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QUTB, SAYYID (9 October 1906–29 August 1966), more fully, Sayyid Qutb Ibrahim Husayn Shadhili, literary critic, novelist, poet, Islamic thinker, and Egypt’s most famous Islamic activist of the twentieth century, exceeding in reputation even the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Husan al-Banna’ (1906-1949). His passionate writings contain powerful images of the maladies of contemporary Islamic societies and an idealization of the faith through the words of the sacred texts. In his overall standing as an Islamic thinker and activist, he may be compared with Turkey’s Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1873-196o), Pakistan’s Abu al-A’la Mawdudi (19031979), and Iran’s ‘Ali Shari`ati (1933-1977) and Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902-1989).
Life. Born on 9 October 1906 in the village of Musha near the city of Asyut in Upper Egypt, Qutb was partly of Indian extraction. He was the oldest of five children, two brothers and three sisters. His father, al-Hajj Qutb Ibrahim, was a member of Mustafa Kamil’s Nationalist Party (al-Hizb al-Watani) and a subscriber to its newspaper, The Banner (AZ-lived’). Qutb’s family was in economic decline at the time of his birth, but it remained prestigious owing to his father’s educated status.
Qutb was a frail child, which may have influenced his tendencies toward deep spirituality. He is reported to have memorized the entire Qur’an by the age of ten. Although he attended the village kuttab (religious school), he soon transferred to the government school, from which he graduated in 1918. Qutb moved to alHulwan (a suburb of Cairo) in either 1919 or 1921. He is said to have lived with a journalist uncle from 1921 until 1925, enrolled in a teacher’s training college in 1925, and graduated in 1928. He apparently attended classes informally in 1928 and 1929 at the Dar al-`Ulum (established in 1872 as a modern Egyptian university on the Western model). In 193o he was formally admitted to this institution and graduated in 1933 with a B.A. in arts education. In recognition of his accomplishments, he was appointed instructor at the Dar al-`Ulum, but he mainly earned his living between 1933 and 1951 as an employee of the Ministry of Education, where he later held the post of inspector for some years.
During the 1930s, Qutb wrote works of fiction, literary criticism, and poetry. He was influenced by such modernists as Taha Husayn, `Abbas al-`Aqad, and Ahmad al-Zayyat. Al-`Agqad in particular introduced him to editors of various newspapers, and he wrote scores of articles over the course of his career for the Egyptian press. Taha Husayn, who was a major adviser of the Ministry of Education, also encouraged him, at one time introducing his lectures to the Officers’ Club after the July 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy. However, Qutb turned against both al-`Aqqad, whose writings he deemed overly intellectualized, and Husayn, on account of his Western orientations. Eventually, Qutb left the Ministry of Education owing to disagreements with the government’s educational policies as well as its submissiveness to the British. Qutb joined the opposition Wafd Party of Sa’d Zaghlul but eventually abandoned it to enter the breakaway Sadist Party on its emergence in 1937, only to break with it in turn in 1942.
In 1948, still in the ministry’s employ, Qutb was dispatched to the United States to study Western methods of education. He studied at Wilson’s Teachers’ College (currently, the University of the District of Columbia), at the University of Northern Colorado’s Teachers’ College, where he earned an M. A. in education, and at Stanford University.
Qutb spent about three years abroad, leaving America in summer 195o and visiting England, Switzerland, and Italy on his way back to Egypt in 1951. His trip to the United States was a defining moment for him, marking a transition from literary and educational pursuits to intense religious commitment. Although he acknowledged the economic and scientific achievements of American society, Qutb was appalled by its racism, sexual permissiveness, and pro-Zionism.
Back in Egypt, Qutb refused a promotion to adviser in the Ministry of Education and began writing articles for various newspapers on social and political themes. In 1953, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood and was appointed editor of its weekly paper, Al-ikhwdn almuslimun. Not long afterward, he became the director of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Propaganda Section and was chosen to serve on its highest bodies, the Working Committee and the Guidance Council.
It is said that Qutb was a key liaison between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers, who overthrew the monarchy in 1952-some of them, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, visited his house just before the coup, and Qutb was the sole civilian to attend meetings of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) after the seizure of power. He agreed to be an adviser to the RCC on cultural matters and briefly headed the Liberation Rally, the government-sponsored mass-mobilization organization.
However, relations between the Free Officers and the brotherhood soon deteriorated as it became clear that each side had a different agenda. The brotherhood called for a referendum on the new constitution, anticipating that Egyptians would demand an Islamic fundamental law, but the RCC refused. The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the RCC’s agreement with Britain in July 1954 to end the occupation because that agreement allowed the British to return their troops within seven years if they perceived a threat to their interests. The brotherhood demanded a plebiscite on the agreement, but it, too, was rejected out of hand. A tense standoff prevailed until October 1954, when shots were fired at Nasser during a speech.
The Muslim Brotherhood has always maintained that this incident was a provocation engineered deliberately by the Free Officers to justify a sweeping crackdown against it. Qutb, whom the regime had already detained for three months in early 1954, and then released, was caught in the net of arrests. Although he suffered from poor health, Qutb was brutally tortured. In May 1955 he was transferred to the prison hospital. In July, the court sentenced him to fifteen years in prison, most of which he spent in the hospital. He witnessed continued torture against his colleagues in jail, with perhaps the worst episode occurring in 1957 when more than a score of the Muslim Brotherhood inmates were killed outright and dozens injured. Accordingly, Qutb set in motion ideas for the creation of a disciplined secret cadre of devoted followers whose task originally was limited to self-defense. Without declaring it publicly, however, Qutb came to believe in using violence against the government if it used force against his organization. Still later, he came to the view that violence was justified even if the regime were merely deemed unjust and refused to alter its behavior.
Owing to intervention by Iraqi president `Abd alSalam `Arif, Qutb was released in May 1964. But in August 1965, he was rearrested on charges of terrorism and sedition. The trial was a fiasco. The authorities initially permitted media coverage, but when the defendants talked about their torture, the proceedings were held behind closed doors. Incontrovertible evidence against Qutb was apparently not presented, as his revolutionary tract, Ma’alim ft al-tariq (Milestones; 1964)the chief document on which the prosecutors relieddid not explicitly call for armed overthrow of the state. Rather, it urged resistance by turning away from existing society and creating a model ummah (community of believers) which eventually would establish true Islam. Despite great international pressure, the government executed Qutb and two colleagues on 29 August 1966. Ever since, he has been regarded as a martyr by his supporters.
Thought. Perhaps more than any other post-World War II Sunni Muslim thinker, Sayyid Qutb personifies the determination of Islamist movements to oppose both the West and leaders in Islamic societies whom they see to be disregarding Allah’s law. Qutb regarded the leaders of Islamic societies of which he disapproved, and the societies that went along with them, to be living in a state of jahiliyah (lit., ignorance of revelation’s truths), which can be considered anything that is inimical to Islam. His most important political work, Milestones, contains trenchant attacks against jahiliyah, which he perceives to pervade contemporary life throughout the Islamic world. [See Jahiliyah] Qutb’s writings have been translated into Persian, Turkish, Urdu, English, and other languages. Their availability in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s is a matter of public record. Indeed, ‘Ali Khamene’i, who was to succeed Khomeini as the “revolutionary leader,” translated into Persian parts of Qutb’s Qur’anic commentary, Fi zildl al-Qur’dn (In the Shade of the Qur’an).
Qutb’s writings show his uncompromising commitment to the sacred text. It is self-evident to Qutb that if the Qur’an contains a message, then human beings must implement that message. Qutb was so clear on this in his own mind that it never occurred to him that Muslims, living in historical time, reinterpret their traditions and their past in the context of their contemporary historical circumstances. Qutb plainly held the view that Islam is a timeless body of ideas and practices. Thus, there is no excuse, in his mind, for people’s failure to adhere to it. This failure is a matter of brazen, selfconscious refusal. to accept God’s word and not a question of hermeneutical discourse.
Qutb thought of Islam as a comprehensive way of life. Islam thus provides model solutions to all aspects of human existence. In his most sustained exposition of his views, Khasd’is al-tasawwur al-Islami wa-muqawwimatuh (The Characteristics and Constitutive Elements of the Islamic Conception; 1962), Qutb elaborates on the themes of the oneness of Allah, Allah’s divine nature, the permanence of Allah’s order, its all-encompassing nature, the balanced interplay between what can be known and what must remain unknown, the positive quality of Allah’s construction of the universe, and the real, practical engagement by man in this universe. It is sufficient to say here that ultimately these qualities range Islam, in Qutb’s perspective, along an axis of social commitment and activism.
One key to Qutb’s overall social and political program is its organicism and connotations of corporatism. This is interesting in view of his explicit rejection of Greek thought and Islamic Neoplatonic philosophy, themselves steeped in corporate and organic assumptions about society. More specifically, Qutb believes that Muslims cohere in a quiddity which he calls al-tajammu’ al-haraki (“dynamic concrescence”). This entity is in fact the embodiment of the ummah, which is reified into a living organism with attributes of thought and behavior. The success of this dynamic concrescence lies in its acceptance of the trust given to it by Allah to master the world and benefit from its resources, but the purpose of this mastery is to obey the sovereign commands, the hakimiyah, of Allah. Qutb holds that although the dynamic concrescence is a very real phenomenon acting in society and the world, and that it experiences change, has practical purposes, and is thoroughly enmeshed in the immediacy of everyday existence, the sources for its existence and behavior lie entirely outside itself and are rooted in revelation (cf. esp. Binder, 1988, pp. 178179)
Qutb is not an advocate of the majesty of human reason. The apprehension of knowledge is not a matter of intellectual activity but of the reception of truths that are absolutely divine in their origins. In his perspective, the workings of discursive logic or inductive analysis are not necessary for, and are actually inimical to, the triumph of mankind in Allah’s universe. Rather, that triumph is vouchsafed by the ability and willingness of the human mind to absorb self-evident truths whose secrets are unlocked by divine texts.
Reflecting the ideas of Mawdudi, Qutb focused on the so-called hakimiyah verses of the Qur’an (5.44, 45, and 47): “those who do not judge according to what Allah has revealed are unbelievers . . . oppressors . . . sinners.” Qutb, in what his opponents regard to be a reprehensible innovation (bid `ah), given centuries of precedent set by commentators on the Qur’an, reinterpreted these verses by changing the meaning of the verb yahkumu from “judge” to “rule,” thereby implicitly sanctioning collective action to dismiss a ruler who failed to apply Allah’s revelations. Muslims who are actively engaged in the dynamic community of faith are thus mandated not only to apply Allah’s laws as he has revealed them, but they are authorized and even commanded to replace any leaders who fail to do so. Invoking authoritative opinions of jurists from earlier centuries, especially those of Tag! al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) against the Mongol ruler of the time, Qutb and his supporters came to the view that Islam made armed resistance to nominally Muslim rulers who were deemed to be anti-Islamic not only permissible or laudatory but mandatory.
Among the movements that Qutb’s writings have inspired are the Egyptian groups known as al-Fanniyah al`Askariyah (The Technical Military Academy Group), Jama’at al-Takfir wa al-Hijrah (Pronouncing Unbelief Upon Infidels and Emigration to Islam), al-Jihad, the group that claimed responsibility for the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981, and al-Jama’at alIslamiyah (the Islamic Group). A reading of The Absent Precept (Al faridah al-gha’ibah) (1 98 t ), the pamphlet written by Muhammad `Abd al-Salam Faraj, and the revolutionary pronunciamento of Al jihad, reflects alJihad’s indebtedness to Qutb’s ideas about jahiliyah, hakimiyah, and jihdd. Groups outside Egypt have claimed the Qutb legacy as well. His writings are frequently read by Sunni opposition groups, such as the Jabhat al-Inqadh al-Islami (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria, the Tunisian Islamic Tendency Movement (alIttijah al-Islami; now called the Hizb al-Nahdah), and the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, Syria, and Jordan, and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Shi’i groups, including Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Hizb alDa’wah in Iraq, and even the Iranian clerical establishment have taken certain cues from Qutb, although they disagree with him on the question of leadership. It can thus be concluded that Qutb’s role in inspiring Islamic revivalist movements since the late 1960s might be even greater than that of Ayatollah Khomeini. [All of the groups named above are the subject of independent entries. For al-Jihad, see Jihad Organizations.]
Ultimately, Qutb’s worldview rests on a manifest ahistoricity. He is not interested in a historically grounded analysis of the development of law in Islam, for example. Rather, one finds repeated references to the primary sacred texts, overwhelmingly the Qur’an, and to a much lesser extent the hadiths Qutb does not acknowledge that Qur’anic and hadith texts might not be selfevident and that, as they are interpreted over the centuries, people might come to different conclusions as to their meanings.
The tone of his writings is exhortatory and didactic. As a professional educator, Qutb stresses the pedagogic role of the tutor instructing students in the verities of the true faith. The enemy is at the gates in the form of international neo-Crusaders seeking to destroy the identity of the Muslims and domestic despots who set up their own laws in defiance of what Allah has revealed. Although Qutb witnessed first hand the scientific and technological advances of the West, he regarded the West as spiritually bankrupt and implacably opposed to Islam. He attacked Marxism as tantamount to the enslavement of human beings.
Despite this unreconstructed rejection of Western thought, Qutb, as is often the case with other twentiethcentury Islamic thinkers, does not hesitate to invoke concepts rooted in the Western tradition. He does not acknowledge the Western provenance of such ideas, reaching into the early Islamic period to argue that they in fact are endemic to Islam, but in fact, many of these concepts derive either from the ancient Greek tradition or otherwise emanate from the period of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and its aftermath.
An example of Western roots to Qutb’s thought can be seen in his concept of democracy. No Arabic word for this term exists, so the cognate al-dimuqratiyah has been devised. Despite Qutb’s sensitivity to language issues, he never asks why Muslims use the word in this Western cognate form. Qutb is satisfied to find two brief references to shura (“consultation”) in the Qur’an (3.159 and 42.38) from which he constructs an edifice or system that he refers to as “democracy.” Although commentators of the Qur’an for centuries have understood these two verses to mean something different from the modern notion of political democracy in its twin attributes of individual freedom and social equality as institutionalized in representative bodies endowed with sovereign authority, Qutb is not deterred from vindicating the Islamic roots of democracy. [See Democracy.]
The same can be said of social justice. It was not until the twentieth century that the phrase al-`adalah alijtima’iyah (“social justice”) was even used by jurists in Islamic law, although medieval writers, such as Abu Bakr al-Turtushi (d. 1127), Najm al-Din al-Tfifi (d. 1316), Ibn Taymiyah, and Abu Zayd `Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun (d. 14o6), focused on the justice and the injustice of rulers and the requirement that the state pursue justice to ensure the maslahah (general interest) of the Muslims. [See Maslahah.] Qutb’s method is to find verses in the Qur’an referring to Allah bidding people to “justice” (16.90) or verses pertaining to the perfection of Allah’s words in “justice” (6.115). The view of justice that emerges from the scripture is a highly abstract and idealized interpretation of what can be termed “divine justice,” perceived without regard to social reality.
By contrast, social justice, as understood in modern discourse, comes from the tradition of natural law and the philosophy of law, which are anthropocentric. The very phrase “social justice” implies equity considerations in the context of the development of human societies in historical time, rather than a reified category which is theocentric at its very core. Accordingly, the phrase “social justice,” so important for Qutb, contains within it the subversion of his project, which is based on the belief that truth is to be found immediately in revelation, not by reference to human endeavors in history. [See Justice, article on Social Justice.]
Notwithstanding, as would be the case with Shari`ati, a critique of Qutb that remains at this level misses the point. His advocacy of revolutionary change to restore a pure Islamic order has resonated powerfully among those disgusted with the system that the leaders of the Muslim world have erected. Qutb’s evocations and invocations of concepts that seemingly come from Western traditions are apparently one of the ironies of the Islamic resurgence that has inhered during the last generation. But the measure of Qutb’s contributions will no doubt be the impact that he has had in the past two or three decades among Islamists as the nonpareil exemplar of collective protest against those deemed to be the enemies of Islam.


Barakat, Muhammad Tawfiq. Sayyid Qutb: Khuldsat hayatihi, manhajuhu ft al-Harakah, al-Naqd al-Muwajjah Ilayh (Sayyid Qutb: A Summary of His Life, the Dynamics of His Method, and a Critique). Beirut, 197?. Particularly useful for certain biographical information.
Binder, Leonard. “The Religious Aesthetic of Sayyid Qutb.” In Islamic Liberalism, pp. 170-205. Chicago, 1988. Sophisticated and incisive analysis of Qutb’s writing in the context of a sympathetic critique of the liberal dimension in contemporary Muslim thought. Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “The Qur’anic Justification for an Islamic Revolution: The View of Sayyid Qutb.” Middle East Journal 37.1 (Winter 1983): 14-29. Important essay delineating Qutb’s political activism by reference to the sacred texts of Islam.
Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, . pp. 67-98. New York and Oxford, 1983. Assessment of Qutb’s writings in the broader context of activist Islamist movements.
Jansen, J. J. G. The Neglected Duty. New York and London, 1986. Noteworthy work that includes an assessment of the ideas of the “al-Jihad” organization, focusing on their revolutionary tract, AIFaridah al-Ghd’ibah, itself influenced by Qutb’s ideas.
Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh. Berkeley, 1985. Contains important information on Islamic groups influenced by Qutb’s ideas.
Khalid-i, Salah `Abd al-Fattah. Sayyid Qutb, al-Shahid al-Hayy (Sayyid Qutb, the Living Martyr). Amman, 1981. One of the most reliable works on Qutb’s life.
Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London, 1969. Classic work on the Muslim Brotherhood, including references to Qutb’s role.
Moussalli, Abroad S. Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb. Beirut, 1992. Sustained analysis of Qutb’s ideas by a keen observer, stressing the progressiveness of Qutb’s writings in the context of fundamentalist and modernist thought.
Qutb, Muhammad `All. Sayyid Qutb: Al-Shahid al-A’zal (Sayyid Qutb: The Unarmed Martyr). Cairo, 1974. Appreciation of Qutb’s work by his brother.
Sivan, Emmanuel. Radical Islam. New Haven, 1985. Places the thought of contemporary radical Islamists in the context of the history of ideas.

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/qutb-sayyid/

  • writerPosted On: July 9, 2017
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