Sayyid Qutb Profile and Biography

Father of Modern Islamic Extremism

Dome of mosque at dusk
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While barely known in the United States, Sayyid Qutb is the one man who could be considered the ideological grandfather of Osama bin Laden and the other extremists who surround him.

Visiting the United States

Although Sayyid Qutb started out as a literary critic, he became radicalized on a trip to the United States. Qutb traveled through America from 1948 to 1950, and was shocked at the moral and spiritual degeneracy he observed, stating that "No one is more distant than the Americans from spirituality and piety." This is something that would probably surprise Christian fundamentalists, who look upon this time quite fondly.

Not even American churches escaped his angry notice, and in his narratives he relates this incident:

Every young man took the hand of a young woman. And these were the young men and women who had just been singing their hymns! Red and blue lights, with only a few white lamps, illuminated the dance floor. The room became a confusion of feet and legs: arms twisted around hips; lips met lips; chests pressed together.

It was partially due to such experiences that Qutb came to reject everything about the West, including democracy and nationalism. The United States at that time was, politically and socially, perhaps at the height of the West. Because it was so bad, he concluded that nothing the West had to offer was particularly good.

Signposts on the Road

Unfortunately for him, the Egyptian government at that time was very pro-Western, and his new views brought him into conflict with the current regime. Like so many other young radicals, he was thrown in prison, where deprivation and torture were the norm. It was there, horrified by the barbarism of the camp guards, that he probably lost hope that the current regime could be called "Muslim."

Yet he had a lot of time to think about religion and society, allowing him to develop some of the most important modern ideological concepts which Islamic extremists still use. Because of this, Qutb wrote the widely influential book Malim if al-Tariq, "Signposts on the Road" (often simply called "Signposts") in which he made his case that social systems were either Nizam Islami (truly Islamic) or Nizam Jahi (pre-Islamic ignorance and barbarism).

This colored the world in stark terms of black or white; still, his immediate focus was Egypt, not the world at large, so the fact that the Egyptian government seemed to be squarely on the Nizam Jahi side determined the direction of his efforts for the remainder of his life. Qutb's role was important, because there had been an ideological vacuum in the Muslim Brotherhood since its leader Hasan al-Banna had been assassinated in 1949, and in 1952, Qutb was elected to the leadership council of the Brotherhood.

One of the most important things Sayyid Qutb wrote about was his explanation of how a Muslim might justly assassinate a ruler. For a long time, killing political rulers was expressly forbidden in Islam - even an unjust ruler was regarded as better than the anarchy of no ruler. Instead, the religious leaders of the ulama (Islamic scholars) were expected to keep the rulers in line.

But to Qutb, that obviously wasn't happening, and he found a way around it. According to him, the ruler of a Muslim nation who doesn't implement Islamic law is not really a Muslim. That being the case, they aren't really a Muslim ruler any more, but rather an infidel. This means that they can be killed with impunity:

Thus, a society whose legislation does not rest on divine law (shari'at allah) is not Muslim, however ardently its individuals may proclaim themselves Muslim, even if they pray, fast, and make the pilgrimage.

But he did not simply make this up on his own. Like Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, founder of Pakistans radical Jamaat-i-Islami, Qutb relied on the writings of Ibn Taymiya (1268-1328), who argued the same thing during a time when the Mongols were attacking Islam, and many Muslims were forced to live under Mongol rulers. His equation of Taymiyya's political struggles with his own problems with the Nasser regime was risky because, in Islamic tradition, any Muslim who falsely accuses another of being an infidel could end up in hell.

Jahiliyya in Qutb's Ideology

An important conerstone of Sayyid Qutbs work was his use of the Islamic concept of jahiliyya. This term is used in Islam to characterize the days before Muhammad's revelation, and before him it primarily just meant "ignorance" (of Islam). But after him, it also acquired more explicitily the concept of "barbarism" (due to a lack of Islamic principles):

...jahiliyya... takes the form of claiming the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behavior, and to choose any way of life that rests with me, without regard to what God has prescribed.

For fundamentalists, one of the primarily religious values is the sovereignty of God: God created everything and has absolute rights to it all. But secular society violates that sovereignty by creating new rules which override the wishes of God. According to Qutb, any non-Muslim society qualifies as jahiliyya because Allah is not sovereign - instead, men and their laws are sovereign, replacing Allah in his rightful place.

By expanding the use of this term to include even his own contemporary society, Qutb neatly gave an Islamic justification to revolution and sedition. For Qutb, this revolution was jihad, but he didn't mean it simply in a violent manner. For him, jihad meant the entire process of first, spiritual maturation of individuals and, later, battle against a repressive regime:

How must the Islamic resurrection begin? A vanguard must resolve to set it in motion in the midst of jahiliyya that now reigns over the entire earth. That vanguard must be able to decide when to withdraw from and when to seek contact with the jahiliyya that surrounds it.

Qutb thus brought about a new way for modern Muslims, dissatisfied with their condition, to look at society. He provided an ideological framework in which they could use principles of Islam, rather than Western categories like capitlaism, socialism, democracy, etc., in order to fight against an unjust government.

The Influence of Qutb

This framework later bore fruit when President Sadat was assassinated in 1981. The group responsible was Jama'at al-Jihad ("Society of Struggle"), started and run by Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who felt that the organization had become too passive. He wrote a short book called "The Neglected Obligation" (​al-Farida al-Gha'ibah), which relied heavily on Qutb's ideas.

Like Qutb, Faraj argued that acceptance of a government was only possible and legitimate when that government fully implemented shari'a, or Islamic law. Contemporary Egypt had not done that, and was thus characterized as suffering from jahiliyya. Faraj makes his case that jihad is not only the "negelected obligation" of Muslims, but in fact one of their most important duties.

Why? Because the lack of jihad is responsible for the current situation of Muslims in the world. Their social, economic and political woes are due to the fact that they have forgotten what it means to be Muslims, and as well as how to fight against the infidels. Words and preaching won't be enough, because only force and violence can destroy "idols."

A member of this group, 24-year-old artillery lieutenant Khalid Ahmed Shawki al-Islambuli, and four other members shot Sadat while he was reviewing a military parade. At the time, al-Islambuli shouted "I have killed Pharoh," a reference to the fact that they considered Sadat a non-Muslim leader. During his trial, he said "I am guilty of killing the unbeliever and I am proud of it."

The five men were all executed, but today, Muhammad al-Islambuli, the brother of President Sadat's assassin, has been living in Afghanistan and working with Osama bin Laden. Another member of that group was Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is today Osama bin Laden's second-in-command. But al-Zawahiri only spent three years in prison after he was convicted and has only become more radical in his views.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Sayyid Qutb Profile and Biography." Learn Religions, Jan. 18, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, January 18). Sayyid Qutb Profile and Biography. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Sayyid Qutb Profile and Biography." Learn Religions. (accessed January 22, 2021).