Sayyid Qutb is often cited, by both his admirers and his detractors, as the father of contemporary Islamist thought. In order to assess this claim, there are two questions which must be addressed: firstly, what is meant by the term “Islamist” in this context; secondly, what role did Qutb play in shaping this movement? “Islamism” may be better referred to as Islamic puritanism, a term coined by Khaled Abou el Fadl in his book The Great Theft.
Abou el Fadl defines puritans as those who have an “absolutist and uncompromising” approach to Islam: most puritan groups take a very narrow interpretation of the Qur’an, and view anything outside that interpretation as a corruption of Islam. Although puritans claim to reject innovation, this is a relatively modern approach to the religion, which has no central authority and has thus traditionally been open to a range of interpretations. The primary school of puritan thought, salafism, dates to the late 18th century.
Salafism seeks to capture the spirit of the early followers of Mohammed, the salaf; it rejects the significant body of Qur’anic commentary by Muslim scholars, and instead draws its conclusions directly from the Qur’an and from sunnah, accounts of the life of Mohammed and his companions. Abou el Fadl attributes this approach in part to an unmooring of Islam: traditional schools had been undermined by colonial powers, who either replaced them with secular legal systems, or used them as a tool to prop up their own legitimacy.
It is a commonly held view that salafism represents a rejection of modernity, but it would be more accurate to say that it seeks to integrate modernism into its version of Islam. Many salafists have a secular education, and believe that “[because] all knowledge is divine and religious, a chemist, an engineer, an economist, or a jurist are all ulamas. ” One of the most important organisations within puritanical Islam is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by a school teacher, Hassan al-Banna, in Egypt in 1928.
At that time, Egypt was in the early stages of decolonisation: the British government had nominally withdrawn in 1922, although it retained significant decision-making powers. Egypt was now ruled by King Farouk, but he was widely seen as little more than a puppet for the continued British presence; this was confirmed when he signed the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which granted the British government the right to maintain a military presence at the Suez Canal.
There was wide-ranging opposition to Farouk’s rule, both religious and secular: as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, these included the Wafd Party, the biggest Egyptian nationalist movement of the 1930s, and later the Free Officers Movement, headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Muslim Brotherhood was not initially a political movement. Instead, they focussed on social issues, such as opening schools and organising the distribution of zakat to the poor. Their primary theological concern was with the inner struggle of Muslims to lead a good life (itjihad); members modelled good Islamic behaviour within the community.
The Brotherhood grew rapidly: they expanded from three branches to 300 by 1938. During this period, they became increasingly involved in anti-colonial politics, as well as advocating for the establishment of a broader Islamic political movement: al-Banna argued that “Islam does have a policy embracing the happiness of this world,” and that it was natural for Islam to be integrated into every part of life, including politics. The Brotherhood was banned in 1948, amidst accusations that they planned to overthrow the government, and al-Banna was assassinated in 1949. Despite his later prominence, Qutb was not a founding member of the Brotherhood.
When the organisation was created, he was studying at a teacher training college in Cairo. In 1948, he accepted a scholarship to study in the United States. He did not enjoy his time in America: he saw Americans as primitives, at one point comparing them unfavourably to birds in Egypt. It would be narratively satisfying to say that Qutb’s time in America served to radicalise him, but he had been religiously devout from a young age: he had memorised the Qur’an as a ten-year-old boy, and before his departure for America he had been involved in the Wafd opposition party.
Hisham Sabrin describes Qutb’s time in America as “a moment of choice and fine-tuning of his already Islamic identity. ” He was particularly struck by the “ecstatic” American response to al-Banna’s assassination, and perhaps it was this that led him to join the Brotherhood soon after his return to Egypt in 1951. By 1953 had become the editor-in-chief of its official journal. This was the same year that the Free Officers Movement, led by Nasser, overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. Nasser upheld the ban on the Brotherhood, and Qutb was jailed in 1954. Qutb spent the next ten years in prison.
It was during this time that he wrote his most famous work, Milestones, which was published in 1964, during a brief period of freedom. Qutb was already a prolific writer and Qur’anic commentator, but it is Milestones that earned him the title “the philosopher of Islamic terror”. In this work, Qutb lays out the necessary steps for the establishment of a truly Islamic state: the development of shari’a, brought about by a new Islamic vanguard. Shari’a is a complicated concept: it refers to the body of Islamic law and commentary, and a wide range of interpretations are possible.
Qutb’s understanding of shari’a, however, was quite straightforward. He saw it as a system which recognises no authority but Allah: “Thus it is first necessary that a Muslim community come into existence which believes that “There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah,” which commits itself to obey none but Allah, denying all other authority, and which challenges the legality of any law which is not based on this belief. ” To Qutb, any so-called “Muslim” community which recognised authorities other than Allah existed in a state of jahiliyyah.
It was this concept that was Qutb’s most important contribution to puritanical Islam. Traditionally speaking, the term referred to pre-Islamic Arabia, but it carries connotations of “moral savagery”. Qutb believed that much of the Muslim world existed in this state: they had long ago abandoned Muslim values. He felt this was particularly true of the secular Nasser government. It is not difficult to see how Qutb came to view Nasser’s government as savage and corrupt: he had been tortured in prison, beaten and attacked by vicious dogs.
In 1957, 21 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed in their prison cells. Any government that was capable of such brutality against devout believers must be jahili. Furthermore, Qutb argued that it was not only acceptable, but a moral duty for Muslims to fight against jahilli governments wherever they found them. This was to be the role of the Islamic vanguard: they would model themselves on Mohammed’s early companions, who fought against the polytheists of 7th century Arabia, to fight the contemporary jahilli. Qutb was put to death by Nasser’s government in 1966.
To some thinkers, his willingness to die for his beliefs in itself validates them: “But because he was executed for his ideas, even people who do not agree with his thought remember him as a martyr. Not surprisingly, that martyrdom has virtually ensured his survival in the Muslim memory for generations to come. ” His execution was further proof of the jahilli status of Nasser’s government. Qutb’s influence did not end with his death: his ideology has been taken up by a number of puritanical Muslim groups. Most infamously, it is the guiding principle of al-Qaida.
Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and as a teenager, he formed an “underground cell devoted to overthrowing the government and establishing an Islamist state”, inspired by Qutb’s execution. Zawahiri would later join with Osama bin Laden to found al-Qaida. Although al-Qaida only represents a tiny proportion of the world’s Muslims, it is a critical minority, and its influence far outstrips its size; other fringe groups share its ideology, and contribute to the continuation of Qutb’s philosophy within the puritanical Muslim movement.
The contemporary Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has distanced itself from Qutb’s ideology; it was not possible to reconcile Qutb’s strict interpretation of shari’a with conventional avenues to power, and the Muslim Brotherhood preferred to participate within the Egyptian political system. Although Qutb’s views on worldly authority ensure that no movement that adopts his philosophy whole-heartedly can participate in the political process through conventional means, vocal support from critical minorities will ensure that his beliefs continue to influence politics in the Muslim world and beyond.