Egypt. Ideology and History of the Muslim Brotherhood. March, 2018

The MB was founded in Egypt in 1928 by and Islamic scholar and teacher by the name of Hassan al-Banna. He had a vision of a universal Islamic system of rule that could be attained by promoting Islamic laws and morals and by engaging society through offering social services.

The ideology of the MB is mainly focused on reform of existing political systems in the Arab world. It embraces the idea of political activism and social responsibility, organising charitable works and social support programmes as part of its outreach to its core support base of lower-income populations. The members of the MB represent a broad spectrum of interpretations of the initial ideology of Hassan al-Banna. Many members embrace a more pragmatic idea of achieving their goals, urging political participation and cooperation.

There were a couple of shifts in the MB’s ideology over the years, as they developed from an active participant in a nationalist movement to a banned group forced to operate underground and leaning towards an armed struggle for their ideology, and then back to a reformist-minded party. Throughout they have always adhered to their ideal of a society governed by Islamic laws and morals.

In its early days in Egypt, the MB was involved in the active struggle against British occupation, and also cooperated with the Free Officers movement to liberate Egypt from the monarchy. The MB officially renounced violence in the 1970s during the rule of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. They formally adopted a mandate of democracy in 1995 and their influence became apparent in professional work syndicates and social welfare work circles. To date, the countries that have labelled the MB as a “terrorist organisation” are: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.[1]

Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the modern Muslim Brotherhood movement, was highly influenced by Rashid Rida’s thought, and developed his ideas into a social organization dedicated to the implementation of those principles. Alongside the Muslim Brotherhood’s rapid expansion in the 1930s, Al-Banna wrote five risalat (letters) to his young, educated supporters. The ideas he set forth in the letters are still the pillars of the movement’s worldview.

In his ideological messages, Al-Banna defined his movement as a group of believers on a quest for the revival of Islam, seeking to establish a Sharia state based on the Quranic “law of Allah”. It is an objective Al-Banna hoped to achieve by liberating the Muslim world from any kind of foreign rule, followed by shaping a state governed by Islamic religious law. According to Al-Banna, the establishment of such a state is not the final goal. On the contrary, the new Sharia state must realize its social order in accordance with Islamic religious law and become a basis for the worldwide spread of Islam, eventually culminating in the emergence of Islamic hegemony around the globe.

Al-Banna listed seven stages to achieve these objectives, each to be carried out in a gradual fashion. The stages are divided into social and political: the first three are based on educating the individual, the family, and the entire society of the Muslim world to implement Sharia laws in every aspect of daily life. The next four stages are political by nature, and include assuming power through elections, shaping a Sharia state, liberating Islamic countries from the burden of (physical and ideological) foreign occupation, uniting them into one Islamic entity (“new caliphate”), and spreading Islamic values throughout the world.

Al-Banna’s principles still constitute the ideological foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, there occurred considerable developments in the validity of his ideological message since the end of World War II. The change stemmed mostly from the appearance of radical Muslim Brotherhood factions in Egypt following the mass arrests of their members by Nasser’s regime in the 1950s and 1960s, and the lifting of restrictions on their political participation in various Arab countries since the 1970s.

The growth of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radical faction is associated with Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), a senior ideologue in the movement’s Egyptian branch. In the 1950s and 1960s, Qutb wrote several books (some during his prison term) supplementing Al-Banna’s ideas with a radical spirit. Thus, he developed the idea of “modern jahiliyya”, according to which modern Islamic society is ignorant and has strayed from the code of conduct required by divine precepts. In this context, Qutb discussed the phenomenon of Westernization, as well as the existence of regimes based on earthly, man-made legal systems. Accordingly, in Qutb’s view the Arab regimes were considered as lacking religious and divine legitimacy (which he considered a supreme value), and thus he publicly called to resist these regimes.

Even though Qutb did not emphasize that resistance to the regimes must be violent, he created an opening for such violent activity by defining jihad for the enforcement of religious law (Sharia) in Muslim society as every Muslim’s duty. Qutb’s execution in 1966, which many saw as shahada (martyrdom for the sake of Allah), served to further disseminate his ideas. Starting from the 1970s, these ideas gained even more popularity thanks to the educational activity of his supporters, who came to Saudi Arabia and linked Qutb’s principles to those of Salafism and Wahhabism. Later, this link gave rise to the idea of global jihad and takfir (accusing others of infidelity).

Alongside the radical ideology of Qutb and his successors, another faction developed starting from the mid-1980s, also originating in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the Wasatiyya (middle ground) faction, mostly associated with a well-known Qatari cleric of Egyptian descent, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. This faction supports the idea of adjusting Islam to modern reality and religious tolerance, strongly opposes the idea of global jihad, and attempts to give religious-legal validity to changes resulting from the adoption of modern technology, social modernization (in women’s status, for example) and the need to contend with the influence of other cultures (as part of life in immigrant communities, among other things).

The messages of this school of thought focus mostly on the attempt to fight the spiritual influence of the followers of global jihad. However, despite the fact that it contains different liberal ideas, this faction’s adherence to the fundamental principles of the Sharia, without implementing a comprehensive reform in the Muslim worldview, reflects a desire to “conquer Rome” (i.e., victory over the West) and reiterates vicious anti-Semitic views. The faction supports terrorism (including suicide bombings and murder of civilians) “only” against Israel and the occupation in Iraq, while the struggle as a whole — against Middle Eastern and Western regimes — should take place through the da’wah and without the use of violence (see Chapter 11 for Qaradawi’s profile).

Since the Muslim Brotherhood supports the worldwide spread of Sunni Islam, it shares the Sunni-Shi’ite debate. Early on, the Muslim Brotherhood considered the Shi’ites an inseparable part of the Muslim nation, and even expressed support for the Islamic revolution in Iran. Afterwards, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude towards Iran grew much more hostile due to Iran’s efforts to export the revolution to the Sunni Arab domain. In recent years, and all the more so since the second Lebanon war, the question of the attitude towards the Shi’ites has reemerged once again. In general, the basis for the debate is the difference in the perception of Iran’s political role in the region.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has not reached an agreement on the stance towards Iran. Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt lead support for Iran as the “engine of resistance”, making official Egyptian observers claim that the movement’s leadership attempts to find ways to strengthen its ties with Iran to form an alliance against the Egyptian regime. On the other side of the fence are Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who on several occasions has expressed concerns over the threat of “Shi’itization” of Sunni population in Arab countries, and the leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which considers Iran an ally of Assad’s oppressive regime, responsible for the brutal suppression of the movement in Syria.

Ultimately, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood’s stance to the Shi’ites is one of ambivalence. This is a result of the built in tension between its fundamental support for the idea of “resistance”, currently led by Shi’ite Iran and implemented, among others, by Hamas, and its character as a Sunni organization par excellence, requiring a certain level of commitment to Sunni traditions that don’t take kindly to the Shi’ite faith.[2]

From the 1970s to the late 1990s, militant Islamic groups in Egypt posed the greatest challenge to the regime in terms of internal security. The number of groups was estimated at several dozens, the largest and most important being Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyya and Al-Jihad.[82] Some of them splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood due to differences of opinion over the means to achieve the goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic Sharia state and apply Islamic religious law to all spheres of life. Other groups were ideologically and organizationally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and its leaders.

The ideology of the Islamic groups is based on accusing the regime of heresy against Islam (takfir). Within militant Islam there are two conflicting ideological approaches for achieving the goal of establishing a Muslim state and society:

  1. Jihad — waging a holy war against the regime until the goal is achieved, including a violent struggle against the leaders and branches of the regime to topple it. This approach is followed by the two leading organizations, Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyya and Al-Jihad al-Islami.
  2. Al-Takfir wal-Hijra — like the regime, the society is also corrupt and rotten, and is also to blame for the current social situation. Accordingly, it is the believers’ duty to work against the infidel society, seceding from it physically and living a true Islamic life while advancing the collapse of the regime and the society. Following the collapse, the believers must assume leadership and establish a pure and just Islamic society. Until then, the believers are forbidden to mingle in society, take part in elections, or serve in government positions.

The different groups strongly oppose the West in general and Israel and the Jews in particular, believing they are largely to blame for the decline of Islam in the modern era. However, resistance to the West and Zionism is not the first priority of the groups — in their view, the war on Israel will be launched after first disposing of the Egyptian regime, their main enemy.

Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyya – Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyya is the largest and most active radical Islamic organization operating in Egypt. It was established in the late 1960s as a student organization affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the mid-1970s it splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood over differences of opinion, as it considered that organization to be too moderate in its approach towards the regime. It became institutionalized in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s formed a military wing for violent terrorist attacks. Its ties to Al-Jihad grew closer at the time, and the two organizations cooperated fully with each other, including in the assassination of President Sadat in 1981 (the assassination itself was carried out by Al-Jihad, while Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyya simultaneously attacked the security department in Asyut, killing dozens of police officers). The cooperation between the two organizations decreased following Sadat’s assassination due to disputes between their leaders.

Al-Jihad al-Islami – Al-Jihad al-Islami was established in 1975. Upon its exposure by the regime in 1978, its members were arrested and the organization was disbanded. In 1978-1979, the organization was reestablished and became at the time the largest and most powerful of its kind in Egypt at the time. Al-Jihad was exposed once again after the assassination of President Sadat. Some of its leaders were executed; others were imprisoned or put under police surveillance. It was a hard blow for Al-Jihad to recover from, and it therefore went from being a major militant organization to the second largest organization (after Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyya).

In 2000, the organization’s leadership called to “cease all hostilities against Egypt and focus on the main objective — a holy war for the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque”. While the initiative gained increasing support from the detained inside leadership and was encouraged by the regime, which publicly took positive measures towards the organization and released hundreds of its operatives, Al-Jihad’s outside leadership persisted with the same kind of operative terrorist activity as before the initiative.

In 2001, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that his organization had decided to cease anti-regime activities, but stressed the need to continue terrorist attacks against Western targets. The organization’s leadership condemned the terrorist attacks carried out in Egypt in recent years, announcing that Al-Jihad intended to launch an initiative to stop the violence, similarly to Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyya. However, it appears that the organization believes that the initiative can only be launched once Egypt has implemented political reforms, guaranteed civil rights, and given the organization’s members their political rights immediately upon their release.

Al-Takfir wal-Hijra – The organization was established in 1971 and carried out violent activities in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although its low-profile operations continued for several years afterwards. According to an announcement released by the Interior Ministry in 1989, the authorities exposed a secret radical organization established by Al-Takfir wal-Hijra members with Iranian supervision and funding. In December 1992, the Egyptian interior minister defined Al-Takfir wal-Hijra as one of the two most dangerous organizations in Egypt.

Major Al-Qaeda members who got their start in the Muslim Brotherhood – Dr. Abdullah Yousef Mustafa Azzam. Palestinian, from the village of Silat al-Harithiya, near Jenin. Al-Qaeda’s former ideologue and Osama Bin Laden’s spiritual guide. Still viewed as a role model by Hamas. His teachings emphasized the significance of jihad (war on the infidels) as a personal duty shared by all Muslims. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and died when a bomb exploded in his car in Peshawar, on November 24, 1989.

Ayman al-Zawahiri: Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s second-in-command. Joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was 14, and at a young age decided to turn Sayyid Qutb’s vision of an Islamic government into reality. He was arrested following Sadat’s assassination, charged with possession of arms, and sentenced to three years in prison. After his release, he moved his focus of activities outside of Egypt (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen).[3]

The BBC in its news profile of December 2013 stated: ‘Founded by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood – or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Arabic – has influenced Islamist movements around the world with its model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work… ‘The movement initially aimed simply to spread Islamic morals and good works, but soon became involved in politics, particularly the fight to rid Egypt of British colonial control and cleanse it of all Western influence… ‘While the Ikhwan say that they support democratic principles, one of the group’s stated aims is to create a state ruled by Islamic law, or Sharia. Its most famous slogan, used worldwide, is “Islam is the solution.” [4]

In the published main findings of the UK Government’s review of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was noted that the group was dissolved in 1954 ‘which led to the arrest, torture and execution of many members and the co-option of others’. The MB were, however, rehabilitated under President ‘Sadat 20 years later. In the 1970s the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt expanded, established a foothold within the Egyptian political system and took a firm hold on student organisations, professional syndicates and trades unions. It also developed a large, sophisticated and often clandestine network of commercial enterprises, small businesses and charities. [5]

The Council for Foreign Relations noted in January 2014: ‘The MB… has spawned Sunni Islamist groups throughout the Arab world. Banned from politics for its early aim of overthrowing the Egyptian government, the Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s and earned popular support by providing social services such as pharmacies, hospitals and schools.’ [6]

The MB stated in 2013 that its members number over a million. The majority rank-and-file are said to be lower-middle-class, but leaders are often doctors and businessmen. Each pays a portion of their income to help fund the movement.[7]

Janes provided a brief description of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities: The Muslim Brotherhood’s activities are social, economic, charitable, and political. Indeed, its supporters often refer to the Muslim Brotherhood’s “society” and its plan to “enable” itself to govern starting at a grassroots level. The group emphasised the building social acceptance of Islamist ideas and its own soft power until it is in a position to govern. Its relationship with the state historically swung among direct military conflict, support, and silent opposition… [the Muslim Brother gained power in 2011 but were subsequently ousted by the military in 2013 which] triggered an ongoing confrontation between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood, with the youth wing adopting terrorist tactics against the state and foreign interests allied to it, and the older generation adhering to mostly peaceful unrest. The organisation is now banned. Its members cannot participate publicly in political life, and their assets are targeted for expropriation. The Al-Wasat Party and Strong Egypt Party are both offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Proponents of the violent approach to opposition are likely to continue with a campaign of targeted assassinations against state officials for as long as the military remain opposed to negotiation.’ [8]

Khalil al-Anani, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Dohar Institute for Graduate Studies, writing in Al Jazeera, observed: ‘Since the coup of 2013, the Brotherhood has seen myriad organisational, political and ideological divisions. [President al] Sisi’s repression has divided the movement and created significant differences among members over several issues, ranging from the position towards the regime to its political, ideological and religious views.

‘These divisions have shaped the Brotherhood’s strategy and tactics on how to respond to Sisi’s repression. Organisationally, with many of its senior members in prison and exile, the Brotherhood is facing a crisis of leadership. The gap between the older and younger leaders is increasing and affecting the movement’s strategy.

‘Over the past three years, the Brotherhood has been divided into two camps: the old and conservative leaders versus the young and revolutionary members. The latter have gained influence over the movement because of their tendency to confront the regime… The new and relatively young leadership formed a committee called “The High Administrative Committee” and was led by Mohamed Kamal, a former member of Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau who was assassinated by security forces last October.

‘The new committee claimed leadership over the movement against veteran leaders such as Mahmoud Ezzat, the acting General Guide of the Brotherhood, who is believed to be hiding in Egypt, Mahmoud Hussein, the secretary-general of the movement, and Ibrahim Munir, who was appointed Deputy of the General Guide and has been in London since the late 1980s.

‘In December [2016], the High Administrative Committee was dissolved and the formation of a new Guidance Bureau declared, which was rejected by the old leadership.

‘Also, for the first time in its history, the Brotherhood is divided between internal and external leadership. Senior members who fled to Turkey after the coup have formed a new office called the External Office to run and supervise the Brotherhood’s members and activities overseas.’

‘Politically, the Brotherhood is divided on how to deal with regime repression and which strategy it should adopt to remain relevant. ‘While the new leadership has adopted a confrontational and non-compromising position, the old leadership tends to accommodate regime repression and keeps the door open for bargaining and reconciliation with the regime. ‘The new leadership of the Brotherhood finds support and appeal among young members, as they see it as more revolutionary and willing to challenge the regime.’[9]

Alaraby reported in an article following the Palm Sunday Bombings of a Christian church and cathedral in April 2017 that, at least, some elements of the MB accused the government of being responsible for the attacks and ongoing violence generally: ‘The Egyptian regime had a hand in the twin church bombings that killed dozens on Palm Sunday, the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood has said. ‘The Islamist group accused Egyptian authorities on Sunday of complicity in the deadly bomb attacks in the Nile Delta cities of Tanta and Alexandria, which killed at least 44 people.

‘”Fascist regimes have taken a unified approach in their struggle to ensure their survival by creating an imaginary enemy called terrorism to cover up their failure and garner the sympathy of ordinary people,” the banned group said in a statement. ‘”We accuse the…regime of orchestrating or facilitating the two incidents,” it said. ‘”The Muslim Brotherhood condemns this painful incident and professes its innocence of the innocent blood that has been spilt,” the statement added.

‘Qatar-based prominent Muslim theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is close to the Brotherhood, also denounced the Palm Sunday attacks. ‘”We condemn all attacks on peaceful souls and confirm that these crimes are inconsistent with religious laws, ethics and customs. Those who have done this will face great torment,” Qaradawi tweeted.[10]

[1] Al Jazeera; Article “What is Muslim Brotherhood?” published: 18 June, 2017; available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/06/muslim-brotherhood-explained-170608091709865.html [accessed 1 march 2018]

[2] Crethi Plethi; Middle East Affairs Information Center; The Muslim Brotherhood – Chapter 2: The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood; 19 June, 2011; available at: http://www.crethiplethi.com/the-ideology-of-the-muslim-brotherhood/global-islam/2011/ [accessed 1 March 2018]

[3] Crethi Plethi; Middle East Affairs Information Center; The Muslim Brotherhood – Chapter 12: Islamic jihadist organizations in Egypt ideologically originating in the Muslim Brotherhood; 19 June, 2011; available at: http://www.crethiplethi.com/islamic-jihadist-organizations-in-egypt-ideologically-originating-in-the-muslim-brotherhood/global-islam/2011/ [accessed 1 March 2018]

[4] BBC News Profile; Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; 25 December, 2013; available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12313405 [accessed 19 February, 2018]

[5] UK Government; Muslim Brotherhood Review: Main Findings, para 10; 17 December, 2015; available at:

. [accessed 19 February, 2018]

[6] Council on Foreign Affairs – CFA Backgrounder; Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; January 2014; available at: http://www.cfr.org/egypt/egypts-muslim-brotherhood/p23991 [accessed 19 February, 2018]

[7] The Guardian; Who are the Muslim Brotherhood?; 2 April, 2013; available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/02/who-are-the-muslim-brotherhood [accessed 19 February, 2018]

[8] United Kingdom: Home Office, Country Policy and Information Note – Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood , 26 July 2017, v 3.0, available at:

[accessed 19 February 2018]

[9] Al Jazeera; What happened to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood? By Khalil al-Anani, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Dohar Institute for Graduate Studies; 15 February, 2017; available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/02/happened-egypt-muslim-brotherhood-170212130839987.html [accessed 19 February 2018]

[10] AlAraby; Muslim Brotherhood denounces Egypt church bombings, blames Sisi regime; 10 June, 2017; available at: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2017/4/10/muslim-brotherhood-denounces-egypt-church-bombings-blames-sisi-regime [accessed 19 February 2018]