May 5, 2014 By Abdul Basith

Gamal al Banna – a Life of Defiance


The images that comes to one’s mind on hearing the name ‘al Banna’ in Egypt is that of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). But what Gamal al Banna the youngest brother of MB founder Hassan al Banna upheld throughout his life was altogether just the opposite.

His life proved that progressive thoughts could not only make one liberal in his stands and moderate in his approach, but make one stand apart as an individual challenging all institutional powers. It was on January 30th 2013 that the 93-year-old passed away and Egypt seems to have lost the great visionary in the most desperate times, at this crucial juncture of the Egyptian history when a tolerant and more liberal Islam advocated by him was gaining significance.

His eldest brother Hassan al Banna made some sincere attempts to demonstrate how political Islam could serve the purpose of fighting out the foreign hands and invasions to Egypt. Gamal al Banna in turn was even more worried about how dictatorial Islam could turn out after revolution. He knew that the change and reformations advocated by MB was a necessity but he didn’t want them to dictate the country after revolution. He knew how authoritative the clergy interpretations of Islam could turn out in the post revolution Egypt, once they assume power.

Gamal had great respect and mutual understandings with his eldest brother but joining the movement was never an option for him. He instead criticised the movement from outside and had to face the wrath of the devout Muslims who blindly believed that an MB revolution and the Islamists assuming power were the only way out for Egypt. It was not just that he wanted a separation of religion and state and instead went on to attack Islamic conservatism prevalent in Egypt with regards to women, secularism, democracy, apostasy etc..

A ‘stand out’ from the very young age:

When all his elder brothers including the eldest Hasan al Banna were educated in religious schools at Al Mahmoudiya, with his family deciding to move to Cairo he had the fortune of entering the public schools and was trained under the secular education system of the early 1900’s. His only hobby was reading and his fellow children even started calling him “the philosopher”. The rebel in him was out at the very early age as he didn’t like the education system there. He wanted to be a writer unlike his fellow mates who wanted to be doctors and lawyers. He had a fight with his English teacher, quit the school and decided to study on his own.

He did not attend Al Azhar because he didn’t want to be part of the system just like others. By the time he had developed an interest in religious ideology, he started his own studies and interpretations of Quran and Prophet’s traditions. Though there were strong contentions between the ever growing power of infant MB and Gamal, he helped run the group’s printing press and the reason was that, as an aspiring writer, the opportunity his brother gave him was immense, helping to establish a career that has been marked by scores of published books and articles on Islam and its principles [By Joseph Mayton,, February 2nd 2013].

His independent learning in Islam went on to the extent of writing and translating over 150 books and one among his books attacked and thrown doubt over 653 of the hadiths written by Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim (considered the most sacred sources of Islam after the Quran).

These criticisms endeared him to the liberal Muslims worldwide, the Arab autocrats who feared an Islamic revolution in their own respective republics and to the west which considered MB a potential threat, but not quite often after coming to know about his harsh criticisms against the Arab regimes and of the foreign policies of western countries like the US and Israel.

None could take him for granted:

Through his criticisms, independent thoughts and willingness to stand by justice Gamal al Banna was thus challenging the West as well as the Islamists and this way he denied the Egyptian Islamists the monopoly of opposing the foreign hands in Egypt and the Western policies worldwide. The Muslim liberals, the West or the Arab autocrats could never take him for granted or celebrate his quotes even when he harshly criticised the MB and other hardliners because he was actually in his own ways forming an intellectual front against them in a civilian manner, on the basis of his worldviews and deep readings of religious ideology – that was quickly becoming a part of everyday Egyptian society.

With the MB turning more political with time, he distanced himself further from Brotherhood because he strongly believed that there cannot be a civil state with Islamic reference. “If this happens it will become a religious state, even if it is not like the Iranian model of a religious state, in which the clergy rules the country,” he said in May 2011 [, Thu, January 31, 2013].

He often provoked the conservatives by ardently opposing Shariah-based-governance and by even calling the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi a “tyrant.” He went on to argue that Hijab worn by Muslim women has no Islamic justification and that Islam finds nothing wrong in men and women being allowed to embrace in public. He always maintained the belief that additions can be made to Shariah law, and that elements can also be removed from it, based on the principle of justice, which is the guiding principle in the Quran.

It was of a great shock to the West and liberal Muslims that the very same Gamal al Banna signed a communiqué by Egyptian Islamic and nationalist figures blaming the US policy after the 9/11. Marking the fifth anniversary of the 9/11, Sheikh Al-Bana published an article praising the 9/11 attacks, which he called “extremely courageous”. In the article, al Banna presented the attacks as “dreadful and splendid” and “a new way of settling old accounts”. The article, which enraged Muslim liberals, stated that such attacks, and such acts of “martyrdom” as Palestinian suicide bombings, will in the future be the lot of the US and Europe, and will be carried out by residents of Europe and the US, as long as “barbaric capitalism and the enslavement of the people” continues. He even expressed his support for Iran’s nuclear program, and called on Egypt to sign a joint defence agreement with Iran, under which the latter would provide nuclear aid to Egypt in the event of war with Israel. He wrote that Israel was the real enemy of Egypt, and Egypt should be prepared for confrontation with it. [The Middle East Media Research Institute, March 16, 2007].

Gamal al Banna was thus challenging the institutional powers within religion and through his political extremism was questioning the popular concepts regarding ‘rights and wrongs’ worldwide. He strongly believed that only the state terrorism can be called “terrorism”. His responses to all oppressions and injustices were always in a civil manner and not religious as his elder brother Hassan al Banna. He wanted the Muslim world to think critically and independently. When he was not the leader of a mass or a revolutionary movement, he was a correcting force and no way a lesser rebel than what his elder brother Hassan al Banna was.

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