The Spiritual Method of Revivalism: On Hasan al-Banna and His Legacy

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Part One: An Introduction

Although I've never belonged to an organisation that has either a direct-lineal or distant-familial connection to Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), I am compelled to admit his significant impact on his own world and the world that we currently inhabit. Hence a study of the man and his legacy should provide some explanations as to why he is still relevant. 

Indeed, our age of psychological and physical chaos makes the need for remedies to the contemporary human condition most urgent. Al-Banna's life fits in with a diverse grouping of twentieth-century individuals and their collectives to bring about a revival of what they considered to be orthodoxy; and al-Banna' s tale would, arguably, occupy the distinction of being the most riveting tale in such annals of history, for its sheer scope of vision and action, and unprecedented significance, which has continued to our own time. Al-Banna is seen to have inheritors in the moderate 'Islamists' - the latter being a truly horrid term, which I think should be dismissed from use - and here is where a neutral Englishman like myself sees a significant opportunity for al-Banna's legacy to provide a personal and societal benefit. In this latter regard, Seumas Milne has written how 'senior figures in the police, including special branch, whose job is to counter terror groups in the Muslim community', see these type of organisations as possessing the 'best antidotes' to extreme 'propaganda' (see Milne's comment article in The Guardian, 5 July 2007). Therefore we might all be able to breathe a sigh of relief if such groups are better able to embody al-Banna's legacy, as a means of making our countries safer places in which to reside. 

In essence, al-Banna's spiritual method, and that of some of his most notable heirs, is one that conforms to the wide parameters of the orthodox, or Sunni, method, but with an uncanny tendency to resolve controversies and challenges in a manner that seems reasonable, consistent with the texts, and backed by scholarship - all of which helps explain the lasting relevance of the man and his effort. Of course, we don't have to agree with him on everything, but we can all, perhaps, be enriched by understanding him, whether it is to benefit from the positive characteristics or to learn from those matters in which we find disagreement with him or his heirs. Nevertheless, Shaykh Qaradawi is so impressed by Hasan al-Banna that he has written in Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase: 'Shaykh [Muhammad] al-Ghazali was right to call him [Hasan al-Banna] "the Mujaddid [reviver] of the fourteenth [Islamic] century"' - in reference to the hadith related by Abu Da'ud and al-Hakim, which Shaykh Qaradawi says - in Approaching the Sunnah - was 'authenticated' by 'more than one scholar', and it reads: 'God will send to this Community at the head of every century one who will renew for it its religion'.

I intend to focus on the spiritual legacy because any correctly articulated orthodox religious expression is always bound to have an emphasis on a spiritual imperative and prioritisation, because the message of Islam is primarily spiritual; and the Word of God, the Majestic Qur'an, bears testimony to this assertion. God tells us: Man is indeed in loss, except those who believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth, and exhort one another to patience [103:2-3]. So belief is foundational to the acceptance of a bondsman to the Creator, but the law of God is also enjoined upon the believers. God teaches us that the revelation - legislating beliefs and laws - is a spiritual healing: O mankind! There has come to you a counsel from your Lord, and a healing for what is in the breasts, and a guidance and a mercy to the believers [10:57].

 Furthermore, we are informed that the ability to believe is itself a manifestation of a healthy spirituality: Have they not travelled in the land, and have they hearts to comprehend with, or ears to hear with? For it is not the eyes that become blind, but it is the hearts in the chests that become blind [22:46]. One relies upon God to purify one's heart so that it is a suitable receptacle for Divine truths, for which the consequences are a dedication to the obligations and recommendations of God through His final and greatest Prophet, Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him): Allah leads astray whom He will. [13:27]; but one should also bear in mind: He is the All-Merciful, the Compassionate [59:22] and that Your Lord is never unjust to His servants [41:46]. Hence the judging of one's deeds also has a naturally distinctly spiritual emphasis, as contained in the supplication of the Prophet Ibrahim (upon him be God's peace): My Lord! abase me not on the day when they are raised, the day when wealth and sons avail not, save him who brings to Allah a heart that is whole [see 26:83-89]. Nevertheless, a this-worldly benefit for spiritual endeavour is also made known to mankind:

Those who believe and whose hearts find tranquillity in the remembrance of Allah. It is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts find tranquillity [13:28].

Part Two

Hasan al-Banna was born in an age of great turmoil for the Muslims, and his land of Egypt was central to the proceedings of the time. Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, in Western Civilization, Islam and Muslims, has given us his appraisal of the hopes that he felt the whole world were justified in placing on Egypt in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. For Nadwi, the Egypt of this period was 'in a most happy position' to integrate 'the sciences and techniques developed in the West' with the 'moral and spiritual foundations of a clean and successful life that are the real legacy of the Islamic East', which had been 'inherited by the Egyptians' to 'a large part'; in the process, it could be 'the fittest vehicle for the augmentation and dissemination of its priceless Islamic heritage'. Nadwi identified two advantages that the Egyptians had in their favour. Firstly, the fact that Egypt was the most intellectual society'in the sphere of knowledge and study of the Arabic language and literature and of the theological sciences of Islam, coupled with the abundant facilities of publicity and propagation which included the presence of the University of Azhar (the foremost seat of Islamic learning in the world)'. Secondly, again in Nadwi's own words, 'the innate mental resiliency of its people and their knack for cultural accommodation'.

Yet, alas, Nadwi resigns himself to the fact that 'various political and other factors combined to hold back Egypt from exerting its influence over the West and assuming the role of leadership' - and this essay is not the place for discussing these reasons. Nadwi has very positive things to say about the Muslim Brotherhood [al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin] that Hasan al-Banna founded in the midst of this perplexing period of history, and was to possess - according to S.M. Hasan al-Banna, in the Introduction to his English translation of Hasan al-Banna's litany entitled al-Ma'thurat - 500,000 members in Egypt by the time the founder was assassinated (not to mention those who could be classed as mere 'sympathisers', and those in other countries to which the movement had already spread by that time). 

Although Nadwi objects to the movement deciding 'a little too early to step down into the arena of active politics' - a contentious point, suitable for another place - he laments the 'liquidation of the Ikhwan' as being, 'without doubt' to his mind, 'an irreparable loss to the Arab and the larger Muslim world'. This sorrow on his part is because Nadwi saw the movement as 'unmistakably' the 'most powerful Islamic movement of modern times and a fast progressing religious endeavour'; one that he felt was certainly well-equipped to 'working out an Islamic renaissance in West Asia', if the leaders of Islamic thought in the countries of the Middle East [had] given it their unqualified support'. In Islamic Studies, Orientalists and Muslim Scholars, in the course of discussing 'examples of genuine literary and research endeavours' in the Arab lands, Shaykh Nadwi exhibits a very positive attitude to some of the literary works of al-Banna's direct heirs; he writes: 'Three more works showing clarity and depth of thought are Al-Maratu Bain al Fiqhi wal Qanun (Women in Light of Fiqah and Islamic law) by Dr. Mustafa as-Saba'i, Al-Madkhal-ul-Fiqhi il-'Am by Mustafa Ahmad Az-Zarqa and the late 'Abdul Qadir 'Audah's At-Tashr'i ul-Jina'i il-Islami Muqarna bil Qanun il-Waza'i which meet the current legal needs of the Muslim countries'.

It appears that Nadwi considered the Brotherhood to have improved upon the revivalist notions of Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad 'Abduh - of course one would be negligent if trying to argue that these figures were not influences upon the Brotherhood, even if indirect and minimal. Nadwi saw Afghani's thought as too concentrated on politics, and 'Abduh's religious thought too 'defensive', i.e. he was, for Nadwi, 'among the pioneers of the modernist movement in the Arab World', who issued forth 'a powerful call for the reinterpretation of Islam', with 'a heavy imprint of Western ideals'; thus making him appear to Nadwi as another Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Indian contemporary.

I've dwelled on Nadwi's analysis, firstly, because he was a great scholar and historian (may God's mercy be upon him), and, secondly, because Nadwi's positive position on the essence of the movement - to which he was certainly not a member - must be seen in light of his own great emphasis on the need for spiritual rejuvenation as the foundation of Islam's revival in society. Nadwi's extensive Saviours of the Islamic Spirit is a clear testimony, especially in the last two-and-a-half volumes of the total four, to his call for Muslim focusing upon the spiritual imperative. Of course, one cannot try and impute complete acceptance of the Brotherhood's spiritual training by Nadwi; but for someone like him to discuss the movement as capable of 'an Islamic renaissance', then one cannot suggest, by any means, that he was largely opposed to the spiritual programme.

Now Hasan al-Banna was an apparent product of many diverse influences from his time, although one cannot argue that he was slavish to any of them; hence he was a leader who essentially stood high himself, whilst not neglecting the currents of thought around him, and taking what he saw as appropriate and casting aside what he decided was dispensable. Therefore one is not surprised to hear him declare, in the Fifth Conference, that his movement was a 'salafi da'wah', a 'sunni Path' and a 'true Tasawwuf' - for he took from each of these strands of thought. Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the crucial role played by the upbringing bestowed upon him by his father, Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna, who conducted to be what appears as a very detailed syllabus of religious study from an early age for Hasan. According to S.M. Hasan al-Banna's essay entitled Imam Shahid Hasan Al-Banna: From Birth to Martyrdom, Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna was an Azhari scholar, with a Hanbali leaning. Shaykh Ahmad is warmly mentioned by Shaykh Nadwi, in Islamic Studies, in the section that I quoted from earlier, where it is stated that Shaykh Ahmad's rearrangement and interpretation of the Musnad of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal is 'a work of exceptional value', written 'according to the needs of the modern times'; and 'unfortunately it remained incomplete', but was still published in'22 volumes'.

This upbringing, together with its results, is certainly one factor towards explaining why Hasan al-Banna's thought and movement has historically been able to attract the approval of official scholars, in particular from al-Azhar (such as 'Abdul Qadir 'Audah, 'Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghuddah, Mustafa Siba'i, Sayyid Sabiq, Muhammad Ghazali, Yusuf Qaradawi and 'Abdullah'Azzam), despite the fact that Hasan al-Banna was not an Azhari scholar himself. Regarding Hasan al-Banna's own stance towards the scholars of al-Azhar, Shaykh Qaradawi has written in Priorities:

'Imam Hasan al-Banna was always keen on keeping his lines open with the scholars of al-Azhar, among whom he had many good friends. I once heard him say in a convention that was held in Tanta and attended by a number of prominent Azhari Scholars of the Azhari Institute in Tanta: "O 'ulama'! You are the regular army of Islam, with us behind you as the reserve army."

This positive attitude towards the scholars of al-Azhar can be seen in one of al-Banna's most prominent women followers, Zainab al-Ghazali. The latter writes in Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir's Prison that she would consult with Shaykh Muhammad al-Awdan of al-Azhar on 'all da'wah affairs and issues related to Islamic learning' - the noble lady further says that al-Awdan'was also aware of. [her] pledge to al-Banna which he both blessed and supported'. In Priorities, Qaradawi encourages people of his understanding to 'winning the official religious institutions to its side', and he lists al-Azhar,' al-Zaytuna in Tunisia, al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco and the Deoband in Pakistan and India.' Nevertheless, despite Qaradawi encouraging such links and supports, he warns:

'Naturally, this does not apply to those institutions that have sold their Din to have the good things of this life, becoming a mouthpiece for tyrants and a sword that unjust rulers brandish. Such institutions should never be neglected or given a respite, as they should be laid bare before their people for what they really are, so that the people may guard themselves against their evils.' [Shaykh Qaradawi does add: 'We have also to differentiate between those who have become tools in the hands of tyrants, or shoes on their feet, and those who are weak and hate tyrants but are prevented from resisting tyranny by their weakness and fear. The weak, though intimidated to the extent of keeping silent and not uttering the word of right, do not get involved in saying the word of wrong.']

There is also evidence that Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna's influence on his son was certainly spiritual, and not simply intellectual in part. This is borne out from Hasan al-Banna's Memoirs, as quoted by Zakariya al-Siddiqi in his Prologue to the English translation of Hasan al-Banna's al-Ma'thurat:' I used to recite the wazifa [litany] of Ahmad Zarruq every morning and evening. I was very much impressed by the wazifa as my father had written a beautiful commentary on it. He provided the evidences for almost all the expressions (used in the wazifa) from authentic ahadith.' Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq was a famous Maliki jurist, as well as Sufi; thus we see the Sufic influence on both the father Ahmad and son Hasan - a facet of the latter's personal being that remained with him for life, and which he attempted to impart to his movement.

A study of Hasan al-Banna's list of pledges required from the official movement activists reveals a strong emphasis on knowledge, which is the foundation of spirituality, and good deeds for the nourishment of the soul. From the perspective of knowledge, he made it a requirement to 'ponder' the meanings of the Qur'an, study the life of the Prophet Muhammad (may God's peace and blessings be upon him), the history of the early Muslims, the hadith literature, and 'a text on the principles of the Islamic belief and another on Islamic jurisprudence'. His list of good deeds, obviously defined by knowledge of the aforementioned religious sciences, was very extensive: 'Devote a section from the Quran for daily reading, not less than one juz' [one-thirtieth of the Qur'an]', with the Qur'an to be completed within a month, 'but not in less than three to four days'; remain healthy in one's body; be truthful, dependable, courageous, of sound character in its comprehensive, Islamic sense; 'always refer to the purified tradition of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace)', and 'struggle for the revival of forgotten Islamic customs and the elimination of practices alien to Islam in all areas of life'; maintain a constant awareness of God, whilst seeking support to this noble aim through the voluntary ritual prayer of the night [at-tahajjud], voluntary fasts three days a month and engaging 'in much dhikr [remembrance], both of the heart and the tongue and recite the renowned supplications of the Messenger of Allah (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)'; perform the daily ritual prayers 'in congregation in the mosque as frequently as possible'; 'constantly repent and seek Allah's forgiveness for the sins. committed'; 'devote an hour every night before going to bed and take account of the good and bad things. done throughout the day'; and, in general, follow the Sacred Law in every matter.

Of course, one can discuss the theory of spirituality, and the stages of the soul and obliteration [fana'] of heedlessness of God, and the perpetuation [baqa'] in that heightened sense of spiritual awareness and wakefulness, together with the lore of love and trust in the Divine, and so on and so forth, but the loftiness might well be the work of the tongue alone, with no confirmation in the reality of the person - and in God is our refuge! Islamic spirituality is certainly not only discourse, and nor is it simply mysticism and wondrous occurrences, as understood in the contemporary Western sense; but, rather, it is about a state of being, with all the praiseworthy qualities of the revelation. Apart from the hagiographic material on Hasan al-Banna's own profound spiritual condition, which is easily available, the best testimony of his training - which expounds the point in glowing detail - can be found in Zainab al-Ghazali's Return of the Pharaoh. This work recounts the torture of the Brotherhood in the prisons of Egypt in the mid-twentieth century simple because they rejected Arab-Soviet-Socialism. It is, perhaps, sufficient testimony of al-Banna's direct spiritual influence - even if one can disagree with certain political or intellectual stances of the noble lady (may God's mercy be upon her). Spiritual states can be discussed in the tranquillity of retreat in one's spiritual lodge or 'ivory tower', far from real life and its troubles, yet one is ever so pressed to experience the sweetness of certitude in the Divine whilst the most barbaric feats of man and beast are visited upon one.

The book of Zainab al-Ghazali is a real story, without a seeming romantic inclination, and one that is an evidential depiction of some of the most exquisite spiritual theory - surrounding such notions as faith, sincerity [ikhlas], trust [tawakkul], patience [sabr], love of God [mahabba], fana', baqa', 'tasting' [dhawq], etc. - that one can gather from Sufic texts like Qushayri's Risala, Ibn'Ata'illah's Hikam or Ghazali's Ihya'. Hence we are justified in focusing on the dynamic revivalist method of spiritual development because there exists sufficient proof of its efficacy, by God's will.


  Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Life & Society
  Topics: Hajra (Hagar)  Values: Spirituality
Views: 7890

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