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The Spiritual Method of Revivalism: On Hasan al-Banna and His Legacy

Posted August 18, 2007

By Andrew Booso

Part One: An Introduction

Although I’ve never belonged to an organisation that has either a direct-lineal or distant-familial connection to Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), I am compelled to admit his significant impact on his own world and the world that we currently inhabit. Hence a study of the man and his legacy should provide some explanations as to why he is still relevant. Indeed, our age of psychological and physical chaos makes the need for remedies to the contemporary human condition most urgent. Al-Banna’s life fits in with a diverse grouping of twentieth-century individuals and their collectives to bring about a revival of what they considered to be orthodoxy; and al-Banna’s tale would, arguably, occupy the distinction of being the most riveting tale in such annals of history, for its sheer scope of vision and action, and unprecedented significance, which has continued to our own time. Al-Banna is seen to have inheritors in the moderate ‘Islamists’ – the latter being a truly horrid term, which I think should be dismissed from use – and here is where a neutral Englishman like myself sees a significant opportunity for al-Banna’s legacy to provide a personal and societal benefit. In this latter regard, Seumas Milne has written how ‘senior figures in the police, including special branch, whose job is to counter terror groups in the Muslim community’, see these type of organisations as possessing the ‘best antidotes’ to extreme ‘propaganda’ (see Milne’s comment article in The Guardian, 5 July 2007). Therefore we might all be able to breathe a sigh of relief if such groups are better able to embody al-Banna’s legacy, as a means of making our countries safer places in which to reside.

In essence, al-Banna’s spiritual method, and that of some of his most notable heirs, is one that conforms to the wide parameters of the orthodox, or Sunni, method, but with an uncanny tendency to resolve controversies and challenges in a manner that seems reasonable, consistent with the texts, and backed by scholarship – all of which helps explain the lasting relevance of the man and his effort. Of course, we don’t have to agree with him on everything, but we can all, perhaps, be enriched by understanding him, whether it is to benefit from the positive characteristics or to learn from those matters in which we find disagreement with him or his heirs. Nevertheless, Shaykh Qaradawi is so impressed by Hasan al-Banna that he has written in Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase: ‘Shaykh [Muhammad] al-Ghazali was right to call him [Hasan al-Banna] “the Mujaddid [reviver] of the fourteenth [Islamic] century”’ – in reference to the hadith related by Abu Da’ud and al-Hakim, which Shaykh Qaradawi says – in Approaching the Sunnah – was ‘authenticated’ by ‘more than one scholar’, and it reads: ‘God will send to this Community at the head of every century one who will renew for it its religion’.

I intend to focus on the spiritual legacy because any correctly articulated orthodox religious expression is always bound to have an emphasis on a spiritual imperative and prioritisation, because the message of Islam is primarily spiritual; and the Word of God, the Majestic Qur’an, bears testimony to this assertion. God tells us: Man is indeed in loss, except those who believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth, and exhort one another to patience [103:2-3]. So belief is foundational to the acceptance of a bondsman to the Creator, but the law of God is also enjoined upon the believers. God teaches us that the revelation – legislating beliefs and laws – is a spiritual healing: O mankind! There has come to you a counsel from your Lord, and a healing for what is in the breasts, and a guidance and a mercy to the believers [10:57]. Furthermore, we are informed that the ability to believe is itself a manifestation of a healthy spirituality: Have they not travelled in the land, and have they hearts to comprehend with, or ears to hear with? For it is not the eyes that become blind, but it is the hearts in the chests that become blind [22:46]. One relies upon God to purify one’s heart so that it is a suitable receptacle for Divine truths, for which the consequences are a dedication to the obligations and recommendations of God through His final and greatest Prophet, Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him): Allah leads astray whom He will… [13:27]; but one should also bear in mind: He is the All-Merciful, the Compassionate [59:22] and that Your Lord is never unjust to His servants [41:46]. Hence the judging of one’s deeds also has a naturally distinctly spiritual emphasis, as contained in the supplication of the Prophet Ibrahim (upon him be God’s peace): My Lord!…abase me not on the day when they are raised, the day when wealth and sons avail not, save him who brings to Allah a heart that is whole [see 26:83-89]. Nevertheless, a this-worldly benefit for spiritual endeavour is also made known to mankind: Those who believe and whose hearts find tranquillity in the remembrance of Allah. It is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts find tranquillity [13:28].

Part Two: On Hasan al-Banna

Hasan al-Banna was born in an age of great turmoil for the Muslims, and his land of Egypt was central to the proceedings of the time. Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, in Western Civilization, Islam and Muslims, has given us his appraisal of the hopes that he felt the whole world were justified in placing on Egypt in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. For Nadwi, the Egypt of this period was ‘in a most happy position’ to integrate ‘the sciences and techniques developed in the West’ with the ‘moral and spiritual foundations of a clean and successful life that are the real legacy of the Islamic East’, which had been ‘inherited by the Egyptians’ to ‘a large part’; in the process, it could be ‘the fittest vehicle for the augmentation and dissemination of its priceless Islamic heritage’. Nadwi identified two advantages that the Egyptians had in their favour. Firstly, the fact that Egypt was the most intellectual society ‘in the sphere of knowledge and study of the Arabic language and literature and of the theological sciences of Islam, coupled with the abundant facilities of publicity and propagation which included the presence of the University of Azhar (the foremost seat of Islamic learning in the world)’. Secondly, again in Nadwi’s own words, ‘the innate mental resiliency of its people and their knack for cultural accommodation’.

Yet, alas, Nadwi resigns himself to the fact that ‘various political and other factors combined to hold back Egypt from exerting its influence over the West and assuming the role of leadership’ – and this essay is not the place for discussing these reasons. Nadwi has very positive things to say about the Muslim Brotherhood [al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin] that Hasan al-Banna founded in the midst of this perplexing period of history, and was to possess – according to S.M. Hasan al-Banna, in the Introduction to his English translation of Hasan al-Banna’s litany entitled al-Ma’thurat – 500,000 members in Egypt by the time the founder was assassinated (not to mention those who could be classed as mere ‘sympathisers’, and those in other countries to which the movement had already spread by that time). Although Nadwi objects to the movement deciding ‘a little too early to step down into the arena of active politics’ – a contentious point, suitable for another place – he laments the ‘liquidation of the Ikhwan’ as being, ‘without doubt’ to his mind, ‘an irreparable loss to the Arab and the larger Muslim world’. This sorrow on his part is because Nadwi saw the movement as ‘unmistakably’ the ‘most powerful Islamic movement of modern times and a fast progressing religious endeavour’; one that he felt was certainly well-equipped to ‘working out an Islamic renaissance in West Asia’, if ‘the leaders of Islamic thought in the countries of the Middle East [had] given it their unqualified support’. In Islamic Studies, Orientalists and Muslim Scholars, in the course of discussing ‘examples of genuine literary and research endeavours’ in the Arab lands, Shaykh Nadwi exhibits a very positive attitude to some of the literary works of al-Banna’s direct heirs; he writes: ‘Three more works showing clarity and depth of thought are Al-Maratu Bain al Fiqhi wal Qanun (Women in Light of Fiqah and Islamic law) by Dr. Mustafa as-Saba’i, Al-Madkhal-ul-Fiqhi il-‘Am by Mustafa Ahmad Az-Zarqa and the late ‘Abdul Qadir ‘Audah’s At-Tashr’i ul-Jina’i il-Islami Muqarna bil Qanun il-Waza’i which meet the current legal needs of the Muslim countries’.

It appears that Nadwi considered the Brotherhood to have improved upon the revivalist notions of Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh – of course one would be negligent if trying to argue that these figures were not influences upon the Brotherhood, even if indirect and minimal. Nadwi saw Afghani’s thought as too concentrated on politics, and ‘Abduh’s religious thought too ‘defensive’, i.e. he was, for Nadwi, ‘among the pioneers of the modernist movement in the Arab World’, who issued forth ‘a powerful call for the reinterpretation of Islam’, with ‘a heavy imprint of Western ideals’; thus making him appear to Nadwi as another Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Indian contemporary.

I’ve dwelled on Nadwi’s analysis, firstly, because he was a great scholar and historian (may God’s mercy be upon him), and, secondly, because Nadwi’s positive position on the essence of the movement – to which he was certainly not a member – must be seen in light of his own great emphasis on the need for spiritual rejuvenation as the foundation of Islam’s revival in society. Nadwi’s extensive Saviours of the Islamic Spirit is a clear testimony, especially in the last two-and-a-half volumes of the total four, to his call for Muslim focusing upon the spiritual imperative. Of course, one cannot try and impute complete acceptance of the Brotherhood’s spiritual training by Nadwi; but for someone like him to discuss the movement as capable of ‘an Islamic renaissance’, then one cannot suggest, by any means, that he was largely opposed to the spiritual programme.

Now Hasan al-Banna was an apparent product of many diverse influences from his time, although one cannot argue that he was slavish to any of them; hence he was a leader who essentially stood high himself, whilst not neglecting the currents of thought around him, and taking what he saw as appropriate and casting aside what he decided was dispensable. Therefore one is not surprised to hear him declare, in the Fifth Conference, that his movement was a ‘salafi da’wah’, a ‘sunni Path’ and a ‘true Tasawwuf’ – for he took from each of these strands of thought. Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the crucial role played by the upbringing bestowed upon him by his father, Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna, who conducted to be what appears as a very detailed syllabus of religious study from an early age for Hasan. According to S.M. Hasan al-Banna’s essay entitled Imam Shahid Hasan Al-Banna: From Birth to Martyrdom, Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna was an Azhari scholar, with a Hanbali leaning. Shaykh Ahmad is warmly mentioned by Shaykh Nadwi, in Islamic Studies, in the section that I quoted from earlier, where it is stated that Shaykh Ahmad’s rearrangement and interpretation of the Musnad of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal is ‘a work of exceptional value’, written ‘according to the needs of the modern times’; and ‘unfortunately it remained incomplete’, but was still published in ‘22 volumes’.

This upbringing, together with its results, is certainly one factor towards explaining why Hasan al-Banna’s thought and movement has historically been able to attract the approval of official scholars, in particular from al-Azhar (such as ‘Abdul Qadir ‘Audah, ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghuddah, Mustafa Siba’i, Sayyid Sabiq, Muhammad Ghazali, Yusuf Qaradawi and ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam), despite the fact that Hasan al-Banna was not an Azhari scholar himself. Regarding Hasan al-Banna’s own stance towards the scholars of al-Azhar, Shaykh Qaradawi has written in Priorities:

‘Imam Hasan al-Banna was always keen on keeping his lines open with the scholars of al-Azhar, among whom he had many good friends. I once heard him say in a convention that was held in Tanta and attended by a number of prominent Azhari Scholars of the Azhari Institute in Tanta: “O ‘ulama’! You are the regular army of Islam, with us behind you as the reserve army.”’

This positive attitude towards the scholars of al-Azhar can be seen in one of al-Banna’s most prominent women followers, Zainab al-Ghazali. The latter writes in Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir’s Prison that she would consult with Shaykh Muhammad al-Awdan of al-Azhar on ‘all da’wah affairs and issues related to Islamic learning’ – the noble lady further says that al-Awdan ‘was also aware of…[her] pledge to al-Banna which he both blessed and supported’. In Priorities, Qaradawi encourages people of his understanding to ‘winning the official religious institutions to its side’, and he lists al-Azhar, ‘al-Zaytuna in Tunisia, al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco and the Deoband in Pakistan and India.’ Nevertheless, despite Qaradawi encouraging such links and supports, he warns:

‘Naturally, this does not apply to those institutions that have sold their Din to have the good things of this life, becoming a mouthpiece for tyrants and a sword that unjust rulers brandish…Such institutions should never be neglected or given a respite, as they should be laid bare before their people for what they really are, so that the people may guard themselves against their evils.’ [Shaykh Qaradawi does add: ‘We have also to differentiate between those who have become tools in the hands of tyrants, or shoes on their feet, and those who are weak and hate tyrants but are prevented from resisting tyranny by their weakness and fear. The weak, though intimidated to the extent of keeping silent and not uttering the word of right, do not get involved in saying the word of wrong.’]

There is also evidence that Shaykh Ahmad al-Banna’s influence on his son was certainly spiritual, and not simply intellectual in part. This is borne out from Hasan al-Banna’s Memoirs, as quoted by Zakariya al-Siddiqi in his Prologue to the English translation of Hasan al-Banna’s al-Ma’thurat: ‘I used to recite the wazifa [litany] of Ahmad Zarruq every morning and evening. I was very much impressed by the wazifa as my father had written a beautiful commentary on it. He provided the evidences for almost all the expressions (used in the wazifa) from authentic ahadith.’ Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq was a famous Maliki jurist, as well as Sufi; thus we see the Sufic influence on both the father Ahmad and son Hasan – a facet of the latter’s personal being that remained with him for life, and which he attempted to impart to his movement.

A study of Hasan al-Banna’s list of pledges required from the official movement activists reveals a strong emphasis on knowledge, which is the foundation of spirituality, and good deeds for the nourishment of the soul. From the perspective of knowledge, he made it a requirement to ‘ponder’ the meanings of the Qur’an, study the life of the Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him), the history of the early Muslims, the hadith literature, and ‘a text on the principles of the Islamic belief and another on Islamic jurisprudence’. His list of good deeds, obviously defined by knowledge of the aforementioned religious sciences, was very extensive: ‘Devote a section from the Quran for daily reading, not less than one juz’ [one-thirtieth of the Qur’an]…’, with the Qur’an to be completed within a month, ‘but not in less than three to four days’; remain healthy in one’s body; be truthful, dependable, courageous, of sound character in its comprehensive, Islamic sense; ‘always refer to the purified tradition of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace)’, and ‘struggle for the revival of forgotten Islamic customs and the elimination of practices alien to Islam in all areas of life’; maintain a constant awareness of God, whilst seeking support to this noble aim through the voluntary ritual prayer of the night [at-tahajjud], voluntary fasts three days a month and engaging ‘in much dhikr [remembrance], both of the heart and the tongue and recite the renowned supplications of the Messenger of Allah (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)’; perform the daily ritual prayers ‘in congregation in the mosque as frequently as possible’; ‘constantly repent and seek Allah’s forgiveness for the sins…committed’; ‘devote an hour…every night before going to bed and take account of the good and bad things…done throughout the day’; and, in general, follow the Sacred Law in every matter.

Of course, one can discuss the theory of spirituality, and the stages of the soul and obliteration [fana’] of heedlessness of God, and the perpetuation [baqa’] in that heightened sense of spiritual awareness and wakefulness, together with the lore of love and trust in the Divine, and so on and so forth, but the loftiness might well be the work of the tongue alone, with no confirmation in the reality of the person – and in God is our refuge! Islamic spirituality is certainly not only discourse, and nor is it simply mysticism and wondrous occurrences, as understood in the contemporary Western sense; but, rather, it is about a state of being, with all the praiseworthy qualities of the revelation. Apart from the hagiographic material on Hasan al-Banna’s own profound spiritual condition, which is easily available, the best testimony of his training – which expounds the point in glowing detail – can be found in Zainab al-Ghazali’s Return of the Pharaoh. This work recounts the torture of the Brotherhood in the prisons of Egypt in the mid-twentieth century simple because they rejected Arab-Soviet-Socialism. It is, perhaps, sufficient testimony of al-Banna’s direct spiritual influence – even if one can disagree with certain political or intellectual stances of the noble lady (may God’s mercy be upon her). Spiritual states can be discussed in the tranquillity of retreat in one’s spiritual lodge or ‘ivory tower’, far from real life and its troubles, yet one is ever so pressed to experience the sweetness of certitude in the Divine whilst the most barbaric feats of man and beast are visited upon one. The book of Zainab al-Ghazali is a real story, without a seeming romantic inclination, and one that is an evidential depiction of some of the most exquisite spiritual theory – surrounding such notions as faith, sincerity [ikhlas], trust [tawakkul], patience [sabr], love of God [mahabba], fana’, baqa’, ‘tasting’ [dhawq], etc. – that one can gather from Sufic texts like Qushayri’s Risala, Ibn ‘Ata’illah’s Hikam or Ghazali’s Ihya’. Hence we are justified in focusing on the dynamic revivalist method of spiritual development because there exists sufficient proof of its efficacy, by God’s will.

Part Three: Specifics of the Method

It is logical that knowledge is the foundation of any spiritual imperative, and without it one cannot know what one must do or become. Knowledge is the only reliable means of judging one’s spiritual awareness according to the Prophetic norm [sunnah], as opposed to one’s subjective, and possibly deluded, surmising. Therefore we see from the above that al-Banna required his people to read a book of theology and Sacred Law.

Hasan al-Banna’s theological stance on the essentials of belief is clearly seen from his own al-‘Aqa’id [The Tenets of Faith]. This work, together with the advice of his inheritors like Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, show that his theological stance was to be Sunni, without resorting to further labelling – like naming one’s self ‘Ash’ari’, ‘Maturidi’ or ‘Athari’; and nor did it require an unnecessary involvement with theological polemics that are without prospect of decisive resolution. Al-Banna’s final position in this aforementioned theological work with regards to the controversy regarding the attributes of God is to endorse the position of Imam Nawawi, as can be seen by al-Banna’s categorical endorsement of Nawawi’s position in the essay – Nawawi’s position, as under discussion, can be seen in a4.3 of Reliance of the Traveller; and it is: the ‘safest’ stance is the ‘path of the early Muslims, or the vast majority of them’, and to not issue forth ‘a definite interpretation, but rather their meaning should not be discussed, and the knowledge of them should be consigned to Allah Most High, while at the same time believing in the transcendence of Allah Most High, and that the characteristics of created things do not apply to Him’; and Nawawi continues: ‘But if the need arises for definite interpretations to refute someone making unlawful innovations and the like, then the learned may supply them, and this is how we should understand what has come down to us from the scholars in this field. And Allah knows best’.

Moreover, Shaykh Qaradawi, in Approaching the Sunnah, has declared his personal agreement with Ibn Taymiyya’s position on the ‘attributes of God’; but he also, in Priorities, has called for Muslims to ‘bury historical problems that have preoccupied Muslim minds and wasted Muslim efforts for some time in vain’, to which he includes the ‘unneeded exaggeration in raising controversies [in theology]…between the early and later generations and the attempts to refute the ’aqida of the Ash’aris, Maturidis and their proponents among the scholars of religious universities in the Islamic world – al-Azhar, al-Zaytuna, al-Qarawiyyin, Deoband, etc.’ [Shaykh Qaradawi’s support for the doctrinal position of Ibn Taymiyya is obviously underlined by the belief that he was not an anthropomorphist, and essentially entails believing that Ibn Taymiyya’s stance was the method of most, not all, of the early Muslims [as-salaf] (a position on Ibn Taymiyya shared by people like Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Taqi ‘Uthmani and Sa’id Ramadan Buti).]

The short theological treatise by Imam Tahawi, entitled al-‘Aqidah at-Tahawiyya, was arranged for translation into English by one of my teachers, Shaykh Iqbal Azami (a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, and a scribe for Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi), and it is a sound, essential and minimalist theological presentation that fits in with the needs identified by al-Banna and Qaradawi. Shaykh Azami didn’t feel the need for the Muslim laity to study a commentary of this work, because he felt its contents were sufficiently clear; and he liked the fact that it was a means for bringing various Sunni groupings – from ‘salafi’ to ‘Ash’ari’ – together on a sound basis, without getting ahead of one’s self in pursuit of more exacting clarifications of controversies. One cannot envisage either al-Banna or Qaradawi disagreeing with Azami’s argument here.

When one turns to al-Banna’s stance on the specifics of Sacred Law, then one is on less certain ground. Nevertheless, if one considers some of those who took-on al-Banna’s legacy, such as Sayyid Sabiq, Yusuf Qaradawi, Sa’id Hawwa (a prominent scholar with the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood, and a prolific author) and the group of Zainab al-Ghazali’s time, then one can, perhaps, conclude the following principle in this regard: one follows qualified scholarship wherever one finds it. This means that one accepts that most people will be obliged to follow one of the four Sunni schools of law (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali) simply because most people can only access a conservative, minor scholar who is confined by their limitations to such a restricted method – and there is no blame in such a state, for expertise is rare; indeed, Hawwa, in Jund Allah, recommended that people study a comprehensive, intermediate text from one of the four schools, and he gave Maydani’s commentary on Quduri’s Mukhtasar as an example. Nonetheless, those who can access the teachings of a major scholar or a mufti – in classical literature, as seen in Mawardi’s Ordinances of Government and in the Reliance of the Traveller, the mufti is to be a person of ijtihad, and not bound by any scholar or school apart from his own judgments based on the primary sources – can then follow him or her, even when they divert from norms, either through tarjih (selecting one opinion from the inherited opinions, even if from outside the four schools) or ijtihad (which, by its nature, opens up the possibility of differing with the schools). Azhari scholars like Sabiq and Qaradawi are examples of scholars who followed this method of tarjih and ijtihad. Shaykh Qaradawi can be seen to summarise his stance in Priorities as follows: ‘balanced between the advocates of strict madhhabiyya [belonging to a school of thought in fiqh] and the advocates of loose non-madhhabiyya.’

Again, as with theology, one can see how such a profound stance on Sacred Law is above the dialectical polemics that have plagued Muslims in the English-speaking West since the mid-1990’s. Such polemics simplify scholarly complexities for mass-consumption, which ultimately leave’s one with slogans instead of fully-developed discussion; and the consequence can be dull debates, but most regrettably it manifests itself in the unnecessary weakening of solidarity, in a tendency towards a ‘purified’ Sunni path (whether ‘salafi’ or ‘Ash’ari/madhhabi/muridi’, as the most famous slogans go in the dialectic).

By way of summation on the topic of theology and Sacred Law, one must provide some foundational principles held by al-Banna’s legacy, which are held in common with all orthodox persuasions. In Priorities, Qaradawi states that there is one area that revivalist thought ‘can never enter under any conditions – it is the area of al-qat’iyyat [the conclusive] where Islam has passed its decisive judgement in the various aspects of ‘aqida, ‘ibadah and ahkam.’ Moreover, Qaradawi, in Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism, discusses those ‘rulings which are necessarily recognised by all people, learned or otherwise’, in which ‘rejection’ of them is considered ‘an expression of blatant disbelief’ – Imam Nawawi, in his commentary on Sahih Muslim (as included in the Reliance of the Traveller), calls these ‘ma ya’lam min ad-din al-islam daruratan’, translated by Nuh Keller as ‘something that is necessarily known to be of the religion of Islam’. The conclusive matters are then contrasted with what Qaradawi calls ‘speculative matters’. On this latter category, Qaradawi elaborated: ‘disagreement on these issues based on sound, legitimate independent reasoning represents no harm or threat’; and such differences had existed since the time of the Companions (may God be well pleased with them all).

Furthermore, Qaradawi concurs with the judgement of Hasan al-Banna that ‘disagreements on subsidiary religious issues are inevitable for various reasons’ (al-Banna’s words); therefore the Muslims must unite on the essentials, and tolerate the disagreement on the non-essentials, in a way which does not unduly weaken their ranks. In Islamic Awakening, Shaykh Qaradawi has written: ‘There is indeed profound wisdom to be seen in the fact that very few Islamic legal rulings are of definitive certainty with respect to both their meaning and their chains of transmission.’ Shaykh Qaradawi’s presidency of the European Council for Juridical Opinions and Research has operated on such lines of openness, as his entire legal theory expounds, and has allowed differing views and approaches to operate in the Council; hence one sees the Shaykh entertaining and encouraging the participation of dynamic scholars like himself (such as Faisal Mawlawi and ‘Abdullah al-Juday’) with more conservative figures (such as Isma’il Kacholwi and Suhaib Hasan (and Taqi ‘Uthmani was encouraged to participate as well)).

All of these principles can be said to underpin the legacy of al-Banna in terms of spiritual method.

Part Four: Specifics of the Method (continued)

It is obvious that any orthodox spiritual method is going to give prominence to the Qur’an. One certainly sees Hasan al-Banna exhorting his followers to engage into a profound relationship with the Qur’an, with his orders for dedicated recitation and to ‘ponder’ upon its meanings. Numerous heirs of al-Banna have dedicated considerable attention to expounding upon the meanings of the entire Qur’an. The most famous being Sayyid Qutb’s In the Shade of the Qur’an; furthermore, Muhammad Ghazali and Sa’id Hawwa have written comprehensive commentaries – Shaykh Qaradawi praises the efforts of Qutb and Ghazali, amongst others, in Approaching the Sunnah, for making the message of the Qur’an relevant for the modern age. Zainab al-Ghazali, in Return of the Pharaoh, discusses the studying of Qutb’s work – her life-account indicates the profound impact that the personality of the man himself (whom she knew very well) and his Milestones and non-traditional tafsir had on her own spiritual journey. Nevertheless, Zainab al-Ghazali also mentions how the Brotherhood people in her time would also study Ibn Kathir’s Tafsir. My opinion is that contemporaries who desire to benefit from the types of modern works as those just cited should follow Zainab al-Ghazali’s approach, and thus ensure that they also study classical commentaries, or modern efforts that follow the classical method.

According to S.M. al-Banna, Hasan al-Banna placed Imam Ghazali’s Ihya’ ‘ulum ad-din on the teaching syllabus; and he compiled a litany entitled al-Ma’thurat from the Qur’an and the hadith corpus for members and others to recite, individually or collectively, in both the morning and evening. Zainab al-Ghazali narrates how the group, in her time, studied Mundhiri’s at-Targhib wa’l-tarhib and Ibn al-Qayyim’s Zad al-ma’ad, which are moral and spiritual treatises. Whilst Shaykh Hawwa, in Jund Allah, recommended in regards to ‘good character’ [al-akhlaq] the Ihya’ of Ghazali and the Risala of Qushayri; moreover, Hawwa himself wrote a commentary on Ibn ‘Ata’illah’s Hikam, so that is another obvious recommendation of his. In Approaching the Sunnah, Qaradawi made an extensive list of works on the Sunnah that should be utilised for ‘preaching and guidance’, as well as for instruction for ‘the purification of the soul’; and for English-speakers, the following from the long list of recommendations have been translated: Riyad as-Salihin by Imam Nawawi (which Qaradawi said ‘is a book blessed and splendid in usefulness.’), the Forty Hadith of Imam Nawawi with the commentary by Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (a commentary which Qaradawi called ‘the most esteemed, and the most popular and beneficial’), and the Hujjat Allah al-baligha of Shah Waliullah (the first volume of which has been translated; and which Qaradawi praises for its discussion of the ‘secrets, and the religious and social wisdom’ in many hadith). Furthermore, Shaykh ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda produced an edition of al-Muhasibi’s Risala al-mustarshidin.

Of course, the nature of dynamic revivalism, as shown earlier, is to try and follow the most exacting of scholars; and the nature of such expertise is that it is only slavish to the Qur’an and Sunnah, and to no scholar besides these two foundational pillars. Shaykh Qaradawi clearly highlights this attitude in Approaching the Sunnah, where he says that despite Ibn Taymiyyah being the scholar ‘very dearest’ to his heart, he treats Ibn Taymiyyah as any other scholar, and does not follow him in everything; he declares: ‘So I love Ibn Taymiyyah, but I am not a Taymiyyan. Al-Dhahabi said: “Shaykh al-Islam is dear to us; but the truth is dearer to us than he.”’ Therefore all of these books of strictly spiritual theory are to be taught critically within dynamic revivalist thought. Qaradawi himself, in Priorities, says that even al-Banna never claimed ‘infallibility’ for himself, and he was ‘not rigid in his approach’; and that he ‘would not “turn in his grave” if some of his followers [that is, of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin] went against him on an issue’. In essence, the true scholars know the veracity of the saying of Imam Shafi’i that is quoted in the translator’s introduction to Reliance of the Traveller: ‘Allah has refused to give divine protection from error (‘isma) to anyone besides His prophets’.

This critical attitude to teaching can certainly be applied to the study of Sufic texts. With regards to the Ihya’, Qaradawi considered it ‘necessary for the reader of al-Ihya’ to refer’ to Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi’s discussion of the hadith used by Ghazali, because ‘one knows the rank of the hadiths that were adduced by al-Ghazali, and how many extremely weak hadiths there are in it, others with no source for them, and others pronounced fabricated!’ Qaradawi even warns the student about simply taking Mundhiri’s at-Targhib at face value, because the book has the ‘weak’ and ‘extremely weak’ hadith in it, which is why Qaradawi was driven to make his own composition of the work, with only the strong hadith (sahih and hasan). All of this should not be taken as evidence that Qaradawi is unaware of the argument in favour of using weak hadith in the realm of spiritual teaching. He mentions the three criteria cited by Ibn Hajar (and then reiterated by Suyuti) on the conditions for ‘the acceptance of weak hadiths on the softening of heart and targhib’; but he mentions how even these three criteria have not been faithfully followed in many instances, and he offers further explanation of how to approach this issue – those interested in this discussion, which is beyond our task here, can consult Qaradawi’s Approaching the Sunnah.

A critical attitude of the nature under discussion can also be extended to more theoretical matters. A noted Western pro-Sufic writer such as T.J. Winter (a.k.a. Abdal Hakim Murad, a.k.a. Karim Fenari) himself notes, in the introduction to his translation of Ghazali entitled Disciplining the Soul/Breaking the Two Desires, that Imam Ghazali’s Ihya’ is a clear testimony that ‘extravagances abound in the hagiographies’ of the Sufis. In this latter translation, Winter provides one such instance that Ibn al-Jawzi took exception to, whereby ‘one of the Shaykhs…treated his love of wealth by selling all that he owned and throwing the proceeds into the sea, fearing that if he gave it to other people he would be afflicted by self-satisfaction and a desire to be seen doing this’. Winter says that Ibn al-Jawzi doubted the story’s ‘ethical value’; and Winter sides with Zabidi’s defence of Ghazali, which states that ‘such lessons are not cited as general principles of conduct, but merely illustrate ways in which the religious obligation of tawakkul, true reliance upon God, may for certain individuals under the guidance of a Shaykh sometimes take precedence over those usages of religion which, while recommended, are not obligatory’. Another example of Ghazali’s Sufic theory coming under criticism can be seen in Imam Qurtubi’s Tafsir in commentary of Qur’an 2:283. In the course of discussing those Sufis who ‘abandon all their wealth and do not leave enough for themselves and their families’, and who then ‘either turn to the generosity of brothers or friends, or take from the wealthy and unjust’, Qurtubi writes: ‘This is blameworthy and forbidden…Al-Muhasibi talked a lot about this and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali praised it as well. I think al-Muhasibi has more excuse than Abu Hamid because Abu Hamid had more fiqh, although his entry into tasawwuf obliged him to support what he had entered into.’ Qurtubi then proceeds to give a lengthy quotation from Ibn al-Jawzi on the issue. Now one could suggest, in light of such controversies, that a novice first avoid such discussions, and focus on the essence of the spiritual method; and this could be gained from Ibn Qudama Maqdisi’s Mukhtasar minhaj al-qasidin, which is an abridgement of Ibn al-Jawzi’s correction of Ghazali’s Ihya’. Of course, such controversies are the vocation of scholarship, so one should be on guard against forming an overly negative opinion of the great Imam Ghazali (may God’s mercy be upon him) and his great Ihya’ – both of which have been a blessing to this ummah, and we thank God for them both.

Nonetheless, toleration of valid differences of opinion is not the same as not having an opinion on a controversial matter and issuing it forth. In the Preface to his al-Ma’thurat, Hasan al-Banna defended and encouraged the performance of remembrance as a collective, despite the fact that this is a question that Sunni scholars differ on. Likewise, one sees this same willingness to hold firmly to one’s own position in Shaykh ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghuddah’s condemnation of ‘dancing’ whilst engaging in God’s remembrance – as taken from a short extract translated by A. Haque, and posted on the old thetranslators’ blog. Shaykh ‘Abdal-Fattah wrote: ‘the type of dhikr performed by some people which comprises of rhythmically coordinated movements of the body, melodious hymns and songs, jumping, leaping, hopping, bending forward and then straightening up, and violent twisting and shoving, then this form of dhikr is forbidden, for a sound fitra finds it repugnant, and a heart in khushu` is far removed from the likes of such things.’ In the course of defending his position, he cites Ibn Hajar, Qurtubi and Ahmad Tahtawi as particular references supporting condemnation. Indeed, one need not look solely at Brotherhood scholars for such positions. Another Syrian scholar of a conservative bent of mind – like ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda himself – namely Shaykh M. Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, in his Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography, gives a similarly stinging rebuttal of the ‘dancing’ of the Sufis that ‘involves bending and swaying back and forth’ in the ‘ceremonies devoted to the remembrance of God’; he calls such practices ‘prohibited’ according to ‘the majority of Muslim jurisprudents’, and at least ‘undesirable’ when such movements are not included. Shaykh Buti uses al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abdas-Salam, Ibn Hajar, Ibn ‘Abidin and Qurtubi to back his argument, and his summation is: ‘Were it not for the fact that it would mean being long-winded on a topic that requires brevity, I would set forth the views expressed on this matter by many other Imams as well’. Nevertheless, the position of tolerance on this matter of some disagreement with a minority of jurisprudents is well articulated by Shaykh Buti in a footnote to his discussion; he says: ‘At the same time, I wish to affirm my appreciation for many of these esteemed individuals and my certainty of their integrity and the purity of their intentions, my excuse for differing with them being that this appreciation and esteem do not justify being unfaithful to the texts before me or interpreting them metaphorically such that their original intent is distorted.’ Again, such a spirit is characteristic of the nobility of the Brotherhood scholarship.

Whilst one can argue that people like al-Banna and Qaradawi, in particular, had a generally positive view of the Sufis and tasawwuf, they were not inclined towards submission to the Sufic Orders [turuq, singular: tariqa] or their Guides, and they certainly didn’t hold the notion that the heights of Islamic spirituality were to only be found in the Orders. Hasan al-Banna himself operated as the political and spiritual leader of the Brotherhood – interestingly, he was called murshid, which is the term commonly used for the leader of a Sufic Order and means Guide, as opposed to being called amir, which means leader – and this has continued. As I alluded earlier, in the course of discussing Zainab al-Ghazali and her narrations, one could understand that the Brotherhood believed that their system of spiritual training was producing equally good, if not better, people of profound God-consciousness. In his notes to Muhasibi’s Risalah al-mustarshidin, Shaykh ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda includes a correspondence between Imam Shatibi, the great jurist, and Ibn ‘Abbad ar-Rundi, a leading Sufi of his time and author of a popular commentary on Ibn ‘Ata’illah’s Hikam. Shatibi had requested that Ibn ‘Abbad answer him whether it was ‘incumbent upon the one traversing the spiritual path to Allah to take a sheikh of a tariqah and tarbiyah and travel upon his hands? Or is it allowable to take this path by seeking knowledge and taking from the people of knowledge without having a sheikh of a tariqah?’ Ibn ‘Abbad’s essential response was:

‘The Sheikh of Tarbiyah is not a necessity for every seeker. However, the one who needs such a sheikh is he who has a limited intellect and disobedient soul. As for the one who possesses an ample intellect and submissive character, then it is not incumbent on him to take such a sheikh. However, what is an obligation on every seeker is to take a sheikh who will teach him and educate him.’ [Translation provided by Suhaib Webb, on the old thetranslators’ blog.]

At the same time, I do not believe that the Brotherhood are opposed to people taking Sufic Guides if they feel the need; however, there might be the objection if such a relationship is engaged into with the novice then being pacified from living a full Islamic existence of communal and societal engagement, whereby a Sufic Guide is not only seen as a spiritual instructor, but seen to be also possessing what one could call ‘political astuteness’, which might not be the case. Despite a rather glorious history until the early twentieth century, Sufic Orders, in general, have not since been at the forefront of leading global Muslim societal concerns, unlike the Brotherhood itself; rather, they have engaged in simply teaching spirituality in a somewhat isolated manner; and Tariq Ramadan, in To Be a European Muslim, has noted that Sufic Orders are largely ‘apolitical’ in the ‘Islamic world’ and in Europe. Of course, should such a condition of the Orders change, then one could entertain the notion of them taking up the reins of political leadership, if they should show a mastery of this field.

Moreover, the accommodation of a vital, yet restricted, role to be potentially played by the Sufic Orders in societal revival means accepting them with their non-essential idiosyncrasies, as they will have to do with others. For example of the former contention, a Brotherhood attitude to the Sufic Orders is to tolerate their claims of unbroken chains of lineage back to the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him), despite the fact that the chains might well be broken according to the hadith scholars. Gibril Haddad, a noted translator and researcher, on the livingislam Web-site (and, I believe, in his recent Four Imams), has outlined how ‘the consensus of the early Imams is that al-Hasan [al-Basri] did not hear anything directly from `Ali [ibn Abi Talib], or from Ibn `Abbas, or from Abu Hurayra (Allah be well-pleased with them) as stated by Yahya ibn Ma`in, Ibn al-Madini, Abu Zur`a, `Ali ibn Ziyad, Abu Hatim, Ibn Abi Hatim, and others, and that such chains are mursal’ – as narrated by Ibn Hajar, Dhahabi, al-‘Iraqi, Sakhawi, and others, according to Haddad. Moreover, Haddad has noted that the attempts of Imam Suyuti and Ahmad Ghumari to establish a link between Hasan al-Basri and ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib are not ‘conclusive’. Haddad, furthermore, is fair when it comes to his own Naqhsbandi lineage, which allegedly goes through Abu Bakr (may Allah be well pleased with him), when he writes in the same article: ‘Isnad-wise it is equally correct that the Bakri Naqshbandi silsila itself has even greater gaps.’ Moreover, Haddad points out in the same post: ‘Imam al-Sakhawi was a Shadhili and he said he narrates the chain that goes through al-Hasan, from sayyidina `Ali, “not that its isnad is unbroken but because of its baraka [blessing – AB].”’ Ultimately, the point of any spiritual training is its efficacy, by the grace of God, in producing a godly soul, even if the spiritual adept believes in some false ideas – as long as the religion is not undermined and people of piety are produced, then why are we to argue over such matters? The controversy about the link between ‘Ali and Hasan al-Basri is not that serious.

Part Five: Conclusion

Hasan al-Banna’s grandson, the academic Tariq Ramadan, has noted in his Foreword to the English-translation of al-Ma’thurat:

‘The secret of Imam Hasan Al-Banna was the quality of his faith and the intensity of his relationship with God. Anyone who had ever been in contact with him perceived and experienced this. He lived as had the first Sahaba – following the path of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him)…Imam Hasan Al-Banna had understood that there was no future for Muslims if they did not recapture what was essential to their hearts, their personal striving, their conscience and memory.

‘The world is a trap and it sometimes happens that temptation can, in subtle ways, assail those who are engaged in Islamic activities such as da’wah, education, solidarity, talks and lectures. Drowning in Islamic commitments, activities and projects, what eventually happens is that they forget what is absolutely essential: to give one’s time to be with God, to get to know Him while being intimately attached to tawhid, to remember Him (dhikr), to purify one’s heart (tazkiya al-nafs), to feed the conscience of these works (al-muhasaba), to be attached to the Qur’an, to pray, to fast and to do the invocations. This is necessary every day and every night.’

One can well imagine that this lesson in prioritising one’s life was grasped by Ramadan from his father, Sa’id Ramadan, the son-in-law of Hasan al-Banna and so called ‘the little Hasan al-Banna’. In his Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity, Tariq Ramadan illustrates this point directly from his father: ‘A few months before returning to God, he said to me…“Our problem is one of spirituality. If a man comes to speak to me about the reforms to be undertaken in the Muslim world, about political strategies and of great geo-strategic plans, my first question would be whether he performed the dawn prayer (fajr) in its time.”’ Shaykh Zakariya al-Siddiqi, in his Prologue to the English translation of al-Ma’thurat, points to a similar spiritual crisis amongst those who seem to be inheritors of al-Banna’s legacy; he writes:

“I grew up in an environment full of tilawah and dhikr. The members of Ikhwan in my area used to gather after salat al-fajr and salat al-asr to read the wazifa (litany) that was composed by al-Imam al-Murshid Hasan Al-Banna, upon him be Allah’s mercy and forgiveness…a certain spirit flowed from it through me. It was those circles of dhikr that instilled in me assiduity and continuity in dhikr. The flowing spirit grew with every tasbih, tahlil and takbir…

“As for what we find today i.e. the neglect of the recitation of Al-Ma’thurat among the members of the Islamic Movement, it is something which can not be understood. Perhaps the over emphasis on political activism and dragging the ‘beginners’ and not the ‘specialists’ in partisan and syndicate based struggles is a possible explanation pointing towards this relapse in the path of tazkiya al-nafs (purification of the heart)…

“We will remain ever ignorant of the realities of our Islam and the secrets of our strength if we do not fill up our time with salah, siyam, infaq, abiding by a Qur’anic wird, adhkar and supplications for different occasions…Let us return to the circles of dhikr and the collective recitation of Al-Ma’thurat and make the Qur’an and du’a provisions for our soul on the path towards Allah.”

All these heart-searching words from both of the Ramadans and al-Siddiqi point to why much of what I have said in this essay will appear theoretical for Muslims in England, because they have not witnessed a spiritual method of its description in this land that conforms to the theory, despite being aware of an historical presence and activity of groups associated with Hasan al-Banna’s call. Perhaps this also explains why such groups have not been as successful as their counterparts in the Muslim heartlands, and have had numerous initial members either leave for polemical reasons or due to spiritual crisis (that might, I admit, be the fault of the individual and not the group in many cases).

At the same time, one sees in England that such affiliates to al-Banna have produced some of the most pleasant, integrated religious Muslims, as well as producing the most advanced institutions (and I here have in mind the Islamic Foundation and Markfield Institute, as well as the ever expanding East London Masjid (now called the London Muslim Centre)). Therefore we are hopeful that such a good record on producing law-abiding, religious Muslims, as well as the finest record of institutional development, together with such expansive resources, can be further channelled into bringing the profound spiritual programme of Hasan al-Banna and his heirs into the English language and life; and such an endeavour is already aided by the many good translations of classic modern and ancient texts by people associated with other Sunni groupings.

Also, when one considers that the most optimistic estimates of Muslim religiosity in Europe for example – such as Tariq Ramadan’s given figures for basic religious observance in To Be a European Muslim – one notices that there is a significant majority of Muslims who are unobservant of even the essentials of the religion. This means that the many polemical groupings – whether political, ‘Sufi’ or ‘salafi’ – have been unsuccessful in developing a mass movement of Muslim piety, despite their decades’ worth of conferences, intensives, magazines, publications, etc. Therefore if we consider my thesis that Hasan al-Banna’s true legacy has not been implemented in the West, together with the obvious balance inherent to many of his stances (and those of his heirs) on the various areas of the religion that we have discussed, then one can well wonder as to whether a true presentation and development of this method might be well placed to finally inspire the large majority to regain their sense of faith, by the grace of God – as well as possibly tendering the somewhat bickering minority of ‘practising’ Muslims of the groups.

A spiritual flowering of intense experience of the Divine is one sure weapon, by God’s will, towards quelling the ignorant actions that have, ever so regrettably, made our land unsafe for all of us. Whether our hopes are well placed, or whether history will record a missed opportunity (like the one that Shaykh Nadwi recounted about Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century), is something we cannot now know. Yet high hopes in the development of a religious Muslim community that is a credit to this land, bringing peace to it, is something that none of us can ever despair of. Ibn ‘Ata’illah said in the Hikam: ‘Whoever finds it astonishing that God should save him from his passion or yank him out of his forgetfulness has deemed the divine Power (al-qudra al-ilahiyya) to be weak. “And God has power over everything [Qur’an 18:45]”’ (as translated by Victor Danner, in the Sufi Aphorisms of Ibn ‘Ata’illah). Likewise, the appalling negativity that one perceives in the current Muslim landscape – and in particularly within our souls – should not make one forget the indomitable power of God to change the worst of states into the most noble, and make the Muslims a credit to this age. Wa ma dhalika ‘ala Allah bi’aziz – and that is not difficult for God!



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