Key thinker: Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966)
Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966)
Sayyid Qutb was born near Asyut, Egypt, into an impoverished but notable family. Between 1933 and 1952 Qutb worked for the Ministry for Education, first as a teacher and later as an inspector and administrator (https://iep.utm.edu/qutb/). Qutb spent his early adult life as a secular poet, and literary and social critic but, in 1948, he suddenly began to publish Islamist articles (https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195390155/obo-9780195390155-0072.xml). Qutb’s turn to Islamism coincided with the expansion of Western influence in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, after World War II (see 15.2.1. Intellectual Context and Reception). Egyptians were frustrated with the inability of existing institutions to tackle inequality, poverty, and corruption, and searched for new ideologies to articulate their discontent. While Marxism offered a way to better understand the conditions of economic exploitation, the Muslim Brotherhood (see Key Concept: Muslim Brotherhood) gave voice to concerns about the adverse effects of cultural imperialism.
Qutb, too, had become convinced that Western secularism was a corrupting force in Egypt. In 1949, he published his most famous work, Social Justice in Islam, which laid the foundations for Qutb’s political and theological worldview. But his political and religious writings had come to the attention of government authorities, who worried about Qutb’s growing influence. To keep Qutb safe, colleagues at the Department for Education arranged for him to study in the United States, where he lived from 1948 to 1950 (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-lesson-in-hate-109822568/). It is unclear whether Qutb’s contempt for the United States preceded his arrival. As a student in Colorado, Qutb developed an anti-modernist outlook and became convinced that the new World—the United States with its morally vacuous social life—was threatening to eclipse the old world of Islamic virtue and tradition. Following his return from the United States, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood and quickly became one of its most influential members (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sayyid-Qutb).
In 1952, the Free Officers Movement overthrew the Egyptian government of King Farouk and established a new nationalist regime. At first, Qutb’s relationship with the Free Officers Movement was friendly; he even offered his religious and political advice to the new government. But Qutb’s increasingly radical Islamist ideology put him at odds with the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who served as president of Egypt from 1956 to 1970 (see 15.2.1. Intellectual Context and Reception). Nasser was unsympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and eventually banned the organization, leading to Qutb’s first arrest and imprisonment on charges of sedition (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sayyid-Qutb). Qutb spent the next decade in prison developing his political and theological ideas. He published two of his most influential texts, In the Shade of the Qu’ran (1951-65) and Signposts on the Road (1964), during his imprisonment (see 15.2.1. Intellectual Context and Reception). The latter became a founding text for the modern militant current of Sunni Islam.
In 1964, Qutb was released from prison only to be re-arrested and charged again. This time, however, the punishment was more severe: Qutb was charged with treason and attempting to overthrow the government. He was executed along with other Muslim Brotherhood members in 1966. While the Egyptian government branded Qutb a traitor, many in the Muslim world considered him a martyr. Even after his death, Qutb’s writings continued to be circulated within and outside of Egypt.
Qutb argues that Western civilization is in a moral and existential crisis. This crisis is covered up by scientific progress and political institutions, which lead us to believe that society is on the right track. But the values that the Enlightenment precipitated lack any coherent ethics or moral content. As the West has imposed its values on the world through colonialism and cultural imperialism (see 15.2. Colonialism and Jahilliyya Key Points), Islamic societies have descended into a state of jahilliyya (ignorance or barbarism) (see 15.2.2. States of Ignorance: Jahilliyya). By replacing divine sovereignty with human sovereignty, Islamic societies have disavowed God and regressed to their pre-Islamic (i.e., immoral and backward) state. For Qutb, there is only one path that society can take to overcome this situation of moral decay: an Islamic revolution or jihad (see 15.1. Jihad). Like Fanon (see Chapter 28 on Fanon), Qutb argues that a non-violent revolution against colonial power is impossible or, at the very least, ineffective. Jihad, then, is a legitimate form of political violence against immoral or oppressive regimes that suppress human freedom and happiness (see 15.2. Colonialism and Jahilliyya Key Points).
But Qutb insists that freedom cannot be realized in non-Muslim societies (see 15.4. Jihad (Holy War) Key points). For Qutb, any laws or institutions that are not based on the teachings of God—like the political and legal institutions which emerged from the Enlightenment—are a rejection of the divine. Qutb argues that the dominant Western ideologies of his time, liberalism and communism, both suppress individual freedom (see 15.3. Sovereignty as Hakimiyyah). While communism reduces human beings to machines, liberal capitalism corrupts the individual through greed and exploitation. Qutb extends this critique to other Western social or political ideas including nationalism and democracy, which he views as ‘godless’ ideologies. Islam, however, is an ideology that treats the individual with the respect they are due. For Qutb, Islam is the only ideology that is not spiritually deficient, since it is guided by divine principles and offers the possibility of a harmonious society based on solidarity and peace.
Qutb’s writing draws from the influential Indo-Pakistani Islamist scholar Abu A’la Maududi (see Key Thinker: Abu A’la Maududi), who argued for the founding of an Islamic state to resist jahiliyya. He also follows Maududi in arguing that this Islamic state should have a constitution based on Islamic law (see Key Concept: Shari’ah). Like jihad itself, re-establishing divine sovereignty (see Key Concept: Hakimiyyah) in Islamic societies is the responsibility of a vanguard, whom Qutb purports to write for. These enlightened individuals derive their authority from God who is the only legitimate source of normative ethics. Therefore, the vanguard should always be led by God’s ‘signpost’, i.e., the Qur’an. Islamic renewal, which ushers in a harmonious world free of conflict, can be realized either through the movement of jihad or the preaching of the enlightened vanguard. To achieve true freedom, then, Islamic renewal must work on both a material level and in the realm of beliefs and ideas (see 15.4. Jihad (Holy War) Key points).
Qutb’s theory of Islamic revival has had a significant influence on modern jihadist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, who similarly reject the legitimacy of secular regimes and Western imperialism (see 15.5. Conclusion). Qutb has risen to prominence in the global north as an anti-modernist thinker and Islamic fundamentalist following the events of 9/11. Qutb’s political theory has often been conflated with the terrorism of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, whose jihadist projects similarly sought to renew Islam and establish an Islamic state under Shari’ah law. Qutb also held deeply conservative beliefs about the role of women in the family, arguing that their role is to rear children and keep the home (though he did acknowledge that women could participate in education and work). Yet there are emancipatory aspects of Qutb’s political thought that should not be overlooked. Qutb’s critique of modernity mirrors decolonial studies’ claim that secularism was a colonial tool used to dismiss religious forms of knowledge as inferior (Quijano, 2010). Such arguments have allowed Indigenous groups to affirm the value of their own systems of knowledge against the universalism of Enlightenment thought.
Calvert, John. (2010). Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, New York: Columbia University Press.
Euben, Roxanne & Zaman, Qasim. (2009) Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (eds), Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Quijano, Anibal. (2010) Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” in Cultural Studies, Vol. 21, No.2.
Mignolo, Walter. (2000) Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledge’s and Border Thinking, Princeton: Princeton University Press.