Essential Readings on The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood
Essential Readings: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood
by Abdullah Al-Arian
[The Essential Readings series is sponsored by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings Modules by submitting or suggesting an “Essential Readings” topic pertinent to the Middle East. Articles such as this will appear permanently on both www.MESPI.org and www.Jad
For all the press attention it has received over the last two decades and especially since the 25 January uprising that overthrew Egypt’s longstanding ruler, there has been comparatively little rigorous scholarship on the Society of the Muslim Brothers of Egypt. This is partly a consequence of the fact that the research of historians and political scientists who specialize in the Middle East has tended to be state-centric in the examination of forces that shaped modern societies in the region. Independent social actors have been given comparatively limited agency in these analyses, due in part to the fact that movements like the Muslim Brotherhood do not lend themselves to traditional archival research, nor do they fit into standard theoretical approaches to the study of international relations and comparative politics.
Nevertheless, courses on the Middle East generally and Egypt in particular have increasingly sought to incorporate the study of influential social actors, especially one that has maintained permanence across successive eras as the Muslim Brotherhood has. A new wave of scholarship has also allowed for a wider and more diverse array of literature for academics and students alike. In addition to classical texts that focus on the movement’s ideological underpinnings, organizational structure, and relationship with the state, more recent studies look at the group’s appeal across various segments of Egyptian society, their institutional development and social advocacy, as well as their mobilization strategies and framing mechanisms. While by no means exhaustive, the following list provides some essential readings on the Muslim Brotherhood, including some of the most up-to-date contributions by leading scholars in the study of Islamic movements.
Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Though it is decades older than anything else on this list, Mitchell’s study remains the seminal work on the early Muslim Brotherhood, examining the organization’s history, structure, and ideology from its founding by school teacher Hasan al-Banna in 1928 through its first experience with repression in 1954. Building off earlier works that attempted to track the Islamic revivalism of the early twentieth century, Mitchell makes a number of methodological advancements. Rather than view the Muslim Brotherhood through the lens of Western history or contemporary geopolitical terms, he defines the movement on its own terms, as rooted in the foundations of Islamic modernism. Moreover, while he does not overtly challenge the ever-popular modernization theory, Mitchell demonstrates empirically that the Muslim Brotherhood’s base of support came out of an emerging Egyptian professional class, thereby raising serious doubts about the notion that, the more society modernizes, the less influential religion becomes within that society. Although he wrote in the late 1960s, Mitchell ends his study with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s severe crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954, and treats the group as a bygone movement, in spite of obvious signs that it had not disappeared from the scene entirely, as evidenced by the 1965 case against Sayyid Qutb and the underground group charged with conspiring against the regime.
Brynjar Lia. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928-1942. New York: Ithaca Press, 1998.
Among the critiques of Mitchell’s study is that it focused far more on the later years of the Muslim Brotherhood’s early period rather than the critical first years in Ismailia where the group got its start. This is partly a product of the availability of sources, and Mitchell relies more heavily on the secretariat’s internal documents and publications, which were more readily available after the organization became centralized in Cairo and maintained more organized records. Lia’s study of the early years of the Muslim Brotherhood makes use of private documents collected by al-Banna’s family, thereby providing a unique insight into the foundational period of the group. It also includes for the first time an examination of British War Office and Foreign Office files as they relate to the critical interwar years of Egyptian history.
Gilles Kepel. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
For all its problems, Kepel’s book has set the standard for studies of Islamist groups during the era of the so-called “Islamic resurgence” that dates back to the 1970s. Kepel paints a vivid portrait of the intricate landscape of Islamic activism in Egypt, focusing in particular on the rise of militant groups. He places particular emphasis on the role of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s repression and Sayyid Qutb’s intellectual evolution in incubating violent extremism among a new generation of Egyptian activists. In doing so, however, Kepel shifts the focus away from the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood’s reemergence during the same period under the leadership of Umar al-Tilmisani and its popularity within the vibrant Islamic movement across Egypt’s colleges and universities.
Barbara Zollner. “Prison Talk: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Internal Struggle During Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Persecution: 1954 to 1971.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3, (2007): pp. 411-433.
In this article, Zollner explores a period that previously received far too little treatment. While most scholars had declared the Muslim Brotherhood a bygone movement following its repression by Nasser in 1954, Zollner demonstrates that the intricate prison networks that existed in the subsequent period allowed the organization to remain alive under the most inauspicious circumstances. In particular, Zollner highlights the ideological debates within the different factions and the attempts by Banna’s successor, Hasan al-Hudaybi, to reassert control over the movement from those who would pursue a path of militant resistance against the regime. In her book, The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan al-Hudaybi and Ideology (Routledge, 2008), which expands upon this topic, Zollner provides an in-depth textual analysis of Hudaybi’s response to Qutb’s supporters, Preachers Not Judges. This book set the stage for the ensuing struggle of the 1970s in which dual modes of Islamic activism competed for the mantle of the broader movement.
William E. Shepard. Sayyid Qutb and Islamic Activism: A Translation and Critical Analysis of Social Justice in Islam. Leiden, New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.
Shepard’s translation and commentary of one of Sayyed Qutb’s earliest works, Social Justice in Islam, provides an important look at the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading thinker of the post-Banna era at an early stages of his intellectual development. Though a significant work in its own right, Social Justice in Islam had lost its place in the discourse of Islamic thought, overshadowed by the impact Qutb’s later work, Milestones, had on the rise of radical Islamic groups. Shepard demonstrates that this work experienced a number of changes and revisions over the years, becoming increasingly radicalized with time. He tracks the developments of Qutb’s thought through the various editions of Social Justice in Islam, rather than focus, as others had done, on his final work and its effects on fringe movements. This study signals an important shift away from the earlier emphasis on the intellectual works that serve as the basis for violent contention.
John Calvert. Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
This recent work is one of the first to offer a deeper contextualization of Qutb’s ideological development than earlier studies. Whereas Kepel places inordinate emphasis on the prison experience in its radicalization effect on Qutb and other activists, Calvert takes the long view of intellectual evolution, devoting greater attention to the political and socioeconomic conditions surrounding Qutb’s childhood, education, and even his brief foray to the United States in the late 1940s, a trip that admittedly received unprecedented scrutiny and emphasis among American commentators after 11 September 2001.
Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
In her social movement history of the Muslim Brotherhood from the 1960s through the 1980s, Wickham develops the concept of lumpen intelligentsia, a class of increasingly ambitious, educated, and urbanized, Egyptians who would come to make up the base of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. She argues that the rise of Islamic activism was not a natural occurrence, but rather a result of resource mobilization on the part of this elite sector and its ability to frame its grievances effectively. This is one of the first of a number of recent studies that make use of the theoretical tools developed by Social Movement Theory (SMT) in the analysis of Islamic movements broadly and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Wickham’s latest book, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamic Movement (Princeton, 2013), is one of the more ambitious works on the subject, providing a historical and contemporary overview of the movement that spans its entire eight-decade history, but without sacrificing substantive analysis for its broad scope. It is certain to become a textbook on the order of Mitchell’s seminal study.
Ziad Munson. “Islamic Mobilization: Social Movement Theory and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” Sociological Quarterly 42, No. 4 (2001): pp. 487-510.
For those interested in the ways in which SMT has been applied in the study of the Muslim Brotherhood, Munson’s article provides an important case study analysis. He challenges the prevailing conceptualization of “political Islam” as a distinct analytical category and proceeds to utilize the notion of “political opportunity structures” to explain the expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1930s and 1940s. In demonstrating its adherence to particular tenets of social movement mobilization, Munson dispels the myth of Islamic movement exceptionalism that has kept the Muslim Brotherhood from being examined within the same theoretical constructs as its non-religious rivals.
Asef Bayat. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Utilizing a similar methodological approach, this study draws a social movement comparison between Islamic activism in Egypt and Iran dating to the 1960s. Rather than examining the Muslim Brotherhood through the lens of ideological and structural factors, it employs a dynamic approach that looks at activist missions as experienced in multivaried political and socioeconomic contexts. Bayat challenges the dominant “Islam and democracy” literature that had exhausted its ability to forecast political developments in a number of Muslim-majority countries throughout the 1990s and into the next decade. The study also contributes to the growing discussion of “post-Islamism” as a means of explaining the twenty-first century developments within Islamic activism.
Hesham al-Awadi. In Pursuit of Legitimacy: The Muslim Brothers and Mubarak (1982-2000). London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2004.
This work offers one of the most comprehensive looks inside the complex relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mubarak regime. Al-Awadi traces the ebb and flow in those relations to Hosni Mubarak’s need at various points in time to affirm his legitimacy through the cooptation of Egypt’s leading opposition movement, thus explaining how an officially banned organization could establish such a thriving network of social service institutions and even field candidates for parliament. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood sought this accommodationist approach with the goal of carving out the political space for itself from which to challenge the regime and pursue its reformist agenda, and as such maintaining its authenticity and support across a broad segment of Egyptian society. In a journal article entitled “Mubarak and the Islamists: Why did the Honeymoon End?” (Middle East Journal, Vol. 59, No. 1, 2005), Al-Awadi explores the Muslim Brotherhood’s unsuccessful efforts at legitimating its political activism despite its strategy of non-confrontation. Rather, its demonstrated strength on the social level yielded increased state repression beginning in the mid-1990s.
Mona El-Ghobashy. “The Metamorphasis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2005): pp. 373-395.
In this article, El-Ghobashy traces the Muslim Brotherhood’s political evolution from broad-based social movement to political actor committed to pursuing its reformist agenda through the limited avenues of electoral politics. She argues that this strategic shift necessitated an ideological reformulation that paved the way for greater involvement in a political system that the group’s leadership had traditionally shunned. The subsequent period has exposed new cleavages within the Muslim Brotherhood’s structural hierarchy, resulting in at least one high-profile split with the establishment of the Wasat Party. The article represents a strong contribution to the political science literature on political parties and their adaptability to changing political contexts, a subfield that has long ignored Islamist groups.
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher. “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament.” Middle East Report, No. 240 (Fall 2006).
This short piece by Shehata and Stacher provides one of the best analyses of the Muslim Brotherhood in the immediate aftermath of its strong showing in the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections in which it won a fifth of all seats in the People’s Assembly. Based on eyewitness accounts and interviews, the article explores the challenges that the Muslim Brotherhood faced as it transitioned into the official opposition within the state. Just as would become apparent in the aftermath of the uprising that overthrew Mubarak, experience in the provision of social services does not necessarily translate into effective responses to the needs of political constituents or constructive policymaking. Though the Muslim Brotherhood’s political gains were rolled back by 2010, Shehata and Stacher set the stage for the broader developments affecting the movement in the period that followed.
Marc Lynch, editor. Islamists in a Changing Middle East. FP Group, 2012.
Egypt’s fluid political landscape since Mubarak’s fall in early 2011, coupled with the ever-evolving role of the Muslim Brotherhood within it, have not permitted for much scholarly analysis, with most commentators attempting to catch a moving target. Nonetheless, some of the early responses to the Muslim Brotherhood’s role during the 25 January uprising and the transition that followed are instructive for scholars and students alike attempting to understand some of the most important factors and considerations involved in studying Egypt’s turbulent revolutionary moment. This collection of short essays edited by Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch contains a number of pieces by leading scholars in the field, including Robert Springborg, Nathan Brown, and Khalil al-Anani among others. These articles cover the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s first official political party, the internal divisions and high-profile exits from the organization, the short-lived experience with parliamentary rule, and the decision to contest the presidential elections and its immediate consequences.
[This article was originally published on www.Jadaliyya.com]