A voice for ’new understanding’ of Islam

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.

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 – 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.
Banna is no longer living in his brother’s shadow. And, like the organization his brother founded, the younger 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.”
Banna does not press his ideas, does not try to wage a contest with the institution of 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,”
Banna said. “But it is misunderstood, and so it is driving us backwards.”
What are his views, the ones officialdom have said fall “outside religion”? He has a lot to say about women: They are not required to wear a veil, as most do in Egypt; they should not be forced to undergo a practice referred to as “female circumcision,” 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,” Banna said. “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 Banna. Since August there have been at least three high-profile cases here in which 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 writer favoring changes, 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.”
Qemni has received death threats for some of his writings, and sleeps with two police officers guarding his house. By contrast, Banna exudes a sense of impunity. That, he says, is not a result of his name – though that 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 Banna has no family and lives and works in the same apartment at a nominal rent.
“I am a completely independent man,” he says with a smile. “I am not an employee, I am not in any party, and I am not affiliated with anything – completely independent.”
Banna was born Dec. 15, 1920, in El Mahmoudia, a village in Egypt’s northern Nile Delta, northwest of the capital. The youngest of five children, he moved with his family to Cairo when he was 4 years old. His oldest sibling, Hassan, went on to form the Muslim Brotherhood, which today is the largest organized opposition in Egypt, even though it is officially banned.
Their father, Ahmad Banna, a self- taught prayer leader and religious teacher, supported the family by repairing watches (his small wooden work table sits in the hall of Gamal’s apartment). The elder 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 him to this day.
As a young man, 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 because, he said, he knew he wanted to pursue writing. So he went out and began to write. In 1946, he published a book called “A New Democracy,” and included a chapter titled “Toward a New Understanding of Islam.”
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. The most radical Islamists say, for example, that elected governments are un-Islamic because people must follow God’s law, or Sharia, and not that of a Parliament.
But 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.
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.
Banna has stayed far from politics, but that does not mean he is apolitical. On the contrary, 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.”