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Religion and Society

Islamic Thinkers: the “liberal case” of the brother of the founder of the Muslim Brothers

Gamal al-Banna defines himself as a ‘Muslim liberal thinker’ and a guardian of of Arabness and Islam in Egypt. The author of over one hundred works including volumes and pamphlets and a periodical article in the very popular newspaper al-Masri al Yawm, he has taken on a role that nobody, in his opinion, dares to shoulder. He has taken on the task of renewing the bases of the ‘institutional Muslim knowledge’ in force, that is, the knowledge constituted by exegetic comment (tafsîr), tradition (hadîth) and jurisprudence (fiqh).

Gamal al-Banna says that he drew his definition of Islam from the brother Hassam al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement. The definition is as follows: ‘Islam is a global coercion of life including economy, society, politics, religion and language’. He insists on the fact that Islam is ‘dogmatic truth’ (‘aqîda) and ‘general law’ (sharî‘a). His reference to the elder brother goes no further. The dogmatic truth means ‘faith in God, in His angels, in His prophet and in the Last day’. Whoever professes this truth, he affirms, is Muslim, is ‘protected by Islam’, and enjoys the special ‘guardian virtue’ of Islam. As far as concerns the scope general law (sharî‘a), Gamal al Banna considers that it is the regulating instrument of relations between individuals and their community.

 

 

Al-Banna explains that this law is ‘secularised’ (dunîawyya) , that it is by no means frozen but, on the contrary, is a sort of framework, broad and flexible, aimed at fixing general principles. In politics, for example, it represents good and fair power, not transmittable by succession and founded on ‘acceptance’ (bay‘a), ‘consultation’ (shûra) and ‘democracy’. In economics it aims at the refusal of ‘exploitation’, censures ‘luxury’ and preconizes ‘justice’. As far as society is concerned, the most important principle is ‘equality among individuals’. According to al-Banna, the general law thus represented along general lines finds application in Switzerland for example – ‘a country that has the cross on its flag’ – and not in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that its flag bears the words: ‘There is no god except for the God alone; Muhammad is the Apostle of God’. With regard to the details, sharî‘a does not specify anything except in the case of well-defined situations, called ‘limits’ (hudûd), which represent only a small part of ‘criminal law’. And Gamal al-Banna takes it upon himself to actively weaken the interpretations of a literal type, in the sense of presenting as illicit, considering the change in conditions, an application that today is equal to what was licit in the VII century. He returns to the age of the caliph ‘Umar Ibn Khatâb to show how sharî‘a has changed and on numerous occasions underwent an evolution at that time, according to the changing of situations. With regard to the hijâb he states categorically that ‘there is nothing called hijâb in Islam. It is nothing but an empty word’, after which he rails against the niqâb defining it ‘a shameful indecency’ and against excision which is a ‘crime’.

 

 

Highly critical towards the Muslim scholars, al-Banna accuses them of being instituted like a ‘structure’, an ‘institution’, something like an Islamic Church’. In his opinion they act by means of this aspiration which has brought about an untouchable ‘schematisation of Islam’. The closing of the ‘door of interpretation’ (bâb al-ijtihâd) in the V century of the Hegira led to the freezing of reason in Islam. Al-Banna’s description is based on what he calls the ‘paradox’ of the sliding into a situation of real freedom with regard to interpretation towards an actual freezing. The explanation proposed is that the leading figures were always lamenting this condition of freedom insofar as it would have caused ‘disorder’. In order to put a stop to the situation, they hastened to ‘put the sharî‘a law into juridical form’. Scholars like Ghazalî are also responsible for this, as he in fact placed a number of limitations to philosophical thought in the Muslim world, putting it ‘at the of service of religious sciences’.

 

 

Al-Banna extends his criticism to the Muslim cultural patrimony right back to its origins. He makes light of the proceedings of Ibn Hanbal which ‘gathered thousands and thousands of ahîdth!’ and that of al-Bukâhrî that gathered hundreds of thousands. All this is not rational, says al-Banna, making reference to his work Le crime de la tribu qui a pour nom “on nous a raconté”*: Mohammed could never obviously have declared everything that is attributed to him; in addition, the community of Medina before which he spoke was modest in numbers, and having to face the problems and hardships surrounding them. And later on, within the huge empire that had been constituted, that problems and ‘trials’ appeared of which the Muslims belonging to the former community had no knowledge at all. The need to take measures with regard to law at that stage became necessary and those measures needed a point of reference both in the Koran and, should the desired specifications not be found, in ‘facts and sayings’, going so far as to invent them. Refusing the traditional definition of ‘veridical’ authors, al-Banna states in no uncertain terms: ‘No selection, to make one is impossible. It is necessary to abandon the ahâdîth, or limit oneself to those ahâdîth which are in agreement with the Koran’. The others only deserve to be forgotten (see the work Dépouillement des ahâdîth non necéssaires d’al-Bukhârî et de Muslim**) since they derive from an ‘erroneous history’ and from ‘imagination’. How were they born? From the ascertainment according to which Muslims were straying from religion in the first part of the empire. In reaction to this, some creators of ahâdîth claimed that for those who had read any sura at all, ‘God would have built a dwelling in Paradise’, and the same would have happened for the ‘facts’ or the ‘sayings’. The men of that age were not stupid, but when they asked: ‘Why do you lie against the Prophet?’, they replied that they were not lying against him but in his name. Al-Banna adds, laughing: ‘This is how the lie is transformed into virtue’.

 

 

Al-Banna also applies this sense of historicity to the formulations adopted and spread by jurists (fuqaha) in the religious field, in particular to the classification of peoples on the basis of their faith: ‘house of Islam’ (dâr al islâm), ‘house of incredulity’ (dâr al-kufr), ‘house of war’ (dâr al-harb) …all expressions that today have no reason to exist. He judges as ‘naïve’ every attempt aimed at making an authority or a religious point of reference emerge for the Muslims living in Europe, like that of the Andalusian scholar Shâtibî, to some extent promoted by the Hani brothers and Tariq Ramadan.

 

 

The same approach is used with regard to the ‘Arabic language’: the language of ‘soothsayers’ and poetry, above all that of the Mu allaqt, Arabic was renewed by the Koran both in style and lexicon, so that this book has become a ‘foundation’ of the language. Nonetheless, explains al-Banna, the language must remain a living part of the community, which means that it is necessary ‘to develop it’, so that it is in keeping with the times: the Muslims must not make the language sacred instead of religion.

 

 

As an intellectual and a Muslim, al-Banna defends the ‘absolute’ nature of ‘freedom of thought’ and ‘freedom of conscience’ which are inseparable: ‘Whoever wants to believe, may do so; whoever wants to give up the faith, may do so’. Mohammed was never charged with guiding moral conduct, he underlines, but only with its ‘transmission’: even if ‘Islam encourages faith in God’, nothing is imposed on those wanting to be atheist – it is a matter between them and God – since the Koran, even though it often considers the question of ‘abjuration’, does not establish any ‘punishment’. The question of ‘believing or not believing is one that concerns the individual, not the community’. As far as the notion of ‘innateness’ (fitra) is concerned, known in the Muslim tradition as a way of defining the natural essence of man towards God, al-Banna interprets it in this way: ‘all religions are ‘Islam’, Abraham, Moses, Jesus were Muslims in the sense that they submitted their hearts to God’. In other words, this is a type of relationship with God which is ‘the quintessence of all religions’.

 

 

From this centrality tuned to the ‘individual and not to the community’ derives a conception of the state that is different from the one that attempts to make of Islam a support of the same, or something that does no harm to it or a conditioning factor. The state, according to al-Banna, must be dedicated uniquely to the ‘governing of bodies’, while Islam is an ‘invitation made to hearts’. ‘Can a state, in one way or another, force someone to have faith?’ The answer is no, power is an authority and can do nothing for the progress of Islam and its duty is the suppression of the exploitation of religion: it is necessary to establish the ‘separation between the state and Islam’, any attempt to create a ‘religious’, ‘Islamic’ or ‘Christian’ state leads to failure.

 

 

Al-Banna agrees with laicity along general lines. However he demonstrates prejudice towards it in the sense that, according to him, ‘laicity’ means also the limitation to the worldly horizon, as if there were no room for something which is called ‘religion’, or ‘final resurrection’, or ‘eternal life’. ‘One lives, dies, everything is within this lapse of mysterious time, and nothing more’. No religion can accept this concept limiting ‘life to the worldly dimension and bearing no trace ‘either of religion or of God’. If ‘laicity’ has been able to appear in Europe, al-Banna continues, it is because Europe has never ceased being crossed by paganism, from the Greeks to modern times passing through the Romans. ‘Man is he who creates God, [while in the East] it is God that creates man’. It is a question of a ‘divine partition’: here the countries of paganism, poetry, prose, philosophy; there the ‘cradle of religions’.

 

 

Al-Banna states that the ‘European civilisation’ is at present ‘the best’. He does not draw any inferiority complex from this and attempts to set down his definition of Islam in this conception of the world. ‘A Muslim liberal intellectual’, he exhorts his contemporaries - starting with those of the same religion – to gather the ‘good’ wherever one thinks it is to be found and to recognise that, despite appearances and despite the words of the holders of authority, all societies are in actual fact pluralist.

 

 

*The crime of the tribe that is called “ we were told this ”.

 

**Selection of the unnecessary ahâdît of al- Bukhârî and Muslim

 

 

Cairo, 5 May 2011, Interview by:

 

 

Dominique Avon, Professor of History at the University of Maine

 

Amin Elias, Ph. D. student at the University of Maine

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