Analysis of the Influence of Sayed Qutb’s Islamist Ideology on the Development of Djihadism
Dr Farhan Zahid
Dr Farhan Zahid (Pakistan), Ph D, is a Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst.
No one has influenced modern day jihadis more than Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Qutb. His writings have always been a driving force for Islamists forces across the globe either violent or political. Amid global jihadist wave, the Qutbian thought provides scholars, practitioners and generalists an insight into the mind of the Islamist extremists.
Egyptian school teacher, journalist turned author and scholar, Sayed Qutb (1906-66) was born to a very poor but high religious family, in a very small village of Musha, in the Asyut Governorate, Egypt. After finishing high school, he joined ministry of Education in Cairo, as a primary school teacher. Few years later, the ministry sent him on a scholarship to the United States. No one could imagine in his wildest dreams that this frail, unimpressive, pervert-looking young man, would produce such dangerous thoughts that in due course would become catalyst for historic events, especially for the host country, i.e. the United States.
Interestingly, his student-life in the US (1948-50), as it seems to be, turned out to be the galvanizing factor for changing Qutb's thoughts about religion, his country and the US. Though born in a deeply religious family and joined college in US at a mature age, he confessed in his writings that his stay in the US made him an ardent enemy of America and the West. Despite of being coming from an impoverished third world background, Qutb got annoyed with the American way of life and culture. Interestingly in his writings, he looked down upon regular American traditions such as freedom of women and music, and regarded their social phenomena as disgusting and degraded. Qutb was a chronic bachelor but had a profound interest in sex or at least it appears from the way he depicted the prevailing sexuality in American society. He wrote extensively about sexuality in American society and their Jazz culture. He seemed most irritated about mixing of sexes where ‘women showing off their legs and bodies' and according to him ‘depicting the immoral character of American women and the overall society'.
Sayed Qutb never travelled to Europe or any other country but, even if he had visited, it could be well assumed that his thoughts would be no different than his American experience. His writings showcased his behavior and interest about the life style of American women and he seemed more observant then many other foreign visitors and writers on the issue of American women and their "seductive ways". His over emphasis upon social and normative issues make other wonder about such sexually deviant behaviors and so much stress on these subjects. Rather than exploring the American education system or their judicial system, in fact his reason of being sent there, Qutb in his later books and writings seemed quite interested in the life style of American women. He wrote in one of his books:"[the] American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs-and she knows all this and does not hide it.". And on another occasion he wrote:"Jazz is their preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noises and to wet their sexual desires…."
Qutb's semi-perverted thoughts also reflected in his writings, speeches and statements, later became building blocks of Muslim Brotherhood's ideology which he joined after returning from the US.
He might have faced racism or become a victim of racial injustices which were prevalent in 1950s' America. He studied at a Mid-west college (Colorado State College of Education) and stayed on for two years. Those two years definitely impacted his life in such a way that he spent the rest of 16 years of his life in propagating radical Islamist violent views.
From psychological view point there could be other perspectives as well. Such as he was colored, single, had weak communication capabilities and racism was at its peak in 1950s in US. He had never lived abroad or in urban/metropolitan life style and his very conservative and rural upbringing is not to forget.
Years later, his anti-American, anti-western and anti-Jewish/Christian rhetoric became the cornerstone of his writings. Even he did not spare Muslim ruling elite of Egypt and professed a campaign against Jamal Nasir and his cronies. Qutb called for their overthrow and considered Egyptian society in a state of pre-Islamic ignorance or Jahiliya. For Qutb the American society was the epitome of Jahiliya society ; he said, "If … free sexual relationships and illegitimate children become the basis of a society, and if the relationship between man and woman is based on lust, passion and impulse, and the division of work is not based on family responsibility and natural gifts; if woman's role is merely to be attractive, sexy and flirtatious, and if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children; and if, on her own or under social demand, she prefers to become a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company, thus spending her ability for material productivity rather than in the training of human beings, because material production is considered to be more important, more valuable and more honorable than the development of human character, then such a civilization is `backward` from the human point of view, or `Jahili` in the Islamic terminology."
He further elaborated the concept of Jahiliya as ,"In all modern jahili societies, the meaning of `morality` is limited to such an extent that all those aspects which distinguish man from animal are considered beyond its sphere. In these societies, illegitimate sexual relationships, even homosexuality, are not considered immoral".
Reflecting upon his stay in the US and viewing the American society, he regarded it as backward and materialistic : "The Islamic society is, by its very nature, the only civilized society, and the jahili societies, in all their various forms, are backward societies. It is necessary to elucidate this great truth." (…) "Materialism … in the form of material production … is given the highest value" in "the United States and European countries … such a society is a backward one."
While critically examining the radical Islamist concepts propounded by Sayed Qutb, apart from his religious upbringing and stay in US, one should not forget the impact of Indian scholar whose thoughts reflected in Sayed Qutb's writings. Indian religio-political scholar Abul a'la Maududi's (1903-1979) writings had heavily influenced Qutb in the development of his Islamist thoughts. Maududi was born in Hyderabad, in colonial India, and later founded his own Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), in 1941. JI could be viewed as Indian version of Muslim Brotherhood as it was established on same Islamist lines. Initially JI was against the creation of Pakistan but later he migrated to Pakistan, right after the partition of India in 1947. Maududi wrote more than 50 books on subjects related to political Islam and Islamic revivalism. Most of his works were translated into Arabic and other languages and later influenced other emerging Islamist thinkers. According to Quintan Wiktorowicz,"Qutb read Mawdudi's most influential works, including ‘Jihad in Islam, ‘Islam and Jahiliya', and ‘Principles of Islamic Government', which were translated into Arabic beginning in 1950s. A more direct connection existed through one of Mawdudi's most important protégés, Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi, who was a central figure in transmitting his mentor's theories to the Arab world. In 1950, Nadvi wrote ‘What did the World Lose due to Decline of Islam?', a book published in Arabic that expounded the on Mawdudi's theory of modern Jahiliya."
With no formal religious educated from any religious school or seminary, the self-taught and home-schooled Maududi went on to become one of the most influential Islamist scholars of 20th century. Maududi's drew most of his ideas from medieval scholar Taqi ud Din Ibn Taymayyah (1268-1326). In a way Maududi revived the concept of Jahiliya and Qutb later further elucidated it for modern Jihadists. The concept had its origins in Ibn Taymiyyah's writings but in modern times it was first elaborated by Maududi. As Wiktorowicz explained, "Mawdudi's work drew extensively from Taqi ud Din Ibn Taymiyyah, the best known medieval Salafi scholar, particularly his writings on the sovereignty of God……in making his argument, Mawdudi introduced the his concept of ‘the modern jahiliya' (circa 1939). The term ‘jahiliya' refers to the ‘period of ignorance' (or period of paganism) preceding the advent of Islam. He argued that the deviations of self-proclaimed Muslims, the influence of imperialist powers, and the use of non-Islamic laws were akin to this earlier period of ignorance."
The influence of Maududi in Sayed Qutb's writings is evident as he quoted Maududi at great lengths in all of his works, especially the most important ones, In the Shade of the Quran, and The Milestones.
Qutb's writings played a pivotal role in influencing the creating of violent off shoots of Muslim Brotherhood which heralded a new era of violent Islamist movements in Egypt in 1970s and 1980s. Many Egyptian Islamist terrorist groups came into being during the post-Qutb Egypt, such as :
- Saleh Sirriyah Group
- Islamic Jihad (Tanzeem ul Jihad led by Zawahiri)
- Saeed Group (Southern Egypt) later called Gamma al Islamiya
- Salem Rahal Group
- Takfir wal Hijrah led by Shukri Mustafa
- Bahriah Group led by Mohammad Abdul Salam al Faraj
Some of the major controversies aroused by the writings of Sayed Qutb in 1950s and 1960s were:
- Revival of political Islam and complete system based on Sharia.
- Hatred for democracy.
- Islamic rule whether it was to be Just Dictatorship.
- Qutb's revival of the concept of Jahliya or the ignorant pagan society that existed before the advent of Islam in Arabia and declaring Egypt sailing through the same period. Therefore, declaring Egypt and other Muslim-majority societies as un-Islamic and illegitimate.
- His application of Takfir on Egyptian society and calling it house of Kufr.
- He rejected Arab nationalism and any such thoughts borrowed from western world.
- His condemnation and rejection of all manmade laws as he claimed these laws contrary to the injunctions of Sharia.
- As the whole society had turned to un-Islamic ways, so it would be best to replace these moribund and mundane societies by supporting a group, or dictator or even democratically elected party that would deliver the true Islamic system, either by using violent means or any other.
- Jihad was one of the most important aspects of Qutb's writing and he described Jihad should be offensive. He stressed over the need to fight jahilya by physical power and to this endeavor he called true jihad.
- He dismissed all cultural glories, institutions, arts and architecture achieved by Muslim empires during last one thousand years.
Despite being heavily influenced by Maududi's writings, at one point Qutb had departed from Maududi's thought and built up his own framework for the solution. "Qutb brought together Mawdudi's ‘modern jahiliya' and Ibn Tamiyyah's argument that the unity of God requires that Muslims follow divine law, creating a synthesis that reinforced the stark distinction between the Party of God and Party of Satan: all those who do not put faith into action through an Islamic legal system and strictly obey the commands of God are part of modern jahiliya and no longer Muslims (…). Qutb's solution to the modern jahiliya, however, was a stark departure from Mawdudi, who sought to work within the system. Whereas Mawdudi formed a political party and social movement to promote reform, Qutb advocated jihad to establish an Islamic state."
His works and speeches perturbed the government of Jamal Nasir. He was charged with sedition, conspiring and instigating general masses for rebellion. He was arrested and tried in the court of law and later executed. Posthumously Qutb achieved unprecedented fame and popularity amongst the Islamist circles worldwide. His voluminous works and ideas about political Islam resulted in a new school of thought called "Qutbism" and millions subscribed to religio-political principles, especially amongst Pan-Islamist organizations. He was considered Shaheed or martyr among Islamist parties and movements worldwide. Many of his books such as Milestones, Social Justice in Islam, and In the Shade of Quran were translated and distributed by Islamic radical organizations like Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e Islami. These organizations capitalized on his works for consolidating their Islamist ambitions. Many portrayed him as Che Guevara of Islamist movements. The propaganda campaigns had indeed worked in gathering quite a number of masses across the Muslim world, especially those countries under oppressive rules and dictatorships. Many of the influenced were university students and highly educated people, doctors, engineers and from many different strata of society. Al-Qaeda and it's across the globe affiliates and associated movements are glaring evidence of Qutbist thought. The legacy of Sayed Qutb and his Jihadi ideas are hitherto in fashion amongst the Islamist forces as his works are considered standard text.
-  David Von Drehle, A Lesson in Hate, Smithsonian Magazine
-  Amrika allati Ra'aytu : America that I Saw, quoted on Calvert, 2000). Excerpt from Qutb's article "Amrika allati Ra'aytu" (The America That I Have Seen)
-  Sayed Qutb Milestones, Islamic Book Service, July 31, 2006, p.98
-  Ibid, p.98
-  Ibid, p.94
-  Ibid, p.96
-  Quintan Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam", Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Routledge, 2005
-  Ibid
-  Ibid