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How al-Banna's anti-West Islamist movement succeeded in inspiring Muslims to rejecting Western liberalism, and spawned the emergence of global imperialist Islamic movements like al-Qaeda...


The First World War had finally come to an end. The European victors could now turn their attention to the Middle Eastern vacuum. Muslims from Cairo to Jeddah to Jerusalem to Damascus were facing the harsh reality of the end of a seventh century dream. Their Ottoman Empire had slowly disintegrated from within and was now powerless to hold back the European advance. Islam’s core belief in its manifest destiny to dominate all of human civilization was at an end.

It was supremely naïve of the Europeans to think that the words of the Prophet Muhammad would die so easily. Weren’t they words that had come directly from God Himself? In their momentary hubris, they never imagined that these words would once again take hold and would then spread like a contagion and even begin to eat away at their own European society. 

The year 1927 marked the first challenge to this Western naïveté. In Islam’s darkest hour there suddenly rose a voice. It was calling for Muslims to abandon the secular and decadent Western encroachment that was destroying them and return to the purity of Islam. It was the voice of a highly gifted and charismatic individual, an Egyptian orator schoolteacher/clock repairer named Hassan al-Banna. He appeared out of nowhere onto the streets corners of Cairo, as well as other Egyptian cities, dressed in a flaming red robe preaching his message. Like the early American Christian evangelists, he mesmerized his audiences with vivid descriptions of hell for those who had abandoned the purity of Islam. Like the American Christian evangelists he too warned of the Day of Judgment and Hell’s torments.

There was, however, a difference between Hassan al-Banna and these Christian Americans. Islam is a political/military religion. Muslims do not render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’.  Muhammad had joined religion, governance and military conquest and made it one. Al-Banna’s mission was first to take over the Egyptian government and then the world.  In 1928 he established the Society of Muslim Brothers. By the late 1940’s the Muslim Brothers had some two thousand branches throughout Egypt and it was threatening the Egyptian government itself. 

Its objectives were "'individual moral purification and collective political and social regeneration through the establishment of a truly Islamic government in Egypt, as a springboard for universal expansion'"; and as Banna described it, "'until the entire world will chant the name of the Prophet (Muhammad), Allah’s prayers and blessings be upon him.'" (Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, A History. New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 208-9)

But there was a chilling side to these objectives. As Efraim Karsh further describes it in his book:

"In Banna’s view, the Qur’an commanded its believers to love death as much as others love life. As long as Muslim society failed to abide by this sacred philosophy, they were destined to remain in their current dismal position. "'There is no escape from death and it happens only once’, he (Banna) claimed. ‘Should death come down the path of Allah, it will be a gain in this world and a reward in the other.’ This reasoning was duly incorporated into the Muslim Brother’s Credo: "'Allah is our goal; the Qur’an is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; Struggle is our way; and death in the path of Allah is our highest aspiration.'"

On February 12, 1949 al-Banna was murdered by Egyptian government agents, apparently in revenge for the assassination of Prime Minister Nuqrashi Oasha a few weeks earlier.

The scene was now set for the intellectual hero of all Islamic terrorists, Sayyid Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb). From the agony and horror of an Egyptian prison he wrote his vast, many-volume commentary, In the Shade of the Qur’an. In 1966 Qutb was also executed by the Egyptian government, but by that time it was too late to stop the contagion that was to follow. His was a work that would inspire future generations of Muslim terrorists, including the wealthy Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Cast under their spell, many thousands of young Muslims would follow them and accept Islam in the pure seventh century form as Qutb had so defined it. 

The idea of a utopian society coming about by way of the righteous destroying the unrighteous was not a new one. It had existed throughout Jewish history, and with Muhammad it became an important part of the Koran. An example of the Hebraic roots is found in a comment by the author John J. Collins in his book, "The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature." He writes about the expectations in the Qumran community (140’s B.C.– 68 A.D.) of the coming Messiah:

He is the scepter who will smite the nations, slay the wicked with the breath of his lips, and restore the Davidic dynasty.... He is also the Messiah of righteousness, who will usher in an era of peace and justice.

The members of the Qumran community believed in a God who can be righteous on the one hand and a destroyer of the wicked on the other. This was both the Hebraic and Koranic interpretation of the nature of their Yahweh and their Allah.

Qutb believed in this kind of God. Allah would be the destroyer of the unrighteous. The movement that he spawned would do the destroying. And those who participated and died for the cause of Allah would have fast entry into Paradise.

Qutb saw a world corrupted by Christianity and by Zionism. He would brush off Judaism as “a system of rigid and lifeless ritual.” He saw Christianity as a two faced religion that had lost its direction. One part of it was secular and the other religious. Its biggest mistake according to Qutb lay in the words of Jesus when he said:

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’ and to God the things that are Gods.

Biographers say that Qutb as a young man, before his acceptance of al-Banna’s call, was not at all religious. He was not a devout Muslim. They say he had an open view of religion. But, then he took a trip the United States. There he saw what he considered the depravation of American society with its emphasis on sex and its use of alcohol. He had also observed this same depravation in his own country with the spread of European colonialism. Upon his return to Cairo, he had a religious experience. It would mark his destiny. The pure and unadulterated form of Islam as al-Banna had described it would become his answer.

How could his perfect world come about? It would not be by way of Christianity. The Christian idea of a direct connection with a loving redemptive God made no sense. Under Christianity there was no way to make people subservient to a God who would smite the nations, slay the wicked with the breath of his lips. Besides, Christianity had been polluted by Greek philosophy with all of its dangerous personal freedom and creative introspection. Like Muhammad, he would choose the distant and fearful Hebraic/Koranic God. Servitude to this God meant strict obedience. This would open a path to absolute purity for every human being willing to follow Allah’s will.

Like the Apostle Paul many generations before him, Qutb saw the world overtaken by wanton sexual expression and undisciplined excess. Where Paul pointed his finger at Roman society, Qutb blamed the secular Christians and Jews who had turned their backs on God for the pleasures of this world. He viewed western society as being consumed by human passions and therefore fallen. For Qutb, the Western world had become a den of moral degeneration. 

To bring about his New World, the modern Christian/Jewish world would be destroyed and replaced with an Islamic world. It would be a utopian world living by the revelations of the prophet Muhammad, the true messenger of God. It would be a world where every human being would live a Sharia life under Islamic law. The entire world would become an Islamic Caliphate living in fear of Allah and waiting for the final Day of Judgment.

Qutb and al-Banna could not acknowledge any God other than the Hebraic God Muhammad had described in the seventh century. Nor could they acknowledge any other reality for human existence. Over an often painful two thousand years, the West had discovered an alternative reality to this existence and an alternative vision of the God power behind it. That God was not the God described by Muhammad. This other God did not limit His presence to any one tribe or religious group. He was a God centered in every person on this earth. He was a God who valued every person by one and only one measure; his or her contribution to all of huma(e)nity.

Over a period of two thousand years this alternative vision had released an enormous surge of human creativity not seen before in human history. How to reconcile Qutb’s and al-Banna’s Allah to this modern world with its new reality? Herein lay their dilemma.

As Western values moved into the Middle Eastern vacuum, they came with an invitation open to all that cut to the core of the Hebraic/Islamic conundrum. It was an invitation without distinction: Jesus of Nazareth had given the world the aphorism; the leavened and the unleavened bread are one. His meaning was that God makes no distinction between the "impure" and the "pure", between the "unclean" and the "clean", as viewed in the Hebraic/Islamic sense. But; Islam refused. It saw everyone in the West as "unclean", as Infidel. Islam would not abandon the words of the Prophet Muhammad.

The view of "Infidels" as unclean and al-Quaeda as the scepter who will smite the nations, slay the wicked with the breath of his lips, and restore the Davidic (Islamic) dynasty.... who will usher in an era of peace and justice goes beyond any sense of 21st century rationality. Like all the other self destructive psychotic religious views from our past, it too will end in the dust bin of human history.


David Anderson is the author of Inquiry Abraham.