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Ikhwan Al-Muslimin


The first modern Islamic mass movement, the Society of the Muslim Brothers (Jam˓iyyat al-ikhwan al-Muslimin), was born in Ismailia, Egypt, in 1928. Its founder, Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949), was from a pious Muslim home and inherited his father's Salafiyya (reformist) orientation. He was strongly affected by both the rigor and devotion of Sufism and the nationalist spirit of the 1919 anti-British uprising. Upon graduating in 1927, he was appointed to teach primary school in the Suez Canal town of Ismailia, where he called people to fervently practice Islam (da˓wa).

There al-Banna founded a society which, in its first four years, built a mosque, a boys school, and a girls school. The society's branches multiplied around the country, founding numerous Qur˒an schools, clinics, and hospitals, and establishing a system of cooperative insurance for its poorer members. In the 1930s it rapidly developed its own distinctive characteristics, enabling it to endure and continue to play a key religious and sociopolitical role in many Muslim countries until today.

Features of the Ikhwan

The Society of the Muslim Brothers aims to bring complete spiritual revival (nahda) to society under Islam—a vision encompassing the moral reformation of youth through physical training, sports, religious and ideological indoctrination, social welfare, national pride, resistance against foreign domination, and the establishment of a state run by Islamic norms. Its members share an activist ethos, critical of traditional Islam, as well as a certain pragmatism that sanctions the use of Western ideas and technology as a tool to advance Islam. Its founder's unique talents and sense of divine call was evidenced by his celibacy and his tireless self-sacrifice in visiting the society's branches all over Egypt, as well as a commitment to writing, speaking, and organizing.

The society enjoyed phenomenal growth right from the start. Although it could boast only 5 branches in 1930, that number had jumped to 2,000 in 1949; by 1941 the society had become so influential that the British had the Egyptian prime minister arrest al-Banna and his lieutenant, Ahmad al-Sukkari, but he soon released them without British permission, fearing that their continued imprisonment would touch off a revolt that would topple his government.

The society was organized in a tight, hierarchical structure. Executive power was vested in the General Guide (almurshid al-˓amm), who was supported by a General Guidance Bureau (Maktab al-irshad al-˓amm) whose members numbered fifteen in 1934 and who were handpicked by the General Guide. During the 1930s, most administrative tasks were carried out by a Central Consultative Council (the Majlis al-shura al-markazi)—a structure which required centralization—at the district level (al-dawa˒ir), of which there were eighty-nine in 1937. The society possessed an efficient system for recruiting, training, and multiplying cadres and, over time, several levels of commitment were developed. For instance, the Rover scouting movement (jawwala) emphasized teaching (ta˓rif) with summer camps, athletic training, prayers, Qur˒anic study, and charitable work. The Battalions (al-Kata˒ib, meaning "formation") were added in 1937 and were composed of one to four subgroups of ten members, each subgroup being headed by a deputy (mandub), to whom the local members pledged an oath of strict obedience, discipline, and secrecy. Later, al-Banna replaced the Battalions with the "cooperative family" (usra).

A third level of commitment (tanfidh, "execution") materialized around 1940, when al-Banna founded the Special Apparatus, which served as the secret military branch of the organization. Current research suggests, however, that pressure from his more militant members led al-Banna to allow the formation of the Special Apparatus earlier than he might have personally chosen, and that he worked hard to maintain its low profile during the period of the Second World War.

The society's core belief was that, just as the Prophet ruled in Medina, there could be no Islamic society without an Islamic state. But in the 1930s and 1940s, al-Banna explicitly sought to reform society though education and to foster Islamic principles within the existing government. Although he condemned the multiparty system, he sought to increase the Ikhwan's political influence within the Palace and the Wafd parties. The Brotherhood's clear ideological stance of social justice and championing the rights of the educated lower classes, peasants, and urban poor presented a strong challenge to ruling elites.

Ikhwan Milestones

The evolution of the Ikhwan reveals unresolved inner tensions between the moderate and pragmatic option chosen by al-Banna and more militant options that would seek immediate military overthrow of the state. In 1939 dissenters broke off from the Brotherhood to form the more militant Muhammad's Youth. In 1947 and 1948 al-Banna collaborated with the Arab League to send arms, money, and some of his trained units as volunteers for the Palestinian resistance. Further, in 1948, in a climate of great unrest, the Ikhwan's organization (including its publications arm) was shut down, and al-Banna was placed under house arrest. In response, in December of that year, the Egyptian prime minister was assassinated by some Ikhwan brothers. Al-Banna publicly condemned this action, but was himself assassinated in February 1949 by government agents.

The Ikhwan reached the zenith of its influence in 1952, after the "Free Officers" revolution, but consequently drew the ire of Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser. Legally dissolved in January 1954, the Brotherhood was decimated: Six of its top leaders were hanged publicly, and thousands of members were imprisoned. Since then the organization has remained mostly underground, yet its activities nonetheless have exerted a powerful influence at the grassroots.

Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), after a three-year assignment in the United States for the Ministry of Education, returned in 1951 as a convert to the Ikhwan's version of Islam and became the Brotherhood's chief ideologue. Arrested and tortured with others in the movement in 1954, he spent most of the rest of his life in prison. This is where he wrote two of his most influential works, a voluminous Qur˒anic commentary, Fi zilal al-Qur˒an (1952–1965, In the shade of the Qur˒an), and Ma˓alim fi al-tariq (1964, Signposts along the way), which inspired an entire generation of more radical Islamist groups. Central to his writings were his identification of Nasser with Pharaoh, and the bulk of Muslims with the "ignorant" people who preceded Islam in Arabia (al-jahiliyya). Under these conditions, he wrote, only through violent jihad could a truly Islamic state be instituted.

Four milestones can be discerned since the 1980s, with the mainstream of the Ikhwan increasingly turning toward peaceful, progressive methods of implementing Islamic law (shari˓a). Between 1974 and 1981 there appeared several militant groups, including al-Jihad, which was responsible for Anwar al-Sadat's assassination in 1981. Between 1981 and 1988 the Brotherhood founded a number of Islamic investment companies and joined with other political parties in order to have its people elected to parliament. In 1984, the Brotherhood claimed twelve parliamentary seats, and in 1987 that number rose to thirty-eight seats. The Mubarak government (1981 to the present) has cracked down on Islamic businesses and, with a failing economy, Egypt has witnessed greater violence on the part of Islamists targeting police and tourists. At the same time, the influence of the Brotherhood has been felt in all strata of society, especially within professional syndicates. Since 1998, the violence has lessened, and a new party has broken off from the Brotherhood. This is the Wasat ("middle ground"), which includes both Christians and women. Some analysts view this as possibly the dawning of a "post-Islamist" era in Egypt.

The Ikhwan in Syria and Jordan

The Ikhwan spread their message into Syria in the mid 1930s, chiefly through students returning home from Egypt. In addition, Hasan al-Banna visited Syria in 1946, after which the movement officially entered Syrian politics as the Islamic Brotherhood Party. Its first General Secretary (al-muraqib al-˓amm) was Mustafa al-Siba˒i, an al-Azhar graduate.

When the Syrian Ikhwan entered the fray of democratic politics, some Brotherhood members entered parliament, while others accepted ministerial portfolios. This stopped, however, after the Ba˓thist coup of 1963. The general secretary, ˓Issam al-˓Attar, chose self-exile in Europe, and the rest kept to a more traditional Brotherhood role. In their place, new Islamist groups rose up, with militant names and agendas.

The coming to power of Hafiz al-Asad in 1970 inaugurated a second round of confrontation between the Syrian Ikhwan and an authoritarian, socialist regime, The Brotherhood succeeded in securing benefits mostly for the poorest minority, the Alawis, who were considered a heretical sect by the Sunni majority of the urban elites. Al-Asad's strategy against the Ikhwan was two-pronged. First, he began to include more Islamic symbols in Syria's political and cultural life; second, he mercilessly repressed the Islamist groups that had launched a campaign of assassinations in Syria in the 1970s. Al-Asad's policies culminated in the massacre of more than ten thousand civilians in the city of Hama in 1982.

In the 1990s, the Syrian government permitted a timid liberalization of the economy, aiming to revive the private sector, and thus lessening some tension between itself and the Islamists, who mostly came from the petite bourgeoisie. Also, noticing the growing Islamization of Syrian society as elsewhere, al-Asad initiated a mosque-building campaign, and sought to coopt the moderate elements among the Ikhwan. At the turn of the century Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Asad, elected to pursue his father's course, and the Brotherhood joined other parties to call for greater political openness and respect for human rights.

By contrast, King ˓Abdallah of Jordan encouraged the founding of the Jordanian Ikhwan in the 1940s, and that tradition of common alliance against communism continued under King Hussein. Despite their differences, the Jordanian Ikhwan's reformist stance never moved beyond a loyal opposition to a monarchy proud of its Islamic legitimacy. The political reforms introduced by King Hussein in 1989 marked a new era by opening the way for multiparty parliamentary elections. The Ikhwan ran candidates with good results, winning twenty-two seats out of eighty, with twelve more going to independent Islamic candidates.

The Jordanian Brotherhood then joined the cabinet, but it has not been able to capitalize on its early momentum. First, their inexperience in legislative politics showed, as accusations of inefficiency and mismanagement were levelled against several of their elected members. Second, its moderation has tended to radicalize the smaller, more militant Islamic offshoots. One group, started by mostly Afghan returnees (Muhammad's Army), began a series of attacks in 1991. Eight were arrested and tried in a military court. Although the king later commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment, the strong message from the palace was clear. This and other instances of violence and repression worked to discredit the Islamists. Third, when a new round of elections came in 1993, the king changed the election law, thus weakening the chances of a new Ikhwan-controlled Islamist coalition, the Islamic Work Party. The outcome was predictable: poor voter turnout, and less than half of the original seats for the Islamists.

The failed peace process between Palestine and Israel has rendered relations with the Brotherhood all the more delicate for King Abdallah II, due to Jordan's majority Palestinian population. As in Syria, the Brotherhood in Jordan is committed to nonviolence and multiparty democracy, but the question remains: How long they will be able to contain the anger and frustration of the lower classes?

The Ikhwan in Sudan

The Sudanese Muslim Brothers' Society officially came into being as an extension of its Egyptian counterpart when Hasan al-Banna appointed a director general in 1949. Already, an indigenous movement had started to operate among students under the name Islamic Liberation Movement. The various strands of politically minded Muslims, mostly in university circles, banded together in the years following independence (1956), forming an Islamist coalition and pressing for an "Islamic" constitution. By the early 1960s the movement emerged as a political party called the Islamic Charter Front (Jabhat al-Mithaq al-Islami), and from this time forth, the leader for the Ikhwan strand of Islamism became Hasan al-Turabi, who in 1962 had just returned from his studies in Britain.

In spite of the Front's participation in two elections and its success in getting the Communist Party banned from Sudanese politics, it remained weakened by internal divisions. Two main tendencies vied for control, both inherited from the Egyptian mother organization. Of these, the "political" option, led by Turabi, believed that achieving power in the political sphere was a prerequisite for Islamization. A second, "educationalist" option prioritized indoctrination and reform. By 1969 Turabi's ideology had prevailed.

At first the military coup of 1969, led by Colonel Ja˓far Nimeiri (Ar. Numayri), established a seemingly irreversible trend toward secularism and thus, during most of the 1970s, the Ikhwan joined forces with the opposition, participating in three failed coup attempts. Then, in 1977, as Nimeiri saw his own support base eroding, he began to call for a rapprochement with Islamic parties. The Ikhwan rallied to his side, along with the leader of the Umma Party, Sadiq al-Mahdi (who was also Turabi's brother-in-law). This enabled the Islamists to implement an impressive strategy aimed toward becoming a mass movement poised to take over the state. They achieved this by using their new-found freedom to recruit followers outside the university setting; by gaining experience in statesmanship by participating in the Nimeiri government; and by exploiting an experiment in "Islamic banking" to build an extensive Islamist business network. Their campaign to Islamize society succeeded so well that Nimeiri decreed the enactment of the shari˓a penal laws (hudud) in 1983.

A popular uprising in 1985 enabled Suwar al-Dhahab to topple Nimeiri through a military coup, and in the elections of 1986 the Ikhwan candidates successfully ran as the leaders of the new National Islamic Front (NIF). Their influence continued to rise, to the point that most observers believe that the military coup led by Omar al-Bashir in 1989 was actually staged by the Ikhwan. Certainly, until the fallout between Bashir and Turabi in 2000–2001, Sudan was ruled by the NIF, with Turabi as its chief ideologue.

The 1990s were marked by a hardening of the NIF's one-party authoritarian regime, the imposition of an intolerant Islamization of Sudanese northern society, and the intensification of the war against the southern forces—a civil war that since 1983 has killed over two million people. Though Turabi's writings project a progressive and almost liberal Islamist position on democracy and human rights, the United Nations' International Labor Organization and numerous human rights groups have protested the use of torture, ethnic cleansing, and the return of slavery to the Sudan. The Sudanese situation in the early 2000s appears as precarious as ever, unless Bashir's post-Turabi regime develops a more open Islamist political agenda.

See alsoBanna, Hasan al- ; Fundamentalism ; Qutb, Sayyid ; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa ; Turabi, Hasan al- .


Hinnebusch, Raymond A. "State and Islamism in Syria." In Islamic Fundamentalism. Edited by Abdel Salam Sidahmed and Anoushirami. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.

Lia, Brynjar. The Society of Muslim Brothers: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement. Reading, U.K.: Ithaca, 1998.

Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of Muslim Brothers. Foreword by John O. Voll. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Sihahmed, Abdel Salam. Politics and Islam in Contemporary Sudan. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon, 1997.

David L. Johnston

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