The Mythology of Sayyid Qutb: Is Sayyid Qutb no longer relevant today?


Sayyid Qutb, the iconic image of him in Egyptian prison.

The myth of Sayyid Qutb is very important when analysing the ideological ontology of modern jihadists such as Al-Qaeda and (AQIM) in Algeria but not when dealing with the more modern Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Qutbian myth that was created after Qutb’s death left Egypt along both traditional and modern pathways and in many sources has been linked to radicalization in other parts of the world. It is this Qutbian myth that becomes less relevant when discussing the Freedom and Justice Party and the “Political Pragmatic” wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

For a more in depth Biography of Sayyid Qutb you should read this book by Giles Kepel titled “Muslim Extremism in Egypt”  In terms of a great analysis of Qutb in the context of “Radical Islam” and it’s rooted ideology, consider, “The origins of Radical Islam”.

The “Modern Muslim Brotherhood”, the powerful Islamic civil organization in Egypt, has in many ways tried to downplay their relationship with Sayyid Qutb over the years. The Islamic civil group was both politically and ideologically fractured soon after the death of Hasan al-Banna on February 12 1949. Al-Banna’s historical legacy became contested, as did the position of power within the organization.

We have outlines of Sayyid Qutb’s life. A lot of what we do know comes from those closest to him and his personal diary. According to these sources we are able to better see a picture of who Sayyid Qutb, the Man, was.

What we do know is that he was born in 1906 and grew up in Egypt in a period of colonial oppression. As a young boy politics and education had interested the young Qutb from an early age, eventually leading him to become an advocate for education reform in Egypt.

The year 1959 seems to have been a defining moment for Qutb. It is during this period that Qutb was sent to the United States on mission  to find  possible ways to emulate the American Education system in Egypt. This episode seems to have greatly affected Qutb; it was the first time that Qutb was able to come face to face with the "western other" and he was dismayed at what he saw as being "spirtually and morally" inept. 

The man, Sayyid Qutb was born in September 1906, travelled as a teacher and political activist throughout Egypt and the United States in the mid 1940’s, eventually arrived back in Egypt to subsequently join the Muslim Brotherhood in 1951. He was imprisoned, and crushed during the crackdowns of 1958 but was not silenced, even in death. While he was alive, Qutb quickly rose in the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood organization; even working together with Nasser during the 1952 coup. Nasser later rethought the relationship and had Qutb thrown in prison where he lived the last ten years of his life. Sayyid Qutb was hanged at dawn on the 29 August 1966 subsequently completing his “mission”. This is when Sayyid Qutb, the man fractures and becomes a “mythological” character.

Sayyid Qutb, “the martyr”- for example, the most iconic image of Sayyid Qutb, shows a hunched, buttoned-up little man peering with an ambivalent expression through his prison bars. This image of Qutb is one that has resonated throughout the Islamic world, often overshadowing all other images of Qutb throughout his life. This is counterbalanced with Sayyid Qutb as the “mastermind behind 9/11”, depicting him as an anti-Western terrorist ideologue. Each myth drives the other farther from each other, subsequently validating itself.

 “Milestones” (Qutb’s most widely read book) lays the foundation for his whole world view. It is in Milestones that we can see how prominent a role Qutb believes religion should play in all of everyday life. In a very acute fashion Qutb re-defines the boundaries of the Egyptian Muslim community, by effectively excluding and excommunicating all of Nasser’s Arab Republic including civilians, and the Muslim ummah (community) at large.
Qutb, after effectively dividing society into a dichotomy of good and evil, gave essentially two prescriptions; the book and the sword.
Because the whole world, according to Qutb, is in a state of barbarism (Jahilliyahh), it is the responsibility of the righteous community of today to react against it, in the same fashion of Muhammad and his first followers. It is through his many writings that Qutb, the myth, has been made so relevant to the ideology of Radical Islamists movements throughout the world. In terms of continuity, the arguments which Qutb makes against Egypt’s kufar (non-believer) government are connected through time and space with that of the first salaf (the first muslim community).
Sayyid Qutb’s premature death on the gallows effectively placed his ideas, with all the imprecision they still contained, in the public domain. Moreover, Qutb had left the definition of Jahilliyahh open-ended, increasing the potential for future radicalization under the guise of “rejuvenating the ummah”.
( Qutb, in 1959 on his visit to Greeley Colorado )
In terms of his influence, Qutb’s message has gone global. It has Mc’ized, and spread throughout the Islamic world through both traditional and modern means. He was a powerful advocate against the Nasser Regime in 1950. As an intellectual in Egypt Qutb emerged through the Muslim Brotherhood, but was very much influenced by the environment in which he is writing became influential and contested after he was hanged by the Nasser regime in 1966. In regards to his influence and relevance today in the discourse of "Islamic fundamentalism" there is no ideologue more relevant than Sayyid Qutb.

It is clear that there is no longer one “Sayyid Qutb” but instead he has become a part of the modern discourse.

Sayyid Qutb and his work is one of the main influences on contemporary radical militants, who have blended it with the Salafi doctrine developed in Saudi Arabia. In Algeria we see Qutibist elements in the Algerian civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives in less than a decade. In terms of relevance, most of Sayyid Qutb's works represent a paradigm shift in Islamic relations with the rest of the world, a shift later enunciated in Huntington's polemic, "the Clash of Civilizations".

"Milestones”, Qutb's most widely read work was written under great direst and under extreme conditions. After Qutb was hanged his work became timeless and unquestionable; codified, sacralised and disseminated as absolute truth. “Milestones” represented Qutb's perception of the world. Through the bars of his prison cell he came to see the world more as a dichotomy of good and evil. There is no longer a middle path, but the way of “Islam” or the way of “Jahilliyahh”. His mark is significant. His writing represents a synthesis of ideologies from around the globe and throughout history. He changed the game and the rules right along with it but he is no longer is relevant to the modern Muslim Brotherhood, or their political wing the FJP.


Diwaniyya Contributor