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Sayyid Qutb: terrorism and the origins of militant Islam

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) is widely accepted, not only as one of "the spiritual leaders of radical Islamism",(1) but as "the architect of worldwide jihad".(2) Qutb´s influence has been profound. His thinking has provided the motivation and legitimizing ideology behind 9/11 and other recent terrorist attacks on the west. François Burgat, in his book Face to Face with Political Islam (2003) reminds us how Qutb´s "single shadow covers every wing [as well as the Jam´iyyat al-Ikhwan al-Mulimin, the Muslin Brotherhood] of the Islamic movement".(3) Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower (2006) suggested that Al-Qaeda would not have come into existence without the influence of Sayyid Qutb.(4) With these points in mind it would be fair to say that a full understanding of Qutb and his ideology is necessary if we are ever to overcome the threat of militant Islam.

Who was Sayyid Qutb?

Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), was born in Egypt in 1906. He first become prominent as a poet and literary critic. However, with growing criticism of the Islamic world and the alleged immorality of the west, Qutb early developed militant views. By the late nineteen-twenties Qutb had become an active member of the Wafdist nationalist party which called for complete independence from Britain, even legitimizing the use of force to achieve this goal.

In 1933, having gained a degree in Arabic language and literature, Qutb worked as a school teacher teaching Arabic. From 1940 Qutb worked in the ministry of education first as supervisor of education, then as an inspector, and later in 1945 becoming the directorate general of Culture.

In 1948-1950 Qutb spent time in America, mainly at Greeley, Colorado State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Colorado where he studied for a Masters degree in Education. Qutb condemned the USA as immoral and materialistic. Being coloured himself he was understandably annoyed at the racism he experienced. As an Arab, he was also angered with American support for the newly formed state of Israel in 1948.(5) While in America Qutb criticized dances held at Church halls where "the atmosphere was full of desire" and the dance floor "replete with enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests". He was offended by the features of the "American girl", the "round breasts, the full buttocks, shapely thighs, sleek legs". In America Qutb observed what he called jumu´ rakidah (harried crowds of people) and qati´ ha´ij (excited herds) characterized by da´arah (immorality) and mujun (shamelessness). In Qutb´s opinion such people were "drowning in dirt and mud".(6) According to the popular media myth Qutb was something of a freak, sexually repressed and over-sensitive. This is a caricature of the man and his thought. The views expressed by Qutb in this instance reflect the views of any "moderate" orthodox Muslim man, or woman, trying to live according to the dictates of Shariah Law.

Lawrence Wright presents the idea that Qutb underwent a spiritual crisis whilst in America, tempted to succumb to the temptations of the American way of life. Such a view is, with respect, pure unfounded speculation which sells books but does little to present the truth. The fact remains that, pace Lawrence and others, Qutb was an ardent dedicated Muslim long before he went to America. His American experience confirmed, rather than gave rise to, his anti-Western views.

Following his return from the United States to Egypt in 1950 Qutb joined the Jam´iyyat al-Ikhwan al-Mulimin {Muslim Brotherhood] becoming a leading spokesman. From 1954, due to his criticisms of the Nasser regime, he spent large parts of the rest of his life in prison, except for a brief period in 1964-5. During these periods of incarceration he was allowed to write producing his classical work Milestones and other polemic works extolling Islam and condemning the western world. Accused of being involved in a failed assassination attempt on President Nasser, Qutb was arrested again in 1965 and executed in the following year.(7)

Qutb´s literary works:

Qutb´ is best known 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). Qutb´s Ma'alim fi'l-tareeq, translated as 'Sign-posts on the Road', or Milestones (1964), influenced a generation of activists, particularly in Egypt. Musallam (2005) is justified in claiming that Milestones, after being translated into many different languages" became "a basic reference for radical vanguard jihadist Islamic groups in the Arab and Muslim worlds in the last forty years".(8) 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 ummah. The religion of Islam, 1962; Islam the religion of the future, 1965; and Characteristics of the Islamic Conception, 1962.

What did Qutb teach?

Qutb´s doctrine of jihad is firmly based on an all pervading critique of western culture. Western society, according to Qutb, was paralyzed by al-fisam al-nakid, "the hideous schizophrenia", the separation of religion from the rest of life. Qutb criticized what he called "the rubbish heap of the West".(9) For Qutb American society, if not western society generally, was characterized by jahiliyyah, "the ignorant ways of thinking which prevail in our world".(10) He defined jahiliyyah as "a psychological state which rejects the guidance of God".(11) "Humanity is today", declared Qutb, "living in a large brothel!". "one has only to take a glance at its [western] press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars, and broadcasting stations!", declared Qutb, " Or observe its mad lust for naked flesh, provocative postures, and sick suggestive statements in literature, the arts and the mass media! And add to all this the system of usury which fuels men´s voracity for money and engenders vile methods for its accumulation and investment, in addition to fraud, trickery and blackmail dressed up in the garb of law".(12)

The whole world is jahili: barbaric, ignorant, corrupt

"The whole world", proclaimed Qutb, "is steeped in jahiliyyah", a "jahiliyyah . . . based on rebellion against God´s hakimiyyah [sovereignty] on earth".(13) All societies, including those claiming to be Muslim, were regarded by Qutb as mujtama´at jahiliyyah (pagan societies). In Milestones (1964), and elsewhere, he argued that this global jahiliyyah "denotes rejection of the divinity of God and the adulation of mortals". Qutb emphasized the concept of ´ubudiyyah, the divinity of Allah and the servitude of mankind to Him. However modern society, he reasoned, "transfers to man one of the greatest attributes of God, namely hakimiyyah and makes some men lords over others".(14)

Sovereignty belongs to God alone, not man

"All sovereignty belongs to God alone", declares Qutb, "there is no law other than God´s law; all authority belongs to God".(15) "Islam", he maintained, "cannot accept any compromise with jahiliyyah, either in its concept or in its modes of living derived from this concept". As such "either Islam will remain, or jahiliyyah; Islam cannot accept or agree to a situation which is half-Islam and half-jahiliyyah. In this respect", continues Qutb, "Islam´s stand is very clear. It says that truth is one and cannot be divided; if it is not the truth, than it must be falsehood. The Sharia´h of Allah will prevail, or else people´s desires".(16) As such argues Qutb, "man is at the crossroads and that is the choice: Islam or jahiliyyah".(17) For Allah to take his rightful place as hakim in society, and for Sharia´h to be implemented, there is therefore, according to Qutb, the need to remove all "jahili influences". According to Qutb Islam is being undermined by "Zionist and Christian neo-crusader trickery"(18), in which western states "establish systems and regimes which give themselves a superficial Islamic colour and which pay lip-service to Islam".(19)

The superiority; all-suffiency and ultimate victory of Islam

Qutb has influenced the Islamist worldview in many ways, particularly in the idea of cosmic dualism, the inexorable fight between truth and untruth, the ideological struggle between the Muslim world and the world of unbelief. For Qutb the outcome of this struggle was inevitable: the triumph of Islam and the establishment of a Sharia´h based society where Allah was sovereign. This eschatological tension provides the back cloth for the ideology of jihad.

In his commentary on the Quran, Qutb stated that "the whole world in the eyes of Islam is divided into two, the first is darul-Islam, and the second is darul-harb".(20) This, as one recent writer remarked, "is the prism through which Qutb viewed the political systems of the world, dividing them into Islam and jahiliyyah".(21) Darul-Islam is where Sharia´h law prevails. Darul-harb is "any land where the Kufr law is dominant even if everybody in the land is Muslim".(22) In contrast to darul-harb, (depraved societies usurping the sovereignty of God), Qutb concluded that a true Islamic society is "a superior haven of moral values and clean, healthy relationships".(23) Islam therefore is regarded as the ultimate panacea for all social, economic and political problems.(24)

Jihad can be waged against Muslim rulers

Qutb, in Milestones, taught that Muslims and Muslim rulers who fail to implement God´s laws are takfir [apostate], they live in a state of jahiliyya [ignorance] and must be opposed. In regarding such rulers as takfiri Qutb revived and popularized the thought of the Medieval jurist Ibn Taymiyya. This idea has influenced the rise of contemporary takfiri militants who use this doctrine to legitimize the killing of Muslim by Muslim for alleged apostasy.(25) In contrast to Abul Ala Mawdudi [1903-1979], who advocated the establishment of "Allah´s law in Allah´s land" by a gradualist methodology of infiltration into both secular and nominal Muslim lands, Qutb declared direct, immediate action against jahili and takfiri states.

Traditionally it was argued from the Quran and hadith that for a Muslim to call another Muslim takfiri, was an un-Islamic act. Qutb, however, regarding modern secular Muslim rulers as "pedlars of modernity" accused them of being guilty of ridda, apostasy, and therefore, in his opinion they were takfir (excommunicated) and could be justifiably opposed. In making this claim Qutb influenced the emergence of contemporary militant Islam and gave such jihadis legitimization for the killing of Muslim by Muslim for alleged apostasy.

"Setting up the kingdom of God on earth", suggests Qutb, "and eliminating the kingdom of man, means taking power from the hands of its human usurpers and restoring it to God alone . . . . and creating the supremacy of the Sharia´h alone and the repeal of all man-made laws". Qutb insisted that such "liberation" would occur in "stages" until all of society had submitted to the hakimiyyah of Allah. This would involve struggling to assert the tawhid [righteousness] of God and the implementation of a process of Islamization involving inter alia the defense of Muslims to "freely practice Islamic beliefs" even if it entails the use of arms. Each believer, argues Qutb, must realize the manhaj Allah, [the way of Allah] in all areas of life and al-Manhaj al-Ilahi, the Divine plan. There must be mujahadah, a struggle by believers, to establish the truth of Islam. Qutb argued that Muslims must "deliver blows at the political forces [Muslim or kufr] that make men the slaves of something that is not Allah". He exhorts Muslims to "kill every leader who looks for fame, wealth, power and social station". He demands that Muslims must get "rid of the yoke of the jahili ways current in our time, which dominate our minds".

What is jihad?

Qutb, rejecting the notion of jihad merely as a defensive mechanism and the idea of jihad as merely an inner struggle for self righteouseness as argued by many Muslim scholars, affirmed the developmental idea of jihad in the Quran, the idea put forward by Ibn Ishaq, that Muhammad received revelations on jihad in three stages: tolerance, defensive and aggressive. Offensive warfare was now the divine fiat so as to establish the hegemony of Sharia´h law. Qutb argued that such jihad is mandatory on all Muslims. According to the Qutbian system Jihad (either violent or non-violent) is the means by which "´all Satanic forces´ are abolished and God´s hakimiyyah is established on earth".(26).As jahili societies will always be in opposition to Islam Jihad for Qutb has two primary functions: the defense of the right of Muslims to believe and live by principles of Islam and also the struggle to establish Allah´s sovereignty worldwide. In Qutb´s opinion, to reduce jihad to self-defence is to ´diminish the greatness of the Islamic way of life´ and leaves open the possibility that mankind will be left "on the whole earth in evil, in chaos and in servitude to lords other than God".

What Quranic support did Qutb have for his views?

Qutb, like other Islamic militants, found considerable support in the Quran to support his jihadi views. Apparently ignoring the context and exegesis of the passage, frequent reference is made by Qutb to the sword verse of surah nine and the command for Muslims to "fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war".(27) Adopting a similar hermeneutical approach to the Quranic text, using texts from surah three, Qutb argued that kufr could not be trusted as they are "ignorant pagans" who "tell a lie against Allah".(28) Quoting from surah eight Qutb states that Muslims are under a duty to warn kufr to "desist (from unbelief)", but if they persist the believer should "fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression and there prevails justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere". The merits of personal sacrifice were, in Qutb´s opinion, enjoined by the words of surah 9:111 which states how "Allah hath brought from the believers their lives and their wealth because the Garden will be theirs: they shall fight in the way of Allah and shall slay and be slain". He encourages his co-religionists by reminding them "be sure that Allah is your protector. He is best to protect and the best to help".(29) Regarding such Quranic texts as a "clear" mandate for jihad, Qutb maintains that "´taking the initiative" in such matters is of the "very nature of Islam".(30)

The seditious remnant working within society to undermine it

In order to start the task of reviving Islam Qutb advocated the idea of the tali´a, or vanguard. "We are the ummah of the believers, living within a jahili society", announced Qutb. "Nothing relates us to state or society and we owe no allegiance to either. As a community of believers we should see ourselves in a state of war with the state and the society. The territory we dwell in is darul-harb". Qutb, influenced by the Marxist concept of the vanguard preparing for the revolution when the proletariat would rise up against the bourgeoisie, put forward the idea of the tali´a or ´usbah, the faithful remnant which would work within society to establish the divine hakimiyyah.

Qutb stressed the importance of the ´usba mu´mina, (a body of believers), the al-safwa al-mukhtara (the chosen elite), a vanguard of "true" Muslims, dedicated to Allah and the establishment of Sharia´h world-wide.(31) Despite the corrupting influence of jahili, Qutb believed that "a minority of people in the vast area of the Muslim world, remain undeluded [by secularism] and cannot be brought round to accept unfaith as an image of Islam".(32) These "young men", argues Qutb, "who believed in their Lord" are entrusted with the task of removing jahiliyyah society and establishing Sharia´h and the hakimiyyah of God. Qutb maintained that manhaj, the Muslim plan, necessitates the tali´a practicing mufassala or al-Uzlah al-Shu´uriyyah (separation from the host secular society)) and hijra (migration). By this he meant spiritual separation whilst stilling living in western communities rather than physical separation. Having performed da´wa, this leads inexorably to jihad, the "struggle" to implement God´s new society on earth.

Ideas for discussion:

The idea that everything changed with Qutb on his visit to the US in 1948, and that Qutb the mainstream Muslim became Qutb the fanatic, is a myth perpetuated by writers keen to sell books rather than present the truth. Qutb showed militant tendencies before he went to the States. His visit to America, rather than turn him into a militant fanatic confirmed his abhorance of western lifestyle and culture. He wrote his first Islamist book, Social Justice in Islam (1949) work of which had been researched before he left Egypt in 1948. Much of Qutb´s social theorizing can be seen in the twelve issues of al-Fikr al-Jadid (The New thought) published between Jamuary and March 1948; and later in Social Justice in Islam, completed before he departed for America in 1948. As early as 1938, in one of his poems called "on the Palestinian Arabs during the Palestine Arab revolt" (1936-39) Qutb called on his fellow Muslims to continue on the path of bloody struggle as the only way to achieve independence. Before his visit to America Qutb was quoted as criticizing the scantily dressed sunbathers who visited the Egyptian beaches.

Qutb is often portrayed as a crank, a misfit, crippled by sexual repression. This is a caricature of the man. The description he gave of American culture in The America I have seen is merely the description which any orthodox Muslim would give of a society which does not live up to Shariah law.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has argued that the militancy behind 9/11 was not confined to jihadists but is at the very core of Islam itself. Similarly she argues that "Sayyid Qutb didn´t invent anything, he just quoted the sayings of Mohammed." This raises the question Is there a difference between Islam and Islamism or is Islamism just Islam in its most pure form?

Is Qutb´s teaching on jihad, and the connected notion of the "government of God", a distortion of Islam, a mis-representation of Islamic belief, or a picture of true Islam?

Dr Simon Ross Valentine is currently undertaking research at the University of Bradford, UK, on the contribution of Qutb, Mawdudi and Azzam to contemporary jihadist ideology. He is available for consultancy or conference work and can be contacted on archegos@btinternet.com

References

(1) F. Burgat, (2003) Face to face with political Islam: I. B. Taurus, London, p. 54.
(2) J. Raban, (2001) "Truly, Madly, Deeply devout", article first appeared in the New Yorker, republished in The Guardian, Saturday Review, 2 March 2002.
(3) Burgat, op.cit., p. 55.
(4) L. Wright (2006) The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda´s road to 9/11, London, Penguin, p. 332.
(5) See Qutb´s Letters from America in al-Risala, Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Nov/December 1971.
(6) A quote taken from Milestones which clearly refers to his experience in America.
(7) For information on Qutb see E. Van Donzel, B. Lewis & C. Pellat (1978) eds. Encyclopeadia of Islam, Leiden: E. J. Brill, vol. VI, sv "Qutb". For in-depth biographical details of Qutb see the objective account provided by A. A. Musallam, (2005) From secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the foundations of Radical Islamism, Westport, Connecticut, Praeger; and the more hagiographical study by S. B. Hassan, (1980) Sayed Qutb Shaheed, n.p., Karachi. An account of Qutb´s childhood is found in his autobiographical piece (1946), translated by J. Calvert & W. Shepherd, (2004) A Child from the village, by Sayyid Qutb, New York, Syracuse University.
(8) A. Musallam, (2005) From secularism to Jihad:op.cit., p. 156.
(9) See Milestones, op.cit., p 139.
(10) Qutb, Fi Zilal al Quran, In the shade of the Quran, rev ed. 6 vols., Dar-ul Sharuq, Beirut and Cairo, 1981, vol. 1.,op.cit., pp. 510-11.
(11) Qutb, Milestones, op.cit., p. 11.
(12) Qutb, ibid., pp. 510-11.
(13) Ibid., pp. 510-11.
(14) Ibid., p. 511.
(15) Milestones, ibid., p. 14.
(16) Milestones, op.cit., pp. 101-102, 112.
(17) Qutb, In the shade of the Quran, see comment on sura 5:44-48.
(18) See In the Shade of the Quran, ibid., 37-8, Al-Anam.
(19) Qutb ibid., 37-8, Al-Anam.
(20) Qutb, In the Shade of the Qur´an, op.cit vol. 2 p. 874.
(21) S. Khatab, "Hakimiyyah and Jahiliyyah in the thought of Sayyid Qutb", op.cit., p. 147.
(22) Qutb, In the Shade of the Quran, op.cit vol. 2 p. 875.
(23) Qutb cited by Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism, op.cit., p. 127.
(24) See Al-´Adalah al-Ijtima´iyyah fi al-Islam (Social justice in Islam); Ma´arakat al-Islam wa-l- Ra´smaliyyah ("The struggle between Islam and Capitalism" 1951) and Al-salam al-´ASlami wa –l Islam (World peace and Islam, 1951) passim.
(25) Milestones, op.cit. For a concise evaluation of Qutb´s political views see C. Tripp, ´Sayyid Qutb: the political vision´, chapter seven in A. Rahnema, Pioneers in Islamic Revival, Studies in Islamic society, London: Zed Books, 2005, pp. 154-83.
(26) Milestones, ibid.
(27) Quran 9:5. Milestones, ibid., pp. 125-27.
(28) Quran 3:74-6, ibid., 126.
(29) Quran 8:38-40.
(30) Milestones, op.,cit., p. 133.
(31) In (1955) Islam and the problems of civilization, np; also see In the shade of the Quran, op.cit., vol., 4., pp 114f.
(32) Milestones, op.cit., p. 39.

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