Presence and Silence: a son remembers
I remember still his presence and his silence. The long silences lodged deep in mind and memory; the thoughts that were often bitter. The keen eye and piercing gaze that bore his warmth, his kindness and his tears; that carried his determination, his commitment and anger as well. How often I attempted, as a child, to read the look in the powerful, suggestive and questioning eyes that accompanied his words to my heart. Those same words awakened me, troubled and shook me. I was not alone. Everyone who met him experienced his power. He had penetrated to the heart of things, and expected others to do the same. And yet he did so with compassion, with intelligence, for he feared causing harm, causing hurt. Behind his hesitancy lay his kindness, and often his awkwardness.
Early on, I learned at his side how the world feeds on lies, rumors and scandal mongering. When men lose morality they return to the jungle and become wolves. Around him were many such men; men who fought and sullied him for political gain, men who turned their backs on him for professional gain and men who betrayed him for financial gain. So much was said, written and lied about him: that he’d met men whom he’d never seen, heard words that had never been spoken, had been involved in secret plots he never dreamed of. In my memory echo the words of one of his traveling companions: “He could have been a millionaire, not by flattering kings, but by simply agreeing to keep silent. He refused; he spoke the truth and spoke it again and again, before God, without fear of loosing everything.”
I remember a story that my elder brother Aymen retold what seemed like a thousand times, a story that always brought tears to my eyes. He was fifteen years old when he heard it, in the course of a journey that found him and our father in the presence of wealthy princes: “The money that you wish to give me is placed in the palm of my hand; as for myself, by God’s command, I only work for that which is deposited in and reaches men’s hearts…” Despite his material difficulties, he rejected the exorbitant amounts of money he was offered, and did so in the name of his faith in God, of his devotion to the truth and of his love for justice. Aymen has never forgotten; it shaped him and he passed it on.
My father learned everything from the man who gave him so much, offered him so much and who, from a very early age, trained and protected him. On that subject he was inexhaustible. Hasan al-Banna, through his total devotion to God and His teachings, brought light to his heart and showed him the way to commitment. To those who criticized al-Banna without ever having met or heard him, or those who had simply read him, my father explained how much spirituality, love, fraternity and humility he had learnt at his side. For hours on end, he could summon up from memory the events and instants that had left their mark on him when he was just like his son; and when he was respectfully known throughout Egypt as “little Hasan al-Banna,” or the “little Guide.” His master’s profound faith, his devotion and his intelligence, his knowledge, open-mindedness and kindness were the qualities that sprang to mind whenever his name was mentioned.
How often father spoke of his mentor’s unyielding commitment to the struggle against colonialism and injustice and for the sake of Islam. But Hasan al-Banna’s determination never justified violence, which he rejected just as he rejected the idea of “an Islamic revolution.” The only exception was Palestine. Here, al-Banna’s message was clear: armed resistance was the only way to foil the plans of the Irgun terrorists and to confront the Zionist colonizers. Father had learned from Hasan al-Banna, as he put it one day, “to put my forehead to the ground.” For the true meaning of prayer is to give meaning, in humility, to an entire life. At his feet he learned love for God, patience, painstaking work, the value of education and of solidarity. Finally, he learned to give everything. After the assassination of his master, in 1949, he integrated what he had learned and sacrificed everything in order to give voice to the liberating message of Islam. History is written by the mighty; the worst calumnies were uttered about Imam Hasan al-Banna. Never did he cease to write, and to speak the truths that had nurtured him. But the despots’ love of power brought only death, bloodshed and torture.
He had just turned twenty when al-Banna named him editor of his magazine, al-Shihab. Then he volunteered for service in Palestine, at age twenty-one, fighting to defend Jerusalem. In 1948, at twenty-two, he went to Pakistan where he was approached about assuming the post of Secretary General of the World Islamic Congress. But his determination terrified the “diplomats.” He stayed on in Pakistan for several months, participating in debates about constitutional questions and producing a weekly radio program on Islam and the Muslim world that brought him wide popularity among young people and intellectuals.
Returning to Egypt, he threw himself into a campaign for social and political reform, traveling across the country, giving lectures, and chairing meetings. In 1952, he launched a monthly magazine modeled on al-Shihab, called al-Muslimun , for which some of the greatest Muslim scholars were to write and which would be distributed from Morocco to Indonesia in both Arabic and English. But Hasan al-Banna, well before his assassination, had given his followers a stern warning: the road will be long, and its mileposts will be pain, sadness and adversity. He knew, as did all those who accompanied him, that they would endure lies, humiliation, torture, exile and death.
For him it was to be exile. Nasser had deceived him and his colleagues, jailed them, executed them. In 1954 he was forced to leave Egypt, not to return until August 8,1995, in his coffin: forty-one years of exile, suffering, commitment and sacrifice for God and justice—and against dictatorship and hypocrisy. Exile is the ultimate condition of faith. His path was a long one, the hardships and the sorrows manifold and unending. First in Palestine where he was named General Secretary of the World Islamic Congress of Jerusalem before being banned from the city by Glubb Pasha, himself following American orders. Then, in Damascus were he relaunched al-Muslimun with Mustafa al-Siba’i, and soon after, to Lebanon, before arriving in Geneva in 1958. In 1959 he obtained his Doctorate in Cologne, and published his thesis under the title ‘Islamic Law: its Scope and Equity’ in which he presented a synthesis of the fundamental positions of Hasan al-Banna on the subject of the Shari’a, law, political organization and religious pluralism. It was an essential book, the first of its kind in a European language, to posit Islam as a universal reference. It reflected is author’s conviction and determination and at the same time a clear-cut and unmistakable commitment to open mindedness—and never once the slightest acceptance of violence.
IN 1961 he founded the Islamic Centre of Geneva with the support and participation of Muhammad Natsir, Muhammad Asad, Muhammad Hamidullah, Zafar Ahmad Ansari and Abu al-Hasan al-Nadwi—outstanding figures and faithful brothers in the same struggle. This Islamic centre was to be a model for others like it in Munich, London, Washington and, more generally, throughout the West. Its aim was to provide immigrant Muslims in Europe or the USA stay connected with their religion and to find a place of welcome and reflection. The Centre would likewise be a hub of activity for the presentation of Islam, for a publication program, and for analysis of current issues—all without external constraint. The Geneva Centre published numerous books and facsimiles in Arabic, English, French and German, and re-launched al-Muslimun, which ceased publication in 1967. Meanwhile he planned the creation of the Muslim World League, whose first statutes he drafted. His commitment was total; the Saudi funds he received via the League, which was at that time opposed to the Nasser regime, came with no particular conditions, commitment or obligation of political silence. When, at the end of the 1960s, the Muslim World League, which had by them come under much more direct Saudi influence, made its financial support conditional, insisting that it would take over the Islamic Centre and its activities, he refused. Then in 1971, all funding was cut off. He had never doubted that the road he must travel would be long and hard; such was the cost of independent thought and action.
Many came to know and appreciate him during those years. He traveled to many countries—speaking publicly in Malaysia, staying for protracted periods in England, Austria or in the USA, creating links as he went, introducing his profound, analytical thought with its underpinning of spirituality and love. Even such a luminary as Mawdudi thanked him for awakening him from his unconsciousness; Muhammad Asad was grateful to him for having brought him to know, or rather to feel profoundly the thought of Hasan al-Banna. Malek Shabbaz (Malcolm X) heard in the kitchen of the Islamic Centre of Geneva that no race is chosen and that no Arab, no more than a black person, is superior to his white brother, except by piety. Malcolm X took the lesson to heart so deeply that his last written words, at the eve of his death in February 1965, were addressed to my father. Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) paid him numerous visits in his London hostel; later he would tell me how much he remembered Said Ramadan’s fine intelligence, calling him “so sweet a man.” In 1993, in a meeting at Geneva Airport, the scholar Abu al-Hasan al-Nadwi showed him all the signs of infinite respect. When I visited him years later in Lucknow, India, the site of the Nadwat al-‘Ulama’, al-Nadwi recalled with deep emotion one of his visits and the memories that it had left him. In exile, far from his own, exposed to political and financial harassment, and assailed by problems large and small, he worried and tormented his mind while keeping intact the essential: a deep faith and sense of fraternity, the eyes of tenderness and the highest standards of behavior.
His room: piles of documents and magazines; here a telephone, there a radio and a television set, stacks of books, opened or annotated. The world was at his fingertips. Whoever stepped into his universe could not but be struck by a story, a past, a life, by sadness and solitude, by the multitude of memories alongside an incomparable grasp of current events. He maintained constant contact—that of emotional involvement—with the most distant lands. He knew almost everything that was going on in Tajikistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. He kept track of developments in Washington, Los Angeles, Harlem, London, Munich, Paris, Karachi and Geneva. His horizon seethed with information. He suffered so much and with such intensity in that room of his, from the state of the world, from the lies and the massacres, the prison sentences and the torture. His political intuition was breathtaking; it was easy to understand why he was feared.
But analysis of current events was not enough for him. Everything interested him, from technology and medicine to science and ecology. He knew what was needed for a thoroughgoing reform in Islam. His curiosity, always alert, always lucid, knew no limits. He had traveled the world; henceforth the world would come into his room. Where once there had been crowds, scholars, presidents and kings, now only observation, analysis and deep sadness remained. In his solitude, though, there was the Qur’an; and in his isolation, there were invocations mingled with tears. He gave his children symbolic names, names from the history of persecution and boundless determination. A thread of complicity connected him with each one of us; we held his undivided attention, shared the sensitivity of our relationship with him, and his love. With Aymen, it was his success and wounds; with Bilal, his potential and his heartbreak; with Yasser, his presence, his generous devotion and his patience; with Arwa, his complicity and silences; with Hani, his commitment and his determination. He convinced each of us to believe in our own qualities. He reminded each of us that he had given us the best of mothers, she who is, with all the qualities of her heart, his most precious gift.
After more than forty years in exile, after an entire life lived for God, faith and justice, he knew that his last hour had come. In night’s darkest hours he spoke again and again of love, fraternity and affection. A few months before returning to God, he told me, with all the power of his sad, tearful gaze: “Our problem is one of spirituality. If a man comes to speak to me about reform in the Muslim world, about political strategy and geopolitical schemes, my first question to him would be whether he performed the dawn prayer (fajr) on time.” He had a keen eye for the agitation in each of us, including my own. He reminded not to forget the essentials, to be close to God in order to know how to be close to men. After an entire lifetime of struggle, his hair turned grey by time, he reminded me: “Power is not our objective; we have nothing to do with it. Our goal is love of the Creator, the fraternity and justice of Islam. This is our message to dictators.” Late at night, in that famous room, he spoke of himself. The link with God is the path, spirituality, the light of the road. One day as he looked back upon his life, he told me: “Our ethical behavior, our awareness of good and evil is weapon used against us by despots, lovers of titles, power and money. They do what we cannot do; they lie as we cannot lie; they betray as we cannot betray and kill as we cannot kill. Our accountability before God is, in their eyes, our weakness. This apparent weakness is our real strength.”
That strength gave him energy until the very last. He remained deeply faithful to the message. To him I owe the understanding that to speak of God means, above all else, to speak of love, of the heart and fraternity. To him I owe the knowledge that solitude with God is better than neglect with men. To him I owe the feeling that deep sadness can never exhaust one’s faith in God. His generosity, his kindness and his knowledge were his most precious gifts. I thank God for giving me the gift of this father, at whose side I discovered that faith is love. Love of God and men in the face of trial and adversity.
Hasan al-Banna taught us: “Be like a fruit tree. If they attack you with stones, respond with fruits.” How well he had learned the lesson, then made it his own in the most intimate sense of the word. Observer of the world, far from the crowd, in the solitude of his room, after years of combat without respite for the sake of God, against treachery and corruption, his words drew their energy from the Sources and from the rabbaniyya (the essential link with the Creator). He never ceased speaking about God, about the heart and about the intimacy of this Presence. He had learnt the essential, and he summoned people directly to the essential.
Now he lies at rest next to the one who taught him the way, Hasan al-Banna. May God have mercy on them. He had returned from exile only in death for despots fear the words of the living. But the silence of the dead is fraught with meaning, just like the supplications of those who suffer injustice: bitter words, but words of truth. Thus the Prophet (pbuh) has commanded us: “We are from God and to Him is our return.” on Friday August 4 1995, just before dusk, God called to him a man. A man, a son, a husband, a brother, a father-in-law, a grandfather, my father. The sole merit of those who remain will be to testify, day after day, their faithfulness to his memory and teaching. To love God, to respond to His call, walk side by side with men, to live and learn how to die, to live in order to learn how to die, whatever the obstacles and whatever the cost.
Said Ramadan spent 41 years, almost an entire lifetime, in exile. What remains are his words, his vision and his determination. This life is not Life.
May God receive him in His mercy, forgive him his sins and open for him the gates of Peace in the company of the Prophets, the pious and the just.
May God make me for my children the father my father was for me.