2 November 2006
Gamal el Banna has been with Middle East Transparent since its early beginnings, three years ago. Our relations started when we made a 45 minute video of Banna, allowing him to expose his views of a tolerant and modern Islam, totally reconciled with our modern world.
Unfortunately, the video was never dubbed into English, as that exceeded our financial means.
Immediately after, I wrote an article, in Arabic, entitled « Beware of Gamal Banna » (which Banna considered one of the best written about him). « Beware of Gamal Banna » because I was annoyed with people taking Banna for a « moderate ». The man is the opposite of a « moderate ». He is as much a « radical » as « Martin Luther » who brought on a radically new understanding of Christian faith. In the steps of Luther King, Banna believes only in « The book », in the case the Quran, putting aside all later interpreations of the sacred text. This is the opposite of Salafi Islam, which is the Islam of Interpreters par excellence. Gamal Banna is, thus, described as the chief of the « Quranists », a current of thought which has led many of its adepts to prison in present day Egypt, where it is still considered « heretical ».
Ever since, Gamal Banna has been with us all the time, never asking for any financial counterpart for his regular writings (more than 90 articles) with metransparent. If we have played a role in making Gamal Banna better known to our Arab and non Arab readers, let it be said that Banna is the proof that liberal (or, what we called « Protestant Islam ») does exist and it could be the wave of the future.
Finally, I should mention that Metransparent has been blessed by the regular contributions of Egypt’s two other foremost liberal Islamic thinkers, judge Mohamed Saiid al-Ashmawy and Sayed el-Qemni (see below), making it « the website » of liberal Islam.
A Liberal Brother at Odds With the Muslim Brotherhood
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
GAMAL AL-BANNA is 85, and for much of his life he has been overshadowed by his famous brother, Sheik Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political party and antecedent of a host of militant Islamist organizations, from Al Qaeda to Hamas.
That seems to have suited him just fine, though. He liked to write, read and think. His sister left him a lot of money, and so for decades, that is exactly how he spent his days.
His bedroom is at one end of a dusty old apartment on a chaotic street in the center of the city. At the other end is his office, his desk piled high with papers. In between are books — some 30,000 of them — arranged neatly on floor-to-ceiling shelves. One section is devoted to the 100 or so books he has written and translated over the course of his lifetime.
But Mr. Banna is no longer living in his brother’s shadow. And, like the organization his brother founded, the younger Mr. Banna is no friend of the establishment, but for quite a different reason. He is a liberal thinker, a man who would like to see Islamic values and practices interpreted in the context of modern times. Egypt’s gatekeepers of religious values, the government-appointed and self-appointed arbiters of God’s word, condemn, dismiss and dispute what he says. They have also banned at least one of his books.
“Gamal al-Banna has opinions that fall outside the scope of religion,” said Sheik Omar el-Deeb, deputy in charge of Al Azhar, the centuries-old seat of Islamic learning in Cairo. “The people, of course, oppose anybody who talks about things that violate religion.”
Mr. Banna likes to wear a blue collarless suit, buttoned to the very top. He prefers sandals to shoes, and wears his thin, wiry white hair swept back. He is often laughing, a kind of knowing chuckle that seems to say he knows better, by virtue of his age and experience.
Founder of the Brotherhood
He doesn’t press his ideas, does not try to wage a contest with the institution of Al Azhar, but instead takes
the long-term view, hoping to plant a few seeds that will, in time, take root and spread. He recognizes that, at the moment, the other side is winning the contest of ideas in Egypt, and the region.
“If religion was correctly understood, it would be a power of liberation,” Mr. Banna said. “But it is misunderstood, and so it is driving us backward.”
The views alleged to fall outside religion include those on women: They are not required to wear a veil, as most do in Egypt, Mr. Banna believes; they should not be forced to undergo genital cutting, as most do now in Egypt; and they should be allowed to lead men in prayer, which is forbidden in Egypt.
“My idea is that man is the aim of religion, and religion only a means,” said Mr. Banna. “What is prevalent today is the opposite.”
Egypt, often looked to as a center of moderate Islam, is, like the rest of the Arab world, becoming more conservative and less tolerant of opposing religious views, according to thinkers like Mr. Banna. Since August there have been at least three high-profile cases here where religious officials condemned, or sought to have criminally charged, people or publications promoting religious ideas they deemed offensive.
“When the Muslims used to disagree, they had different schools of thought,” said
Sayed el-Qemni, another reform-minded writer who lives in a small city outside of Cairo. “No one
would point to the other and say, ‘This is not Islam.’ But when one school of thought says, ‘I am the correct school of thought and everyone else deserves death,’ then you are starting a new religion.”
Mr. Qemni has received death threats for some of his writings, and sleeps with two police officers guarding his house.
BY contrast, Mr. Banna exudes a sense of impunity. That, he says, is not a result of his name, though it is a powerful force in a society where family ties are deeply respected, but because “I am free.”
He is free because he has been careful not to become involved in political movements — and because of his sister, Fawziyya, who left him the equivalent of about $100,000. That is a huge sum in Egypt, especially considering Mr. Banna has no family and lives and works in the same apartment at a nominal rent.
“I am a completely independent man,” he said with a smile. “I am not an employee, I am not in any party, and I am not affiliated with anything — completely independent.”
Mr. Banna was born Dec. 15, 1920, in Mahmudiya, a village in Egypt’s northern Nile Delta, northwest of the capital. The youngest of five children, he moved with his family to Cairo at age 4. His oldest sibling, Hassan, went on to form the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest organized opposition group in Egypt, although banned.
Their father, Ahmad Banna, a self-taught prayer leader and religious teacher, supported the family by repairing watches (his small wooden worktable sits in the hall of Gamal’s apartment). The elder Mr. Banna spent years of his life indexing the many thousands of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, assembling them in a multivolume set that sits on his youngest son’s shelves and inspires the son to this day.
As a young man, Mr. Banna was kicked out of high school after a dispute with an English teacher. He finished his studies at a technical school and did not pursue college, he said, because he knew he wanted to pursue writing. So he went out and began to write. In 1946, he published a book, “A New Democracy,” which included a chapter titled “Toward a New Understanding of Islam.”
Mr. Banna says one of the fundamental problems with religious leaders in Egypt is that they look to the interpretations of their ancestors and not to the Koran itself. To look directly at the book, and not at the words as interpreted by men living in a different time, would have a liberating effect, he says.
Many of his ideas challenge the core beliefs of the radical Muslims who have been driving the religious agenda in the region. Some Islamists say, for example, that elected governments are un-Islamic because people must follow God’s law, or Shariah, and not that of a parliament.
But Mr. Banna says the radicals are guilty of pursuing the very logic they say is un-Islamic. They would impose what amounts to their interpretation of the Koran onto other Muslims. That, he says, is no different than relying on a parliament to pass laws, as both are a result of man’s intervention, not divine revelation.
Islam, he says, needs to be seen in a modern context. “Because Islam is the last of religions, if it was rigid and closed, it could not stand the changes of the ages,” he said.
Mr. Banna does not deliver his message as a lecture. He speaks casually, slipping between English and Arabic, smiling, waving his hands. He has his own name now, and a philosophy quite different from the Islamist organization his brother founded.
Unlike the Brotherhood, he has stayed far from politics, but that does not mean he is apolitical. On the contrary, Mr. Banna says he believes that the reason his ideas have not gained momentum is that political freedom in Egypt is stifled by the nation’s rulers.
“They want only power,” he said. “They don’t want freedom of thought. Free thought, that will condemn them.”
The New York Times