Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) was a schoolteacher, intellectual, and the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood would become the most influential Islamist organization in the Muslim world, and the largest government opposition force in Egypt. He was deeply inspired by Rashid Rida, a student of Muslim reformist and anti-colonialist Muhammad ‘Abduh, who argued that Islam should serve as the primary reference point and organizing force for modern society, and that Islamic law must adapt to reflect modern contexts. Al-Banna critiqued the influence of Western culture in Egyptian society, rejecting not only European political dominance, but also the encroaching European and American cultural norms.
His work with the Brotherhood began in Ismailia—where the British had a constant and visible presence—giving lectures in coffee shops, though he had been a member of various Islamic social and moral improvement organizations since childhood. This included a Sufi order, which is reflected in the organization and direction of the nascent Muslim Brotherhood. For example, he used the titled Murshid al-Amm (general guide—the term murshid is often used to denote the leader within a Sufi order), and early members gave a bay’a (oath of allegiance) directly to him, pledging to maintain spiritual and moral discipline—a foundational guiding principle of Sufism. These influences gradually disappeared as members of the Egyptian middle class joined the Brotherhood.
Al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, likely by the Egyptian government as retaliation against the Brotherhood’s increasingly militant activities during the 1940s. He is remembered for rendering the theological and legal works of ‘Abduh, Rida and others into a workable approach to modern life which was embraced in Egypt by the middle, professional class and the poor, and globally by Islamists seeking change in their own societies. This approach not only challenged secular nationalist discourses, but also offered a powerful alternative to traditional religious narratives. Finally, al-Banna’s articulation of Islamism would significantly transform in the years and decades following his death, both among Brotherhood ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb, and among Islamists outside of Egypt.