moved the Brotherhood’s headquarters to Cairo. He used the organization’s charitable and service activities to recruit from a variety of social groups, including civil servants, students, urban laborers, and rural peasants. At first, he stayed aloof from politics, rejecting an offer of government aid from Prime Minister Ismāՙīl Ṣidqi in exchange for Ḥasan al-Bannā՚’s help in countering the influence of the nationalist Wafd Party. In 1933, the Brotherhood held its first general conference and established a weekly magazine as a vehicle for Ḥasan al-Bannā՚’s writings. The Brotherhood offered the idea of Islamic modernity as an alternative to European modernity, arguing that Islam is a complete blend of society, state, culture, and religion. Ḥasan al-Bannā՚’s solution to the political problems that beset Muslims at the time was an Islamic state ruled by a caliph and the implementation of Islamic law (sharia).

The Brothers’ ideology had three core features: a sense of Islam as a total system complete unto itself, one that did not need Western values; a sense of Islam based on the original texts, the Qur՚ān and the Hadith; and an understanding of Islam’s universality, which made it applicable to all times and places. Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ distinguished between Westernization and modernization, however. Modern science, technology, even certain political ideas could be accepted if they were separated from corrupting Western values. Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ also believed that Islam had been heavily corrupted by Western values and ideologies and was in need of violent redemption. Unlike mainstream scholars, he did not hesitate to characterize as hypocrites those Muslims who professed Islam but did not adhere to its principles. He called for a purge in the ranks of Muslims in advance of a global battle against Christians and Jews. In fact, he was among the first to introduce a corrosive hatred of the Jews into modern Islamic discourse. He saw both Jews and Christians as peoples who sought to pollute Muslim values and beliefs.

In 1936, the Brotherhood became openly political. That year, Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ addressed a letter to Egypt’s newly crowned King Farouk I, urging the king to lend his support to the Brotherhood’s anti-imperialist and pro-Islamic political agenda. The Brothers were especially notable for their support of the Arab revolt in Palestine (1936-1939). While most Egyptian political organizations stayed away from this issue, the Brothers raised money and sent organizers to help the Palestinians in their struggle against Jewish settlement and British occupation. Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ appealed to King Farouk for government help in this endeavor, and the Brotherhood’s support for the Arab revolt renewed the association between Islam and social justice, one that earned moral capital and would later pay dividends for the Brotherhood.

By the time World War II began, the Brotherhood had become thoroughly politicized, taking the lead in anti-British and anti-Jewish protests. Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ openly courted King Farouk’s entourage and was granted an audience, and by the interwar period, the Brotherhood had become a powerful source of opposition to the left-leaning, proindependence Wafd Party, and Farouk’s government found the Brothers increasingly useful in deflecting the Wafd’s influence. In 1946, King Farouk consulted Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ before reappointing Ismāՙīl Ṣidqi as prime minister. As he had done in the 1930’s, Ṣidqi courted the Brothers as an instrument to use against the nationalist Wafds and the Communists. This time, however, Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ accepted government financial support in exchange for his political influence.

By the late 1940’s, Farouk was using the Brotherhood as a counterweight to the rising power of the secular nationalists. Politics proved a dangerous arena in the volatile postwar years, however; this period saw the Israeli declaration of independence and the humiliating First Palestine War as well as the steady rise in influence of Egypt’s secular nationalists. From 1947 through 1949, violence shook the Egyptian regime, much of which was perpetrated by the Brotherhood through their secret military wing called the Specialists. After the murder of the Cairo police chief (an attack allegedly carried out by a Brother), Prime Minister Maḥmūd Fahmī al-Nuqrāshī dissolved and disbanded the Brotherhood in June of 1948. When Nuqrāshī was himself assassinated a few months later, again reportedly by a Brother, the government took more definitive action; Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ was murdered by suspected palace agents in February of 1949.

After the overthrow of King Farouk by the 1952 secular-nationalist Egyptian Revolution and the subsequent rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Brotherhood offered to support the new, independent government. At first the Brothers embraced Nasser’s movement because of its stance against imperialism and Zionism and its promise of Egyptian renewal. However, Nasser and the Brothers were divided over issues like secularism (as opposed to an Islamic state) and nationalism (as opposed to the caliphal ideal). Nasser found the Brothers’ narrow vision of Islam threatening to his pluralist policies and saw their populist mass organization as a possible rival for power. After an attempt on Nasser’s life in 1954 was blamed on the Brothers, the Nasser regime had the excuse it needed to crush the Brotherhood. Many of the organization’s leaders were arrested, and some were hanged. The Brotherhood went into eclipse until the 1970’s.


The significance of the Muslim Brotherhood lies in the affiliated organizations that sprang up in neighboring Arab countries, in the teachings of its influential spokesman of the post-Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ period, Sayyid Qụtb, as well as in its role in contemporary Egyptian society. Branches of the Brotherhood sprang up in Lebanon (1936), Syria (1937), and Palestine (1946). They were founded by students from these countries who had studied and worked with the Brothers in Egypt. After these branches were formed, the Brotherhood tried to play the role of an international organization whose international representatives met in Cairo.

The society’s international appeal was enhanced by the radical writings of educator and theoretician Sayyid Quụtb, who joined the Brotherhood in 1951 after returning from the United States, where he had completed a masters degree in education. Arrested in Nasser’s 1954 crackdown, Quụtb wrote two major works while in prison (from 1954 to 1965) that laid out the principles of the modern Islamist agenda, including rejection of “Zionist” and “Crusader” values and subversions, denunciation of Arab “hypocrite” regimes, and glorification of the cult of martyrdom. Released from prison briefly in 1965, then rearrested and hanged the following year, Quụtb became the greatest single ideological influence on the contemporary Islamist movement. However, although Quụtb’s teachings went on to animate the global jihad movement, the Muslim Brotherhood generally represented a more moderate Islamist strain. The Brotherhood became Egypt’s largest political opposition group, and the organization clung to its service and charitable functions, while expanding its political base and its influence in civil society and retaining its emphasis on the imposition of Islamic law. Muslim Brotherhood
Religious movements;Muslim Brotherhood
Society of the Muslim Brothers

Further Reading

  • Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Gives one of the best accounts in English of the life and teachings of Sayyid Quụtb.
  • Campagna, Joel. “From Accommodation to Confrontation: The Muslim Brotherhood in the Mubarak Years. Journal of International Affairs 50, no. 1 (1996): 278-304. Very good depiction of the contemporary Brotherhood and its role in politics and civil society.
  • Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Gives an extensive account of the origins and ideology of the Brotherhood, including its nineteenth century antecedents and influences.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Particularly strong on the ideological formation of the Brotherhood and on its organizational structure and base.
  • _______. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: Prophet and Pharaoh. 1993. Reprint. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. An excellent account of the long and complex relationship between the Brotherhood and various Egyptian governments.
  • Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. 1963. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. The best single-volume treatment of the origins and history of the Brotherhood up to the Nasser era. Relies heavily on the writings of Ḥasan al-Bannā՚ as well as on British and Egyptian archival sources.
  • Walsh, John. “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: Understanding Centrist Islam.” Harvard International Review 24, no. 4 (2003): 32-36. Provides a good comparison of the Brotherhood’s contemporary ideology with the agendas of more radical Islamists.

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