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Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb (9 October 1906 29 August 1966) was an Egyptian intellectual, author, and Islamist associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He is best known for his theoretical work on redefining the role of Islamic fundamentalism in social and political change. His extensive Quranic commentary Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the shade of the Qur'an) has contributed significantly to modern perceptions of Islamic concepts such as jihad, jahiliyyah, and umma.

Life and public career

Qutb was raised in the Egyptian village of Musha and educated from a young age in the Qur'an. He moved to Cairo, where he received a Western education between 1929 and 1933, before starting his career as a teacher in the Ministry of Public Instruction. During his early career, Qutb devoted himself to literature as an author and critic, writing such novels as Ashwak (Thorns) and even elevating Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz from obscurity. In 1939 he became a functionary in Egypt's Ministry of Education (wizarat al-ma'arif). From 1948 to 1950 he went to the United States on a scholarship to study the educational system, receiving a master's degree from the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado). Qutb's first major theoretical work of religious social criticism, Al-'adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi-l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), was published in 1949, during his time overseas.

Qutb was extremely critical of the racism he witnessed in the United States, as well as the openness between the sexes in American society (he was aghast at activities such as the then-popular "sock hop"). Qutb objected to what he viewed as the primitiveness in America. He noted with disgust how some Americans had little respect for the dead, and how youth flirted and danced at church gatherings. In an article published in Egypt after his travels, Qutb concluded that major aspects of American life were "primitive" and shocking. His experiences in the U.S. partly formed the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards radicalism upon returning to Egypt. Resigning from the civil service, he became perhaps the most persuasive publicist of the Muslim Brotherhood. The school of thought he inspired has become known as Qutbism.

The Muslim Brotherhood, and Qutb in particular, enjoyed a close relationship with the Free Officers Movement in the time leading up to and following the coup of June 1952. However their early cooperation soon soured over such issues as the Free Officers' refusal to hold elections, to ban alcohol, or to take a hard line against the British presence in Egypt. It became increasingly clear that the Islamic tenets of the Brotherhood were largely incompatible with the secular ideology of Nasserism.

After the attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, the Egyptian government used the incident to justify a crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, imprisoning Qutb and many others for their vocal opposition to various government policies. While in prison, Qutb wrote his two most important works: a commentary of the Qur'an Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Quran), and a manifesto of political Islam called Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones). These works represent the final form of Qutb's thought, encompassing his radical, antiestablishment claims based on his interpretations of the Qur'an, Islamic history, and the social and political problems of Egypt.

Qutb was let out of prison at the end of 1964 at the behest of the then Prime Minister of Iraq, Abdul Salam Arif, for only eight months before being rearrested in August 1965. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the state and subjected to what some consider a show trial. Many of the charges placed against Qutb in court were taken directly from Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq and he adamentally supported his written statements. The trial culminated in a death sentence for Qutb and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. On 29 August 1966, Sayyid Qutb was executed by hanging.

Evolution of thought

There have been various theories advanced as to why Qutb turned from a secular reformist in the 1930's to a radical Islamist in the 1950's (the latter clearly evidenced in Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq). One common explanation is that the conditions he witnessed in prison from 1954-1964, including the torture and murder of Muslim Brothers, convinced him that only a government bound by Islamic law could prevent such abuses. Another theory is that Qutb's experiences in America and the Western-friendly policies of Nasser demonstrated to him the powerful and dangerous allure of Jahiliyya - a threat unimaginable, in Qutb's estimation, to the secular mind. Finally, Qutb offered his own explanation in Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq, arguing that the serious problems of humankind - materialism, poverty, tyranny, immorality, and ignorance - could only be solved through submission to God's sovereignty, as fulfilled in Islam. Qutb believed that Islam could only be realized as a comprehensive, theocratic system.

In general, Qutb's experiences as an Egyptian - his village childhood, professional career, and activism in the Muslim Brotherhood - left an unmistakable mark on his theoretical and religious works. Even Qutb's early, secular writing shows evidence of his later themes. For example, Qutb's autobiography of his childhood Tifl min al-Qarya (A Child From the Village) makes little mention of Islam or political theory and is typically classified as a secular, literary work. However, it is replete with references to village mysticism, superstitution, the Qur'an, and incidences of injustice. Qutb's later work developed along similar themes, dealing with Qur'anic exegesis, social justice, and political Islam.

Qutb's career as a writer also heavily influenced his philosophy. In al-Tafsir al-Fanni fil-Quran (Artistic Representation in the Qur'an), Qutb developed a literary appreciation of the Qur'an and a complementary methodology for interpreting the text. His hermaneutics were applied in his extensive commentary on the Qur'an, Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Quran), which served as the foundation for the radical declarations of Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq.

Late in his life, Qutb synthesized his personal experiences and intellectual development into a body of religious and political convictions, published in the famous Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq. This work summarized Qutb's general views on Islam and presented the ideal of a modern Islamic theocracy. It was also in this text that Qutb clearly condemned governments, like Abdul Nasser's regime in Egypt, who based their legitimacy on human authority or consent. This work, more than any other, established Qutb as one of the premier radical Islamists in the 20th century.

Political Views

Qutb's interpretation of Islam was directly related to his political views. By taking Islam to be a complete social system, Qutb believed that the best government was an Islamic theocracy. He justified this claim by citing the broad applications of the Qur'an, including its insight into morality, justice, and governance. Qutb's concern was not simply for a new government, but also for a new society. In critical events such as the 1952 revolution, Qutb saw an opportunity to implement his vision.

While Qutb supported the Free Officers in 1952, he soon distanced himself from the policies of the new government headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser's regime was, in Qutb's view, harmful to Egypt and Islam, because it supported increasing Western and secular influences while persecuting native Islamic influences. Qutb had also witnessed firsthand the cruelty of Nasser's regime in the form of arbitrary arrests, torture, and deadly violence. Nasser's Egypt not only confirmed for Qutb the reality of Jahiliyya in the Muslim world, but also embolden his message that an Islamic state was necessary to realize "the freedom of man on the earth from every authority except that of God" (Qutb [1956] 2003).

Qutb is also credited with theorizing approaches to enacting the widespread Islamic reforms he envisioned. His main vehicle for change was the concept of a Muslim vanguard who would instruct and lead the masses through the persausive message of Islam. Fully formed in his final work, Milestones, Qutb's vanguard was not explicitly intended as a ruling class, but was meant to be an elite organization of highly educated and motivated Muslims dedicated to a unified cause. It is unknown if Qutb intended the Muslim Brotherhood to be such an organization.

Qutb's concept of a vanguard tasked with leading a revolution is similar to other 20th century political thinkers. For example, though Qutb was strongly opposed to Communism, the few practical details of his political theory bear some resemblence to Vladimir Lenin's Communist Party.


Qutb is often identified as a major intellectual contributor to radical Islamism in the 20th century. This is due in part to his many writings on the subject and also his strong connection between religion and politics that mark his later works. In particular, Qutb established complex, controversial views on several traditional Islamic ideas:


One of Qutb's main ideas was applying the term Jahiliyya, which traditionally refers to humanity's state of ignorance before the revelation of Islam, to modern-day Muslim societies. In Qutb's view, the removal of Islamic law and religious values (particularly after the period of European colonization) had left the Muslim world in a condition of debased ignorance, similar to that of the pre-Islamic era (i.e. Jahiliyya). In defining the Muslim world as in a state of Jahiliyya, Qutb concluded that all non-Islamic states were illegitimate, including that of Egypt.

What was most controversial about Qutb's conception of Jahiliyya was his wide application of it. Qutb believed that all societies ruled by a non-Islamic government were not Islamic. Further, based on a Qur'anic interpretation of Jahiliyya, Qutb concluded that Muslims living in such societies were religiously obligated to oppose the ruling government and to challenge its authority. This theory of legitimacy and the advocacy for no less than revolution set Qutb against the majority of political systems in the world, including that of his home country, Egypt. In effect, Qutb's theories paired a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur'an with a radical, sociopolitical ideology


Qutb has been interpreted, particularly in Western media, as an intellectual precursor to various Islamic fundamentalist movements of the 1980's to the present, including the notorious international organization, Al-Qaeda. In this view, Qutb is argued to be a theoretical foundation of Islamic extremism. One can find many ideological connections between Qutb's thought and radical fundamentalist groups. These include Qutb's advocacy of an Islamic theocracy as the only legitimate state, his justification of jihad in the conflict against non-Islamic governments, and his uncompromising opposition to Western culture and values. He despised modernity and saw the current world as jahiliyya, the barbarous condition existing before Muhammad. For Qutb, jahiliyya did not allude to the particular time period in Arabia prior to the rise of Islam, as the term is traditionally interprated, but to an antithesis of an Islamic utopia.

It is widely known that Qutb's brother, Muhammad Qutb, moved to Saudi Arabia where he became a professor of Islamic Studies. One of Muhammad Qutb's students and an ardent follower was Ayman Zawahiri, who later became the mentor of Osama bin Laden.


The influence of Qutb and his work extends across the whole spectrum of Islamism. Alongside notable Islamists like Maulana Mawdudi and Hasan al-Banna, Qutb is often considered one of the most influential Islamic activists of the modern era. He is recognized for his application of Islamic ideology to current social and political problems, such as Westernization, modernization, and political reform. Qutb's work also expanded many themes now common in Western discourses on Islamism, including the theory of inevitable ideological conflict between "Islam and the West" (see Clash of civilizations), the notion of a transnational umma, and the comprehensive application of jihad in various spiritual, political, and social contexts.

In terms of politics, Qutb left a significant mark on the Muslim Brotherhood, which today still exists and is actively involved in Egyptian politics. His theoretical work on non-violent Islamic advocacy, including emphasis on social justice and education, has become a cornerstone of the contemporary Brotherhood. His interpretation of jihad and its application for societal change has influenced many later Islamist activists, both violent and non-violent. Finally, Qutb's imprisonment and execution has led some to consider him a martyr.

Qutb's written works, including his most controversial, are still widely available and have been translated into many Western languages. Qutb's best known work, Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones), is regarded by some as the beginning of modern political Islam. However, the majority of Qutb's theory can be found in his Qur'anic commentary Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Quran). This 30-volume work is noteworthy for its innovative method of interpretation, borrowing heavily from the literary analysis of Amin al-Khuli, while retaining some structural features of classical commentaries (for example, the practice of progressing from the first sura to the last).






















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