Qutb, Sayyid

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QUTB, SAYYID . Sayyid Qutb (19061966), among the most influential Islamist thinkers of the twentieth century, was born on October 9, 1906, in the village of Musha (Upper Egypt). His father was a supporter of Mustafa Kamil's al-Hizb al-Watani (Nationalist Party). Studying at the village kuttab (religious school) and government school, he reportedly memorized the Qurʾān by the age of 10. In 1921 he left Musha for Cairo to stay with his uncle, a journalist; migration offered an escape from the limited socioeconomic opportunities of rural village life. Having decided to become a schoolteacher, Qutb attended preparatory schools in Cairo, then formally enrolled in Dar al-ʿUlum (established to train instructors for government schools) in 1929 to 1930, completing his modern-style, largely Western-shaped education in the shadow of British control of Egypt. After graduating in 1933, he taught in provincial towns and was later employed by the Ministry of Education as inspector of primary schools, and he continued thus until his resignation in 1951 or 1952 due to disagreement with government policies. In 1948 the ministry sent him to the United States to investigate educational methods. He enrolled at colleges of education in New York and Colorado and traveled widely, returning to Cairo through Europe. In 1951 or 1952 he joined the Society of the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwān al Muslimūn) and was appointed director of its Section for Propagation of the Call and Publication. There is a perception that Qutb enjoyed a close relationship with the Free Officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1952 (including ʿAbd al-Nasir), serving as liaison between them and the Brothers. Thus, he is believed to have been the only civilian to attend the Revolutionary Command Council's meetings. Although the Brotherhood was at first optimistic about Egypt's future after the coup, tensions with the new regime mounted as its aim to steer the country towards secular republicanism became clear. In 1954 ʿAbd al-Nasir banned the Brotherhood following a failed assassination attempt on his life, in which Brothers were implicated. Qutb was arrested along with other Brotherhood leaders, some of whom were later executed) and sentenced in 1955 to fifteen years hard labor for subversive activity against the state. His poor health led to his transfer to the prison hospital, from where he was able to write and publish. His release in 1964, ostensibly on grounds of ill health (possibly thanks to intervention by Iraqi president ʿAbd al-Salam ʿArif), proved to be short-lived. In 1965, having become closely associated with reconstituted Brotherhood circles, he was re-arrested with other Brotherhood members and sympathizers. His trial by special military tribunal focused on the implications of his work Milestones (the thesis of which was later refuted by the mainstream Brotherhood) as the basis of the state's case against him. It ended with the charge of attempting forcible overthrow of the government. Sentenced to death, Qutb was executed on August 29, 1966.

Qutb's career as a writer spanned an earlier, secular-oriented phase and a later Islamist one, itself encompassing two phases. From his student days, he was involved in literary circles in Cairo as a second-rank poet, literary critic, and essayist. He also engaged in the cultural politics of the day, contributing articles to the Egyptian press. Welcoming the modernizing impulse and receptive to the postwar nationalist current, Qutb nevertheless seems from the outset to have resisted the Western values upheld by the liberal-oriented establishment and its intellectual voices. This position possibly reflected his traditional background; as the 1930s progressed, it found common ground with the growing trend of dissident voices disenchanted with the liberals' view of Egypt, emphasizing instead the indigenous Muslim dimensions of Egyptian cultural and national identity. The 1940s saw Qutb gravitate from a position of cultural nationalism to one deeply engaged with the Qurʾān as a potential blueprint for change, in the context of a postwar opposition seeking a viable ideological alternative to the liberal parliamentary monarchical system. From around 1948, Qutb indeed appears to have turned from a cultural understanding of the role of Islam in society to one that saw in it a system that could respond to the political and economic needs of his context. His early works in the first phase of this explicitly Islamist vein had a modernist outlook compatible with the Brotherhood's reformist discourse, with its characteristically apologetic argumentation. The first such substantial work, al-ʿAdala al-Ijtimaʿiyya fi al-Islam (Social justice in Islam), appeared in 1949; this was followed by Maʿrakat al-Islam waʾl-Raʿsmaliyya (The struggle between Islam and capitalism, 1951) and al-Salam al-ʿAlami waʾl-Islam (Islam and world peace, 1951). However, Qutb's most significant work is a multivolume Qurʾanic exegesis entitled Fi Zilal al-Qurʾān (In the shade of the Qurʾān), written and repeatedly revised during his incarceration. Extracts from this were published in 1964 as Maʿalim fi al-Tariq (Milestones, 1978), summarizing his theory concerning God's sovereignty and the role of jihad in a non-Islamic society. This marked a change in his Islamist writing. Also published in the early 1960s and belonging to this second Islamist phase were al-Islam wa Mushkilat al-Hadara (Islam and the problem of civilization) and Khasaʾis al-Tasawwur al-Islami (The characteristics of Islamic theory). Muqawwimat al-Tasawwur al-Islami (Fundamentals of Islamic theory) appeared posthumously.

His second Islamist phase is responsible for Qutb's main intellectual and political legacy, consisting in the inauguration of a new Islamic discourse and radical activism. This discourse introduced interrelated concepts and propositions intended to reestablish Islam on firm foundations. They have since become an integral part of the vocabulary of most radical Islamist groups and, as such, represent more than a merely theoretical innovation. Qutb's scheme stressed the twin concepts of jahiliyya (paganism) and hakimiyya (sovereignty) on the one hand, and on the other called for the adoption of jihad as the ultimate means for delivering political power to a new generation of Islamist revolutionaries. The term jahiliyya (developed from writings of the Indian Abu al-Aʿla al-Mawdudi) functioned as a shorthand descriptive for the present condition of all societies, Muslim and non-Muslim. Qutb declared that all human societies had entered a new cycle of paganism by excluding "true religion" from their daily life and transactions. This state of affairs demanded the restitution of Islam as the only legitimate system capable of guiding humanity in all its endeavors. To enable such a restitution it was imperative to reassert God's sovereignty as the linchpin of a solid structure erected to lead mankind to material prosperity, moral rectitude, and salvation. God's sovereignty was thus put forward to indicate the exclusion of all systems of thought and government not derived from divine injunctions embodied in the Qurʾān. Moreover, the affirmation of God's sovereignty requires the creation of a "vanguard" of dedicated revolutionaries able to conduct a tightly coordinated program of ideological inculcation and political activity. Hence, Islam is both a doctrine and a method. The doctrine takes priority and thus constitutes the essence of Islam (particularly God's attributes of unicity, lordship, divinity, and absolute authority) that must first be firmly embraced by members of the vanguard prior to its implementation. The method is the most efficient means of initiating the second stage, of building a new Islamic order. Qutb warned that the struggle to restore Islam is long and arduous and involves adherence to a strict code by a cohort of professional revolutionaries. This code entails total dissociation from non-Islamic societies and the creation of alternative forms of organization, leadership, and loyalty. Separation inevitably leads to the division of society into two irreconcilable warring camps: this confrontation, spanning ideological, cultural, financial, and political fields, finds its culmination in armed struggle, or the highest stage of jihad. Jihad may thus be conducted through various forms, peaceful and violent, but its ultimate aim is to disarm the enemy so that Islam will be allowed to develop freely, by removing the obstacle of idolatrous tyrannies.

Translated into several languages, Qutb's writings are read by Muslims and Islamists of many hues, Sunnī and Shīʿī, across the Muslim world: Fi Zilal al-Qurʾān is considered to be among the most widely read modern Islamic works of the twentieth century. The apparent justification for direct (including violent) action aimed at overthrowing un-Islamic regimes and fighting Islam's enemies that is elaborated in Qutb's later works inspired radical Egyptian Islamist groups such as Jamaʿat al-Muslimin (1970s), al-Jihad al-Islami (responsible for Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat's assassination in 1981), and al-Jamaʿat al-Islamiyya. Since 2001, attention has been drawn to Qutb as the intellectual inspiration behind currents that coalesced to form the terrorist network al-Qāʿidah: described as the major influence on Usāmah bin Lādin, Qutb has been dubbed the "philosopher of Islamic terror." Any proper assessment of his legacy must consider the possibility, suggested by some close to him, that his purpose has been misconstrued by such trends. It must pay due attention to other dimensions of his oeuvre, including his underlying near-mystical approach to Islam and his appreciation of Qurʾanic aesthetics.

See Also

Modernism, article on Islamic Modernism; Wahhabiyah.


Calvert, John "The Individual and the Nation: Sayyid Qutb's Tifl min al-Qarya (Child from the Village )." Muslim World 90, nos. 12 (2000): 107132. Analysis of Qutb's partial autobiography, published 1946, exploring his views on the question of Egyptian national identity during the final years of the monarchy.

Calvert, John. "'The World Is an Undutiful Boy!': Sayyid Qutb's American Experience." Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 11, no. 1 (2000): 87103. Study of this little-examined episode in Qutb's career.

Choueiri, Youssef M. "Islam and Islamic Fundamentalism." In Contemporary Political Ideologies, edited by Roger Eatwell and Anthony Wright, pp. 255278. London, 1999. Nuanced discussion of Qutb's contribution to modern Islamic thought, and his association with other radical Islamists.

Choueiri, Youssef M. Islamic Fundamentalism. Revised ed. Washington, D.C., and London, 2002. Comprehensive overview of Qutb's philosophical and political approach, based on a close reading of his Qurʾānic commentary.

Kepel, Gilles. The Prophet and Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt. Berkeley, Calif., 1985. Informative discussion of the influence of Qutb's ideas on the Brotherhood members in prison (among them the founder of Jamaʿat al-Muslimin).

Khalidi, Salah ʿAbd al-Fattah. Sayyid Qutb: al-Shahid al-Hayy (Sayyid Qutb: Living Martyr ). Amman, Jordan, 1981. Generally reliable biographical source (in Arabic).

Moussali, Ahmad S. Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb. Beirut, Lebanon, 1992. Theoretical interpretation of Qutb's political project as an ideology that seeks to link knowledge and action.

Nettler, Ronald L. "A Modern Islamic Confession of Faith and Conception of Religion: Sayyid Qutb's Introduction to the Tafsir, Fi Zilal al-Qurʾān. " British Journal of Middle East Studies 21, no. 1 (1994): 102114. Discussion of the introduction to Qutb's Qurʾānic exegesis, indicating the broader contours of his thought in this important work and his direct experience of the revelation.

Qutb, John. "Qurʾānic Aesthetics in the Thought of Sayyid Qutb." Religious Studies and Theology. 15, nos. 23 (1996): 6176. Comprehensive analysis of Qutb's understanding of Qurʾānic aesthetics and its role in the evolution of his career, adopting a helpful contextual approach.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Beirut, 1978. Clear summary of Qutb's principal ideas in the radical phase of his career as an Islamist writer (in translation).

Shepard, William E. "Sayyid Qutb's Doctrine of Jahiliyya. " International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 35 (2003): 521545. Analysis of this pivotal concept in Qutb's later thought.

Tripp, Charles. "Sayyid Qutb: The Political Vision." In Pioneers of Islamic Revival, edited by Ali Rahnema, pp. 154183. London, 1994. Overview of Qutb's career and thinking, discussing the evolution of his political vision and his influence.

Suha Taji-Farouki (2005)

Youssef M. Choueiri (2005)

Sayyid Qutb

views updated Jun 27 2018

Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was an Egyptian writer, educator, and religious leader. His writings about Islam, and especially his call for a revolution to establish an Islamic state and society, greatly influenced the Islamic resurgence movements of the 20th century.

Sayyid Qutb was born in 1906 in the village of Mūshā in the Asyūt province of upper Egypt. His father was Hajjī Ibrāhīm Qutb, a well-to-do farmer of the region. The family, which traces its ancestry ultimately to Central Asia via India, in addition to father and mother consisted of two brothers and three sisters, of whom Sayyid Qutb was the eldest. His brother Muhammad and two of his sisters, Amīnah and Hamīdah, were also writers active in Islamic causes; all suffered arrest for their views along with their brother in 1965.

In his writings Sayyid Qutb attributed his strong bent towards religion to the influence of his parents. His mother, Fātimah Husayn 'Uthmān, had a particular love for the Koran (Qur'ān) which she inculcated in her offspring; she was determined that her children should all become buffāz (memorizers of the holy book). It was her custom to invite professional Koran reciters to the family home during the nights of the month of fasting (Ramadān), and Sayyid Qutb later recalled listening to the chanting of the sacred verses at his mother's side. He also mentioned the care exercised by his father to impress upon the youth the significance of the coming day of judgment.

Sayyid Qutb's earliest education was in the local village school where by the age of ten he had memorized the Koran. His mother was the sympathetic ear for his recitations during this time. At age 13 he went to Cairo for further study and there entered the Dār al-'Ulūm secondary school (established 1872), which offered an essentially secular education; among its purposes was the preparation of students for employment with government. At this stage of his life he was much influenced by the Westernizing tendencies prevalent in the school and among some Egyptian intellectuals. In 1929 he gained admission to Cairo University, where he earned the B.A. degree in education in 1933. After graduation he became a professor of the college, where he taught for some time before joining the Ministry of Education as inspector of schools.

A turning point came for Sayyid Qutb in 1949 when he was sent to the United States for higher studies in educational administration. Over a two year period he worked in several different institutions including what was then Wilson Teachers' College in Washington, D.C. and Colorado State College for Education in Greeley, as well as Stanford University. He also travelled extensively visiting the major cities of the United States and spent time in Europe on the return journey to Egypt. His reaction to the Western experience was decidedly negative; he found Western society hopelessly materialistic, corrupt, morally loose, and ridden with injustice. He was especially distressed by the disrespect shown to Arabs in the United States and the overwhelming support of its people for the state of Israel, founded in 1948. One of the most popular of his books, Social Justice in Islam (1948), reflects his critical attitude to the West.

Even before the journey to America Sayyid Qutb had begun to manifest interest in the teachings of the Society of Muslim Brothers (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn), the foremost of Egypt's resurgent Islamic organizations. Founded in 1929 by Hassan Al-Banna (Hasan al-Bannā'), the society had numerous followers and sympathizers and wielded much political influence. In 1949, however, it was banned, and many of its members were arrested after the assassination of the Egyptian prime minister, al-Nuqrāshī, by one of the Brothers. The society gained a new lease on life in 1952 with the coup d'état of the Free Officers which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. Many of the Free Officers had long had clandestine and sympathetic relations with the Muslim Brothers. The society's members were released from prison, a new leader was chosen to replace al-Bannā' (who had been murdered in the violence of 1949), and Sayyid Qutb, formerly a mere member, emerged as one of the foremost figures. He was employed in the society's Bureau of Guidance and was placed in charge of the office that bore responsibility for the propagation of the society's Islamic views. In this position he exercised the function of intellectual leader of the Brothers, expressing his opinions in books and numerous articles in a variety of journals.

In July 1954 he was made editor of the society's newspaper, al-Ikhwān al-Muslimu, but held the post for only two months when the newspaper was closed by Gamal Abdel Nasser ('Abd al-Nāsir) because of its opposition to the Anglo-Egyptian pact of that year. Originally, the relations between the Muslim Brothers and the Free Officers had been close, but they soured as the Brothers began to oppose government policy. There was a complete rupture in 1954 after an attempt on the life of President Nasser by a Brother. Six members of the society were executed, thousands of others were arrested, and the society was again declared illegal.

Sayyid Qutb was among those arrested and was sentenced by the People's Court to 15 years' rigorous imprisonment. The experience was extremely difficult for Sayyid Qutb, especially the first three years, for he was a generally sickly man who suffered from a number of afflictions. It is alleged also that he was made to undergo torture of various kinds. Nevertheless, during the years in jail—which lasted until mid-1964—he completed his influential commentary on the Koran (In the Shadow of the Qur'ān) in 30 parts (eight volumes).

Sayyid Qutb was released from prison because of an appeal by Iraq's president Abdul Salam Areb to Nasser, but he remained under surveillance. However, he continued to write and to work for the Islamic cause. After less than a year of freedom he was again arrested on a charge of attempting to overthrow the Egyptian government by force. The basis of the charge was his last book, Milestones, which sanctioned force as a means to bring about an Islamic revolution and to transform society. On August 19, 1966, Sayyid Qutb and two companions were sentenced to death by a military tribunal, and the sentence was carried out on the morning of August 25 following. Sayyid Qutb is, thus, known as shahīd, or martyr.

In his personal intellectual evolution Sayyid Qutb passed from a westernizing tendency in his youth to a revolutionary Islamic radicalism in the years before his death. He is a hero and one of the principal ideologues of the Islamic resurgence in the last third of the 20th century. His writings have been translated into many languages, and he is read wherever Muslims are found. His teachings concerning jihād and the Islamic revolution were major influences on 'Alī Sharī'atī' and the students who, following him, participated in the Iranian revolution.

Further Reading

There is an article on Sayyid Qutb by Yvonne Y. Haddad in Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John Esposito (1983). Detailed information on the Muslim Brothers and their history up to 1954 may be found in the work by Richard Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London, 1969). Many of Sayyid Qutb's beliefs are set forth in the paperback Islam and Universal Peace (1977). □