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Muslim Brotherhood


MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD . Founded in 1928 by asan al-Bannāʾ (19061949), the Society of Muslim Brothers (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn) was created to bring Egyptian Muslims back to an awareness of the objectives of religion within a society that had, in the view of al-Bannāʾ, been corrupted by alien ideologies and a materialist philosophy imported from the West.

Historical Background

The British occupation of Egypt in 1882 had fueled a nationalist movement seeking independence from British rule; these aspirations culminated in the revolt of 1919 under the leadership of the aging politician Saʿd Zaghlūl and the newly formed Wafd ("delegation") party. The decade of the 1920s offered the Egyptians constitutional government and hopes of an impending settlement between Britain and Egypt through a negotiated treaty. When Zaghlūl died in 1927, these hopes were eroded, and a number of movements appeared as alternatives to the liberal notions of government that had not been successful, partly through interference on the part of the king and the British authorities in Egypt and partly through ineptness on the part of the parliamentarians. In addition to the fascists and the communists, these movements included the Society of Muslim Brothers, who believed that the path of reforming the country's social and political problems lay in the islamization of institutions.

asan al-Bannāʾ, a primary school teacher who was the son of a small-town religious teacher, was early attracted to Sufism, which, along with classical Islamic studies, formed his major intellectual foundations and became the linchpins of his group. He described the Muslim Brotherhood as a "Salafīyah movement [espousing return to the early principles of Islam], a Sunnī [orthodox] way, a ūfī [mystical] truth, a political organization, an athletic group, a cultural and educational union, an economic company, and a social idea." The movement spread rapidly, representing every segment of society from newly urbanized rural immigrants to high government officials. In its heyday in the 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed to represent one million members; later estimates are difficult to establish.

The structure of the organization was spelled out in the Fundamental Law of the Organization of the Muslim Brothers, promulgated in 1945 and later amended. Leading the organization was the general guide, who chaired the General Guidance Council (the policy-making body) and the Consultative or General Assembly, both of which were elective bodies. A secretary general was in charge of a secretariat linking the council and the rest of the organization. Two further subdivisions dealt with various committees (press, peasants, students, etc.) and with an administrative body supervising branches outside the capital. A chain of command was thus established over the entire membership.

Spread of the Movement

Weekly lectures, preaching in mosques, and periodic conferences allowed for popular participation, and the establishment of a press soon spread the message of the Society of Muslim Brothers further. Unconcerned with doctrinal differences, the participants concentrated on growth, action, and organization, and by 1939 they were ready for political activity. The war years were to provide them with a forum.

Nationalist agitation against the British continued with labor strikes and student demonstrations until, in 1942, the British threatened King Fārūq (Farouk) with deposition and forced him to appoint a Wafd government under Muafā al-Naās. This incident generated further support for the Muslim Brotherhood, by then the only other grouping with a mass base to rival the Wafd. Even among the Wafd leadership there were many who approved of the society as a bulwark against the spread of communism among the working class. For the next few years the society established links with disaffected officers within the army (who were later to carry out the revolution of 1952), and, unknown to even his closest colleagues, al-Bannāʾ stockpiled weapons and created a secret apparatus trained in the use of armed violence for tactical operations.

With the end of the war, agitation for the evacuation of British forces from Egypt started once again, with frequent student demonstrations and acts of violence until the British garrison was finally withdrawn to the Canal Zone. The situation in Palestine and the war against Israel in 1948 provided the Muslim Brotherhood with an opportunity to collect more arms as members volunteered during the war and remained in the forefront of the fighting until their organization was dissolved in December 1948. The immediate cause for the government's action against the society was the death of the Egyptian chief of police, Salīm Zakī, who was killed by a bomb thrown at him during student demonstrations protesting the armistice with Israel. Mass arrests followed as the government, fearing the society's growing influence, sought to proscribe it. Three weeks later, the prime minister, Maūmud Fahmī al-Nuqrāshī, was assassinated by a Muslim Brother. In February 1949 asan al-Bannāʾ was himself assassinated, probably with the complicity, if not the actual participation, of the government of the day.

After the Muslim Brotherhood was proscribed, its property confiscated, and its members put on trial, many of its remaining members fled to other Arab countries, where they founded autonomous branches of the society. In 1951 a Wafd government, seeking a buffer against rising leftist movements, allowed the society to reconvene. A judge with palace connections, asan Ismāʿil al-Huaybī, was chosen as new leader. That same year the Wafd government unilaterally abrogated the treaty of 1936 with England, and Egyptian youth, including the Muslim Brothers, were encouraged to harass British camps in the Canal Zone. In January 1952 British forces attacked the Ismailia police station, and forty Egyptian policemen were killed. On the following day Cairo was set on fire in a monstrous riot that gutted the heart of the city. The Muslim Brothers were suspected of planning the riot, which they had not, although some of them were among the many participants. From then on the country was virtually without effective government until July 23, 1952, when the Free Officers movement, which included future Egyptian presidents Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāir (Gamal Abdel Nasser) and Anwar al-Sādāt, seized power and three days later sent the king into exile.

There had been strong links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free OfficersNasser and Sadat had both been members of the society. Once all political parties had been disbanded, the only focus for mass support lay with the society. Nasser knew that it represented the lone challenge to his authority and that its leaders expected to share power with the officers; a power struggle was inevitable. In 1954 a member of the Muslim Brotherhood allegedly attempted to shoot Nasser during a public rally, and once again the society was proscribed and its members arrested.

The society remained underground throughout the Nasser era. When Sadat came to power in 1970 all prisoners were released, including the Muslim Brothers, and, to combat the Nasserite current, Sadat allowed the society to reestablish itself under the leadership of an ʿālim (religious scholar), Shaykh al-Tilimsānī, and to publish its own newspapers. Meanwhile newer associations patterned after the society, the Islamic jamāʿāt ("groups"), had appeared. Some of these were extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood; others regarded the society as retrograde and beholden to the government. It was a member of one of the latter, more extremist groups who assassinated Sadat in 1981.

Doctrines and Impact

According to the program of al-Bannāʾ, the Society of Muslim Brothers was given a mission to restore the rule of the sharīʿah (Islamic law) to Egypt, and to all other Muslim countries where their missionary activities had set up affiliates. Rule of the sharīʿah rendered inadmissible the separation of church and state, for the state, they believed, existed in order to serve religion and to facilitate the fulfillment of Islamic religious duties. The Islamic state had the Qurʾān as its constitution; its government operated through shūrā, or consultation, and the executive branch, guided by the will of the people, ruled through Islamic principles. The ruler, chosen by the people, was responsible to them and not above the law, with no special privileges. Should he fail in his duties he was to be ousted. Freedom of thought, of worship, and of expression were vital, as was freedom of education. Finally, freedom of possessions was to be maintained within the limits set by Islamic law, which frowns upon the excessive accumulation of wealth and enjoins zākāt ("alms") as a basic religious duty. Social justice was to be the guiding principle of government.

The significance of the Society of Muslim Brothers and of its modern offshoots, the jamāʿāt, is that they represent a protest movement couched in a traditional Islamic idiom that expresses the ethos of a people. The society arose in protest against a foreign occupation that threatened the identity of a people and the dissolution of its culture and religion. It spoke to people in the language they understood and appreciated, that of Islam and its historical past, and it did not posit newfangled notions derived from a Western idiom, although the society did use Western techniques of mass communications and of assembly, even ideas of government, which were garbed in Muslim idiom. As such it was comprehensible to the masses who suffered political discrimination and economic exploitation by a government that was largely indifferent to their welfare, especially during periods of economic recession. Those who were disillusioned with Western ideologies and their ability to solve Egypt's problems, or indeed the problems of any Muslim country, turned to the precepts of the society, or to similar movements that they identified with their roots and cultural authenticity (aā-lah ), for guidance and spiritual consolation. The same phenomenon was reproduced during the Sadat regime (19701981) when the "Open Door" (infitā ) policy disrupted society and led to rampant consumerism, which, exacerbated by the influx of oil money, raised fears of becoming engulfed by westernization.

Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the jamāʿāt are regarded by some Muslim regimes as dangerous foci of opposition and have thus met with violent repression. In 1982, under the regime of president āfi al-Asad, the Syrian army shelled the city of Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold; portions of the city were leveled and casualties were variously estimated at ten thousand to twenty thousand. Similar attacks were repeated in Aleppo, Homs, and Latakia. In Iraq the regime of adām usayn waged a relentless campaign against the Shīʿī group al-Daʿwah al-Islāmīyah. In Saudi Arabia Muslim militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca for several days in 1979. In Sudan the Muslim Brotherhood forced the regime of Muammad Jaʿfar al-Numayrī (Numeiri) to adopt Islamic policies in 1977. Comparable militant groups have spread to most Muslim countries irrespective of their forms of government.


Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin, 1982. A thoughtful interpretation of political ideas from major Muslim countries.

Harris, Christina Phelps. Nationalism and Revolution in Egypt. The Hague, 1964. An early study of the Muslim Brotherhood, written before much interesting material had been uncovered but useful nonetheless.

Husaini, Ishak Musa. The Moslem Brethren: The Greatest of Modern Islamic Movements. Translated by John F. Brown and John Racy. Beirut, 1956. The first account of the society, written by an uncritical admirer but containing many quotes from al-Bannāʾ.

Ibrahim, Saad Eddin. The New Arab Social Order. Boulder, 1982. A study of the effect of oil riches on Middle East society, with an excellent discussion of militant movements.

Kotb, Sayed (Qub, Sayyid). Social Justice in Islam. Translated by John B. Hardie. Washington, D. C., 1953. A major work written by a leading Muslim intellectual.

Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. Oxford, 1969. The definitive work on the society. The author died before he could bring his work up to date, but it remains the only critical account of the movement.

Wendell, Charles, trans. and ed. Five Tracts of Hasan al-Banna (19061949 ). Berkeley, 1978. Basic source documents with annotations.

Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyud Marsot (1987)

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