When we left off last time (updated a little bit from the original), the Society of Muslim Brothers had been founded in Egypt as a pious Islamic social and charitable organization by Hassan al-Banna, and had grown furiously through the 1930s and 40s to become an international force, opposed to European colonialism and to the westernization of Islamic society and in favor of a return to the laws and values of the early Islamic community. Al-Banna was murdered in 1949, maybe/probably at the Egyptian government’s instigation, and the Brotherhood appointed a relative outsider, Hassan al-Hudaybi (d. 1973) as its new “General Guide.” It was felt that Hudaybi might be perceived as a moderate, someone who had been uninvolved in the Brotherhood’s turn toward open resistance and violence, and so might be able to improve the Society’s public image. But he was never supposed to be anything more than a figurehead. The real driving force behind the Brotherhood, the man who would form its ideology (largely) as we know it today, was an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966).
Join me below for the story of Qutb’s life and impact.
Sayyid Qutb (pronounced with the tiniest of “u” sounds between the “t” and “b”) was born in 1906 in the village of Musha, in Upper (southern) Egypt. His father was politically active and a pious Muslim who taught his son Qurʾanic recitation, but Sayyid rebelled against the religiously-oriented education he received, and in his 20s he moved to Cairo where he could receive a western (British) education and where he took a position first in the Ministry of Public Instruction, and then in the Ministry of Education. In 1948, he went to the United States, having been given a scholarship to study educational administration at the Colorado State College of Education, and the experience seems to have changed him drastically.
Up until his stint in America, Qutb’s life/career path was one that many, many Egyptians of the period would have recognized. Village children were taught in schools where the curriculum was overwhelmingly concerned with teaching Islam: students learned language via reading Qurʾan, studied the history and dogma of the faith and Islamic Law. When I say “village children” I mean “village boys,” because girls were prohibited (when Qutb was a child he was known for going home from school each day and teaching that day’s lessons to a group of village girls who were eager to learn but forbidden to attend school). City kids, the ones who could afford it, and village kids whose parents sent them or who ran off on their own (like Qutb), would receive a “western” education in big cities like Cairo and Alexandria, where they could learn “secular” subjects like math and science. The ones who showed promise would be sent to study abroad, usually in Europe but increasingly in America as well, so that they could return home and apply what they’d learned overseas to a job in the Egyptian government.
But what Qutb learned in America wasn’t so much “how to improve the Egyptian Ministry of Education” as it was “Western society is rotten to the core and I will oppose its encroachment into my own society.” He traveled widely in the US and Europe before returning home, whereupon he published an article titled “The America That I Have Seen.” In it, he denounced what he saw as the materialism and superficiality of western society: its racism, its emphasis on the individual versus the community, its preference for low brow entertainment like sports over high brow art, and of course the open mixing of the sexes. It was almost certainly the latter that shocked him the most; while he’d always supported women’s education he’d also resigned himself to bachelorhood and would often tell acquaintances that he’d never find a woman morally pure enough for him. So, yeah. Racism, which he must have experienced as an Arab (and most likely a very dark skinned one at that, as a native of Upper Egypt) traveling around America and Europe in the late 1940s, was presumably another major factor in convincing Qutb that this western society was not for him.
Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood soon after he got back to Egypt. He rose rapidly through its ranks, becoming editor of its weekly newsletter, head of its propaganda unit, and a member of its governing council. He was among the leaders of the Society in 1952, when a group of army officers called the Free Officers Movement, under Gamal Abdel Nasser (although initially Nasser operated somewhat behind the scenes), overthrew King Farouk I, first replacing him with his infant son Fuad II and then abolishing the monarchy entirely. This was the first of a series of coups in the Arab world where cadres of junior officers (colonel-level or lower) overthrew what were widely seen as decadent, westernized governments: Iraq followed in 1958, Syria in 1963, and Libya in 1969. Initially the Brotherhood supported Nasser’s coup; Nasser and his comrade Anwar al-Sadat had close ties to the Brotherhood (Nasser may actually have been a member at one time), and the Free Officers Movement had toppled the monarchy, to which the Society was bitterly opposed, so there seemed to be a compatibility there. However, Nasser’s political philosophy was heavily nationalistic and, it turned out, quite secular, whereas the Brotherhood, with Qutb as its leading intellectual, was committed to a pan-Islamic society and resisted secularism.
The Brotherhood, through its charitable work, had regained much of its lost popularity, and Nasser was eager to co-opt them into his political project, so he offered Qutb his choice of position in the new government (anything but “king”); Qutb, once he saw what Nasser’s real plans were, not only refused, but also seems to have participated in a 1954 attempt to assassinate Nasser. He was promptly jailed, and Nasser used the attack as an excuse to reimpose harsh measures against the Society. He wrote his greatest works while in prison, a Qurʾan commentary called In the Shade of the Qurʾan and a treatise on politics called Milestones. He was released from prison in 1964 only to be arrested again less than a year later, charged with plots against the state. He died in prison in 1966.
So what was Qutb’s philosophy all about? Where Hassan al-Banna (who wasn’t really much of a philosopher but saw himself as carrying forward the philosophies of thinkers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and Rashid Rida) had argued for peacefully replacing modernizing/westernizing influences with Islam, Qutb called for violent opposition, if necessary, to defend against both external and internal threats (“threat” being any organization, particularly governments, that had turned away from Islam and turned toward westernization). He believed that the story of Islam had always been the struggle (and it should be noted that the word jihad, which is usually translated as something like “holy war” and frequently does carry that connotation, technically means “struggle”) of the enlightened followers of the true Shariʿa against ignorance, jahiliyah, which is a term used by Muslims to describe Arabian society before Muhammad but which Qutb also applied to Western notions of “modernity.” He saw the Brotherhood’s jihad as two-pronged: preaching to Muslims everywhere to put them back on the right path and lift them out of ignorance, and resistance, violent if necessary, against any modernizing forces throughout the Islamic World and, really, the world as a whole. He was adamantly opposed to the West and preached resistance to all western involvement with Islamic society.
One of the key aspects of Qutb’s thinking, the place where he is clearly separated from al-Banna and where he has influenced both modern Islamist political movements (including the Brotherhood) and Islamic terrorists, is the idea of takfir, or the act of declaring other Muslims to be non-believers (fakirun) or apostates. This was particularly fleshed out in Milestones. He contended that Islamic society had lapsed back into a state of “ignorance” (jahiliyah, the term used to describe Arabian society before Muhammad), and that only adherence to the true Shariʿa as it had been known in Muhammad’s time could pull Islam out of its decline. Employing the principle of takfir, Qutb assumed the right to declare that all Muslims who were not a part of his movement back to “true Shariʿa” had stopped being Muslims and were now unbelievers and, thus, apostates. Takfir is understandably controversial, because declaring another Muslim to be outside the faith also means declaring them to be outside the protection of Islamic law’s prohibition on Muslim-on-Muslim violence (the punishment for apostasy in Islamic law is death). The vast majority of Muslims today are very leery of the idea that an individual Muslim, rather than God alone, could have the right to judge another Muslim’s piety, and since takfir has historically been used to set preconditions for inter-Islamic warfare, you can understand why.
Qutb preferred to win supporters both among wayward Muslims and non-believers through peaceful evangelism (daʿwah), but when missionary activity was not possible (e.g., when a government — like, say, Egypt’s — had outlawed the Brotherhood), then violence was acceptable. He envisioned an “Islamic vanguard” modeled on the early community that Muhammad built, that would completely remove itself from the modern jahiliyah just as the first Muslims had removed themselves from the ancient Arabian jahiliyah, and would return to the roots of the faith (i.e., the Qurʾan) to rebuild society. While the ideologies couldn’t have been more opposed, in practical terms this “Islamic vanguard” is indistinguishable from Lenin’s “revolutionary vanguard.” Both are supposed to overturn society and win converts to the movement, both are permitted and even expected to use force when necessary. But it also has an Islamic precedent in the Kharijite movement, who even back in the 7th century were preaching that the emerging Islamic civilization had lost its way and needed to be brought back to the true faith — forcefully, if necessary — by a vanguard of “real believers” who had disassociated themselves from the corrupting influences of the society around them. The Kharijites, who believed that any Muslim who sinned was no longer a Muslim (and who saw themselves as all sinless, naturally) were the first to practice takfir, though the principle was used to justify warfare in the Islamic World for centuries after the Kharijites faded away.
Qutb’s religious fundamentalism was strict, but some of what he wrote on religious matters might surprise the modern observer who is accustomed to Muslim Brotherhood (or al-Qaeda, for that matter) dogmatism and, indeed, later fundamentalists have disagreed with him on some points. While he insisted that everything a person needed to know was contained in the Qurʾan, he also believed that its teachings were adaptable to the person and the time; every believer needed to read, understand, and interpret the scriptures for himself (he was not unlike Martin Luther in this regard). It’s unclear how much leeway Qutb would have allowed the individual believer in terms of crafting his own interpretation of the Qurʾan, but in general this would be out of place, it seems to me, in most fundamentalist Islamic movements today. He also dismissed the four Sunni legal schools (madhhabs) as irrelevant to the true Law, which later commentators have seen as an innovation (although I imagine Qutb would have countered that the idea of “legal schools” at all was itself an innovation–“innovation” or bid’ah being a deviation from the Qurʾan and the example of Muhammad and thus a Very Bad Thing). He also declared that slavery was no longer permissible, despite its legality in the Qurʾan, which was seen, again, as “innovation” by conservatives. In terms of a political system, Qutb doesn’t seem to have had one to which he was rigidly wedded; he wrote, as other Muslim reformers were also writing at the time, that the early community’s reliance on communal consensus and consultation to make decisions made democracy a natural fit with Islam, but mostly he found the form of government irrelevant so long as it adhered to Shariʿa. Some have actually read Qutb as advocating a form of Islamic anarchy, since he argued that true Muslims, who understand the Law for themselves, have no need of formal government to regulate their behavior.
Qutb stands as perhaps the leading intellectual figure in the Brotherhood’s history, but his position on the justifiability of violence represented a split from the position of Hassan al-Banna and would ultimately be the fault line between today’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is religiously conservative but politically active and officially opposed to violence (since the 1970s), and more radical fundamentalist groups like al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was actually a critic of the Brotherhood, accusing it of betraying Qutb’s teachings, mostly over the issue of whether and when it was appropriate to resort to violence. There is a direct line from Qutb to al-Qaeda: one of Qutb’s most ardent followers was his brother, Muhammad, who preached and taught “Qutbism” after Sayyid’s death. One of Muhammad Qutb’s most eager students was an Egyptian man named Ayman al-Zawahiri, and I assume you’ve heard something about him. He became the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that differentiated itself from the Brotherhood precisely over the issue of violent resistance to the government, and then mentored Osama in the same teachings he had learned from Muhammad Qutb, although Osama was also directly familiar with Muhammad Qutb and attended lectures by him in Saudi Arabia. Anwar al-Awlaki, another guy you probably know, studied Sayyid Qutb’s writings when he was imprisoned in Yemen. So Qutb clearly is an important figure for the al-Qaeda types; however, in my humble opinion these jokers have been so focused on Qutb’s advocacy of violence and the idea of takfir that they’ve lost the plot to a certain extent on his many other contributions to modern Islamic thought and politics. The Brotherhood has also deviated from Qutb’s thinking, consciously in some ways (its official renouncement of violence, chiefly) but maybe unconsciously in others (Morsi’s majoritarian governing style does not jibe well with the political philosophy of a man who wrote about the importance of consultation and the Law to Islamic governance). I’m not arguing that Qutb was a particularly noble figure or that Islamic society would do well to embrace his teachings, but I do think his message has been distorted in the almost 50 years since his death.