On 50 years since Sayyid Qutb

In the shade of his ideas

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Half a century since the death of one the most important ideologues of modern times, the legacy of Sayyid Qutb is ever-present. If Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the most influential actor in the Islamic revival, Qutb is arguably the most influential thinker. Two of his works, Milestones and In the Shade of the Qur’an (the latter a  commentary on the religious text) made a major contribution to the development of militant Islam. He was cited by the 9/11 Commission as being a major influence on Osama Bin Laden.

Why Qutb is important

There are a few ideas – which have overlap with the writings of other contemporary ideologues – for which Qutb will be remembered.

  • His use of ‘jahiliyyah’, a word referring to pre-Islamic culture, meaning the ‘ignorance’ of the divine. Qutb argued that this state pervaded Muslim countries that were not run according to Islamic law: in his view, the Islamic world had fallen once again into a state of ignorance.
  • Declaring Islamic states as defunct in this way was his lasting contribution to ‘takfir’, the process of declaring a believer to be an unbeliever. This is crucial as it opens the door to violence against Islamic leaders and states.
  • His demand for the reinstitution of the Muhammadan ‘ummah’, or ‘community’, harking back to an idealised society. The Salafi movement is known for harking back to ‘al-salaf al-salih’, the righteous first few generations of Muslims.
  • The irresistible sovereignty of the divine. Qutb saw nature and Islamic law as two sides of the same coin. Only a land governed by the ‘shari’a’ can guarantee this sovereignty.

For those wishing to research further…

Primary sources

For students, Milestones is fairly easy to find in its English translation. It is not a long read, but gives a clear exposition of Qutb’s radical ideas. The following passage from Milestones demonstrates the potential violence of the ideas, but rejects attacks on individuals.

“It has the right to destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions which limit man’s freedom of choice. It does not attack individuals nor does it force them to accept its beliefs; it attacks institutions and traditions to release human beings from their poisonous influences, which distort human nature and which curtail human freedom.”

You may not want to, of course. To get a sense of the stigma attached to the book, have a read of this BBC story from 2007, where it attracts controversy along with the works of Sayyid Abul-A’la Maududi, who promoted the same division between the domain of Islam and that of ‘jahiliyyah’ or ‘ignorance’ as Qutb, but in India/Pakistan rather than Egypt.

Secondary sources

For the basics, the Wikipedia pages on the man himself and his ideas are not a bad place to start. If you want to get a little deeper into Qutb’s context and the development of his ideas, hunt out essays by Ronald Nettler (a former tutor of mine). His 1990s essays on Qutb’s political interpretation of the Qur’an will give you a sense of how he impacted the religious discourse of the time.

The American connection

Jack Kerouac and Sayyid Qutb walk into a bar. Both were young writers experiencing post-war America at around the same time, but came away with rather different attitudes to culture and personal freedom. The young Qutb’s famous reaction to popular American music and dancing and what he saw as the licentiousness of Western society fed into his conception of Islam as the superior moral universe, and the related sense of spiritual authority that pervades his writings.

Legacy

Mainstream Islam has long since rejected the ideas of Qutb, and his radical and dangerous interpretation of ‘takfir’ in particular. Indeed, it was refuted by al-Banna’s successor as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Hudaybi, very early on. Qutb is often circumspect about discussing the use of violence, which is unsurprising given the context, but it is at least a direct consequence of the ideas that he is discussing.

Ultimately, Qutb is important for historians and anyone interested in the fate of modern Islam for representing one strain of political Islam: that of radical action to reinstate an idealised religious state. Another strain of thought that was equally important to the Muslim Brotherhood was to pursue social change via the ballot box. Anyone wishing to counter the spread of takfiri violence will need to understand his ideas, and their flaws.

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