The Muslim Brotherhood, Part IV – Sayyid Qutb

by PETER FARMER September 13, 2012

Part I - A Brief History of the Muslim Brotherhood (Can be found by clicking here)

Part II - The Muslim Brotherhood - Haj Amin al-Husseini (Can be found by clicking here)

Part III - The Muslim Brotherhood - Hitler's Imam

If one wishes to understand the origins, ideology and goals of the modern-day Muslim Brotherhood, one must study the life and works of Egyptian theorist and writer Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). His writings remain enormously-influential within the Ikhwan and the Pan-Islamic movement generally, and are also vitally-important to any informed understanding of such figures as Osama bin-Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki and groups such as al-Qaeda. Indeed, Qutb's name has entered the lexicon of the Muslim world; those who follow his ideology and teachings are referred to as "Qutbists" or simply Qutbi. Despite his importance to Sunni Islam, Qutb is relatively unknown in the non-Islamic world.

Qutb was born in 1906 in the rural village of Musha, Egypt. His father was a well-known political activist and land owner. As a teenager, Sayyid was a quiet and artistic young man; he displayed few if any outward indications of the ideologue he was later to become.

After completing studies in Cairo at Dar al-'Ulum in 1933, he took a post as a teacher in the Ministry of Public Instruction. During the 1930s, he wrote extensively, trying his hand as a novelist and literary critic. In 1939, he accepted a bureaucratic post in the Ministry of Education, while continuing to write and move within Egyptian artistic and literary circles. In 1948, Qutb traveled to the United States intent upon studying educational administration; during a two-year period abroad, Qutb studied at Woodrow Wilson Teacher's College in Washington, D.C., at Stanford University in southern California, and at Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, Colorado. He traveled widely elsewhere in the United States during this period.

Upon his return to Egypt in 1950, Qutb resigned his civil service position, joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and quickly emerged as one of its senior leaders. He became the editor-in-chief of the journal of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, and also took an active role in the propaganda section of the organization. Qutb's sojourn abroad marked a watershed in his life; he returned to Egypt a very different man than the one who had left two years before. He had departed an unassuming and diffident man; he returned a hardened Islamic ideologue and firebrand.  What had so changed him?

Shortly after his return to Cairo, Qutb wrote an impassioned article entitled "The America I Have Seen," which provided an answer. A revealing window into his perceptions and thoughts upon the U.S. and the modern world generally, this work revealed the extent of his transformation. Qutb was fiercely critical of what he viewed as the decadence and moral degradation of Americans. He condemned everything from the individual freedoms of U.S. citizens to their materialism to what he believed to be the wanton and highly-sexualized behavior of American women. He accused his former hosts of having barbaric tastes in music and the arts, and abhorred the "animalistic mixing" of the sexes in churches and other public places. He decried the "spiritual degeneracy" of common Americans, and lamented their enjoyment of "primitive" sports such as boxing and football. His complaints even extended to the quality of the haircuts he received.

Qutb's list of grievances did not end there; for the first time, his writings displayed his sense of racial identity and a growing hostility to American and European civilization. "The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy," he wrote, "...the white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilization, his universal principles and noble objectives." He recommended, "Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust and revenge in the souls of these children; let us teach these children (from the time their nails are soft)...that the white man is the enemy of humanity and that they should destroy him at the first opportunity."1

Qutb was not only critical of the United States and Europe, but modernity itself and its values - rationalism, secularism, individuality, tolerance, materialism and sexual egalitarianism. Similarly, he held an equal measure of outrage and indignation for pro-western modernists and secularists in Egypt and elsewhere within the Middle East. He reserved special contempt for the corrupt and decadent princes of Saudi Arabia, whom he viewed as unworthy of the task of guarding Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Qutb's emerging worldview held that modernity and Islam were fundamentally incompatible, and that Islam must be returned to its unpolluted origins. The world was divided into two camps - Islam and Jahiliyya, i.e., the state of paganism, ignorance and barbarity that existed before the arrival of the Prophet Mohammed. The entire modern world he labeled as jahiliyya; those Muslims who supported it were takfiri - apostates and betrayers of the true faith.2

Like many others in the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb felt that gradualism had failed to bring about an Islamic revolution in Egypt, and that more radical and violent methods would be necessary. However, in 1952, the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by a group of nationalists headed by General Gamal Abdel Nasser. The new president and Qutb had been allies, but when the Brotherhood turned against Nasser, they became bitter adversaries. In 1954, after a failed assassination attempt against him, Nasser ordered a crackdown against the Ikhwan and imprisoned many of its high-ranking leaders, including Sayyid Qutb.

Despite the turmoil, Qutb continued to write prolifically during the 1950s; among his works were "Islam and the Problem of Civilization" (1954), "In the Shade of the Koran" (1954) and the 30-volume series "Milestones," (1964) begun in 1954 while Qutb was in prison and smuggled out part-by-part to his followers. Despite being illegal for many years, it became his best-known and most-influential work.  Qutb, who claimed to have been tortured during his imprisonment by Nasser's security forces, was released from prison in late 1964, but was rearrested after only eight months on charges that he and several coconspirators had plotted to assassinate Nasser and topple his government. Qutb and seven other Muslim Brothers were sentenced to death. He received his sentence stoically and even gratefully, saying "I have performed jihad for fifteen years until I earned this martyrdom." 3 On August 29th, 1966, after dawn prayers, Sayyid Qutb was hanged.

Qutb's philosophy held that Islam provided a complete system for human existence; sharia law based upon the Koran was to be the sole basis of governance and all else in life. He believed in an Islamic utopia in which devout Muslims would resist any system under which men (even elected leaders) ruled over other men, in favor of governance under the Koran - as devout and pure Muslims would require no earthy government.

Qutb found historical precedent for his views in the writings of Egyptian sultan Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1328) and in those of other ancient and purist Islamic scholars. Qutb considered all infidels (non-Muslims) as Jahili - as well as those Muslims he regarded as impure or westernized. Jahiliyya was to be fought and eradicated by an Islamic revolutionary vanguard composed of two chief elements - the preaching of Islam, and the waging of jihad (Islamic holy war) or other physical resistance. Qutbist doctrine is characterized by its absolute and unbending requirements for purity in all Muslim believers - and by its ruthless and cruel treatment of all who fall short of the mark. Being Jahilis, non-Muslims such as Jews, Christians and other infidels, were to be slain, subjugated or converted to Islam.

Sayyid Qutb's influence within the present-day Islamic world is pervasive, particularly among Sunni Muslims. He is regarded by many believers as a martyr, and his writings and theories have influenced many modern jihadists and terrorists. Qutb's brother, Mohammed Qutb, moved to Saudi Arabia and became a professor who collected, published and disseminated his brother's works and ideology. Among his students at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, were al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his successor, physician Ayman al-Zawahiri. Anwar al-Awlaqi, the American-born Yemeni and al-Qaeda regional commander, was a devoted student of Qutb's writings. Qutb is today regarded as one of the intellectual and ideological founders of the modern Muslim Brotherhood and the global jihad movement.


In part V of this series, we will examine the present-day Muslim Brotherhood and survey its strategic methods and operational techniques.
1 - The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9-11, Lawrence Wright,  Random House, 2006. pgs. 27-28.
2 - Wright, pgs. 31-34.
3 - Wright, pgs. 36-37.

Copyright 2012 Peter Farmer

Peter Farmer is a historian and commentator on national security, geopolitics and public policy issues. He has done original research on wartime resistance movements in WWII Europe, and has delivered seminars on such subjects as political violence and terrorism, the evolution of conflict, combat medicine, and related subjects. Mr. Farmer is also a scientist and a medic. 



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