Sayyid Qutb: The Philosophical Foundation for Modern Jihadism

CEP Research Analyst


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As the forefather of modern jihadism, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) profoundly influenced virtually every ‘Islamic’ extremist group operating today. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the diverse jihadist movement cites Qutb more frequently than any other modern author. Esteemed Egyptian political commentator Aly Salem writes, “It is not an exaggeration to say that Qutb is to Islamism what Karl Marx is to communism.”

So who is Sayyid Qutb? In one respect, he is one of the most provocative and controversial Islamic writers in history. Qutb is responsible for the concept of “new jahiliya,” the idea that the modern world exists in a deplorable state of barbaric ignorance akin to the pre-Islamic societies as described in the Qur’an. He is also responsible for theorizing the solution to jahiliya by introducing the concept of “offensive jihad,” as well as conveniently resurrecting the excommunication practice of takfir, in order to sanction the killing of uncooperative Muslims.

In The Looming Tower, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright probes the human side of the contentious theologian. In it, Qutb is revealed as an “alone and unconsoled” middle-aged man whose “dearest relationship… was that with his mother, Fatima.” One failed relationship dissuades Qutb from ever marrying any of the “dishonorable” women he encounters, Wright concludes. Nonetheless, Qutb “still enjoyed women—he was close to his three sisters—but their sexuality threatened him.” Wright’s portrait reveals a man who was capable of memorizing the Qur’an by the age of 10, yet clearly struggled, especially with the corporeal aspects of relationships with women. On his 1948-1950 trip to America Qutb writes proudly of closing the door in the face of a woman who propositioned him, saying, “I heard her fall on the wooden floor outside and realized that she was drunk. I instantly thanked God for defeating my temptation and allowing me to stick to my morals.”

In describing the overarching torment he feels from American women, Qutb writes, “A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless.” Charming.

The arc of modern jihadist groups has today overshadowed their ideological origins from within the mind of Sayyid Qutb. The ability to recruit young people to violent  groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda today seems to rely less overtly on theological arguments championed by Qutb than on the ability to tweet pictures of violence and encourage people to “put the chicken wings down and come to jihad, bro.” In this culture, women and young girls are recruited under the banner of “sex jihad” or jihad al-niqah, and an implicit promise of a future filled with romance, adventure and violence.

However, anyone who seeks a true glimpse into the ascetic future that awaits them before they go ahead and drop the chicken wings need look no further than the bleak and repressed example of their ideological inspiration.