Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian author and the lead theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood. His extremist theories have helped inform the tenets of an ideological movement often referred to by analysts as Qutbism. Born in Asyut Governorate, Egypt, in 1906, Qutb was executed by hanging in 1966. His writings—particularly Milestones and In the Shade of the Quran—are believed to have inspired the leaders of future Islamist terror groups, including al-Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.Dale C. Eikmeier, “Qutbism: An Ideology of Islamic-Fascism,” Parameters: U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2007, 89, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a485995.pdf; Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 36; Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 50.

Qutb memorized the Quran by the age of 10 and completed his secondary education in Cairo. There he worked as a teacher, joined the ministry of education, and wrote novels and essays criticizing Egyptian society. Qutb traveled to the United States in 1948 to study in Washington, D.C., and Greeley, Colorado. Disgusted by what he perceived as the moral bankruptcy of Western society, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood—founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928—upon his return to Egypt in 1950. Through the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb sought to eradicate Western influence from Egyptian society through the application of sharia (Islamic law).Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 9, 18-20, 27-28; Robert Siegel, “Sayyid Qutb’s America,” NPR, May 6, 2003, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1253796; Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 49; Paul Berman, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” New York Times, March 23, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/the-philosopher-of-islamic-terror.html?pagewanted=all.

As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb conspired with the Free Officers—a secular, nationalist, pan-Arab movement headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser—to overthrow the ruler of the British-tied Egyptian monarchy, King Farouk. Nasser reportedly promised Qutb a prominent position in government in the event of a successful coup. According to author Lawrence Wright, after the Free Officers took power in July 1952, Nasser offered Qutb the post of minister of education or general manager of Cairo radio, both of which Qutb turned down. Tension rose between the secular Free Officers and the theocratic Brotherhood, leading to Qutb’s brief, three-month incarceration in early 1953.Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 31-33; Paul Berman, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” New York Times, March 23, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/the-philosopher-of-islamic-terror.html?pagewanted=all; “1952: Egyptian army ousts prime minister,” BBC, accessed April 20, 2016, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/7/newsid_3074000/3074069.stm.

Following his release, Qutb became the editor of the Brotherhood’s magazine, Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin.Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 32. In October 1954, a member of the Brotherhood’s underground military wing (the “secret apparatus”) attempted to assassinate Nasser, leading to a widespread crackdown on the group. Nasser executed the six suspected conspirators and sentenced Qutb to life in prison, charging him with membership in the Brotherhood’s secret apparatus.Paul Berman, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” New York Times, March 23, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/the-philosopher-of-islamic-terror.html?pagewanted=all; Steven A. Cook, “Nearly 60 years ago, Egypt's generals tried to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. It didn’t go well,” Foreign Policy, July 17, 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/07/17/echoes-of-nasser/.

Qutb grew extremely ill during his first year in prison, prompting the court to reduce his life sentence to 15 years. He was moved to the prison hospital for the remainder of his incarceration, where he wrote his seminal works, including Milestones and In the Shade of the Quran. Qutb’s friends and family smuggled sections of Milestones from the prison. It was published in 1964 before being quickly banned.Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 34-35.

In Milestones, Qutb re-popularized the Islamic concept of takfir, by which Muslims serving a secular ruler are rendered apostates and thus legitimate targets of execution. Qutb also wrote about jahiliyya, Arabia’s pagan existence prior to the divine message of the Prophet Mohammad. Qutb argued that the world was in a state of modern jahiliyya, and that Muslims were living as blindly and ignorantly as pagans in pre-Islamic Arabia. According to Qutb, this affliction could only be corrected by the implementation of sharia, brought about by offensive jihad. Takfir thus served as the legal loophole sanctioning Islamists to wage jihad against Muslim state officials. Analysts argue that the jihadists responsible for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 were attempting to put Qutb’s theories into practice.Youssef Aboul-Enein, “Learning from Adel Hammouda’s Work on Militant Islamist Movements,” Combatting Terrorism Center, September 15, 2008, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/learning-from-adel-hammouda%E2%80%99s-work-on-militant-islamist-movements; Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 34-35; Dale C. Eikmeier, “Qutbsim: An Ideology of Islamic-Facism,” U.S. Army War College 37, no. 1 (2007): 89, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a485995.pdf.

Qutb was released from prison in 1964. He returned to his home in Helwan province and began plotting with the Brotherhood’s secret apparatus to undermine Nasser’s government. On August 9, 1965, approximately six months following his release, Egyptian police rearrested Qutb on the grounds of treason, an attempted coup d’état, and his alleged previous role in Nasser’s assassination plot. During Qutb’s nearly three month trial, prosecutors cited passages from Milestones as evidence against him, effectively popularizing the book, its concepts, and its author.Paul Berman, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” New York Times, March 23, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/the-philosopher-of-islamic-terror.html?pagewanted=all; Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 50; The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 36.

On August 21, 1966, Qutb was found guilty by an Egyptian court and sentenced to death. Upon hearing the verdict, he declared, “Thank God…. I performed jihad for fifteen years until I earned this martyrdom.” Qutb was executed by hanging in Cairo on August 29, 1966.Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, (New York: Random House, 2011), 36-37; Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 49-50.

The concepts propagated by Qutb have served as the ideological backbone of countless Islamist terror groups. According to journalist Paul Berman, Qutb’s Milestones became a “classic manifesto of the terrorist wing of Islamic fundamentalism.” Following his death, many regarded Qutb as a martyr for the Islamist cause. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, later credited Qutb’s execution with igniting the jihadist movement.Dale C. Eikmeier, “Qutbsim: An Ideology of Islamic-Facism,” U.S. Army War College 37, no. 1 (2007): 89, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a485995.pdf; Paul Berman, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” New York Times, March 23, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/the-philosopher-of-islamic-terror.html?pagewanted=all.

 
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