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Home > Resources > Tributes to Egypt’s secular dissident brother, Gamal Al-Banna

Tributes to Egypt’s secular dissident brother, Gamal Al-Banna

Saturday 16 March 2013, by siawi3

Egypt’s lost hero: Gamal al-Banna
Joseph Mayton Posted date: February 02, 2013 In: Culture, Egypt, Latest News | comment : 5
Egypt’s lost hero: Gamal al-Banna Egypt’s Gamal el-Banna passed away on Wednesday.


Egypt’s Gamal al-Banna passed away on Wednesday at the age of 92. The younger brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, Gamal was one of the few people in Egypt who could talk with authority about Islam, secularism, education and the changing of Egyptian society for the past 7 decades. He was a man who not only was honest, but had was stalwart in his ability to discuss issues that few dared touch. He will be sorely missed by the country, especially at a time when compromise, tolerance and understanding have seemingly been forgotten in the post-revolution atmosphere.

I had the privilege of meeting with the man on numerous occasions over the past 10 years. The most memorable time was showing up at his office in downtown Cairo as he was receiving his weekly haircut. He was all smiles and emitted a sense of joy. We can only hope that going forward, his message and intellect will not be forgotten in these dark times for Egypt. Below is an article that appeared on about this warrior.

The name Al Banna conjures images of the Muslim Brotherhood and conservatism up in one’s mind that it is often difficult for the brother of the Islamist group to move from the edifice that has ensnared the Al Banna name for nearly 8 decades. But Gamal, the younger brother of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’s founder and iconic figure Hassan Al Banna, has found a niche as a progressive thinker in the ever-growing radicalism of Egyptian society.

“The way I was raised was totally different from my brothers, especially my late brother, Hasan Al Banna,” the leader in the revisionist Islamic movement begins, “but we all had religious roots in common due to my family’s strong faith.”

When the younger Gamal was only four-years-old, his family moved from the small town of Al Mahmoudiya, some 30 minutes from Alexandria, to Cairo, where he would enter public schools and the secular education system of the 1920s. This was in stark contrast to his elder brother, Hassan, who had been educated in a religious school back in their town.

Due to poor health when he was a child, Gamal was unable to play with other children, resulting in his in love for literature and reading. Without the open space to mingle among his peers in Cairo, Gamal said that he developed early on a sense that his purpose was education and scholarly work.

“My only hobby was reading,” Al Banna said in his Cairo office lined with bookshelves of thousands upon thousands of books from floor to ceiling. “In secondary school, the other children called me the philosopher because I read so much.”

He has been defiant since his early years. He lambasted the education system of his childhood and rebelled against the rigid structures that were established then and remain today.

“Ever since I was a child, I didn’t like the system of education here. I always wanted to be a writer, not like other Egyptians who want to be doctors or lawyers, but writers do not have a conception in university. In secondary school, I had a fight with my English teacher and I decided to study on my own.”

His sense of duty became a part of his personality from an early age after witnessing the historical events that led to the 1952 revolution.

“I was overwhelmed with civil rights. I paid attention to labor rights, labor movements and women’s rights. I always felt that women’s ignorance is a reflection of society and my beliefs came about in a civil manner, not religious like my brother.”

“I always prayed that I would not live as a bourgeoisie and not write as academics do. I believed that European civilization was based on humanity, liberty and freedom and this was a main influence on me,” he argues.

Ironically, it was his reading and learning of the European cultural traditions that led Al Banna back to Islam. At the height of the coming Egyptian revolution in the late 1940s, the then mid-twenty-year-old began to take an interest in religious ideology that was quickly becoming a part of everyday society.

“The Islamic part of my life began to take form after a while, but I decided not to take part in the system like others, so I did not attend Al Azhar. My beliefs depended on my own studies, my own reading of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s statements and my own interpretations, not from a sheikh.

However, his beliefs did not fit with the growing power of the infant Muslim Brotherhood. Although he helped run the group’s printing press, it was not as a member of his brother’s organization. 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.

But, he would never join his brother’s group, saying that he prefers an open and free society where religion is not a base for contention among a country’s citizens. This has led to some contention between the Brotherhood and Gamal.

“My brother and I had mutual respect for one another and we often discussed different views of Islam,” he tells.

Hassan Al Banna, he continues, was not the conservative figure that people have made him out to be in recent times. Gamal argues that his brother was more liberal and open than many give him credit.

“He [Hassan Al Banna] grew up in the most liberal period in Egyptian modern history, but at the same time he was a leader of the masses and as they grew more conservative he had to change his message for the people, as any leader would do. Because of this, the people did not allow him to spread his liberal thinking as much as could have been.”

It was during his time at the Brotherhood’s printing press that his ideas on faith and history began to take form, which would soon come to encompass his way of thinking and made joining his brother’s movement not an option.

“I figured out that there are two kinds of Islam: Islam of scholars and Islam of history.”

His progressive nature was etched almost immediately after finishing university, when he began to write about the need for people to be open in their understanding and thinking of religion. Al Banna points to the early history of Islam as a guiding principle, even in the modern era 1400 years later.

“I began to understand that the Islam of the Prophet and first few decades of the religion differs greatly from the Empire that was built only 40 years after the Prophet died. Back then, there used to be intellectual freedom,” he says, which is something that has been lost in the centuries since.

“Islam is tolerant and does not have a church-like system as other religions. There are not supposed to be religious ranks. But, at the same time as this tolerance, the rulers began to be very authoritarian. They allowed people to pray as much as they wanted, but if they stepped into criticizing the government it would be the end of them,” he laughs, pointing to the fact that not much has changed in 1,000 years.

That intellectual freedom is at the heart of Al Banna’s revisionist attitude and openness to religious debate. He has been outspoken on a number of issues despite the constant criticism and attacks that have been thrown his direction.

He sparked the ire of the conservatives by going on pan-Arabic news network Al Arabiya and arguing that men and women should be allowed to embrace in public. These comments came only a short time after publishing a book on the higab, which sparked an uproar among conservative women adorning the niqab, the full veil that covers the face and eyes.

But the criticism does not bother him rather it pushes the 89-year-old further. He says that these are simply his views and that people should “think for themselves about their own faith and how they want to live their lives.”

Al Banna believes that Islam is a religion of the people and that it should be the individual who chooses how to practice their faith outside movements or religious groups.

“My Islam is based on humanity,” he argues.

He will not be forgotten.


Mourning Gamal al-Banna

By Author Ursula Lindsey


Gamal al-Banna died yesterday, at 92. The progressive Islamic thinker was the younger brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. He took a markedly different direction from his more famous sibling, writing books such as “My Coptic Siblings;” “The Muslim Woman, Liberated by the Quran and Enchained by the Fuqaha’;” and “A Refutation of the Call to Punish Apostasy.”

On the several occasions when I visited him in his office in Cairo — the repository of a dense library with many rare old books, which he dearly loved — he was funny, gracious and daring, the rare Islamic scholar with the guts to roundly dismiss Salafis as examples of “the outmost ignorance” and to tease: “The only way they can go back to the early days of Islam is if they can produce another Prophet Muhammad, another Abu Bakr.”

In our last interview, on the pledges of contemporary Islamist groups to “apply Sharia,” he argued that the Sunnah (the enormous collection of reported sayings and doings of the Prophet, on which much Islamic jurisprudence is based) are largely unreliable; that correctly interpreted the Koran would almost never lead to the application of the hudud (the infamous corporal punishments such as the cutting of hands); and that “another, better word of Sharia is justice [...] If a society implements freedom and justice, it can implement Sharia.”

I was looking forward to more conversations with him. After the jump, an excellent obituary and overview of his work from the Arab-West Report.

Arab-West Report, January 30, 2013

In Memoriam
Jamāl al-Bannā (1920-2013)

World Bulletin/ News Desk

Jamāl al-Bannā, a great friend of Arab-West Report, passed away today at the age of 93. Jamāl al-Bannā, born in 1920, was the younger brother of Hassan al-Bannā, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose policies he rejected. Jamāl al-Bannā was widely perceived by Egyptians as a liberal thinker because he voiced disparate opinions from those of the more traditional-thinking Muslims. But, in a meeting in 2009 with Dutch journalist Eildert Mulder about the origin of Islam, it was clear he accepted the critique on the historicity of the hadith, but rejected the textual critique by European revisionist scholars on the text of the Qur’an. Thus, where liberal European theologians would accept a textual critique on the Bible, the liberalism of Jamāl al- Bannā did not extend far enough that he would accept a similar analysis of the Qur’anic text. He described the text in the discussion with Mulder as a great symphony that one cannot take apart in order to analyze individual aspects.

Most meetings with al-Bannā, including the meeting with Mulder, took place in his library in his home. Here he felt most at home between his collection of thousands of books. Though printed in Dutch, as a good bibliophile he took Mulder’s book on the sources of Islam and added it to his impressive collection.

In 2006, al-Bannā published a book on his Coptic brethren. He showed great sympathy for Coptic Christians in Egypt, but was also critical of Church hierarchy for being authoritarian and politicizing. I introduced al-Banna to Ayad Mossad, a Dutch Copt who was then the chairman of the Stichting Arab-West Foundation, which was followed by Mossad’s book review.

Around this period he also wrote his comment about CIDT in an Egyptian newspaper. He then mistakenly referred to CIDT as a Christian organization. CIDT covers Muslim-Christian issues and works with interns from mainly Christian countries, but has always aimed to remain religiously neutral.

Al-Banna spoke with respect about his brother Hassan (1906-1949), who became known as the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. In meetings he stated that his brother had started in Sufi circles and only later entered politics. Al-Banna also believed that if his brother would not have been assassinated in 1949, he probably could have played a role in preventing the radicalization that later occurred.

These experiences with al-Banna were characteristic of his individualism. He was an original thinker, not afraid to be divert from mainstream beliefs, such as a controversial claim a few years ago stating that it was permitted to smoke during Ramadan. He was not willing to compromise on what he believed to be true himself. Jamāl al-Bannā has often been presented as a scholar and an
academic, but he was not and never claimed to be. The work that I was able to see was often not well researched. He was well-read, but lacked the scrutiny of an academic.

Jamāl al-Bannā was not only an ardent writer and speaker on religious and political subjects, but also active in society. In the early 1950’s, al-Bannā joined the Egyptian labor movement and wrote about syndicate-related issues for almost half a century.

In 2008, Arab-West Report composed and published his biography.

In the summer of 2009, I introduced two AWR interns, Ben Connery and Rémi Drouin, students of Arabic at the University of Oxford, to al-Banna, which resulted in a lengthy study about his work and beliefs. I later presented their excellent study for publication in MIDEO of the Dominican Oriental Institute in Cairo.

In November 2012, AWR interns Eline Kasanwidjojo, Shabana Basheer, and Mette Toft Nielsen together with Nisrīn Jum’ah sat with Jamāl al-Bannā, which resulted in our last interview with him on current political developments.
Jamāl al-Bannā was blessed with a very clear memory and mind until the last moment. He criticized President Mursī and his authoritarian decree on November 22 as well as the constitution.
About the Muslim Brotherhood he then stated:
“Do not work with politics!” and “I know this is already too late to mention, but this is also something that my brother Hassan al-Bannā said,
’They should go back to teaching people.’”

CIDT also placed numerous summary translations of Jamāl al-Bannā in Arab-West Report.
Some need to be highlighted here: Watani interviewed Jamāl al-Bannā in 2008 about his views concerning the Church, his opinion that religions do not contradict each other, and his explanations for the growing extremism in Egyptian society.
In 2000, Al Ahrar published a review of his book, Islam and the freedom of thought.

It is a blessing to have known Jamāl al-Bannā. We will surely miss his contributions to the public debate as well as his support for our interns.

Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief of Arab-West Report

Gamal al-Banna leaves behind a legacy of controversial views on Islam

Sun, 17/02/2013 - 15:04

File photo of Islamic intellectual Gamal al-Banna during an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, 8 June, 2011.
Mohamed Maarouf

Noha El-Hennawy

In his home office in Bab al-Shaariya, the late Gamal al-Banna always had his door open to curious guests seeking personal interaction with the controversial writer, whose works branded him an apostate in the eyes of many Muslims.

With his soft-spoken voice, he often engaged in lengthy discussions with visitors about Muslim thought. At times, he would walk up to one of the many bookshelves in his apartment and suddenly pull out a text he thought was a must-read.

Despite his advanced age, his concentration rarely failed him in such conversations.

Last week, Banna died at the age of 92, leaving behind a controversial legacy. For some, he will be commemorated as a high-profile Muslim reformer. For many, he will remain dismissed as a pretentious, malicious writer who sought to undermine the fundamentals of the Muslim faith.

Banna was born in 1920 in the Delta province of Beheira. He grew up in a family that 14 years earlier had given birth to one of the most influential figures in the modern history of the Arab world. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who spearheaded Islamism in the region, was his elder brother.

Nevertheless, the younger Banna proved to be his antithesis. While Hassan took it upon himself to spread some of the strictest interpretations of Islam through his hierarchical, socio-religious organization, Gamal rebelled against a colossal body of Islamic literature and promoted a quite secular reading of Islam.

The deceased writer was a self-made Muslim jurist; he held no diploma from any accredited religious institution. While his brother, Hassan, received a religious education from his early years until he graduated from Dar al-‘ulum, Gamal was sent to a secular school until he dropped out of high school. Later on, he studied commerce at an intermediate school.

As a teenager, Banna said he had immersed himself in the Muslim heritage. Over the course of 50 years, Banna once said, he had delved in classical works on Muslim history, jurisprudence and hermeneutics. Looking back on his learning, though, Banna always regretted not having memorized the Quran as a child.

A feminist at heart

Women’s issues constituted one of the pillars of Banna’s work. He dedicated at least two of his books to emancipating Muslim women and girls, and challenging religious dogmas that tightened men’s grip over women’s bodies and minds.

In his oeuvre, “The Muslim Woman between the Emancipation of the Quran and Jurist-made Constraints,” Banna drops a plethora of bombshells by arguing that the Quran neither obliges women to wear the hijab nor denies them the right to run for the highest posts, including the presidency.

To substantiate his propositions, Banna had engaged with the verses and the Prophet’s sayings that were put forward by Muslim jurists to prove that women should cover up, and to disqualify them for leading positions. The late author had offered a different interpretation of the verse on the hijab, and refuted the authenticity of the Prophet’s saying that asks women to conceal all body parts expect their faces.

He also dismissed as fabricated another allegedly prophetic saying forecasting the failure of nations that accept women’s leadership. For Banna, this inferior status of Muslim women, as coined in mainstream Muslim jurisprudence, is the outcome of a misogynistic Arab culture that had nothing to do with true Islam.

Flexible Quran and fabricated Sunna

In his works, Banna also refuted the canonical rule of naskh employed in interpreting the Quran. According to this rule, some early Quranic verses were abrogated by other verses that were revealed to Prophet Mohamed later on. By virtue of this rule, mainstream scholars hold that verses about jihad and war against non-Muslims overrule others promoting tolerance.

By using the same jurisprudential language, Banna proved that neither the Quran nor the Prophet’s authenticated sayings supported this rule. He argued that this rule evolved as the outcome of a misunderstanding of the Quran. Early jurists thought that the text seemed inconsistent with verses, contradicting each other.

Hence, they designed the naskh rule to make up for this alleged self-contradiction. However, Banna did not see contradictory content as a flaw that needed amending. On the contrary, he perceived it as a sign of the Quran’s flexibility and adaptability to different situations.

He wrote: “The circumstances in one society may differ from those in another, and one epoch may differ from a previous one ...”

In 2004, Banna elicited a stir of fury with his statements about the Prophet’s Sunna. He had contended that all the Prophet’s sayings need to be revised, refuting the authenticity of many on the grounds that their narrators’ integrity was not known, or that the content itself made no sense and contradicted the essence of Islam.

In response, conservatives accused him of denying the Sunna altogether and questioned his faith. Rather than engaging critically with Banna’s propositions, the incident was a perfect occasion for some Al-Azhar scholars to react condescendingly and stress that he had no academic credentials to broach such issues.

In fact, the dismissal was mutual. Banna never thought highly of Al-Azhar, which is widely viewed as the most prestigious Sunni institution in the Muslim world. He argued that no Al-Azhar scholar had made a significant intellectual contribution to Muslim thought except Mohamed Abdo.

Yet Abdo had to transcend Al-Azhar in order to stand out, according to Banna. The latter often invoked Abdo’s famous saying that it had taken him too long to “clear his mind from the garbage” he was taught at Al-Azhar.

A more familiar methodology

Unlike many contemporary reformists, Banna’s writings did not employ a sophisticated extra-religious discourse, drawing heavily on Western philosophy and analytical tools. On the contrary, his reform method was based, to a great extent, on the same language employed by mainstream jurists and comprehended by the majority of Muslims.

While reformers such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid and Mohamed Arkoun sought to develop a postmodern holistic methodology that assumes the existence of many forms of truths and hence implies the sacred text could have a variety of meanings, Banna devoted most of his writings to deconstructing particular fatwas and beliefs that influenced Muslims’ daily lives. In doing so, he went back to the same Muslim references, digging out unspoken Prophet’s sayings or incidents that challenged mainstream Islamic discourse.

The familiarity of his language allowed him to engage with a larger audience in Egyptian society. He was a regular guest on several talk shows and his columns also appeared in many newspapers.

Yet the relative simplicity of his discourse did not mean he had fewer detractors than Abu Zaid, who was forced into self-exile due to his views on religion. In fact, Banna was often called names for his unorthodox views.

In 2011, he made headlines with a fatwa expressing lenience on physical contact between men and women. Appearing on a TV show, the anchor attacked him for the edict and accused him of being a pimp. A few years earlier, Banna passed a similarly incendiary fatwa, arguing that Muslims could smoke cigarettes while fasting.

On a political level, Banna’s writings preached rebellion against autocratic rule. He vehemently criticized mainstream Muslim political thought for its promotion of submissiveness to rulers on the grounds that revolt could lead to fitna, the Arabic word for sedition.

Banna argued that many of the Prophet Mohamed’s sayings invoked to dissuade Muslims from challenging their leaders were falsified under the rule of dictatorial Muslim monarchs of the Umayyad and Abbassid times.

Fighting Islamism

Banna’s passing comes at a time when his staunchest detractors are stretching their hegemony over the state and society. The Islamist agenda, which Banna had long fought against, is prevailing for the first time, with the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and the emergence of Salafis as key political players in post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt.

While his brother spent his life contemplating this moment and seeking to establish a utopian religious state, Banna’s book “Islam is a Religion and an Ummah, not a Religion and a State,” refutes classical Islamist claims about the indispensability of an Islamic state. For Islamists, Muslims have a religious obligation to establish an Islamic state where God’s Sharia shall be implemented.

Banna challenged such an obligation by arguing that Islam could spread in Mecca during the Prophet’s time while there was still no Islamic state and when the majority of Muslims were persecuted by non-believers.

He went on to contend that mixing religion with power threatens the faith itself — a proposition that might resonate today with many Egyptians who feel disillusioned with the new political elite and its banner that “Islam is the solution.”

The Brotherhood’s political ineptness, coupled with its attempts to reproduce Mubarak’s autocratic regime, has made many people question the essence as well as the integrity of the Islamist project altogether.

It remains to be seen whether such a disappointment with the Islamists, who succeeded in spreading their control over society decades before they took over the state, will push more people to seek different interpretations of Islam and hence explore the works of reformers like Banna.

INTERVIEW-Brotherhood ideas questioned by founder’s brother

Tue Feb 28, 2012 10:11am EST

* Banna says Brotherhood has veered from founder’s vision

* Islamic scholar concerned about Salafi, Islamist rule

By Shaimaa Fayed

CAIRO, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Gamal al-Banna’s vision for Egypt would have set him at odds with his elder brother Hassan, the teacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamist movement in 1928 and was assassinated in 1949.

Gamal, Hassan’s last surviving sibling, argues that Egypt today would be best served by a secular leader, and believes that the current mix of politics and religion will eventually fail.

Sitting in his Cairo office surrounded by shelves bulging with books from floor to ceiling, the 91-year-old Islamic scholar said Hassan would hardly recognise the Brotherhood as it is now, poised to enter government.

“There is a very big difference between the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1940s, the time of Hassan al-Banna, and now,” he told Reuters in an interview. “(Hassan) had aspirations but they were not political ...(He espoused) Islam as a way of life.”

Banned under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood today holds more than 43 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament, having won more than any other party in the country’s most democratic election in six decades.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is calling for a new coalition government that it would lead, bringing it closer to a position of executive power that would have been unthinkable under Mubarak’s rule.

Its success has created concern about its conservative social agenda. Though the Brotherhood, whose public focus has so far been on the economy and political reform, says it has no plans to impose sharia, Islamic law, Egyptians worried about personal freedoms remain unconvinced.

The electoral success of more hardline Salafi groups, which came second to the Brotherhood, has exacerbated those concerns.

“There are genuine fears because the heads of the Brotherhood now and the Salafis who got into parliament, none of them - neither their organizations nor their ideas - reflect that they are people who live in this day and age and understand how a nation can progress,” said Gamal al-Banna.

Gamal, noted for his liberal Islamic views including opposition to the veil for women and to mixing religion with politics, never joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and cut off contact with the group altogether after his brother’s killing.

Over the years, the Brotherhood has become more extreme on the question of women’s rights because of the spread of hardline Wahhabi thought from Saudi Arabia, he said.

Saudi Arabia has turned women into “black ghosts”, he added, referring to the gowns and veils worn by women in the Gulf state.

Many of Gamal al-Banna’s publications, which number in the hundreds, have focused on women’s issues. He has argued that wearing the headscarf is not an Islamic, but a Gulf tradition.


Clean shaven, wearing glasses and casual clothes, he said he was opposed to the merging of politics and religion espoused by the Brotherhood, whose slogan has long been “Islam is the Solution”.

“Any nation founded on religion must fail. This has been true in the Islamic and Christian experience,” he said.

Reflecting on the Brotherhood’s performance in the recent parliamentary elections, Banna said its FJP party had ridden to success on the back of discontent with decades of autocracy rather than public support for its programme.

“Many people who voted for the Brotherhood said: ’We tried Socialism, we tried Nasserism, we tried pan-Arabism, so why not try the Brotherhood?’” he said.

Banna believes Egypt would be best served by a liberal president. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, had been the best candidate until he decided to withdraw from the race, he said.

“In the long run, someone like ElBaradei will succeed in Egypt. He was the fittest candidate if not the only one,” the kind of figure around whom the youth protest movement could and should coalesce, Banna said.

The military council that has been governing Egypt since Mubarak was toppled by a mass uprising last year has said it will hand power to the new president at the end of June. An election date has yet to be set.

The reform movement has a long way to go, Banna said, adding “This was a popular uprising that succeeded in destroying a system, but not in building a new one.”

Banna fondly recalled a happy childhood with his two brothers and two sisters in the city of Mahmoudeya near Alexandria.

Their father was a watch mender who spent years penning interpretations of the sayings of Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, the originator of the strict, conservative Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.

Banna recalled how, as children, Hassan and his friends had played out battles between Muslim and infidel armies. Both he and Hassan had been strongly influenced by their “deep-rooted Islamic heritage”, he said.

Hassan formed the Brotherhood while working as a teacher in the northeastern city of Ismailia in the 1920s, spreading his ideas in cafes and creating branches of the movement across northern Egypt before expanding it into a national organisation. (Editing by Tom Perry and Tim Pearce)

A voice for ’new understanding’ of Islam

- Africa & Middle East - International Herald Tribune
By Michael Slackman


CAIRO — Gamal al-Banna is 85, and for much of his life he has been overshadowed by his famous brother, Sheik Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political party.

That seems to have suited him just fine, though. He liked to write, read and think. His sister left him a lot of money, and so, for decades, that is exactly how he spent his days.

His bedroom is at one end of a dusty old apartment on a chaotic street in the center of the city. At the other end is his office, his desk piled high with papers. In between are books - 30,000 of them, arranged neatly on floor-to-ceiling shelves. One section is devoted to the 100 or so books he has written and translated.

Banna is no longer living in his brother’s shadow. And, like the organization his brother founded, the younger Banna is no friend of the establishment, but for quite a different reason. He is a liberal thinker, a man who would like to see Islamic values and practices interpreted in the context of modern times.

Egypt’s gatekeepers of religious values, the government-appointed and self-appointed arbiters of God’s word, condemn, dismiss and dispute what he says. They have also banned at least one of his books.

“Gamal al-Banna has opinions that fall outside the scope of religion,” said Sheik Omar el Deeb, deputy in charge of Al Azhar, the centuries-old seat of Islamic learning in Cairo. “The people, of course, oppose anybody who talks about things that violate religion.”

Banna does not press his ideas, does not try to wage a contest with the institution of Azhar, but instead takes the long-term view, hoping to plant a few seeds that will, in time, take root and spread. He recognizes that, at the moment, the other side is winning the contest of ideas in Egypt, and the region.

“If religion was correctly understood, it would be a power of liberation,”

Banna said. “But it is misunderstood, and so it is driving us backwards.”

What are his views, the ones officialdom have said fall “outside religion”? He has a lot to say about women: They are not required to wear a veil, as most do in Egypt; they should not be forced to undergo a practice referred to as “female circumcision,” as most do now in Egypt; and they should be allowed to lead men in prayer, which is forbidden in Egypt.

“My idea is that man is the aim of religion, and religion only a means,” Banna said. “What is prevalent today is the opposite.”

Egypt, often looked to as a center of moderate Islam, is like the rest of the Arab world becoming more conservative and less tolerant of opposing religious views, according to thinkers like Banna. Since August there have been at least three high-profile cases here in which religious officials condemned, or sought to have criminally charged, people or publications promoting religious ideas they deemed offensive.

“When the Muslims used to disagree, they had different schools of thought,” said Sayed el-Qemni, another writer favoring changes, who lives in a small city outside of Cairo. “No one would point to the other and say, ’This is not Islam.’ But when one school of thought says, ’I am the correct school of thought and everyone else deserves death,’ then you are starting a new religion.”

Qemni has received death threats for some of his writings, and sleeps with two police officers guarding his house. By contrast, Banna exudes a sense of impunity. That, he says, is not a result of his name - though that is a powerful force in a society where family ties are deeply respected - but because “I am free.”

He is free because he has been careful not to become involved in political movements and because of his sister, Fawziyya, who left him the equivalent of about $100,000. That is a huge sum in Egypt, especially considering Banna has no family and lives and works in the same apartment at a nominal rent.

“I am a completely independent man,” he says with a smile. “I am not an employee, I am not in any party, and I am not affiliated with anything - completely independent.”

Banna was born Dec. 15, 1920, in El Mahmoudia, a village in Egypt’s northern Nile Delta, northwest of the capital. The youngest of five children, he moved with his family to Cairo when he was 4 years old. His oldest sibling, Hassan, went on to form the Muslim Brotherhood, which today is the largest organized opposition in Egypt, even though it is officially banned.

Their father, Ahmad Banna, a self- taught prayer leader and religious teacher, supported the family by repairing watches (his small wooden work table sits in the hall of Gamal’s apartment). The elder Banna spent years of his life indexing the many thousands of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, assembling them in a multivolume set that sits on his youngest son’s shelves and inspires him to this day.

As a young man, Banna was kicked out of high school after a dispute with an English teacher. He finished his studies at a technical school and did not pursue college because, he said, he knew he wanted to pursue writing. So he went out and began to write. In 1946, he published a book called “A New Democracy,” and included a chapter titled “Toward a New Understanding of Islam.”

Banna says one of the fundamental problems with religious leaders in Egypt is that they look to the interpretations of their ancestors and not to the Koran itself. To look directly at the book, and not at the words as interpreted by men living in a different time, would have a liberating effect, he says.

Many of his ideas challenge the core beliefs of the radical Muslims who have been driving the religious agenda in the region. The most radical Islamists say, for example, that elected governments are un-Islamic because people must follow God’s law, or Sharia, and not that of a Parliament.

But Banna says the radicals are guilty of pursuing the very logic they say is un-Islamic. They would impose what amounts to their interpretation of the Koran onto other Muslims. That, he says, is no different than relying on a Parliament to pass laws, as both are a result of man’s intervention, not divine revelation.

Islam, he says, needs to be seen in a modern context. “Because Islam is the last of religions, if it was rigid and closed, it could not stand the changes of the ages,” he said.

Banna does not deliver his message as a lecture. He speaks casually, slipping between English and Arabic, smiling, waving his hands. He has his own name now, and a philosophy quite different from the Islamist organization his brother founded.

Banna has stayed far from politics, but that does not mean he is apolitical. On the contrary, he believes that the reason his ideas have not gained momentum is that political freedom in Egypt is stifled by the nation’s rulers.

“They want only power,” he said. “They don’t want freedom of thought. Free thought - that will condemn them.”

Gamal Al-Banna, un penseur à contresens des Frères musulmans


Tariq Ramadan : Interview
Rédigé par Hanan Ben Rhouma | Samedi 9 Mars 2013

La mort de Gamal Al-Banna, survenue le 30 janvier au Caire à l’âge de 93 ans, n’a eu que très peu d’écho dans le monde, y compris musulman. A l’opposé de son frère aîné, Hassan Al-Banna, fondateur des Frères musulmans, il s’est en effet très tôt démarqué dans ses positions vis-à-vis de sa famille et de la confrérie, en s’inscrivant dans une volonté de rompre avec les traditions conservatrices en vigueur en Egypte. Tariq Ramadan, professeur d’études islamiques contemporaines à l’université d’Oxford dont Gamal Al-Banna n’est autre que son grand oncle, a bien souhaité nous livrer, en février, son témoignage afin de mettre en lumière la vie d’un homme qui ne cherchait pas à suivre le consensus des savants, quitte à être mis au ban du monde intellectuel musulman.

Gamal Al-Banna

Saphirnews : On connaît très peu Gamal Al-Banna. Pouvez-nous dire déjà qui était-il ?
Tariq Ramadan : Il est le plus jeune des frères Al-Banna. Ce qui est tout à fait particulier chez lui, c’est qu’il s’est très tôt distingué dans la famille par un formidable engagement intellectuel et une originalité car il ne suivait pas les traces, en terme d’engagement religieux, de son père qui était un imam et un savant.

Il s’est distingué assez tôt par un engagement à gauche, au côté des travailleurs, sur le terrain syndical. Il était plutôt intéressé par la pensée communiste et la lutte politique à l’époque, tout en ayant un respect extrêmement profond de la tradition musulmane et de son grand frère, dont il ne partageait pas ses idées mais pour lequel il avait travaillé. Lorsqu’en 1946, Hassan Al-Banna lance son propre journal Al-Shihab (hebdomadaire, ndlr), il donne à son jeune frère le poste de rédacteur en chef, le charge de veiller à la ligne éditoriale de sa publication alors même que Gamal al-Banna ne partageait ni les idées de son frère, ni celles des Frères musulmans.

Gamal Al-Banna n’a donc jamais fait partie de la confrérie à un moment donné de sa vie ?
Tariq Ramadan : Il n’a jamais été membre des Frères musulmans.

Dans quel courant de pensée s’inscrivait-il alors ?
Tariq Ramadan : C’était un penseur très à gauche, défenseur de la lutte ouvrière. D’une gauche influencée par les idées marxistes et les idées de résistance qui était très répandue dans les années 1940 et 1950. Sans être pour le panarabisme, il était dans une logique de résistance de la classe ouvrière face à la colonisation, au pouvoir en place et, plus généralement, au système d’oppression de manière générale.

Etait-il le seul dans la famille à avoir emprunté cette voie ?
Tariq Ramadan : Il s’est clairement distingué de ce point de vue. Dans la famille, il y a eu des personnes qui avaient un engagement religieux plus ou moins important, alors que Gamal Al-Banna n’en avait pas à proprement parler. Ce fut d’abord un penseur politique qui partageait avec son frère l’idée qu’il fallait libérer l’Egypte et les pays du Sud de l’emprise coloniale. C’est une personne pour qui j’ai un très profond respect et que j’ai bien connu malgré l’exil de notre famille à l’étranger (Gamal Al-Banna a vécu presque toute sa vie en Egypte, ndlr). À partir des années 1980, il a commencé à venir à Genève, chaque année, au Bureau international du travail parce qu’il avait fondé la Confédération Islamique Internationale du Travail (en 1981, elle n’existe plus, ndlr).

Il n’était pas opposé à la référence musulmane, au contraire, mais il était essentiellement préoccupé par les plus marginalisés et par les prolétaires. Au fil des années qu’il a réconcilié cet engagement avec la référence musulmane. Il est devenu un penseur de l’intérieur de la référence islamique durant le dernier tiers de sa vie essentiellement.

Vous diriez qu’auparavant il mettait une distance claire entre son engagement politique et la religion ?
Tariq Ramadan : Son engagement politique n’avait pas d’abord de résonance musulmane : il ne voyait pas de contradiction mais ce n’était pas une priorité pour lui.

Quels rapports entretenaient-ils avec la confrérie et dans quelle mesure ces rapports ont influé sur ses relations avec son frère, le fondateur, et sa famille ?
Tariq Ramadan : Ses relations avec son frère étaient très respectueuses. Gamal Al-Banna est bien plus jeune que son frère aîné puisque il avaient 14 ans de différence (Hassan est né en 1906, Gamal en 1920, ndlr). Lorsque Hassan Al-Banna est assassiné (en 1949, ndlr), il va garder très précieusement les correspondances de son frère avec son père, ses archives. Il en fera un livre. Il a toujours exprimé un très profond respect de l’homme, de son projet, de sa vision, de son ouverture, même s’il ne partageait pas son application concrète sur le terrain avec la confrérie.

Plus tard, il va se distancer beaucoup plus clairement des Frères, en particulier avec la prééminence qu’aura dans les années 1960 la pensée de Saïd Qutb. Il était plus proche de ceux qui suivaient la tradition des Al-Banna dans l’éducation des masses.

Dans les années 1980, Gamal Al-Banna écrira un livre qui va tendre les rapports, et qui resteront tendues jusqu’à la fin : Madha ba’da al-Ikhwan ?, littéralement « Quoi donc après les Frères musulmans ? ». Il s’interrogeait sur ce qui devait leur succéder sur le plan idéologique et politique. En l’occurrence, il estimait que les Frères devaient être dépassés, et au fond disparaître pour ne pas avoir su évoluer. Un avis qui va refroidir jusqu’à la fin les relations avec la confrérie. Il restera distant et critique à l’encontre de l’organisation en tant que telle et il a très tôt posé de vraies questions, fondamentales, et que trop de personnes ont disqualifiées à cause de positions religieuses qui avaient suscité la polémique.

Qu’est-ce que Gamal Al-Banna critiquait au sein de la confrérie ?
Tariq Ramadan : D’un point de vue interne, sa structure et sa hiérarchie. Ensuite, selon lui, ils n’allaient pas suffisamment loin dans la réforme de la pensée.

Il leur a aussi reproché de s’être embourgeoisés. Autant la première vague des Frères musulmans était plutôt proche de la théologie de la libération, ce qui était, d’une certaine façon, proche de sa pensée puisque la théologie de la libération est une référence religieuse lue à travers le prisme du marxisme privilégiant l’angle des pauvres et des exploités. Hassan Al-Banna s’en rapprochait par sa proximité du peuple et sa lecture des textes appelant à la résistance multidimensionnelle dès les années 1930 et 1940, sans aucune référence marxiste néanmoins. Selon lui, le mouvement a trahi cet héritage et s’est embourgeoisé.

Enfin, sa critique de leur acceptation de l’ordre capitaliste, qui n’existait point initialement, sera extrêmement ferme.
Il n’a jamais cessé d’être critique de l’organisation mais cela s’est renforcé dès les années 1980. En fait, plus il s’engageait avec une parole musulmane, plus il marquait sa différence avec les Frères.

On le présente justement comme un réformiste mais en Occident, on réduit souvent sa pensée à des avis, des « fatwas », sur le voile qu’il ne voit pas comme une obligation, sur la femme qui peut se marier avec des non musulmans… Pouvez-vous approfondir sa pensée ?
Tariq Ramadan : Évidemment, il est devenu populaire en Occident à partir du moment où il a donné ces avis, qui n’étaient pas des fatwas en l’occurrence. Il n’a jamais exprimé, il le disait lui-même, que ses opinions. Il pensa les termes et les modalités d’un « fiqh nouveau », il a écrit Nahwa fiqhin jadid : Vers un nouveau droit et jurisprudence, mais il ne se considérait pas comme un faqih, un spécialiste du droit et de la jurisprudence.

Il avait quelques opinions juridiques très controversées et certaines étaient très bien accueillies en Occident : l’idée que le foulard effectivement n’était pas une obligation, qu’il doit y avoir une séparation claire entre l’État et la religion, qu’on doit permettre aux jeunes filles et aux jeunes hommes d’avoir des relations affectives avant le mariage… Cela a provoqué de belles polémiques, c’est vrai.

Ce sont pourtant des épiphénomènes, si je puis dire : nous pouvons ne pas être d’accord avec certaines opinions mais la pensée de l’homme était autrement plus profonde et complexe. C’était un penseur du changement social qui insistait énormément sur la mobilisation pour les plus pauvres et les plus marginalisés, l’éducation, l’accès au travail… C’est un homme qui n’a été reconnu que ces 20 dernières années mais qui, pendant près de 60 ans, vivait dans une bibliothèque pleine d’archives incroyables. C’était une personne qui écrivait énormément, une véritable horloge avec une force de travail absolument phénoménale, très discipliné avec lui-même. Il était extrêmement brillant et ouvert intellectuellement : j’ai passé des heures avec lui à discuter, j’étais jeune, il m’enseigna les clivages politiques, les priorités de l’engagement social et politique. Il me conseilla des lectures et m’a soutenu jusqu’au bout avec ses derniers conseils. Il ne s’est jamais compromis politiquement comme certains de ces penseurs musulmans dits « progressistes », qui ont été « progressistes » à la mesure de leur besoin de reconnaissance intellectuelle, académique, politique ou idéologique. Il est resté cohérent et sans compromis et ses opinions religieuses étaient le produit d’une pensée sincère et non de calculs politiques.

Il avait des avis qui pouvaient être discutés, et discutables…il en discutait. Mais ce qui est le plus important chez Gamal Al-Banna, c’est sa profonde honnêteté intellectuelle et sa capacité à poser les bonnes questions sur la tradition musulmane, sur le fiqh. Dans le débat, ses réponses controversées ont occulté l’importance de ses questions critiques et si bienvenues. La profondeur des questions qu’il posait sur nos lectures des textes, la société contemporaine, la corruption, les pauvres, le racisme, le statut des femmes… sont des questions fondamentales et qui doivent être entendues.

Des questionnements que vous-même partagez ?
Tariq Ramadan : Je partage ses questions et son positionnement critique et ouvert. Je ne partage pas toutes ses réponses bien entendu, mais je ne suis pas sûr non plus de toutes mes réponses. Je peux être critique avec certains de ses avis mais j’ai toujours été attentif à ses avis, ses prises de position. C’était un homme qu’on ne pouvait qu’aimer, une intelligence de cœur et d’esprit. Un homme courageux, simple, accessible. J’ai beaucoup appris de sa rigueur intellectuelle et de sa générosité.

Il répétait souvent que ce qui est sacré, pour nous (musulmans), est le Coran, que la tradition du Prophète Muhammad est seconde et que les opinions des savants dans l’Histoire ne sont pas sacrées : ce sont des opinions parmi d’autres qu’il faut étudier et critiquer, évaluer et contester si besoin est. (Gamal Al-Banna a contesté l’authenticité de très nombreux hadiths, récits rapportés du Prophète, au cours de sa vie et a appelé à maintes reprises les musulmans à privilégier le Coran et la raison pour se forger leur opinion, ndlr). Sur ces points, je partage sa position.

Avait-il crée son propre courant ?
Tariq Ramadan : Non, Gamal Al-Banna était un penseur solitaire. Il avait crée son mouvement ouvrier (Confédération Islamique Internationale du Travail, ndlr) mais du point de vue islamique, il était isolé pendant 30 ans. Par la suite, des gens se sont intéressés à lui, notamment parce qu’il était le frère de Hassan Al-Banna et qu’il avait des opinions qui n’étaient pas communes. Il n’était pas très écouté quand il disait qu’on se trompait sur Hassan al-Banna en Occident. Il essayait de faire en sorte qu’on ait une autre opinion de la personne de son frère qui fut méconnu selon lui, même des Frères musulmans.

Quel impact avait-il dans le monde arabe ?
Tariq Ramadan : Il n’a pas eu tellement d’impact mais il était apprécié, connu, et d’aucuns, dans le monde arabe, y trouvaient de l’intérêt. Les savants musulmans et les mouvements religieux ne le reconnaissaient pas comme une référence. Rarement, on entendait une personne ressortir un avis de Gamal Al-Banna. Il commençait à être connu en Egypte grâce à son émission régulière à la télévision. Les institutions musulmanes ne l’ont jamais considéré.

Quel était son rapport avec le pouvoir politique, avant et après l’ère Moubarak ? N’a-t-il eu aucun rôle lors de sa chute ?
Tariq Ramadan : Il était loin du pouvoir et toujours critique. Il n’a pas joué de rôle direct mais il a fortement soutenu la jeunesse malgré son âge et son état de faiblesse.

Après l’accession au pouvoir des Frères en 2012, quelle fut sa réaction ?
Tariq Ramadan : Il avait suggéré aux Frères musulmans de ne pas participé aux élections et de se tenir loin du pouvoir. Une position que nous partagions sans nous être concertés sur ce point précis.

Que retiendrez-vous de lui ?
Tariq Ramadan : Sa formidable générosité, sa discipline personnelle, sa capacité intellectuelle. Sa capacité de travail phénoménale. Il était toujours à l’écoute, il avait très bon cœur et une grande ouverture d’esprit. Je relève sa volonté de renouveler le droit et la jurisprudence et le principe me paraît indiscutable : ses opinions lui appartiennent, elles ne feront sans doute pas date, mais sa volonté de renouveler la pensée islamique est primordiale. Il mérite d’être lu. Quand il sera davantage lu et mieux compris, on relèvera enfin la pertinence de ses questions. Je prépare d’ailleurs un texte en sa mémoire : un penseur libre qui n’a jamais trahi sa pensée, ses principes et son engagement.

Quel est le livre justement le plus important qu’il ait écrit de sa vie ?
Tariq Ramadan : Ils sont très nombreux et sur de nombreux sujets. Du point de vue de la pensée religieuse, celui que j’apprécie est celui que j’ai cité auparavant Nahwa fiqhin jadîd.