Qutb, Sayyid (1906–1966)

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QUTB, SAYYID (1906–1966)

Sayyid Qutb was an Islamic activist and one of the principal ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin). Qutb was born in a village near Asyut in Upper Egypt. He left for higher studies in Cairo around 1919 or 1920, and received a B.A. in education in 1933 from Dar al-˓Ulum. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, had graduated from the same institution six years earlier and had moved the Brotherhood's headquarters to Cairo just before Qutb's graduation.

In the early part of his career, Qutb demonstrated little interest in religious activism. He focused primarily upon his work with the Ministry of Education, where he was employed from 1933 to 1951, and his literary pursuits. His early writings, consisting primarily of literary criticism and works of fiction and poetry, brought him to the attention of Egypt's cultural elite, including Taha Husayn. Later, Qutb would renounce much of his modernist views from this period.

By the late 1930s Qutb's interests were turning increasingly toward political and social concerns. He associated with a number of nationalist political parties opposed to the Egyptian monarchy and British colonialism. His first major essay along religious lines, al-˓Adala al-ijtima˓iyya fi'l-Islam (Social justice in Islam), was published in 1949.

In 1948, perhaps to mollify his criticism, the education ministry sent Qutb to study Western methods of education, first in Washington, D.C., then in Colorado, and finally in California. He left the United States in 1950 and traveled through England, Switzerland, and Italy before returning to Egypt in 1951. Far from dissuading him from his growing activism, Qutb's sojourn in the United States and Europe only intensified and radicalized it. He was appalled by what he saw as the dominant features of Western (especially American) culture: materialism, racism, and sexual permissiveness. He also became convinced that both the United States and the Soviet Union, despite their cold war posturing, were equally unconcerned with the aspirations of Arab and Islamic countries, and prepared to exploit them for their own gains. The fact that both superpowers had supported the creation of Israel in Palestine was, for Qutb, the strongest possible confirmation of their imperialistic aims.

Qutb became actively involved with the Muslim Brotherhood immediately upon his return, although he may not have formally joined until 1953. He served as a liaison between the Brotherhood and the Free Officers who overthrew the monarchy in July 1952, perhaps expecting cooperation between the military leadership and the Brotherhood in establishing an Islamic state. When it became clear that Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser and the military leadership intended to create a secular state, Qutb and the Brotherhood distanced themselves from the new government.

In January 1954, the government banned the Brotherhood and imprisoned many of its key figures, including Qutb, because of their increasing criticism of the regime's domestic and foreign policies. The decree was rescinded three months later. In October 1954, following an assassination attempt on Nasser by a member of the Brotherhood, Qutb was again arrested and severely tortured, despite his frail health. In July 1955 he was sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment.

Qutb wrote the two works for which he is best known while in prison. He began his voluminous Qur˒anic commentary, Fi zilal al-Qur˒an (In the shade of the Qur˒an), in 1962. In 1964 his supporters published a collection of his letters under the name Ma˓alim fi'l-tariq (Milestones), in which he argues that jihad, entailing armed struggle, not just peaceful preaching, is necessary to overturn the corrupted state of Muslim societies (the new ignorance or neo-jahiliyya) and establish a true Islamic order based on God's laws (shari˓a).

Qutb was released from prison in December 1964, probably due to ill health. But as Milestones' circulation spread rapidly, he was rearrested in August 1965 and sentenced to death for sedition. Despite international appeals to spare his life, he was hanged on 29 August 1966. Since his death, his influence has steadily grown through the translation and proliferation of his work.

See alsoBanna, Hasan al- ; Ikhwan al-Muslimin .


Abu Rabi˓, Ibrahim M. Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Haddad, Yvonne Y. "Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival." In Voices of Resurgent Islam. Edited by John L. Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Indianapolis, Ind.: American Trust Publications, 1993.

Sohail H. Hashmi