The Muslim Brotherhood, or the Society of the Muslim Brothers (also known as the Ikhwan), was established in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The new organization stressed community, games, and healthful pursuits. Although al-Banna denied it, some alleged that the brotherhood was patterned on the YMCA, which had opened branches in several Arab countries, including Egypt.
Born in 1906 in a lower-middle-class family, al-Banna was influenced by Sufi orders and took an active role in school activities. He attended school at Dar al 'Ulum and taught at a government school in Ismailia, where the brotherhood began.
A good speaker, al-Banna visited mosques and began to attract youthful members to his new organization. The organization, divided into cells with an individual leader, had a gradation of members who advanced by passing examinations.
Periodically, leaders would convene at congresses to coordinate programs. Women's sub-branches were also established. During the 1930s and 1940s, like other political forces in Egypt, such as the Wafd Party with its Blue Shirts and fascist Young Egypt with its Green Shirts, the Brotherhood also had a secret paramilitary force.
The Ikhwan sought to eradicate all foreign influences. It had pan-Islamic aims and ultimately gained a following outside Egypt, especially among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and in Syria and Jordan. The brotherhood advocated the unification of Egypt and Islamic nations on Qur'anic principles.
The organization's aims broadened over the years. Al-Banna sought to use science to increase national wealth and to establish social welfare programs including pension plans.
The Ikhwan also considered reviving the caliphate. Initially, many observers underestimated the potential of the organization, which emphasized the rejuvenation of the Egyptian nation through a return to Islamic principles.
In 1933 al-Banna transferred the headquarters of the brotherhood to Cairo, where he used radio broadcasts to popularize his program. He also sent letters to politicians and began to increase the brotherhood's commercial activities, including ownership of printing presses. These were used to produce a magazine, pamphlets, and various other publications.
From 1939 to 1945 the brotherhood took an active role in Egyptian politics and became a major political force. The brotherhood attracted young members who had become disenchanted with the Wafd, the major political party of the era.
Generally eager for immediate results, students were dismayed and angry over the Wafd's compromises and alliances with the British. The brotherhood was also periodically courted by the palace in order to discredit and undermine the Wafd.
In 1948 then prime minister Mahmud Nuqrashi arrested and imprisoned al-Banna. A member of the brotherhood took revenge by assassinating Nuqrashi in 1949. But in 1949 al-Banna was in turn killed, probably with the complicity of both the palace and the government.
Al-Banna and the brotherhood strongly supported the Palestinian cause, and many members volunteered to fight for the Palestinians in the 1930s and in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. By the late 1940s, the brotherhood probably had close to half a million members.
After al-Banna's death, Ismail al-Hudaybi became the leader or director-general. A lawyer, Hudaybi was not as charismatic as al-Banna, but he doggedly pursued the programs of the organization. The Ikhwan quietly supported the 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, but when the new regime refused to institute an Islamic state, the brotherhood became disenchanted.
After the brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser in 1954, its members were persecuted, imprisoned, or went into exile to other African or Arab nations. Many of the exiles became teachers and subsequently converted students to the cause.
The Muslim Brotherhood fostered an Islamic revival that had major consequences for the 20th and 21st centuries. Many contemporary Islamist movements are offshoots or were influenced by the tenets and approaches of the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, many present-day Islamist leaders, believing that the policies and approaches of the brotherhood are too moderate, have adopted more radical programs and strategies to force the establishment of regimes operating in accordance with their narrow interpretations of Islamic law and tradition.