While one ought to be careful about making unwarranted generalizations, it is rather striking that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that share its ideology and goals have constantly found themselves entangled in controversies. As a result, it is not surprising that the Muslim Brotherhood has represented widely different things to different people both within the domain historically dominated by Islamic discourses and in the Euro-American domain that has interacted with Muslims and their societies in intensive ways for long decades. Importantly, discussions about the Muslim Brotherhood often remain stuck between polemical positions and apologetic ones. Polemical stances often end up vilifying the members of the group and its sympathizers while apologetic ones lead to misleadingly rosy interpretations of the Brotherhood even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise.
Carrie R. Wickham’s history of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwān al-muslimūn) entitled The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement is a valuable contribution to scholarship on this influential Islamist group. One of the major strengths of Wickham’s monograph is that it moves beyond the above dichotomy and strikes a fairly good balance between the two usually dominant perspectives. Her book humanizes the members of the Brotherhood by portraying them as complex and diverse social actors. Yet, she consistently highlights what she perceives as problematic aspects of the Ikhwānī discourse as well as some of the serious tensions within the public pronouncements of the members of the Brotherhood and within the various political programs that the organization has put forward over the years. I must note here that, in my opinion, Wickham does not consider the full implications of some of the reactionary positions of Brotherhood leaders and thinkers, but her analysis is overall even-handed. The author is particularly successful in making the internal struggles of the organization a central element in the narrative of the development of the Muslim Brotherhood and in showing that these internal struggles indicate that the group’s response to being persecuted was not necessarily and simply radicalization, as many analysts have suggested. Instead, reconciliatory, quietist, and reformist attitudes were part of how the Brotherhood reacted to the waves of confrontation with the Egyptian regime. In the end, Wickham’s account is a very useful and multifaceted introduction to arguably the most important Islamist movement in the modern world.
Nevertheless, Wickham comes short on a number of points that, I would argue, keep the analysis from reaching its full potential. Firstly, Wickham does not fully consider the pre-history of the Brotherhood and how that pre-history would shape the Brotherhood for decades to come. One reason for this lack might be that Wickham did not want to simply reiterate what earlier scholars like Richard P. Mitchell had presented. Another reason might be that Wickham’s most significant addition to the scholarship on the Brotherhood stems from the access she had to interview many of the leading Brothers that are still alive or were so until recently. As such, her focus of the organization after 1970 is understandable. However, by ignoring the pre-history of the Brotherhood, Wickham misses elements that are highly relevant to the narrative that she constructs.
For instance, in the context of Egypt and the Levant, the late 19th century and early 20th century saw the rise and flourishing of a modernist Muslim trend that would have an influence on the development of Islamic thought all around the world. Muslim modernists, most prominent among them Muḥammad ʿAbdū (d. 1905), sought to marry Islam to modernity, seeing no incompatibility between them. There were tensions in what ʿAbdū was proposing. He skillfully found within the Islamic tradition what seemed to fit what he understood modernity to be. But he was not very systematic in his endeavor. So despite his success in introducing significant changes to the Egyptian educational system and religious curriculum and despite his daring legal religious opinions and edicts, ʿAbdū was mostly unable to move beyond ad hoc methods.
In the hands of his student, biographer, and editor, the Syrian Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935), ʿAbdū’s legacy would take a turn towards what might be termed “fundamentalism.” Living at a time of precariousness and rapid change, Riḍā read and presented ʿAbdū through a different lens. Within this frame of mind, he also created an intellectual rapprochement with the Wahhābī movement in Arabia. Given the context of the time, what became important for many social actors was much less engagement with modernity, as an intellectual project, and much more an ideological attachment to an Islamic identity that was seen as severely threatened, particularly after the demise in the 1920’s of the Ottoman Sultanate that stood in the social memory of most Muslims for the Islamic Caliphate. It makes sense then that it was in the same 1920’s that Ḥasan al-Bannā, who was close to Riḍā, established the Muslim Brotherhood.
So, the legacy that the Muslim Brotherhood inherited included serious tensions. From the modernism of ʿAbdū to the “fundamentalism” of the Wahhābīs, passing by the identity politics engendered by serious geopolitical developments, and adding the dimension of a populist agenda to the picture, the Muslim Brotherhood already contained from the start the different trends that Wickham would present as later reactions to the persecution by the Egyptian regime of the Brotherhood. In one way, this strengthens Wickham’s arguments that one should not look at the Brotherhood as monolithic and that radicalization should not be seen as the only possible outcome of persecution. On the other hand, the pre-history of the Brotherhood highlights that what the author presents as the rise of hardliners and progressives within the organization is not simply part of strategic shifts at particular moments in the history of the Brotherhood, but is also a restatement of worldviews belonging to an intellectual genealogy predating the establishment of the Brotherhood organization and larger than the history of the latter. One might say that the Brotherhood’s internal tensions are in significant ways reminiscent of the tensions of Islamic thought since its encounter with modernity. Therefore, the combination of a short-term view and a long-term one might allow us to move beyond the problematic of whether this or that member of the Brotherhood is deceitful when publicly embracing democracy, women’s rights, etc… Instead, it pushes us to start questioning the general categorizations that we have become accustomed to concerning the identity of Islamists and their motivations.
This is connected to my second point which is the need to dig deeper than the religious or political public pronouncements of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Wickham provides us with a large number of quotes from Brotherhood members, particularly from what she calls the middle generation. She skillfully puts these quotes as well as the debates between the “progressive” middle generation members and the more “conservative” old-guard leaders of the organization within a drama-filled narrative. Unfortunately, Wickham pays little attention to the social and economic backgrounds of the actors involved in the drama. While the author does mention in the context of electoral politics the tension between the rural and urban settings, she does not push this inquiry to the needed depth. She also fails to provide the reader with enough details about the biographies of many characters that are omnipresent in the book. While it is very important to know the religious positions and political views of the actors and how they clash, a thorough analysis requires a much more extensive probe. Economic class, regional/tribal affiliation, social status within the community, as well as personal (and psychological) histories are crucial to understanding the religious and political choices of actors vying for power within a major organization like the Muslim Brotherhood and seeking to stir that organization in a particular direction.
Another issue that Wickham glances over is the relation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the important transformations in the last thirty years within Egyptian society. Here, I would like to highlight that the Brotherhood from the 1970’s onwards has focused its efforts on changing society from the bottom up, seeking to create a pious society that would bring about an “Islamic” order. Wickham discusses this agenda and its success at length. However, she does not pay attention to one of the ramifications of these transformations within Egyptian society. This is the transition of the Brotherhood from an organization with a political vision and political goal into a large ideological current that goes far beyond the confines of an organizational structure. I would suggest that the interpretation of Islam that came to dominate within Egyptian society and in many parts of the Arab world is that of the ikhwānī ideologues and of the scholars affiliated in some way or another with the Brotherhood. For example, when someone claimed that Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī was the “Pope of Islam,” they might have exaggerated his authority, but it is not as much of an outlandish claim as it might seem.
Al-Qaraḍāwī, a former brotherhood member and a jurist trained at the famed al-Azhar University in Cairo, has become hugely influential all over the Arab world and among Western Muslims. His weekly program on al-Jazīra television channel has consistently drawn millions of viewers for almost two decades now and his more than thirty books continue to sell in very large numbers. The main point that I seek to highlight here is that one cannot study the Muslim Brotherhood anymore as simply an organization. It is crucial to solidly anchor it within a society whose members have been influenced to varying degrees by the ideology of the Brotherhood. Any analysis of the Brotherhood that fails to consider how religiosity in society shifted and how these shifts in turn influenced and continue to influence the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization is in my mind incomplete. In other words, talking to Muslim Brothers and reading their literature is not sufficient; one must also talk to average Egyptians in a variety of settings, including Egyptian Christians who have been negatively affected by the shifts mentioned above. All of this must then be put under critical analysis in order to understand the Brotherhood as an organization, social movement, and ideological current, beyond news headlines.