Sayyid Qutb behind bars in an Egyptian prison
|Born||October 9, 1906, Mūshā, Egypt|
|Died||August 29, 1966 (aged 59)|
|Main interests||Islam, Politics, Quranic exegesis (tafsir)|
|Notable ideas||Jahiliyyah, Ubudiyya|
|Works||Milestones, In the Shade of the Quran|
Author of 24 books, including novels, literary arts’ critique and works on education, he is best known in the Muslim world for his work on what he believed to be the social and political role of Islam, particularly in his books Social Justice and Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones). His magnum opus, Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the shade of the Qur'an), is a 30-volume commentary on the Qur'an.
During most of his life, Qutb's inner circle mainly consisted of influential politicians, intellectuals, poets and literary figures, both of his age and of the preceding generation. By the mid-1940s, many of his writings were officially among the curricula of schools, colleges and universities.
Even though most of his observations and criticism were leveled at the Muslim world, Qutb is also known for his intense disapproval of the society and culture of the United States,which he saw as obsessed with materialism, violence, and sexual pleasures. Views on Qutb vary widely. He has been described by some as a great artist and martyr for Islam, but by many Western observers as one who shaped the ideas of Islamists and particularly of groups such as Al Qaeda. Today, his supporters are identified as Qutbists or "Qutbi" (by their opponents, not by themselves).
Life and public career
Early childhoodQutb was raised in the Egyptian village of Musha, located in Upper Egypt's Asyut Province. His father was a landowner and the family estate's administrator, but he was also well known for his political activism, holding weekly meetings to discuss the political events and Qur'anic recitation. At this young age, Sayyid Qutb first learned about melodic recitations of the Qur'an, which would fuel the artistic side of his personality. In his teens, Qutb was critical of the religious institutions with which he came into contact, holding in contempt the way in which those institutions were used to form public opinion and thoughts. He had a special disdain, however, for schools that specialized in religious studies only, and sought to prove that locals school that held regular academic classes as well as religion were more beneficial than the unevenness of the religious school program. At this time, Qutb developed his bent against the imams and their traditional understanding of education, which would be the standard of confrontation throughout his life.
He moved to Cairo, where he could receive an education based on the British style of schooling, 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 helped to elevate 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 its educational system, spending several months at Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley, 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 in the West.
Though Islam gave him much peace and contentment, he suffered from respiratory and other health problems throughout his life and was known for "his introvertedness, isolation, depression and concern." In appearance, he was "pale with sleepy eyes." Qutb never married, in part because of his steadfast religious convictions. While the urban Egyptian society he lived in was becoming more Westernized, Qutb believed that 'the current ideas of the society and its prevalent traditions apply great pressure - back-breaking pressure, especially in the case of women; the Muslim woman is really under extreme and oppressive pressure'. Qutb joked to his readers that he was never able to find a woman and had to reconcile himself to bachelorhood.
It was clear from his childhood that Qutb valued education, playing the part of a teacher to the women in his village:
Syed Qutb from a young age would save up his money for a man called Amsaalih, who used to sell books around the local villages. He would have a big collection of books, and another small collection specifically for Syed Qutb. If Syed never had the money, he would tell him that I don't have the money now, so let me borrow it and I'll give it you next time you come around. And Amsaalih would let him do that. At the age of 12, he had his own library collection of 25 books, even though books were really expensive during that time. He would imitate the scholars by reading the books, and then give lectures to the rest of the village. If any women needed any information, they would wait till Syed Qutb came back from school, and ask him to share the knowledge he had to them. In many occasions he would be shy because he was a young man, but in some occasions he would go and teach the knowledge he had to the people who asked him.
Visit to AmericaThe turning point in Qutb's views resulted from his visit to the United States, where he aimed for further 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., Colorado State College for Education in Greeley, as well as Stanford University. He also traveled extensively, visiting the major cities of the United States and spent time in Europe on the return journey to Egypt.
On his return to Egypt, Qutb published an article entitled "The America that I Have Seen." He was critical of many things he had observed in the United States: its materialism, individual freedoms, economic system, racism, brutal boxing matches, "poor" haircuts, superficiality in conversations and friendships, restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, lack of artistic feeling, "animal-like" mixing of the sexes (which "went on even in churches"), and strong support for the new Israeli state. Hisham Sabrin, noted that:
As a brown person in Greeley, Colorado in the late 40s, studying English he came across much prejudice. He also felt quite appalled by what he perceived as loose sexual openness of American men and women (a far cry by any measure, from Musha, Asyut where he grew up). But, in fact this American experience was not truly a crisis for Qutb, but rather a moment of choice and fine-tuning of his already Islamic identity. He himself tells us on his boat trip over “Should I travel to America, and become flimsy, and ordinary, like those who are satisfied with idle talk and sleep. Or should I distinguish myself with values and spirit. Is there other than Islam that I should be steadfast to in its character and hold on to its instructions, in this life amidst deviant chaos, and the endless means of satisfying animalistic desires, pleasures, and awful sins? I wanted to be the latter man.”.Qutb noted with disapproval the sexuality of American women:
the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.He also commented on the American taste in arts:
The American is primitive in his artistic taste, both in what he enjoys as art and in his own artistic works. “Jazz” music is his music of choice. This is that music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other. The American’s intoxication in “jazz” music does not reach its full completion until the music is accompanied by singing that is just as coarse and obnoxious as the music itself. Meanwhile, the noise of the instruments and the voices mounts, and it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree… The agitation of the multitude increases, and the voices of approval mount, and their palms ring out in vehement, continuous applause that all but deafens the ears.
Return to EgyptQutb concluded that major aspects of American life were primitive and "shocking", a people who were "numb to faith in religion, faith in art, and faith in spiritual values altogether". His experience in the U.S. is believed to have formed in part the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards Islamism upon returning to Egypt. Resigning from the civil service, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s and became editor-in-chief of the Brothers' weekly Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, and later head of its propaganda section, as well as an appointed member of the working committee and of its guidance council, the highest branch in the organization.
Nasser and QutbIn July 1952, Egypt's pro-Western government was overthrown by the nationalist Free Officers Movement headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Both Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the coup against the monarchist government — which they saw as un-Islamic and subservient to British imperialism — and enjoyed a close relationship with the movement prior to and immediately following the coup. Nasser would go the house of Syed Qutb and ask him for ideas about the Revolution. Many members of the Brotherhood expected Nasser to establish an Islamic government. However, the cooperation between the Brotherhood and Free Officers which marked the revolution's success soon soured as it became clear the secular nationalist ideology of Nasserism was incompatible with the Islamism of the Brotherhood.
Nasser had secretly set up an organisation that would sufficiently oppose the Muslim Brotherhood once he came to power. This organisation was called "Tahreer' ("freedom" in Arabic). It was well known that the Brotherhood were made popular by their extensive social programs in Egypt, and Nasser wanted to be ready once he had taken over. At this time, Qutb did not realize Nasser's alternate plans, and would continue to meet with him, sometimes for 12 hours a day, to discuss a post monarch Egypt. Once Qutb realized that Nasser had taken advantage of the secrecy between the Free Officers and the Brotherhood, he promptly quit. Nasser then tried to persuade Qutb by offering him any position he wanted in Egypt except its Kingship, saying:
"We will give you whatever position you want in the government, whether it's the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Arts, etc."Qutb refused every offer, having understood the reality of Nasser's plans.
After the attempted assassination of Nasser in 1954, the Egyptian government used the incident to justify a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, imprisoning Qutb and many others for their vocal opposition to various government policies. During his first three years in prison, conditions were bad and Qutb was tortured. In later years he was allowed more mobility, including the opportunity to write.
This period saw the composition of his two most important works: a commentary of the Qur'an Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), 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 radically anti-secular and anti-Western claims based on his interpretations of the Qur'an, Islamic history, and the social and political problems of Egypt. The school of thought he inspired has become known as Qutbism.
Qutb was let out of prison at the end of 1964 at the behest of the Prime Minister of Iraq, Abdul Salam Arif, for only 8 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 adamantly supported his written statements. The trial culminated in a death sentence for Qutb and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was sentenced to death as the leader of a group planning to assassinate the President and other Egyptian officials and personalities, though he was not the instigator or leader of the actual plot. On 29 August 1966, he was executed by hanging.
Evolution of thought, views and statements
Theological stancesQutb held that belief in matters that cannot be seen (or are imperceptible) was an important sign of man's ability to accept knowledge from fields outside of science:
The concept of the imperceptible is a decisive factor in distinguishing man from animal. Materialist thinking, ancient as well as modern, has tended to drag man back to an irrational existence, with no room for the spiritual, where everything is determined by sensory means alone. What is peddled as 'progressive thought' is no more than dismal regression.
SecularismDifferent theories have been advanced as to why Qutb turned away from his secularist tendencies towards Islamic Sharia. 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 is that Qutb's experiences in America as a darker-skinned person and the insufficiently anti-Western policies of Nasser demonstrated to him the powerful and dangerous allure of ignorance (jahiliyyah) — a threat unimaginable, in Qutb's estimation, to the secular mind. Two excerpts of the opening of his book Milestones contain the following view:
It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable.
Finally, Qutb offered his own explanation in Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq, arguing that anything non-Islamic was evil and corrupt, while following Sharia as a complete system extending into all aspects of life, would bring every kind of benefit to humanity, from personal and social peace, to the "treasures" of the universe.Democracy in the West has become infertile to such an extent that it is borrowing from the systems of the Eastern bloc, especially in the economic system, under the name of socialism. It is the same with the Eastern bloc. Its social theories, foremost among which is Marxism, in the beginning attracted not only a large number of people from the East but also from the West, as it was a way of life based on a creed. But now Marxism is defeated on the plane of thought, and if it is stated that not a single nation in the world is truly Marxist, it will not be an exaggeration. On the whole this theory conflicts with man's nature and its needs. This ideology prospers only in a degenerate society or in a society which has become cowed as a result of some form of prolonged dictatorship. But now, even under these circumstances, its materialistic economic system is failing, although this was the only foundation on which its structure was based. Russia, which is the leader of the communist countries, is itself suffering from shortages of food. Although during the times of the Tsars Russia used to produce surplus food, it now has to import food from abroad and has to sell its reserves of gold for this purpose. The main reason for this is the failure of the system of collective farming, or, one can say, the failure of a system which is against human nature.
In general, Qutb's experiences as an Egyptian Muslim—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, superstition, 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-Taswiir 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 hermeneutics 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 declarations of Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq.
Late in his life, Qutb synthesized his personal experiences and intellectual development in the famous Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq, a religious and political manifesto for what he believed was a true Islamic system. It was also in this text that Qutb condemned Muslim governments, such as Abdul Nasser's regime in Egypt, as secular with their legitimacy based on human (and thus corrupt), rather than divine authority. This work, more than any other, established Qutb as one of, if not the premier Islamists of the 20th century.
Events that led from secularism to IslamQutb told people of his shift from secularism to Islam.
His journey started when he studied the Qur'an in a literal way, and he slowly began to understand the principles lined in the religion. Then something happened to him in America to remove his doubts. He says; that while he was going to America, he was on the boat (ferry), and he saw the way the boat he was travelling in - was rocking in the huge sea – all under the control of Allah without it sinking or capsizing. At that point he realized the power of Allah. He said Iman (belief) entered into his heart due to this. His second scenario was in San Francisco, when he went on top of a mountain, and he could see the whole of creation in front of him, and he realized the beauty and harmony that existed amongst the creation as a whole. He said that, the sweetness of Iman hit him.
On the issue of Islamic governance, Qutb differed with many modernist and reformist Muslims who claimed democracy was Islamic because the Quranic institution of Shura supported elections and democracy. Qutb pointed out that the Shura chapter of the Qur'an was revealed during the Mekkan period, and therefore, it does not deal with the problem of government. It makes no reference to elections and calls only for the ruler to consult some of the ruled, as a particular case of the general rule of Shura.
Qutb also opposed the then popular ideology of Arab nationalism, having become disillusioned with the 1952 Nasser Revolution after having been exposed to the regime's practices of arbitrary arrest, torture, and deadly violence during his imprisonment.
View on harmony of manQutb felt strongly that the world was meant to serve man if understood properly. He wrote:
"Islam teaches that God created the physical world and all its forces for man's own use and benefit. Man is specifically taught and directed to study the world around him, discover its potential and utilize all his environment for his own good and the good of his fellow humans. Any harm that man suffers at the hands of nature is a result only of his ignorance or lack of understanding of it and of the laws governing it. The more man learns about nature, the more peaceful and harmonious his relationship with nature and the environment. Hence, the notion of "conquering nature" can readily be seen as cynical and negative. Its is alien to Islamic perceptions and betrays a shameless ignorance of the spirit in which the world has been created and the divine wisdom that underlies it."
Jahiliyyah versus freedomThis exposure to abuse of power undoubtedly contributed to the ideas in his famous prison-written Islamic manifesto Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones), where he advocated a political system the opposite of dictatorship—i.e. one with no government. There Qutb argued:
- Much of the Muslim world approaches the Qur'an as a means to simply acquire culture and information, to participate in academic discussions and enjoyment. This evades the real purpose, for rather, it should be approached as a means to change society, to remove man from the enslavement of other men to the servitude of God.
- Rather than support rule by a pious few, (whether a dictator(s) or democratically elected), Muslims should resist any system where men are in "servitude to other men"—i.e. obey other men—as un-Islamic and a violation of God's sovereignty (Hakamiyya) over all of creation. A truly Islamic polity would have no rulers—not even have theocratic ones—since Muslims would need neither judges nor police to obey divine law. It was what one observer has called "a kind of anarcho-Islam."
- The way to bring about this freedom was for a revolutionary vanguard. to fight jahiliyyah with a twofold approach: preaching, and abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system by "physical power and Jihad."
- The vanguard movement would grow with preaching and jihad until it formed a truly Islamic community, then spread throughout the Islamic homeland and finally throughout the entire world, attaining leadership of humanity. While those who had been "defeated by the attacks of the treacherous Orientalists!" might define jihad "narrowly" as defensive, Islamically correct Jihad (according to Qutb) was in fact offensive, not defensive.
Reformist Muslims, on the other hand, questioned his understanding of sharia, i.e. that it is not only perfect and complete, but completely accessible to people and thus the solution to any of their problems. Also criticized is his dismissal of not only all non-Muslim culture, but many centuries of Muslim learning, culture and beauty following the first four caliphs as un-Islamic and thus worthless.
Conservative/puritan criticism went further, condemning Qutb's Islamist/reformist ideas—such as social justice and redistributive economics, banning of slavery,—as "western" and bid'ah or innovative (innovations to Islam being forbidden ipso facto). They have accused Qutb of amateur scholarship, overuse of ijtihad, innovation in Ijma (which Qutb felt should not be limited to scholars, but should be conducted by all Muslims), declaring unlawful what Allah has made lawful, assorted mistakes in aqeedah (belief) and manhaj (methodology).
LegacyAlongside notable Islamists like Maulana Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, and Ruhollah Khomeini, Qutb is considered one of the most influential Muslim thinkers or activists of the modern era, not only for his ideas but for what some consider his heroic martyr's death. According to authors Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, "it was Sayyid Qutb who fused together the core elements of modern Islamism: the Kharijites' takfir, ibn Taymiyya's fatwas and policy prescriptions, Rashid Rida's salafism, Maududi's concept of the contemporary jahiliyya and Hassan al-Banna's political activism."
His written works are still widely available and have been translated into many Western languages. Qutb's best known work is Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones), but 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)
The influence of his work extends to issues such as Westernization, modernization, and political reform and 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.
Qutb's theoretical work on Islamic advocacy, social justice and education, has left a significant mark on the Muslim Brotherhood (at least outside of Egypt).
Al Qaeda and Islamic JihadQutb had influence on Islamic insurgent/terror groups in Egypt and elsewhere. His influence on Al Qaeda was felt through his writing, his followers and especially through his brother, Muhammad Qutb, who moved to Saudi Arabia following his release from prison in Egypt and became a professor of Islamic Studies and edited, published and promoted his brother Sayyid's work.
One of Muhammad Qutb's students and later an ardent follower was Ayman Zawahiri, who went on to become a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and later a mentor of Osama bin Laden and a leading member of al-Qaeda. Zawahiri was first introduced to Qutb by his uncle and maternal family patriarch, Mafouz Azzam, who was very close to Qutb throughout his life. Azzam was Qutb's student, then protégé, then personal lawyer and executor of his estate — one of the last people to see Qutb before his execution. According to Lawrence Wright, who interviewed Azzam, "young Ayman al-Zawahiri heard again and again from his beloved uncle Mahfouz about the purity of Qutb's character and the torment he had endured in prison." Zawahiri paid homage to Qutb in his work Knights under the Prophet's Banner.
While imprisoned in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki became influenced by the works of Qutb. He would read 150–200 pages a day of Qutb's works, describing himself during the course of his reading as "so immersed with the author I would feel Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly.”
On the other hand, associate professor of history at Creighton University, John Calvert, states that "the Al Qaeda threat" has "monopolized and distorted our understanding" of Qutb's "real contribution to contemporary Islamism."
- Mahammat al-Sha'ir fi'l-Hayah wa Shi'r al-Jil al-Hadir (The Task of the Poet in Life and the Poetry of the Contemporary Generation), 1933
- al-Shati al-Majhul (The Unknown Beach), 1935
- Naqd Kitab: Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr (Critique of a Book by Taha Husain: the Future of Culture in Egypt), 1939
- Al-Taswir al-Fanni fi'l-Qu'ran (Artistic Imagery in the Qur'an), 1945
- Al-Atyaf al-Arba'a (The Four Apparitions), 1945
- Tifl min al-Qarya (A Child from the Village), 1946
- Al-Madina al-Mashura (The Enchanted City), 1946
- Kutub wa Shakhsiyyat (Books and Personalities), 1946
- Askwak (Thorns), 1947
- Mashahid al-Qiyama fi'l-Qur'an (Aspects of Resurrection in the Qu'ran), 1946
- Al-Naqd al-Adabi: Usuluhu wa Manahijuhu (Literary Criticism: Its Foundation and Methods'), 1948
- Al-Adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi'l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), 1949
- Ma'rakat al-Islam wa'l-Ra's Maliyya (The Battle Between Islam and Capitalism), 1951
- Al-Salam al-'Alami wa'l-Islam (World Peace and Islam), 1951
- Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), first installment 1954
- Dirasat Islamiyya (Islamic Studies), 1953
- Hadha'l-Din (This Religion is Islam), n.d. (after 1954)
- Al-Mustaqbal li-hadha'l-Din (The Future of This Religion), n.d. (after 1954)
- Khasais al-Tasawwur al-Islami wa Muqawamatuhu (The Characteristics and Values of Islamic Conduct), 1960
- Al-Islam wa Mushkilat al-Hadara (Islam and the Problems of Civilization), n.d. (after 1954)
- Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq (Signposts on the Road, or Milestones), 1964 (Reviewed by Yvonne Ridley)
- Basic Principles of Islamic Worldview
- The Islamic Concept and Its Characteristics
- Islam and universal peace (Source: wikipedia )