Egypt’s lost hero: Gamal al-Banna
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 Bikyanews.com 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.
â€œThe 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 Qurâ€™an, the Prophetâ€™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.