Sayyid Qutb—the Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual

By James Toth

Oxford University Press | 2013

An essay by Jane M McCabe

Most Westerners, unless they’ve paid attention to the history of the Middle East, have never heard of Sayyid Qutb. That’s just another indication of how separate the Muslim and the Western worlds are. He was a thinker, the 20th Century Islamic theologian, who gave voice to Fundamentalism and thus endures in the public imagination as the architect who inspired the 9/11 hijackers.

He has been called “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror.” He was also our harshest critic—no other voice challenges our way of life in more Jeremiahic terms than his.

Sayyid Qutb was born in the Egyptian village of Musha in 1906. (In the 1850’s, when Gustave Flaubert traveled to Egypt, he found it to be a lazy backwater. Later in the 19th Century, because it could not pay the interest incurred on its national debt, in 1882, Great Britain invaded. It remained in control of Egypt until 1954, some 72 years.)

In 1921, at the age of 15, Qutb moved to Cairo to attend a training school; the equivalent of an American junior high school.  Following that he attended Dar al-‘Ulum, where he studied philosophy, political history, economics, Arabic and Islamic affairs. When he arrived he became swept up into the spirit of post 1919 nationalist fervor and joined the Wafd Party, a nationalist party that urged revolt against British domination.

When he graduated in 1933, at the age of 27, like many other intellectuals needing employment, he joined the Ministry of Education as a teacher. Like his counterparts among leftist intellectuals in the United States, like Theodore Dreiser and Dos Passos, he considered himself a modern secularist who promoted the principles of freedom, justice, and equality.

He used poetry as the medium through which he searched for meaning. Early in his career he began publishing in a variety of nationalistic periodicals.

As he matured he became more and more disturbed by the degree to which he saw that his countrymen had rejected their own culture and had adopted European culture—that they had become “pawns in the hands of the colonialists.”

Disagreements over modernization could be measured by the proliferation of parties and platforms in the late 1920’s, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded by Hasan al-Banna. By the 1930’s scholars started to examine alternatives to unbridled Westernization and liberalism, both of which had become discredited because their inability to solve the country’s intractable social ills.

For those who would like to understand this period in Egypt’s history with a human face I recommend reading Nobel Prize-winner Naguid Mahfouz masterpiece, The Cairo Triology.

By the 1930’s the literati began turning to what had made Egypt, the East—doctrines such as Easternism, Arabism, Pharoanism and Islam; Sayyid Qutb began exploring the Qur’an.

Probably there always was an angry critic in Qutb.  By 1940 he had become a deeply conservative moralist, intransigent in his belief that life should be lived according to the principles set forth in the Qur’an.

In September of that year he published an article in al-Risala entitled “al-Ghina’ al Marid” (Sick Singing.) In it he denounced the songs that were broadcast over the radio, in nightclubs, and through record companies. He considered them dangerous because they were “a poison running through the essence of the nation” that led to the collapse of morals and virtues in both genders.

They “destroyed Egyptian social structure and personal character because they corrupted the virtues of men and women.” Such sick singing, therefore, must be censured. He suggested approaching the problem as one might approach drugs, alcohol, or narcotics: as a criminal offence.

Similarly, Qutb criticized romantic movies and public bathing—he saw these things as the product of Western decadence.

Qutb was not entirely popular in his own country, especially under its more liberal, British-controlled government, so for his own safety, in 1948 he traveled to the United States for further studies in education. His time there did not serve to improve his opinion of life lived in Western countries, which he deemed jihilayya, religiously ignorant and apathetic.

Qutb criticized our “crass materialism, unbridled capitalism, sexual animalism, vulgar feminism, licentiousness and uninhibited freedom.” In short, he felt America had lost its humanity. (And this was 1949!)

Qutb was loath to remain here, and so, on August 20th, 1950, he returned to Egypt―to be met at the airport by a delegation of Muslim Brothers. The Egypt to which he returned was falling apart, afflicted by poverty, disaffection and unrest.  Qutb blamed his fellow Egyptians, whom he felt had lost their moral anchor and become inundated with the corruption and discord derived from Westernization. He thought there had been a spiritual decline since the 1870’s; the solution was for the country to return to “the Straight Path of Islam.”

British military presence in Egypt lasted until 1954. On 18 June 1953, the Egyptian Republic was declared, with General Muhammad Naguib as the first President. Naguib was forced to resign in 1954 by Gamal Abdel Nasser – the real architect of the 1952 movement – and was put under house arrest. Nasser assumed power as President in June 1956.

British forces completed their withdrawal from the occupied Suez Canal Zone on 13 June 1956. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956, prompting the 1956 Suez Crisis…

Nasser’s government could be called moderate; and soon Qutb was writing pamphlets condemning it and urging the assassination of the country’s leaders, thereby causing himself and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood to be arrested on January 12, 1954.

The situation was more complicated than I am here describing. Qutb spent the next three years in prison. He was beaten and tortured and his already ill heath declined further. Yet, he was permitted to write. From prison he wrote what many consider his greatest work, his magnum opus—Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur’an,) a 30-part, six-volume commentary on the Qur’an.

I was living in Brooklyn when I first heard of Sayyid Qutb. From one of the shops on Atlantic Avenue that imports goods from the Middle East I purchased the first volume of this study.

Signpost on the Road is an abbreviation of In the Shade of Qur’an, is an anti-Westernism, anti-secularism, and anti-nationalism manifesto. It was the principal source of evidence presented at Qutb’s Military Court trial in 1966. On August 21st, 1966, Qutb was sentenced by a military court to death by hanging.

In the early hours of Monday, August 29, 1966, almost 47 years ago, he and two other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were executed. His martyrdom was thus assured. Instead of halting the dissemination of his ideas, it guaranteed them.

Sayyid Qutb—the Life and Legacy of Radical Islamic Intellectual is not a biography in the usual sense of the word. The events of his life told in the first section are somewhat sketchily described and much about his personal life is ignored. The second section is devoted to “His Legacy: Ideas and Issues.”

As worthwhile as this section may be, I found it hard going—ponderous, repetitious, and dry. I grew weary of Qutb’s seemingly endless inflexibility and moralism—it was like being under the thumb of a harsh teacher who allowed no time for recess or having fun.  

And so I started playing a self-devised game of “What would Sayyid Qutb think?” as I moved through my daily schedule. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, after I close my portrait drawing booth on Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles and walked along the plaza section devoted to Simon Aquilar.  Most often there is a band playing and middle-aged Latino men and women dancing. I enjoy listening to the music and watching the antics of the dancers.

Sayyid Qutb would not approve of them, neither the music nor the dancers, as he would claim the music excites their erotic passions. I think this: their lives are probably hard; why then shouldn’t they dress up and enjoy themselves for a little while?

If their erotic passions are aroused, good for them.

The next time I thought about what Sayyid Qutb might think was when I first visited MacArthur Park on Wilshire Boulevard last week. The layout and design of MacArthur Park are as fine as I have ever seen. Its inhabitants are an array of birds—huge sea gulls, geese, ducks and pigeons—and an array people, many of them unemployment or homeless. These people give the park its sad aspect.

I had just been reading the section on zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, which is the giving of alms, (the equivalent of Christian tithing.) Islam forbids usury (riba) because it feels money should not be made through no effort on the part of the earner.

If he were with me I felt that Qutb would say, you see, these economic problems, such as unemployment and homelessness, are partly because not only is usury a common practice in the West, compound interest is its most common form.  Compound interest has caused your debt in the West to so compound that you can’t even pay the interest accrued, much less reduce the capital. Yet you Westerners take the payment of compound interest on borrowed money unquestioningly.

That morning while on the Internet I had watched a video by Porter Stansberry, a financial journalist. He claims a financial collapse is in the offing that will make the financial crisis of 2008 look like child’s play. Furthermore, he claims that the only  reason this crisis hasn’t happened sooner is because the United States government prints money whenever needs to. Because the dollar is still the international standard, it has gotten away with this, but soon enough it will come to a halt…and then all hell will break loose.

The last thing I want to mention concerning what Sayyid Qutb would think is modern technology.  He died in 1966. My own father died in 1968, long before the computer era commenced in 1980. I’ve often thought my own father would not recognize the modern world. If he saw people walking around with smart phones and Ipads he would be dazzled with disbelief.

Wanting Muslims to revert back to life as it was lived in the early days of Islam in the 7th Century, Sayyid Qutb most likely would disapprove of modern technology. He would see it as additional proof that people were separated from the beneficence of Allah.

If the current crisis in Egypt, with the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, proves one thing it proves that the youth of Middle East have little interest in living according the edicts of the Qur’an, according to Sharia, if it means doing without their high tech gadgets. They want to be part of the modern world ―they embrace modern technology and use it to further their political aims.

Much more can be said about the ideas of Sayyid Qutb and their impact on modern times than I have here been able to say.

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