Sayyid Qutb
The Pole Star of Egyptian Salafism

NameSayyid Qutb (1906-1966)
Also Known AsSyed, Sayyed, Sayed Qutb.
BiographySayyid Qutb was one of the most important figures in the development of jihadi Salafi ideology. Despite coming from a slum area along the Nile Valley, Qutb enjoyed both a Western education and an Islamic education, a typical background for a Salafi intellectual.
Through his life Qutb followed a trajectory from optimism to dark pessimism about the prospects of smoothly reconciling Western ideas and Islamic ideals. Early in his career, he admired many aspects of Western civilisation. He accepted science, technology and rationalism, but was adamant they must not supercede the sovereignty of Allah.1 Although some writers consider Qutb to be simply antithetical to modernity,2 others such as Roxanne Euben3 have recognised his attempts to synthesise elements of Christianity (particularly the reformation) and Communism with a modified Islam. He promoted the idea of pan-Islamic state, governed exclusively through Sharia (Islamic law), as an idea whose time had come, in an age of extranational ideologies. He said:

"The whole world today coalesces in large ideological formations predicated on doctrines and beliefs. Striving towards Islamic unity is, hence, much more in the spirit of the times we live in."4
1 Sivan, p25.
2 Sivan, Radical Islam, p27.
3 Euben, Enemy in the Mirror, p96.
4 Police interview with Sayyid Qutb, quoted in Sivan, p32.
Qutb in AmericaQutb was an admirer of America until, in his capacity as an employee of the Egyptian education department, he travelled to America in 1948, remaining until 1951. The decadence he perceived during this trip had such an impact that on his return to Egypt, he joined Hassan al-Banna's revolutionary Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood, MB), losing his Education Ministry post in the process. In describing this life choice, Qutb said, "I was born in 1951".55 Sivan, p22. Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt, pp40-41.
Sayyid Qutb was to become a prominent intellectual in the vaccuum that followed al-Banna's death and the 1952 Free Officer's Coup,6 elaborating on ideas derived from Maulana Maududi, whom he had met in Cairo7 and by whose books he was greatly influenced. In particular, Qutb's final and most influential book, Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq (Milestones on the Road), was clearly influenced by Maududi's 1941 book, al-Mustalahat al-Arab'a fi'l-Qur'an (The Four Arabic Technical Terms of the Qu'ran).8 6 Kepel, p37.
7 Sivan, p65.
8 Kepel, pp47-49.
By the time of the Free Officers' Coup which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy on 22nd July 1952, Qutb was the head of the MB's propaganda department.9 Although the new Free Officers set out to establish a one-party state based on pan-Arab nationalism, the MB was exempted from the ban on political parties on the basis that it was a social or cultural organisation. The pan-Arabist Free Officers and the pan-Islamists of the MB felt their causes were compatible, at least to an extent.9 Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism, p42. Hussain, Political Terrorism and the State in the Middle East, p80.
In the new regime, Qutb was given the position of Cultural Advisor to the Revolutionary Command Council. However, he resigned in 1952 over the regime's refusal to establish an Islamic State.10 While some members of the MB cooperated with the Free Officers, in 1954 the MB was formally banned, and later that year a MB member attempted to assassinate President Gamal Abd'el Nasser.11 As the MB was repressed and its members imprisoned and tortured, the organisation began to separate into factions delineated along ideological/methodological faultlines that had been latent in the organisation.1210 Euben, Enemy in the Mirror, p60.
11 Kepel, pp26-27.
12 Choueiri, p43. Sivan, p40.
MilestonesQutb wrote prolifically, particularly in prison. His master work, Fi Zhalil al-Quran (In the Shadow of the Quran), a commentary (tafsir)13 on the Quran, is an enormous, multi-volume work that has yet to be fully translated into English. However, Qutb's most influential work was Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq (Milestones/Signposts on the Road).13 The question whether Zhalil qualifies as a tafsir is debatable, as some mainstream scholars feel it lacks rigour.
14 Qutb, Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq, Chapter 2 or alternative host.
AnalysisQutb wrote Milestones against a background of torture and betrayal during his periods of imprisonment. The book is simultaneously an analysis and a call to arms. Qutb believes that the creative energy of the West is spent, with the systems of the West bankrupt and drawing on Marxist models which themselves have failed. Drawing on Maududi's theories, Qutb asserts that all contemporary societies have reverted to a state of jahiliyya or pre-Islamic ignorance, in which the authority and primacy of God has been replaced by other sources of authority. Qutb pointedly draws comparisons between the alleged state of the Arabian Peninsula at the time of Muhammad (ruled by dictators on behalf of foreign powers) and its state in the 20th Century.14
StagesIn true Salafi style, Qutb re-analysed the Quran to find a new ideology. He looked at the course of action Muhammad and his jamaat (movement) took in the face of their own jahili society. He stated that God had revealed his plan to Muhammad in a specific sequence (hence 'Milestones' or 'Signposts' on the Road), which the contemporary jamaat needed to follow if it was to restore the Muslim world to its past glory. In the process Qutb raised several alternative courses of action Muhammad could have taken, but did not, neatly dismissing the equivalent policy proposals taken by contemporary revolutionary groups in Egypt - pan-Arab nationalism, programmes of social welfare in order to convert the masses (the da'wa wing of the MB), and movements of moral re-armament.1515 Qutb, Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq, Chapter 2 or alternative host.
For Qutb, the awakening of a single individual to 'True Islam' would lead naturally to the awakening of others and the formation of a jama'at (movement), which would separate itself from jahili society, culture and institutions, while also maintaining some (unspecified) connections. The jama'at would be a necessary prior stage to the establishment of a community, which itself would be the necessary precursor to the establishment of actual rules flowing from the Quranic revelation.
According to Maududi's and Qutb's interpretation, Muhammad (and other prophets) had endured a period of persecution and weakness when they set themselves apart from society and declared that all authority was due to Allah alone (thus challenging the human wielders of power). Qutb predicted that the contemporary jama'at would also encounter a period of weakness as it built itself. He alluded to Muhammad's hijra (migration) to Yathrib (Medina), leading to the establishment of the Islamic community, at the invitation of the Ansar (helpers). Qutb said that the contemporary jama'at would need to follow this lead, establishing a community then engaging in jihad (struggle) in various forms against jahili society until 'True Islam' gained sway.1616 Kepel, pp44-46. Zeidan, The Islamist View of Life as a Perennial Battle, in Rubin and Rubin, p14.
Milestones essentially represented a new way of thinking about political change by using a particular Salafist interpretation of the Quran as a manual for revolution. It was intended to be the first in a number of volumes, however its publication led to Qutb's arrest and imprisonment and in 1966 he was executed by Nasser's regime.17 In the wake of Qutb's death, there was confusion amongst Muslim Brothers over the interpretation of Milestones. Some played down its implications, claiming that the terms hijra, separation mufassala or I'tizal and jihad were used metaphorically, while many youth took the book literally. The latter category accepted Qutb's (really Maududi's) premise that contemporary society and State were jahili or kufr (infidel), and therefore constituted the takfiri18 category of Salafism. This is the main defining line within Salafism to this day. Within the takfiri camp, there was also disagreement over whether the hijra and mufassala involved physical or spiritual withdrawal from society.19 Questions of this sort have formed the framework for much of the debate within Salafi circles ever since. 17 Kepel, p42.
18 Takfir - to 'make kufr', or excommunicate. 'Takfiris' claim that the regime, or most Muslims, are not genuinely Muslims but are instead jahili infidels.
19 Kepel, pp74-75. Sivan pp85-86.
ConclusionIn the Arabic language, qutb means pole star, or the pivot around which all else rotates. This has proven an appropriate epithet for Sayyid Qutb's relationship to Salafis in Egypt and elsewhere.
Although many ideas attributed to Sayyid Qutb originated with Maulana Maududi, Qutb's role in the radicalisation of Egyptian Salafism was of central importance. The ideological distinctions between such seminal figures as Shukri Mustafa, Muhammad Abd'us-Salaam Faraj and Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri are differences in the application of ideas that originate with Sayyid Qutb.

AuthorTrevor Stanley

  • Young Muslims (Canada): Articles about Sayyed Qutb.
  • Contemporary Africa Database: Sayyid Qutb profile.
  • Great Muslims of the 20th Century: Sayyid Qutb by Dr. Ahmed El-Kadi.
  • Online Islamic Bookstore: Sayyid Qutb - biography and bookshop; Qutb's books can be purchased here.
  • History of the Middle East Database: Sayyid Qutb - biography by Ted Thornton.
  • al-Ustaadh Sayyid Qutb and his uncompromising stance on the Truth from (Sheikh) Ahmad Fareed's book Mawaaqif Imaaniyah:
  • The Guardian: Is this the man who inspired Bin Laden?, by Robert Irwin, 1st November 2001.
  • Sayyid Qutb Biography and Profile.
  • Religioscope: Sayyid Qutb and his Influence, interview with Professor Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, 8 November 2001.
  • Al Manhaj: Concerning Sayyid Qutb, Saalih Al-Munajjid and Al-Maghraawee, by Shaikh Usaamah Al-Qoosee, 16/04/2001. Salafist answers obscure questions relating to Qutb and others.
  • [PDF format]: Thesis on Sayyid Qutb.
  • Muslimedia: Remembering Sayyid Qutb by Zafar Bangash.
  • PWHCE recommends page two of Lawrence Wright's historical biography of Ayman al-Zawahiri, which gives an insight into Sayyed Qutb's ideological development.
  • Publications
  • Milestones (full text) (1964). Also translated as 'Signposts on the Road'. Original Arabic title: Ma'alim fi'l-tareeq. Mirror. Introduction as text file.
  • In the Shade of the Koran (1952) (excerpted chapters) Mirrors: 1 2) - a longer text produced by Qutb during his imprisonment, consisting of commentary on the Koran. Only some volumes have been translated into English. It is notable that the Farsi version was translated by Ayatollah Khamenei. Arabic title: Fi Zhalil al-Quran.
  • Studies in Islam (Dirasat Islamiyya).
  • Social Justice in Islam (1949), (Aladalah Alijtima’eyyah Fil-Islam).
  • The Battle of Islam and Capitalism (1950).
  • Islam and the Problems of Civilisation (1962).
  • The Islamic Concept And Its Characteristics (1962) (Dar Ihya al-Kutub al-'Arabiyya).
  • The Religion of Islam
  • Acknowledgement.
  • Articles
  • Paving the Way
  • The Right to Judge
  • What Are the Arabs Without Islam?
  • A Muslim's Nationality and His Belief
  • The Misunderstood Path
  • The Nature of Faith
  • The Civilised Family System
  • The Everlasting Reward
  • Bibliography
  • Zohurul Bari, Re-Emergence of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Lancers Books, New Delhi, 1995.
  • Richard Bulliet and Fawaz A. Gerges (general editors), A Recruiting Tape of Osama bin Laden: Excerpts and Analyses.
  • Youssef M Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism, revised edition, Pinter (Cassell), London, 1997.
  • Roxanne L. Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism, a work of Comparative Political Theory, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999.
  • Asaf Hussain, Political Terrorism and the State in the Middle East, Mansell Publishing Limited, London and New York, 1988.
  • Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh, translated from the French by Jon Rothschild, University of California Press, London and Berkeley, 1985.
  • Usama bin Laden, The Dishonest Clerics, MEMRI, September 2003.
  • Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin (editors), Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.
  • Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics, enlarged edition, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.
  • Trevor Stanley, The Quest for Caliphate: Islamist Innovation from Qutb to al-Qaeda, Honours Thesis, La Trobe University, Bundoora (Melbourne), 2003.
  • See AlsoMaulana Maududi, Hassan al-Banna, Shukri Mustafa, Usama bin Laden, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, Muhammad abd al-Salaam sFaraj, Mullah Krekar, Al-Qaeda's Revolutionary Model, The Evolution of al-Qaeda.

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    Copyright ©2003-2005 Trevor Stanley, PWHCE