The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Mourning Gamal al-Banna

Gamal al-Banna died yesterday, at 92. The progressive Islamic thinker was the younger brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. He took a markedly different direction from his more famous sibling, writing books such as "My Coptic Siblings;" "The Muslim Woman, Liberated by the Quran and Enchained by the Fuqaha';" and "A Refutation of the Call to Punish Apostasy." 

On the several occasions when I visited him in his office in Cairo -- the repository of a dense library with many rare old books, which he dearly loved -- he was funny, gracious and daring, the rare Islamic scholar with the guts to roundly dismiss Salafis as examples of "the outmost ignorance" and to tease: "The only way they can go back to the early days of Islam is if they can produce another Prophet Muhammad, another Abu Bakr." 

In our last interview, on the pledges of contemporary Islamist groups to "apply Sharia," he argued that the Sunnah (the enormous collection of reported sayings and doings of the Prophet, on which much Islamic jurisprudence is based) are largely unreliable; that correctly interpreted the Koran would almost never lead to the application of the hudud (the infamous corporal punishments such as the cutting of hands);  and that "another, better word of Sharia is justice [...] If a society implements freedom and justice, it can implement Sharia." 

I was looking forward to more conversations with him. After the jump, an excellent obituary and overview of his work from the Arab-West Report.

Arab-West Report, January 30, 2013

In Memoriam

Jamāl al-Bannā (1920-2013)

 Jamāl al-Bannā, a great friend of Arab-West Report, passed away today at the age of 93. Jamāl
al-Bannā, born in 1920, was the younger brother of Hassan al-Bannā, the founder of the Muslim
Brotherhood, whose policies he rejected. Jamāl al-Bannā was widely perceived by Egyptians
as a liberal thinker because he voiced disparate opinions from those of the more
traditional-thinking Muslims. But, in a meeting in 2009 with Dutch journalist Eildert Mulder
about the origin of Islam, it was clear he accepted the critique on the historicity of the hadith, but
rejected the textual critique by European revisionist scholars on the text of the Qur’an. Thus, where
liberal European theologians would accept a textual critique on the Bible, the liberalism of Jamāl al-
Bannā did not extend far enough that he would accept a similar analysis of the Qur’anic text.  He described the text in the discussion with Mulder as a great symphony that one cannot take apart in order to analyze individual aspects.
Most meetings with al-Bannā, including the meeting with Mulder, took place in his library in
his home. Here he felt most at home between his collection of thousands of books.  Though printed in Dutch, as a good bibliophile he took Mulder’s book on the sources of Islam and added it to his
impressive collection.
In 2006, al-Bannā published a book on his Coptic brethren. He showed great sympathy for
Coptic Christians in Egypt, but was also critical of Church hierarchy for being authoritarian and
politicizing. I introduced al-Banna to Ayad Mossad, a Dutch Copt who was then the chairman of the Stichting Arab-West Foundation, which was followed by Mossad’s book review
Around this period he also wrote his comment about CIDT in an Egyptian newspaper. He then
mistakenly referred to CIDT as a Christian organization. CIDT covers Muslim-Christian
issues and works with interns from mainly Christian countries, but has always aimed to remain
religiously neutral.
Al-Banna spoke with respect about his brother Hassan (1906-1949), who became known as the
founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. In meetings he stated that his brother had started in Sufi
circles and only later entered politics. Al-Banna also believed that if his brother would not have been
assassinated in 1949, he probably could have played a role in preventing the radicalization that
later occurred.
These experiences with al-Banna were characteristic of his individualism. He was an original thinker, not afraid to be divert from mainstream beliefs, such as a controversial claim a few years ago stating that it was permitted to smoke during Ramadan. He was not willing to compromise on what he believed to be true himself. Jamāl al-Bannā has often been presented as a scholar and an
academic, but he was not and never claimed to be. The work that I was able to see was often not well researched. He was well-read, but lacked the scrutiny of an academic.
Jamāl al-Bannā was not only an ardent writer and speaker on religious and political subjects, but also active in society. In the early 1950’s, al-Bannā joined the Egyptian labor movement and wrote about syndicate-related issues for almost half a century.
In 2008, Arab-West Report composed and published his biography.  
In the summer of 2009, I introduced two AWR interns, Ben Connery and Rémi Drouin, students
of Arabic at the University of Oxford, to al-Banna, which resulted in a lengthy study about his work and beliefsI later presented their excellent study for publication in MIDEO of the Dominican Oriental Institute in Cairo.
In November 2012, AWR interns Eline Kasanwidjojo, Shabana Basheer, and Mette Toft Nielsen together with Nisrīn Jum'ah sat with Jamāl al-Bannā, which resulted in our last interview with him on current political developments.  
Jamāl al-Bannā was blessed with a very clear memory and mind until the last moment. He criticized President Mursī and his authoritarian decree on November 22 as well as the constitution. 
About the Muslim Brotherhood he then stated:
“Do not work with politics!” and “I know this  is already too late to mention, but this is also something that my brother Hassan al-Bannā said, 
'They should go back to teaching people.'”
CIDT also placed numerous summary translations of Jamāl al-Bannā in Arab-West Report.
Some need to be highlighted here: Watani interviewed Jamāl al-Bannā in 2008 about his views concerning the Church, his opinion that religions do not contradict each other, and his explanations for the growing extremism in Egyptian society.
In 2000, Al Ahrar published a review of his bookIslam and the freedom of thought.
It is a blessing to have known Jamāl al-Bannā. We will surely miss his contributions to the public
debate as well as his support for our interns.


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief of Arab-West Report

Ursula Lindsey