Banna family illustrates complexities of modern Islam

Reuters AlertNet – FEATURE-Banna family illustrates complexities of modern Islam

CAIRO, Oct 31 (Reuters) – In an irony that illustrates the ferment in Islamist thinking, the younger brother of the man who founded Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood has taken on the state-backed Muslim establishment — from the liberal flank.

CAIRO, Oct 31 (Reuters) – In an irony that illustrates the ferment in Islamist thinking, the younger brother of the man who founded Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood has taken on the state-backed Muslim establishment — from the liberal flank.

Gamal el-Banna, whose brother Hassan was a founding father of political Islam and was assassinated by agents of King Farouk in 1949, has come out of relative obscurity to campaign for a complete review of the sunna, the corpus of traditions accepted by the vast majority of Muslims.

With support from Cairo’s Ibn Khaldoun Center, a controversial think tank, Banna and a small coterie of reformers also advocate disestablishing al-Azhar, the state institution which for centuries has defined Sunni Muslim orthodoxy.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the Arab world’s largest Islamist organisation, criticise al-Azhar from the other direction, saying that as an agent of Egyptian governments it has compromised orthodoxy for political expediency.

The reformers have earned the wrath of al-Azhar’s chief, who dismissed them as “deviants” whom the state should suppress.

Earlier this year, one of al-Azhar’s scholars recommended the authorities ban one of Gamal el-Banna’s books, reinforcing his contempt for an institution which he believes obstructs free thought and falsely claims a doctrinal monopoly.

To add to the complexity of the Banna family’s role in Islamic thinking, Hassan’s grandson is the prominent Swiss-born intellectual Tariq Ramadan, another liberal whose preoccupation is with the fate of Muslim communities in Europe.

Gamal el-Banna, sprightly and eloquent at the age of 84, runs his campaign from a book-lined apartment in Geish Street, a noisy, dirty thoroughfare in a working-class district of Cairo.

“I’ve always been an independent. My brother and I had different approaches. He was a wholly traditional Muslim while I had a secular education,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Gamal said he never even joined the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes the Egyptian government from the religious right and advocates the gradual introduction of Islamic law as defined during the first few centuries of Muslim rule.

Instead he worked with trade unions and women’s groups, wrote and translated, refusing to take government employment and eschewing what he called bourgeois careers.

The argument between his group and the traditionalists is essentially over whether the early Muslim jurists defined orthodoxy for all time or whether the “gates of ijtihad” (independent reason) remain open in the 21st century.


Some of the staff at the Ibn Khaldoun Center believe the sunna is so riddled with fabrications and uncertainties that it might as well be discarded in total, leaving only the undisputed text of the Koran as a sure guide for believers.

A conference at the Ibn Khaldoun Center, where Gamal el-Banna runs an Islam programme, came close to that position in October. “The participants called for reliance on the Koranic text as the sole authentic source for reviewing the entire Islamic heritage,” it said in a statement.

It also recommended “confronting all institutions … that claim a monopoly over religion and the proper interpretation of its holy text”. “A new spirit should seek to establish the right of ijtihad for all,” the statement added.

The Sheikh of al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed el-Tantawi, told the Kuwait newspaper al-Rai al-Am that al-Azhar was the target of this recommendation. “These centres play a destructive role in Egyptian society and should be stopped and tried,” he added.

Banna said in the interview that he did not go as far as some of the radicals on the value of the sunna.

“The sunna can’t be denied,” he said. “But the hadith (alleged sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) were subject to fabrication and there are many hadith which must be excluded on objective grounds. We recognise the sunna and want it fixed, according to the standards of the Koran,” he added.

Asked about fears of doctrinal chaos in the absence of a religious hierarchy, he said: “Differences of opinion are necessary, even confusion, in order to reach the truth.”

Banna also takes a modernist position on some aspects of the Koran, such as its tolerance of slavery, saying that these were temporal matters subject to amendment as circumstances change.

Some ultra-orthodox Muslims say slavery remains legitimate today because the Koranic text applies to all times and places.

Despite their differences of opinion, Gamal el-Banna is quick to defend him his famous brother.

“He was a liberal and has been much misunderstood. He called for elections and never advocated a theocracy,” he said.

Hassan el-Banna was a leader for the masses and had to adapt advanced ideas to political realities, he said.

“I remember when I told him that, he would just listen and smile, as if to say he was responsible before the masses and this placed a limit on his freedom of action.”

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