Revolution in the Eye of Sayyid Qutb


Review of Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual, by James Toth

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013

Organizations guided by principles of jihad are hard at work around the world today. These organizations execute acts of political terror against civilian and government targets. They also prosecute wars and administer religious and civil and criminal laws in the territories they conquer. Their members and fellow-travelers theorize energetically about everything from theology and philosophy to history and politics to economics and finance. They propagandize their message on every platform that technology makes available, and they slaughter and enslave and torture human beings for reasons justified by ideology. And one of their greatest sources of inspiration is Sayyid Qutb, a 20th century Islamist whose writings have been shaping revolutionary jihad around the world for over half a century.

Sayyid Qutb is too little understood in the West. James Toth, an anthropologist, wants to change that. Toth is the author of Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual, and his mission in writing this scholarly biography is to "find what is worthwhile in the ideas of a man of Qutb’s stature and influence, determine their impact, give him a fair and balanced assessment, regard him like other ideologues who inspire revolutions (however unpopular they may be), and explain what may appear unintelligible so as to correct any scholarly prejudices, particularly those Orientalist-fueled distortions and absurdities so often attributed to Middle Easterners."

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) left behind a written oeuvre that has more significantly influenced and inspired revolutionary jihadists than perhaps the works of any other single Islamist. Indeed, Qutb's life is distinguished by intellectual pursuits and the remarkably voluminous production of his written work.

Qutb's parents encouraged his intellectual proclivity, inspiring him at a young age to read widely and to stay abreast of the political issues of the day. As a young student, Qutb's achievements were notable. He memorized the Qur'an in its entirety by the age of 10. Importantly, however, and despite this impressive feat, Islam did not come to factor prominently into Qutb's intellectual life until much later.

In high school, Qutb studied logic, philosophy, political history, economics, Arabic, Islamic studies, theology, and foreign languages, including English and Hebrew, and he also developed an interest in literature. Qutb published his first poem at the age of 15. As he entered adulthood, he continued to evolve in the direction of a man of letters.

A driving ambition of Qutb's young life was to join the ranks of Cairo's prominent intellectuals. Qutb, indeed, was a literary man: a genuine intellectual, a pure intellectual, even, and in the mold of the 20th century style, too. He started off literary, political, philosophical, but ended up shunning, by 1948, all but politics (which was, ultimately, indistinguishable from his all-encompassing take on Islam), on the grounds that poetry and literature focused too heavily on ideas alone, and were thus insufficiently committed to real-world engagement.

Toth identifies 1939 as the year that Qutb reoriented his thought toward Islamism. The political and intellectual climate in Egypt at the outbreak of World War II seems to have had the most influence on Qutb's change: "the political forces that had affected his colleagues—inauthentic identities, inappropriate philosophies, bankrupt government policies, failed reforms, and social and cultural alienation—spurred Qutb's new interest in Qur'anic studies and renewed religiosity." Studying the Qur'an against this backdrop turned Qutb, slowly, into a "stern and intolerant moralist."

Qutb's new moralism targeted music first. Qutb denounced songs that were played on the radio and in nightclubs. These songs were "a poison running through the essence of the nation" that corrupted "morals and virtues in both genders." The broader theme of his Qur'an-inspired moralism, which began with these pointed attacks on music in Egyptian society, and as it developed throughout the 1940s, was the moral degradation of society through depraved cultural practices.

How did such depravity manage to embed itself so deeply in a Muslim society?, Qutb wondered. His answer: the imperialism of the West. (Western colonialism and imperialism were driven, he thought, by world Jewry whose aim was to "penetrate into the body politic of the whole world.") He came to see the Qur'an as the one thing that provided the absolute truth on all matters. To Qutb, the Qur'an was "the only reliable, indisputable source and [it] depicts the proper, unexpurgated reality divested of the fables and myths that had distorted the previous monotheisms [i.e., Judaism and Christianity]." Anything that deviates from the Qur'an's authority in the minds of men and women came to be seen as rotten and even poisonous, in need of being resisted and overcome. With beliefs like these hardening in his mind, Qutb became deeply concerned with imperialism and world Jewry, two of the root sources, to his mind, of a broader crisis in the Muslim world.

Qutb attacked the West using examples from the earliest history of Islam. In his view, the Prophet Mohammad was the consummate manifestation of a virtuous statesman. Correspondingly, the first Muslim society—the one Mohammad ruled—was the most excellent model of societal obedience. As compared to this model, every Western example was and is a repulsive failure. Qutb thus judged Western political practices against the standards of historical Islam, allowing him to develop what Toth calls a "countervailing Occidentalism that reversed the value judgments of Orientalism, such that Europe and America came to represent everything ugly and crass, in contrast to a pure and sincere image of Islam." Qutb himself, in 1946, put it like this:

How I hate and despise this European civilization and eulogize humanity which is being tricked by its luster, noise, and sensual enjoyment in which the soul suffocates and the conscience dies down, while instincts and senses become intoxicated, quarrelsome, and excited.

By the late 1940s, Qutb had made a name for himself in Egypt as a rebel with many causes: public denunciations of government corruption and tyranny; loud opposition to foreign domination; Islamism as the only legitimate alternative. The Egyptian government by 1948 decided enough was enough of this unsettling rabble-rousing, and issued a warrant for Qutb's arrest. When the Egyptian Prime Minister intervened on Qutb's behalf, the government arranged to send Qutb to the United States to study American education curricula.

From November 1948 through August 1950, Qutb traveled around the United States. The experience affected him deeply. America, to Qutb, was the epitome of barbarous ignorance—what he would later come to call jahilliya—that "filth." He deplored American "behavior," which was "like animals," and he deplored the "vulgarity which you call 'emancipation of women'":

Look at this capitalism with its monopolies, its usury, and whatever else is unjust in it; at this individual freedom, devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives except under the force of law; at this materialistic attitude which deadens the spirit; at this behavior like animals, which you call free mixing of the sexes; . . . . Then look at Islam, with its logic, beauty, humanity, and happiness, which reaches the horizons to which man strives but does not reach.

Indeed, it was in America, and through these types of pointed contrasts of American with Islamic values, that he refined his ever-evolving Islamism, which by this point had morphed from opposition to depraved culture and a Western imperialism underwritten by world Jewry, into the yet more obdurate view that all racial, ethnic, national, and class distinctions—what he called "evil and fanatic . . . discrimination"—between people, must be shunned. The problem to his mind, now, was not morality per se, or lack thereof. The problem was how we self-identify, how we categorize ourselves, how we draw distinctions in our minds between ourselves and others.

Rather than ceasing to distinguish or rank people at all, however, Qutb argued instead that "differences in piety . . . should distinguish people from one another." Qutb's visit to the United States convinced him once and for all that human beings must be distinguished and categorized according to how pious they are, how faithful or not they are to Islam's orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Qutb's American experience accelerated his radicalization and he naturally turned to the works of other Islamist radicals, whose thought Qutb synthesized with his own into what eventually became a strikingly comprehensive worldview. In his view that persons ought to be distinguished according to degrees of Islamic piety, for example, Qutb was heavily influenced by Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), a medieval Islamic scholar who held that true or "genuine" Muslims believe and act according to a very narrowly defined orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Anyone who deviates from such beliefs and from such practices is an unbeliever (kuffar), and kuffar are, by definition, legally ripe for punishment.

The works of two prominent Islamists of Qutb's own day, Abu al-A'la Mawdudi (1903-1979) and Abu al-Hasan 'Ali Nadwi (1913-1999), who were also disciples, of sorts, of Ibn Taymiyya, likewise figured prominently into the development of Qutb's radical worldview. From Mawdudi, Qutb adopted the concepts of revolutionary struggle, anti-Orientalism, and jihad. From Nadwi, Qutb adopted the notion of jahilliya, the ignorance of Islam, and expanded it.

Qutb synthesized all these ideas into his own view—that society is characterized by jahilliya, or ignorance of Islam; that hakimiyya is a society characterized by the rule of Islamic laws on Earth; and that jihad is the peculiarly Muslim struggle to move society from a state of jahilliya to a state of hakimiyya. Jihad, in this sense, is the ultimate undertaking, the highest duty, the deepest responsibility. The wretched trifecta—ignorance of Islam, unbelief in Islam, and nonconforming practice to Islam—is what jihad seeks to eradicate, and to eradicate the world over. Adherence to this conception of jihad therefore entails a project of total revolution.

Shortly after Qutb's return to Egypt from America in the early 1950s, and upon the crystallization of his radicalism, Qutb began to consider involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in the 1920s. The turning point for Qutb came in January 1952, when riots broke out in Cairo following a deadly shootout between Egyptian police officers and British troops in the Canal Zone. Qutb began writing for the Brotherhood in light of these events and then joined the organization in early 1953, whereupon the Brotherhood placed Qutb in charge of the public relations division. Qutb's new job, Toth informs us, placed him "squarely in charge of presenting the Brotherhood's doctrine and ideology."

And present the ideology Qutb did. But not only that, he developed it. Through his writings, speeches, reactions to political events, and personal experiences, Qutb's extremism hardened, as did his outspokenness—particularly against the Egyptian government, which jailed him in late 1954, placed him on trial in January 1955, and finally sentenced him to 15 years hard labor on July 13, 1955. In prison, Qutb was savagely beaten and tortured. And this torture had a profound effect on him.

No longer, Toth explains to us, was social justice "the primary issue; rather, it was the very validity of the state itself that was in question." Qutb's experience convinced him that violent resistance was the only solution. But Qutb's turn to the advocacy of violence in opposition to government brutality was the beginning, not the end: Qutb came to believe that violent resistance to oppression had to be followed up with a militant social revolution. The new attitude culminated in an explicit proposal of "outright violence," or "a jihad of the sword."

Qutb laid out his doctrine of a jihad of the sword in his last and most widely read book: Signposts of the Road. Signposts was far less abstract and theoretical than Qutb's other writings. "Instead, it [Signposts] was dedicated primarily to the Islamic vanguard, to those devout, pious, and active Muslims who become united by their faith, who reject all their previous relationships in order to embrace true Islam, and who can be depended upon to be true spirits, forthright and steadfast, to lead the way and fight to overthrow and destroy jahilliya and to establish a new and genuine Islamic community, not just a Muslim one." How to achieve this? Qutb's vanguard had to dedicate itself to the active spread of Islam, including, if necessary, by force. Adds Toth: "Qutb felt that the strength of jahilliya was so unyielding that it requires violence to overthrow and destroy it."

The Egyptian government banned Qutb's books in October 1965 and executed Qutb on August 29, 1966. "His martyrdom was thus assured." "Instead of halting the dissemination of Qutb's ideas, it guaranteed it," Toth reflects.

How has that dissemination fared? Qutb's Signposts, with its call for a jihad of the sword, Toth reports, "has become the radical manifesto of the Islamist movement." The group that finally implemented Qutb's ideas into revolutionary action was Tanzim al-Jihad—more frequently referred to in America as Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the organization that merged with Osama bin Laden's group to form Al Qaeda.

John Dewey once remarked that "a problem well put is half solved." Toth helps us understand the problem by clearing away many of the western clichés that surround radical Islam. But the solution is as far away as ever.

Posted on 13 February 2017

ANTHONY TSONTAKIS is an attorney with the Arizona Legislature. All views expressed are personal to the author.