The Islam of Sayyid Qutb: A Comparison to Classical Thought
During the time of Western expansion in the Middle East, the identity of the general Middle Eastern population went through a number of changes that would later influence how the region viewed the Western world. Sayyid Qutb grew up in the Middle East in the early twentieth century as the region was establishing its identity, struggling to meld the traditional and modern. Qutb became a vocal opponent of Western society and worked to persuade Muslims everywhere of the need to return to tradition, reject Western culture, and devote themselves to God. Although his radical views ultimately brought about his execution, his death did little to stop the spread of his ideas, which were soon adopted by Islamist terrorist groups across the Middle East. Though Qutb refers to some of the earliest Islamic Prophetic Sunnah to make his points, the overall message of his Milestones does not agree with the Classical Islamic sources. By looking at the Qur’an, Quranic commentary, Hadith, and other sources of the Islamic Prophetic tradition, it can be shown that Qutb’s views are not Islamic.
A Short Biography of Sayyid Qutb
In 1906, in the Egyptian village of Musha, Sayyid Qutb was born into a well-respected, educated family. His father, Qutb Ibrahim, was a farmer and a political activist in the local branch of the Egyptian Nationalist Party. His mother, Fatimah, was a very devout Muslim who encouraged him to obtain a good education and memorize the Qur’an, which he accomplished by the age of ten. During the 1919 revolt in Egypt, Qutb’s primary school was closed, and his family soon moved to Cairo. He was later enrolled in a preparatory school in Cairo and then enrolled at Dar al-‘Ulum in 1929, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts of Education.
During his years in Cairo, Qutb composed poetry and wrote essays that were published in Egyptian journals, including al-Hayat al-Jadidah (“The New Life”) and al-Balagh (“Proclamation”). At the age of nineteen, Sayyid Qutb published his earliest poem in al-Balagh, in which he attacked British policies and defended Egypt’s current leader, Sa’d Zaghlul. Qutb distinguished himself in his field and upon his graduation was employed at the university as an instructor. Following that, he worked in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. In 1939, Qutb began pursuing a career in literary criticism, which brought him back to the Qur’an. At this point, he started to examine the Qur’an beyond its religious qualities and to contemplate it as a book of law.
Qutb’s hatred of Western ideology became more prominent. He thought the Middle East’s imitation of the West’s replacement of moral and religious values with modern inventions and material possession was a mistake. His hatred of the West intensified in 1942 when President Truman began supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Sayyid Qutb further solidified his distaste for Western society in 1948, when he enrolled at the International Center for Teaching Languages in Washington, D.C. and then at the Colorado State College of Education. Qutb visited the United States at the emergence of the sexual revolution, a period marked by great debate on morality, love, sex, and relationships. Qutb grew uncomfortable during his time in the United States, and deepened his disapproval of American values.
Qutb also joined church groups to observe how Americans worshipped God. He noted that the church functioned primarily as a place to meet with friends, not as a place of worship. Both genders worshipped together, and churches competed to attract parishioners. In his book Amrika allati Ra’aytu, he expresses disgust for a priest who promoted fun and dancing at a church event, believing the priest acted merely as stage manager. When Qutb returned to Egypt, his career plans had changed:
“Two events in particular from his sojourn in the United States made him entertain joining the Muslim Brethren. The first was ‘the happy and joyous American reception’ in 1949 of the assassination of Hasan al-Bannā, the founder of the Muslim Brethren. The second was meeting with a ‘British agent,’ identified by Qutb as James Heyworth-Dunne, who told him that the Muslim Brethren was the only movement that stood as a barrier to Western civilization in the East. Dunne also showed Qutb ‘intelligence reports’ on al-Banna and his organization.”
After joining the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s, Qutb became the chief managing editor of the weekly Brotherhood journal, which was banned in 1954 on suspicions of conspiracy. A majority of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Qutb, was jailed, and the organization lost followers, even though the court could not find enough evidence to convict the members of the Brotherhood.
Qutb spent the rest of his life working with the Muslim Brotherhood and publishing his radical Islamic books. Much of his work on the Qur’an was written during his time in prison. Upon his release in 1964, he gained approximately one hundred followers, and together, they worked to plan the assassination of major Egyptian governmental figureheads, as well as the destruction of national infrastructure. After being arrested for these activities, Qutb and other leaders within the Muslim Brotherhood were hanged in 1966. Qutb’s execution marked the government’s move to curtail the spread of his ideas and of the Muslim Brotherhood. This plan backfired, angering the extended family of Qutb, increasing the number of others, and inspiring Qutb’s followers to publish his works. His brother Muhammad Qutb fled Egypt and began teaching Sayyid’s works in Saudi Arabia. Qutb’s ideas were widely read and implemented by radical Islamists, including Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘Abdallah Azzam, and more.
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