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, studying for 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 overseas.
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 the Quran taught women that `Men are the managers of women's affairs. Qutb lamented to his readers that he was never able to find a woman of sufficient "moral purity and discretion" and had to reconcile himself to bachelorhood.
Qutb was extremely critical of many things in the United States: its materialism, individual freedom, economic system, racism, brutal boxing matches, "poor" haircuts, triviality, restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, "animal-like" mixing of the sexes (which went on even in churches), and lack of support for the Palestinian struggle. In an article published in Egypt after his travels, he noted with disapproval the sexuality of Americans. Qutb's impression of America and Americans was drawn from his short stay in Washington DC, and a much longer one while doing graduate work at the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in the small city of Greeley, CO. In1 950.
Return to Egypt
Qutb 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 radicalism upon returning to Egypt. Resigning from the civil service, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950, and became editor-in-chief of the Brothers' weekly Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, and later head of the propaganda section, as well as an appointed member of the Working Committee and of the Guidance Council, the highest branch in the Brotherhood.
In June 1952, Egypt's pro-Western government was overthrown by the nationalist Free Officers Movement headed by Jamal 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. 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's regime refused to ban alcohol, or to implement other aspects of Islamic law.
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 then 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. Qutb 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, Sayyid Qutb was executed by hanging.
Evolution of thought
Different theories have been advanced as to why Qutb, turned from secular reformism in the 1930s to radical Islamism in the 1950s and 1960s (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 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 jahiliyyah — a threat unimaginable, in Qutb's estimation, to the secular mind. However there are indications his feelings about the West had developed about America. On his boat trip to America in 1948 he wrote:
“Should I travel to America, and become flimsy, and ordinary, ... 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? “
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.
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 radical 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.
Whether he espoused dictatorship or later rule by Sharia law with essentially no government at all, defensive jihad or later offensive jihad, Sayyid Qutb's mature political views always centered on Islam — Islam as a complete system of morality, justice and governance, whose Sharia laws and principles should be the sole basis of governance and everything else in life. In an earlier work, Qutb described military jihad as defensive, Islam's campaign to protect itself. 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 argued (at that time) a 'just dictatorship' would be more Islamic. Qutb also opposed the then popular ideology of Arab nationalism, having become disillusioned with the 1952 Nasser Revolution and having been exposed to the regime's practices of arbitrary arrest, torture, and deadly violence during his imprisonment.
Jahiliyyah vs. Freedom
This 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. on with no government. There Qutb argued:
The Muslim world had ceased to be and reverted to pre-Islamic ignorance known as jahiliyyah, because of the lack of sharia law. Consequently all states of the Muslim world are not Islamic and thus illegitimate, including that of his native land Egypt.
Rather than support rule by a pious Muslim(s), (either 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.
Qutb emphasized this struggle would be anything but easy. True Islam would transform every aspect of society, eliminating everything non-Muslim. True Muslims could look forward to lives of "poverty, difficulty, frustration, torment and sacrifice." Jahili erzatz-Muslims, Jews and Westerners would all fight and conspire against Islam and the elimination of jahiliyyah.
Main article: Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq
Among these enemies Qutb was particularly enraged by Jews, whom he saw as a great menace to Islam despite their small numbers. Qutb repeatedly talked of "the wicked opposition of the Jews to Islam," their "conspiracies" and "scheming against Islam" over the centuries.
Although earlier Muslims (Ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi and Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab) had used jahiliyyah to refer to contemporary Muslim societies, no one before Qutb had applied it so widely, nor had such popular response. While Islam had seen many religious revivals urging a return to religious fundamentals throughout its history, Qutb was the first thinker who paired them to a radical, sociopolitical ideology.
Greatly admired by many though Qutb was and is, he also has a variety of critics. Criticism of Qutb's ideas comes from several, sometimes opposite, directions.
- Following the publication of Milestones and the aborted plot against the Nasser government, mainstream Muslims took issue with Qutb's contention that "physical power" and jihad had to be used to overthrow governments, and attack societies, "institutions and traditions" of the Muslim — but according to Qutb jahili — world. The ulema of Al-Azhar University school took the unusual step following his death of putting Sayyid Qutb on their index of heresy, declaring him a "deviant" (munharif).
- 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 mortals 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), and of lack of respect for Islamic traditions, for prophets and for early Muslims. Supporters have also defended him from at least some of these and other charges.
Alongside 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 many consider his heroic martyr's death.
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).
- 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: It's Foundation and Methods'), 1948.