Islamic Studies Muslim Brotherhood
Marion Boulby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0137


The Muslim Brotherhood was established in Egypt in 1928 by a schoolteacher, Hasan al-Banna, with an educational, reformist agenda to challenge European influence on Egyptian society by the revival of Islam. The fundamental idea of al-Banna was that Muslims should live according to Islamic law and throw off the Western influences that had contributed to the decay of society. The group’s initial aim was to educate its members in a correct understanding of Islam, and it set up branches along the canal zone. After al-Banna was transferred to Cairo in 1932, he and his followers became more politicized, holding mass youth demonstrations to demand the implementation of Sharia. During World War II the brotherhood took part in anti-British plotting, with the result that they were temporarily jailed and banned. As a result, al-Banna formed the Special Apparatus, also known as the “Secret Apparatus,” a secret paramilitary group. After the war the brotherhood’s Special Apparatus actively attacked British, Jewish, and Egyptian targets. The brotherhood’s assassination of Prime Minister Mahmud al-Nuqrashi led to al-Banna’s own assassination. His death plunged the movement into a period of crisis, with a retired judge, Hasan al-Hudaybi, emerging as the next general guide. In July 1952 the Muslim Brotherhood supported the Free Officers’ coup but was quickly disillusioned with a regime that would not implement Sharia. The group’s opposition culminated in a crisis when a young member of the brotherhood attempted to assassinate Egypt’s president, Gamal Nasser. Members of the movement were then executed and imprisoned. Among these was Sayyid Qutb, who wrote extensively in prison, devising a revolutionary ideology for the overthrow of despotic Muslim leaders and the introduction of Sharia rule. Qutb was hanged in 1966, but his legacy lived on not only in Egypt but also abroad in the formation of more radical Islamist groups. The brotherhood itself has retained a reformist agenda and has evolved into the largest and most popular Islamist organization in Egypt, with broad participation in civil society institutions. The Muslim Brotherhood also spread beyond Egyptian borders, as branches were established in Jordan, Syria, and Palestine by the mid-1940s. The Jordanians made a partnership with the Hashemites, maintaining a commitment to pursuing its goals through legal, nonviolent means; establishing a network of civil society institutions; and serving in parliament and on the cabinet from 1989 to 1993. In Syria a Muslim Brotherhood uprising erupted against the secularist Baathist regime. The insurgency was quickly put down, but clashes resumed in the late 1970s until the brotherhood was brutally crushed and eradicated by the Baathist regime in Hama in 1982. In Palestine the Muslim Brotherhood remained active in the West Bank and Gaza with a reformist educational and charitable platform. In 1988 the Muslim Brotherhood formed Hamas in order to abandon its policy of reformism and join the intifada (uprising). The Muslim Brotherhood can be seen as the “parent” of contemporary Islamism, spawning numerous and ideologically disparate Islamist organizations in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq; Europe; and North America.

General Overviews

There exists one international overview of the Muslim Brotherhood—in the edited volume of Rubin 2010. This work takes a comparative approach to a variety of Muslim Brotherhood organizations, with contributors writing on the movement in Middle Eastern, European, and North American countries. The contributors focus on organization, tactics, and ideology. Otherwise, information and analysis pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood is found in a variety of general overviews of the history of Islam and Islamism. On Islamism, Kepel 2006 offers a comprehensive overview of the rise of political Islam globally, with references to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout. Ayubi 1991 also provides an overview of the rise of Islamism, but this work is more analytically grounded in comparing Islamic movements in six Arab states. Esposito 2002 is a straightforward introduction to the modern history of Islamism, explaining the many different ideological and organizational elements in the rise of al-Qaeda, including the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. Calvert 2002, written for a more advanced audience, points to the conjunction of factors favoring the rise of al-Qaeda, and in so doing discusses the radicalization of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. Roy 1996 argues in an overview of the 20th century that Islamism, as founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, has lost its political ground. Lewis 2003 is an introductory overview of thirteen centuries of Islamic history, focusing on the theory that Islamism reflects a clash of civilizations with the West. Voll 1994 is a seminal text and an introductory overview of the history of Islam globally from the 18th century, with the penultimate chapter focusing on Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islam and Politics special edition of Third World Quarterly (1988) provides a series of articles by eminent scholars on Islamism throughout the world. Noteworthy articles are by Shahid on the Muslim Brotherhood and Saad Eddin Ibrahim on Islamism in Egypt.

  • Ayubi, Nazib. Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World. London: Routledge, 1991.

    Analytically strong comparative overview of Islamic movements’ evolution in six Arab states. Features the Muslim Brotherhood as the oldest modern political movement of Islam. Suitable for graduate students.

  • Calvert, John. “The Islamist Syndrome of Cultural Confrontation.” Orbis 60 (Spring 2002): 333–349.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0030-4387(02)00112-6

    Scholarly overview of the rise of al-Qaeda in the context of half a century of disparate Islamist thought. Highlights radicalization of Sayyid Qutb and other Muslim Brotherhood members in the 1950s. Suitable for graduate students.

  • Esposito, John. Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Highly accessible introductory text on political Islam, suitable for undergraduates. References to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout.

  • Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Translated by Anthony Roberts. London: I. B. Taurus, 2006.

    Comprehensive introductory overview of the origins and resurgence of political Islam. References to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout. For all levels.

  • Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: Random House, 2003.

    Geopolitical overview spans thirteen centuries. Focus on 20th-century Islamism. For all levels.

  • Roy, Olivier. The Failure of Political Islam. Translated by Carol Volk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

    A sophisticated overview of 20th-century developments. Argues that Islamism has morphed into neofundamentalism and lost its political ground. Suitable for graduate students.

  • Rubin, Barry, ed. The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    Comparative edited volume containing contributions on the Muslim Brotherhood’s different ideologies, tactics, and organization in European, North American, and Middle Eastern states. For all levels.

  • Special Issue: Islam and Politics. Third World Quarterly 10.2 (April 1988).

    Issue includes a wide array of articles from respected scholars on Islamist movements in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Contributions by Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Shadid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Useful source for getting scholars’ perspectives on Islamism in the 1980s. Suitable for graduate students.

  • Voll, John. Islam, Continuity, and Change in the Modern World. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

    Seminal text on the development of Islam throughout the Muslim world since the 18th century. Penultimate chapter on Islamic resurgence includes Muslim Brotherhood. Useful for all levels for understanding Muslim Brotherhood in the Islamic history context.

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