The Muslim Brotherhood - also called Muslim Brethren or The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Arabic: جمعية الأخوان المسلمون Jamiat al-Ikhwan al-muslimun) - is an Islamic organization with a political approach to Islam. It was founded in Egypt in 1928 by cleric Hassan al-Banna after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Though many claim the organization decries violence, the Brotherhood is often viewed as the root source of Islamic terrorism.
According to founder al-Banna, “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.” Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood opposes secular tendencies of Islamic nations and wants a return to the precepts of the Qur’an. The Brotherhood firmly rejects all notions of Western influences in addition to rejecting extreme Sufism as well. Brotherhood members organize events from prayer meetings to sport clubs for socializing.
Muslim Brotherhood Logo
The organization's motto: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
Jihad & Terrorism
An important aspect of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology is the sanctioning of jihad such as the 2004 fatwa issued by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi making it a religious obligation of Muslims to abduct and kill U.S. citizens in Iraq. al-Banna wrote that the Islamic flag must be raised again in the territories once ruled by Islam: “Thus, Andalusia (Spain), Sicily, the Balkans, the Italian coast, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean are all Muslim Mediterranean colonies, and they must return to the embrace of Islam.”
The Brotherhood is also viewed by many in the Middle East and the West as the root source for Islamic terrorism. In 2005, a former Kuwaiti Minister of Education, Dr. Ahmad al-Rabi’, wrote in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper: “The beginnings of all the religious terrorism that we are witnessing today were in the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology...all those who worked with bin-Laden and al-Qaida went out under the mandate of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood not only condemned the US for killing bin-Laden in May 2011, they also facilitated the growth of al-Qaida. Abdullah Azzam, bin-Laden’s mentor, came out of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin-Laden’s deputy, came from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, grew up in the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders also urge followers to restore Jerusalem. For example, in July 2012, Brotherhood General Guide Muhammad Badie stated in a sermon: “Every Muslim must act to save Jerusalem from the usurpers and to [liberate] Palestine from the claws of occupation. This is a personal duty for all Muslims. They must participate in jihad by [donating] money or [sacrificing] their life.” In another sermon, Badie spoke in a similar vein: “How glad the Muslims will be if all Muslim rulers make the Palestinian cause a pivotal matter, and [if] the rulers and subjects rally around it with the single goal of restoring the Al-Aqsa Mosque, saving it from the filth of the Zionists, and enacting Islamic sovereignty over the beloved land of Palestine.” In 2010, Badie issued a similar statement: “Palestine will not be liberated by hopes and prayers, but rather by Jihad and sacrifice.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is always working to spread its concepts throughout Egypt and the Middle East to gain more followers. They work on almost all social levels, including schools, universities, mosques, politics, and professional offices. One main strategy of the Brotherhood is to use a grassroots network of social and charitable organizations to expand their membership base, gain trust, and illustrate Islam’s relevance in all aspects of life.
The Brotherhood has branches in 70 countries and territories, including its main contingents in Egypt, Syria, Gaza, Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan. It also maintains active branches in the United Kingdom, France, and in numerous other European countries as well as in the United States.
The Brotherhood claims to have taken part in most pro-Islamic conflicts, from the Arab-Israeli wars and the Algerian War of Independence to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir as well as the Arab Spring Revolutions that swept across North Africa.
The Egyptian Brotherhood existed as a mostly social organization with underground political and militaristic wings due to fierce opposition by President Hosni Mubarak. Following the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, however, the Brotherhood emerged empowered, pulling in a plurality 36% of votes for the new parliament and having their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, win in the presidential elections.
Elsewhere, the Brotherhood is also gaining prominence in the political sphere. For instance, in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Ennahda was founded in 1981, banned in 1992 but gained control of the Tunisian government in their recent elections, holding 89 out of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly, the most of any party. In Morocco, the Brotherhoods’ Justice and Development Party (PJD) won 107 of 395 seats and holds 12 of Morocco’s 31 cabinet positions including Prime Minister. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood political party, Islamic Action Front, is posing a potential challenge to the government. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood is taking a leading role in the civil war and is believed to be in a position to take control if Bashar Assad is forced out of the government.
The Muslim Brotherhood began as a social and religious organization in Egypt whose members regarded Islam as a way of life. Many Syrian supporters founded their own branches in Syria, one of which was the Aleppo branch, founded in 1935. The Aleppo branch eventually became the Syrian headquarters of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood expanded its political involvement as the Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun.
The Brotherhood’s founder, al-Banna, was a devout admirer of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. During the 1930s, the Brotherhood became more political in nature and an officially political group in 1939. Over the years, the organization developed an apparatus through which to provide military training to its followers and to engage in political terrorism against Egyptian Coptic Christians and government officials.
In 1942, during World War II, Hassan al-Banna set up more Brotherhood branches in Transjordan and Palestine. The headquarters of the Syrian branch moved to Damascus in 1944. After World War II, Egyptian members took violent action against King Farouk’s government. When the organization was banned in Egypt, hundreds moved to Transjordan. Many also participated in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood initially supported Gamal Abd an-Nasser’s secular government and cooperated with it, but resisted left-wing influences. A Muslim Brother assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi on December 28, 1948. The Brotherhood was banned, and al-Banna himself was killed by government agents in Cairo in February 1949.
Muslim Brother Abdul Munim Abdul Rauf allegedly tried to kill Nasser on October 26, 1954. The Brotherhood was outlawed again and more than 4,000 of its members were imprisoned, including Sayyid Qutb, who later became the most influential intellectual of the group. He wrote influential books while in prison. More members moved to Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
The organization opposed the alliance Egypt had with the USSR at the time, and opposed the communist influence in Egypt, to the extent that it was reportedly supported by the CIA during the 1960s.
Nasser legalized the Brotherhood again in 1964 and released all prisoners. After claiming more assassination attempts against him, he had leaders executed in 1966 and imprisoned most others again.
Nasser’s successor in Egypt, Anwar Sadat, promised reforms, and that he would implement Shariah. However, Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979 angered the Brotherhood, which led to his assassination in 1981.
In the 1950s, Jordanian members supported King Hussein of Jordan against political opposition and against Nasser’s attempts to overthrow him. When the King banned political parties in Jordan in 1957, the Brotherhood was exempted.
The Syrian branch was the next to be banned when Syria joined Egypt in the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958. The Brotherhood went underground. When Syria left the UAR 1961, the Brotherhood won 10 seats in the next elections. However, the Ba’ath coup in 1963 forced them underground once more, alongside all the other political groups.
The appointment of Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite Muslim, as the Syrian president in 1971 angered the Brotherhood even more because the majority of Muslims do not consider Alawites true Muslims at all. Assad initially tried to placate them but made very little progress. Assad’s support of Maronites in the Lebanese Civil War made the Brotherhood re-declare its jihad. They began a campaign of strikes and terrorist actions. In 1979, they killed 83 Alawite cadets in the Aleppo artillery school. Assad’s attempts to calm them by changing officials and releasing political prisoners did not help. Eventually the army was used to restore order by force.
An assassination attempt against Assad on June 25, 1980, was the last straw. Assad made the Syrian parliament declare Brotherhood membership a capital offense and sent the army against them. In the operation, which lasted until February of 1982, the Syrian army practically wiped out the Brotherhood, killing an unknown but large number of people in the Hama Massacre. The Syrian branch disappeared, and the survivors fled to join Islamic organizations in other countries.
The Saudi Arabian branch convinced king Ibn Saud to let them start the Islamic University in Medina in 1961. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the movement as a whole split into moderates and radicals. The latter faction in Syria declared jihad against the Ba’ath party leaders. King Hussein allowed the Jordanian branch to give military training to Brotherhood rebels in Jordan.
In 1973, the Israeli government allowed local leader Ahmad Yassin to run social, religious and welfare institutions among Palestinian Muslims. In 1983, he was arrested for illegal possession of firearms and sentenced to prison. When he was released 1985, he became more popular than ever. When the first Intifada began in 1987, he became one of the founders of Hamas.
In 1984, the Muslim Brotherhood was partially reaccepted in Egypt as a religious organization but was placed under heavy scrutiny by security forces. It remains a source of friction.
In 1989, the Jordanian Brotherhood’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front, won 23 out of 80 seats in Jordan’s parliament. King Hussein tried to limit their influence by changing the election laws, but in the 1993 elections, they became the largest group in the parliament. They strongly opposed the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1994.
In the early days of the Soviet-Afghan war, the Muslim Brotherhood was seen as a constituent part of the Afghan anti-communist opposition.
The resistance movement in Afghanistan formed in opposition to the leftist policies of King Zahir Shah. The movement had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Russian government alleges that the Muslim Brotherhood is a key force in the ongoing Chechen revolt. Russian officials accused the Muslim Brotherhood of planning the December 27, 2002 suicide car bombing of the headquarters of the Russian-backed government in Grozny, Chechnya.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood is now viewed as a more moderate group than other Islamist organizations operation in the Middle East, such as al-Qaida, and has participated in free elections in countries where they were permitted to, messages delivered by the group’s Supreme Guides have made clear the Brotherhood remains committed to militancy. In September 2010, Muhammad Badi’ gave a sermon in which he said, “... the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.”
To possibly hide their militant Islamist rules from the eyes of Western observers, the Brotherhood removed the organizational by-laws from their main English language website in mid-February 2011. The bylaws, which were still available to Arabic readers, have long been a source of discussion and debate because of the group’s stated goal of establishing an Islamic state while uniting Muslims around the world. For example, section E of the bylaws states, “Need to work on establishing the Islamic State, which seeks to effectively implement the provisions of Islam and its teachings.” Likewise, Section G reads as follows: “The sincere support for a global cooperation in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic Sharia ... and constructive participation towards building a new basis of human civilization as is ensured by the overall teachings of Islam.”
Murshid (“supreme guide” or “General leaders” (G.L.)) of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have been:
- Founder & First Murshid: Hassan al-Banna حسن البنا
- 2nd G.L : Hassan al-Hudaybi حسن الهضيبى
- 3rd G.L : Umar al-Tilmisani عمر التلمسانى
- 4th G.L : Muhammad Hamid Abu al-Nasr محمد حامد أبو النصر
- 5th G.L : Mustafa Mashhur مصطفى مشهور
- 6th G.L : Ma'mun al-Hudaybi مأمون الهضيبى
- 7th G.L : Mohammed Mahdi Akef محمد المهدى عاكف
- 8th G.L : Mohammed Badie محمد بديع
- Acting G.L : Mahmoud Ezzat محمود عزت [a]
In January 2011, riots broke out on the streets of Cairo and soon the entire country was enveloped in revolution. Quickly termed the Arab Spring, the revolts in Egypt eventually led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and the possibility for democracy to finally take hold in the country. Throughout the first few months of revolution, the Brotherhood kept a surprisingly low profile amongst those protesting in the streets and in Cairo’s now famous Tahrir Square, though public opinion polls conducted in the wake of Mubarak stepping down showed that an increasing 75% of Egyptians voiced support in some form for the Brotherhood.
Before Mubarak officially removed himself from office, the Brotherhood initially supported Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the opposition forces against the government. Muslim Brotherhood demonstrator, though, referred to people like ElBaradei as “hamir al-thawra,” donkeys of the revolution, suggesting they hoped to exploit ElBaradei to hijack the Egyptian revolution for their own agenda.
In June 2011, the Egyptian official news agency recognized the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate party for the first time since it was outlawed by the government in 1954. Recognized as the “Freedom and Justice Party (FJP),” the Brotherhood was given permission to run in parliamentary elections that were scheduled for late 2011. Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, a senior member of the Brotherhood, announced that he would run for president as an independent in the election to be held after the parliamentary vote, though the Islamist group said they would not field a candidate.
In two rounds of parliamentary elections towards the end of 2011, the Brotherhood’s FJP managed to beat many expectations of those in the West and pulled in 36.3% of the general vote. Together with the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour Party, which won 28.8% of the votes, Egypt’s two leading Islamist parties won about two-thirds of votes for party lists in the second round of polling for a parliament that will help draft a new constitution after decades of autocratic rule.
In January 2012, FJP’s deputy leader and Brotherhood member Dr. Rashad Bayoumi told Arabic daily al-Hayat in an interview that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood will not recognize Israel “under any circumstance.” When asked whether it is a requirement for the government in Egypt to recognize Israel, Bayoumi responded by saying: “This is not an option, whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel at all. It’s an occupying criminal enemy.” The deputy leader stressed during the interview that no Muslim Brotherhood members would ever meet with Israelis for negotiations.” I will not allow myself to sit down with criminals.”
Though the FJP had previously announced it would not field a candidate for the presidential elections, in March 2012, the Brotherhood’s party announced that Khairat El-Shater, an engineer and businessman, would be their official representative. In April, however, the Supreme Presidential Election Committee officially disqualified El-Shater from candidacy because of prior criminal convictions against him.
In response to El-Shater’s suspension, the FJP placed Mohamed Morsi as their new candidate in April 2012. Morsi, a lifetime Brotherhood member, has served as media spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office before taking the position to lead their political party. In the first round of elections in May 2012, Morsi emerged as one of the top two vote-getters, amassing 24.8% of the vote, and qualified for the final election run-off set to take place the following month.
In late June 2012, almost a week after the run-off election between Morsi and secularist candidate Ahmed Shafik, official results confirmed that Morsi had garnered 51.7% of the votes and therefore won the presidency, making him the first ever candidate from an Islamist party to become head-of-state of an Arab country. He became Egypt’s fifth president and the first from outside the military.
Contrary to optimistic predictions that the protests and election would lead to some semblance of democracy in Egypt, Morsi quickly demonstrated he was no less authoritarian than his predecessor.
In November 2012, Morsi declared himself, the Shura Council and the constituent assembly immune from judicial review prompting protests that forced him to reverse the decision. A new constitution was also adopted which put the country under Sharia Law. The constitution was approved with a 64 percent majority in a nationwide referendum, but only a third of the electorate voted. Many Egyptians feared the law would lead to draconian enforcement similar to that of Iran that would undermine freedom of religion, speech, and the press and lead to discrimination against women.
Opposition to Morsi grew along with increasing violence in the streets. As millions of protesters mobilized to call for his resignation. On July 3, 2013, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, ousted Morsi and suspended the new constitution.
The government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, declared it a terrorist organization, and arrested thousands of its members. Morsi was put on trial and died in prison in June 2019. In 2013, the leader of the group, Mohamed Badie, was arrested and imprisoned. In 2016, the leader of the group’s military wing, Muhammad Kemal, was killed by Egyptian security forces. On August 28, 2020, after a seven-year manhunt the successor to Badie and Kemal, Mahmoud Ezzat, was arrested.
Ezzat had previously been sentenced to ten years in prison for his activities in the Brotherhood. While he was leading the group from his hideout in Cairo, Ezzat is accused of organizing attacks on senior members of Egyptian law enforcement, including the assassination of former Attorney General Hisham Barakat in 2015. Officials hope to gain valuable intelligence about planned terrorist attacks, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s network in and outside of Egypt, from his interrogation and documents found during his arrest.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continues to receive support from Qatar and Turkey, which also provide a haven for members of the group. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have boycotted Qatar since 2017 and made the eviction of members of the Brotherhood one of their demands for resuming normal relations. Everywhere else, Sami Moubayed noted, they are regarded as “outlaws.”
Barbara Zollner argues the Brotherhood has survived because of its organizational structure and social and political vision. “In times of adversity this vision plays on a notion of perpetual religious struggle that underscores the personal and communal fortitude of true believers in their conflict with the regime. This reinforces the Brotherhood’s unity and its members’ willingness to carry on.”
Zollner added the Brotherhood used satellite television channels, websites, and support for imprisoned members and their families to oppose Sisi. “These activities have been made possible,” Zollner said, “because administrative and communication lines within the Brotherhood have remained intact, underlining that the organization cannot be stopped by prison walls and exile.”
The Brotherhood has had close ties with the Jordanian monarchy since the group’s inauguration in Amman in 1945, which was attended by King Abdullah I. According to Moubayed, he reportedly said, “If these are your goals, then count me as a member.” The Brotherhood, Moubayed added “stood by his grandson, King Hussein, when army generals tried to stage a coup against him in 1957, and then again during his 1970 showdown with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.”
Following the Arab Spring in 2011, King Abdullah grew more concerned about the possibility of the Brotherhood causing unrest in Jordan. His fears were reinforced in 2013 when the Brotherhood’s leader, Hammam Said, described Jordan as a “state in the Muslim caliphate.”
Abdullah called the Brotherhood “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and his security forces began to arrest members involved in smuggling weapons to the West Bank. He subsequently insisted the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood separate itself from the Egyptian branch. Moubayed said the reason was primarily because of the danger the group posed to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The group subsequently split, with the Muslim Brotherhood Society pledging allegiance to Jordan and the original Muslim Brotherhood maintaining its ties to the Egyptian branch. The original group was banned, and its members imprisoned.
After legally operating in the kingdom for 75 years, Jordan’s top court ordered the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood on July 16, 2020. Moubayed said that before the ban the Brotherhood had been considering Amman as an alternative base of operations to replace Qatar due to tensions among the Gulf states over the Brotherhood’s presence in Doha. He also suggested that outlawing the group, which is popular in Jordan, could lead to violence but there was none in the weeks immediately following the court’s decision.
Sources: Jerusalem Post (January 1, 2012; June 7, 2011);
New York Times (June 25, 2012);
Leadership Action Network (July 2012);
MEMRI (July 23, 2012);
The Investigative Project on Terrorism (February 28, 2011);
JCPA (February 2, 2011);
Israel Hayom, (June 22, 2012);
Barbara Zollner, “Surviving Repression: How Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Has Carried On,” Carnegie Middle East Center, (March 11, 2019);
Zachary Laub, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Council on Foreign Relations, (August 15, 2019);
Yoni Ben Menachem, “Egypt Captures Muslim Brotherhood Commander in Cairo,” JCPA, (August 31, 2020);
Sami Moubayed, “Jordan Reverses Course with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Center for Global Policy, (August 31, 2020)