Inside the World’s Largest Islamist Group

Inside the World’s Largest Islamist Group

Who are the Muslim Brothers? And what sort of relationship do they believe they have with the divine?

Supporters of Mohamed Morsi rally in Cairo, June 28, 2013 (Gregg Carlstrom / Flickr)

This essay is adapted from Hazem Kandil’s Inside the Brotherhood, just out from Polity Press.

A reputation established over eight decades collapsed in less than eight months. Islamism, an ideology that carved its name from Islam, had always been synonymous with it in the minds of many. The Egyptian Muslim Brothers, who had invented and embodied this ideology since 1928, were perceived as fervent believers who went beyond practicing religion to promoting and defending it. But a gathering rebellion against the country’s first Brotherhood president changed all that.

On the eve of the 2013 popular uprising against Muhammad Morsi, Brothers organized preemptive sit-ins in several locations around the country. The biggest crowd camped around Cairo’s Raba’a al-‘Adawiya mosque. For forty days, unsuspecting Egyptians tuned in (some even strolled in) to witness for themselves what Brothers said and did. It was a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on this exceptionally discreet group. And what they saw and heard was quite different from what they were used to from the usually minted Brothers: political competitors were religiously condemned; images of Prophet Muhammad’s epic battles were conjured; biblical stories, from David and Moses to Armageddon, were invoked; allegations that Archangel Gabriel prayed at the Islamist campsite were flaunted; and sacred visions were relayed on stage night after night. This was not the vocabulary Brothers typically employed. Almost overnight, many Egyptians panicked. Who were these strangers, they wondered?

Little did they know that Brothers were equally confused. Popular hostility was certainly frustrating after decades of successful advancement of the Islamist cause. But there was more: Brothers were visibly shaken by the absence of divine intervention. In their mind, everything was set in place for their divine empowerment (tamkin); and God would never desert His soldiers. The fact that the sit-in coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, which featured Islam’s early victories, was quite suggestive. Brothers held constant vigils, fasting during daytime, and praying from dusk till dawn to make themselves worthy of divine favor. As the political showdown approached, the daughter of the Brotherhood’s effective leader was caught screaming on television: “God will part the sea for us! Just wait and see!”She was echoing one of many omens circulated during the sit-in: that the soldiers of Pharaoh had trapped the Brothers just as they had done with the ancient Hebrews, and if they kept faith with Morsi, as their predecessors did with Moses, a miracle was shortly at hand. Brotherhood preachers even determined the date for the metaphorical drowning of the soldiers. But the sea remained as calm as ever, and the cornered believers were mercilessly slayed. Those who saw their campsite laid to waste muttered in shock and denial: why would Heaven forsake us?

My new book, Inside the Brotherhood, attempts to answer these two questions: Who are the Muslim Brothers? And what sort of relationship do they believe they have with the divine? The answers are based on years of participant observation with Brothers, extensive interviews, previously inaccessible organizational documents, and dozens of memoirs. My ultimate goal was to investigate the Brotherhood from the inside: how the movement governed members, and how members interacted.


One cannot choose to join the Muslim Brotherhood; one has to be chosen. Fayez, a lawyer who was recruited in his village mosque when he was only eleven, said he did not remember embracing the Brotherhood like one would embrace an intellectual faction or a political party. It was movement that decided. Mahmoud, a hot-blooded Alexandrian journalist who had dwelt in Brotherhood circles since he was five, remarked with some amusement: “I was actually born to find myself a Brother.” And even though Rida, a shopkeeper and lifelong Cairo resident, made it to the ranks a bit later (at elementary school), he did not remember making a conscious decision to join; “You simply slid in.”

Brothers constantly vet relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and—the most yielding pool—mosque attendants for potential recruits. Candidates pass through an average three-year probation period, typically without their knowledge, before being invited to join. They are encouraged to pray regularly at the mosque and participate in its activities, especially Qur’an-reading groups (maqari’). They are also advised to limit their interaction to pious individuals of their own age and gender. After this exceptionally long screening period, nominees are finally informed that they are being considered for Brotherhood membership. Only a tiny fraction refuses to go along after this extended courtship. And in that case, they are asked to support the cause without official membership.

As for the willing majority, the recruitment process concludes with invitations to Brotherhood day trips and informal gatherings for inspection by more experienced eyes. Those who receive the stamp of approval are designated as devotees (muhibin) and assigned to apprentice groups to test their diligence and familiarize them with the organization. Successful devotees are next enrolled in a grueling three-month elevation course (dawrat tas’id), which provides a crash introduction on the founding history of Islam and Islamism, followed by qualifying exams (mostly in the form of questionnaires). If all goes well, devotees are asked to swear an oath of allegiance (bai’a) to the General Guide (al-Murshid al-‘Am)—an oath historically reserved for caliphs, but temporarily appropriated by Brothers as the provisional leaders of the community of the faithful until a new caliphate is established. This intensely ritualized oath transforms a devotee into a Brother.

Still, elevation to entry-level membership is only the first step in another long journey through the five ranks of membership. Promotion from beginner to full member is subject to a complicated set of monitoring mechanisms centered on the process referred to as cultivation (tarbiya). When ‘Umar al-Telmesani, the third general guide (1974-1986), was invited to join the organization in 1933, his recruiters were curious to know how he spends his spare time. “I breed chicks,” he replied. His recruiters smiled knowingly and retorted: “There are creatures more in need of breeding than chicks. . . . There are Muslims who have turned away from their religion.”

One of the first lessons imprinted on the mind of Muhammad Habib, who joined in 1969 and rose to become the general guide’s first deputy (until 2009), was that cultivating the right type of Muslim is what will eventually bring Brothers to power. It is no coincidence that the Brotherhood’s first and second founders, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, were educated at the Teachers College and graduated as primary schoolteachers. In their writings, cultivation is treated more meticulously than anything else. For while this process might strike the casual observer as simple indoctrination with a religious flavor, it is actually an elaborate activity that borrows from at least four different schools: it instills a transformative worldview in the minds of members, as communists do; it claims that converting into this worldview is contingent upon a spiritual conversion, as in mystic orders; it presents this worldview as simple, uncorrupted religion, as in puritan movements; and it insists that this worldview cannot be readily communicated to society because it is not yet ready to handle the truth of the human condition, as in masonic lodges. The ultimate aim, therefore, is not to win over more believers, but to produce a new kind of person: the Muslim Brother. This is a person striving for a new world through a spiritual struggle that reproduces the experience of early Muslims.


One of the most striking things about the Brotherhood is its name. Ideological movements usually carry the name of the new order they strive to impose: so one hears, for example, of liberal, communist, or nationalist movements. The Brotherhood, in contrast, carries the name of an already existing society: the society of the Muslim Brothers. It is as if the movement itself is the ultimate goal. To dispel doubts of organizational narcissism, members are told that the movement is sacred because what it represents is sacred, that is: Islam. Without the movement, there can be no return to Islamic rule. In time, however, means and ends become conflated. “We come to believe that Islam is the Brotherhood (al-Islam howa al-Ikhwan),” Hani started,“that this is divine group (al-jama’a al-rabaniya) must be preserved against all odds.” As Ibrahim al-Houdeibi succinctly put it: “The organization is the cause of its own being.” This unique organizational feature is grounded in a particular interpretation of Islamic social ties, and reinforced by interlocking networks of family, friends, and business partners.

Religious interpretations and metaphors that urge cohesion and obedience help cement the movement. But people, after all, are the Brotherhood’s building blocks. The ideological stress on unity is firmly grounded in dense personal networks. Real friendship (as opposed to simple camaraderie), marriage and kinship ties, as well as business partnerships strengthen human bonds in ways unknown to any other ideological group.

“It is a social rather than an intellectual contract that binds us together,” as Shatla put it. Hani described how the Brotherhood’s carefully woven web of personal support networks, worship groups, organizational sections, athletic teams, social gatherings, and professional associations envelopes each member “three hundred and sixty degrees,” all the time and everywhere. You live in a Brotherhood family, which supplements (and sometimes substitutes) your biological family, and families cluster to create an entire parallel society. “They construct your private and public worlds,” Fayez added. “You read Brotherhood literature, written by Brothers on Brothers. You pray in Brotherhood mosques, built and run by Brothers. You marry a Sister nurtured in a family according to Brotherhood guidelines. Even on recreational trips, you meet Brothers, ride buses owned by Brothers, to stay at a place administered by Brothers.”

So if a member loses interest in the ideology, he might still be reluctant to leave. He would immediately be reminded of the fact that “These are my friends, my wife’s friends, my children’s playmates, and, in some cases, my parents, in-laws, uncles or cousins, sometimes even my employers or business partners. How could I leave? My life will be devastated, or at least it will never be the same.” When Hani resigned in 2005, he felt estranged, especially because his wife was a Sister. “I felt like a fish out of the water.” When Fayez left, his friends turned against him. Even his original recruiter, who had been a friend and teacher for over twenty years, turned away when he saw him coming down the street.

Fayez suffered inexorable guilt for six years afterwards; he felt that he had deserted his Brothers because he was a corrupt person “who did not deserve them.” He was also alarmed because he knew that many of those who resigned ended up doubting religion itself in order to relief themselves of the torment. Frantic, the young Brother implored his old mentors to allow him to sit on family meetings without resuming active membership, but he was turned down. The Brotherhood, they told him, was a package deal: “you take it or leave it,” as another Brother told me. Mahmoud froze his membership psychologically in 2010, but did not officially leave so he would not be severed from the community. This largely explains why the Brotherhood has suffered no major dissent in its eighty-five years.

Ahmad al-Baily, the senior Brother who had become governor under Morsi, had warned in a celebrated article: “Whoever deserts the group will find nothing but
estrangement. . . . His own soul will denounce him, and his family and friends will no longer recognize him. . . . This is a divine secret.”

Shatla tried to provide a less metaphysical interpretation. As a management student, he learned that self-actualization ranked highest on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The Brotherhood offers members what he described as “a second social chance.” In real society, the unskilled end up lonely and unappreciated. But in the society of Brothers, everyone makes friends and acquaintances; everyone gets to be heard and praised, regardless of what they say or do. “You become addicted. If you leave, you go back to being nobody, and you have to survive on your own skills. It is like American college fraternities, but much bigger.” He then added with a grin, “When you think of it, it is like a ponzi scheme. You bank on your social network, even though you have no capital.” When the Raba’a al-‘Adawiya sit-in was cleared, Shatla noticed that his Brothers were overtaken by fear, not anger. They panicked because the house that shelters them collapsed, not just because the idea they upheld was defeated.


Hazem Kandil is the Cambridge University Lecturer in Political Sociology and Fellow of St Catharine’s College. He studies power relations in revolution and war, focusing on the Middle East, Western Europe, and North America, and is the author of Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (Verso, 2012), and The Power Triangle: Military, Security, and Politics in Regime Change (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima