Middle East

The Evolution of Sayyid Qutb: Radicalization on a Spectrum


In the West, Sayyid Qutb (Kut-Teb) is perhaps the most recognizable Islamist theorist. While it was Hassan al-Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb was the most noted member. Qutb is credited with laying the philosophical foundation for every jihadist from Osama bin Laden to the assassins of Anwar Sadat. Lawrence Wright devotes the first chapter of his book, The Looming Tower, to Sayyid Qutb, dubbing him “the Martyr.” However, Qutb’s journey toward radicalization is long and checkered. From Qutb’s journey can  be derived from numerous lessons on Islamist political philosophy and the nature of radicalization itself.

Image courtesy of Ahmed Badawy, © 2010.

Qutb’s most famous work was compiled by stitching together fragments he smuggled out of an Egyptian prison. At the time, Qutb was imprisoned for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Milestones, he titled it, laid out a political framework that has since inspired generations of jihadists. In Milestones, Qutb divided the world in two, Islam and jahiliyya, a state of primitive barbarism. While Qutb conceded that there should be “no compulsion in religion” he believed that the political system imposed by jahiliyya prevented people from freely accepting Islam. Jihad therefore was obligatory to wage against all systems that gave dominion to man. He believe that once Sharia law was established and God’s rule restored, people would be free to believe or not the beliefs preached by Islam. The laws however, were non-negotiable.

Scholars of radicalism rightly point to the authoritarian nature of the framework Milestones lays out. Moreover, the all or nothing stance Qutb takes on Islam versus the West makes such a framework incompatible with other systems of government. Some take this criticism a step further and claim that Milestones shows that Islamism itself, not just its extreme offshoots, is incompatible with democracy.

But Milestones was not Qutb’s first book, in fact it was his last. The book that truly catapulted Qutb from a literary theorist to an Islamist theorist was Social Justice in Islam, published in 1949 when Qutb was a student in the United States, traveling through New York, Washington D.C., and Colorado. In Social Justice, Qutb prescribed the inherent social justice present in Islamic teachings. For Qutb, Islam shared the desire for justice inherent in Communism, but widens it to include spiritual justice. It also shares a respect for equality and free enterprise with the West. Moreover Qutb’s Islam was flexible, laying down universal principles, but leaving their application to be determined based on time and place.

This is not the doom and gloom rabid radical who wrote Milestones. This was a mainstream Islamist treatise whose author could easily be imagined cooperating with liberal and secular forces in the confines of a democracy. How did Qutb go from idealist Islamist to radical revolutionary? And what can this shift tell us about the nature of the threat of terrorism today?

Qutb was admittedly always conservative on women’s equality and sexuality, as well as the West’s support of Zionism. But it seems his transformation occurred during a period of study in the United States from 1948 to 1950. During this time Qutb experienced what would casually be referred to as “culture shock,” complaining about everything from the new food to the new clothes. But deeper than these annoyances was a disgust for the materialism, racism, and unbridled sexuality he witnessed and subsequently saw permeating the Egyptian society. This disgust was by itself harmless and could have led to a productive dialogue, but it also contained deep within it the seeds of his radicalization. Put another way, cultural alienation put Qutb on a spectrum—pushed from mainstream Islamism to extremism.

Qutb’s evolution illustrates that radicals are created, not born, and that political Islam is a spectrum that can be traversed, not a polarity between radical and moderate. Cultural differences and transmission can push individuals farther along the spectrum as they did with Qutb. Perhaps policymakers would do well to regard McDonald’s and foreign military bases as separate, if not equal, triggers for radicalization.

But culture wasn’t what pushed Qutb over the edge. Milestones was written in the jail cell that Qutb was thrown in for opposing the rule of Nasser. It was this that radicalized Qutb and from this portion of his story we can derive a final lesson. Namely that the inability to peacefully express opinions forces individuals to choose between surrendering their views or resorting to violence. Oppression, in the form of imprisonment and torture, makes the choice easier. Islamism, in such cases may serve as a valve to let off the steam of radicalism, a way to express theocentric political ideas and cultural anxieties without resorting to violence. That may be difficult, and require significant reforms, but it may be the only way to stabilize Middle Eastern states in the long term.

Today’s world contains different shades of Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP, to Hamas and ISIL. The Qutb’s of the world can’t be wished away, but their progression across the spectrum from mainstream Islamist to radical jihadist can be stopped at Social Justice rather than allowing into bloom into Milestones.

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  • Koffi Yao-Kouame

    although my domain is mostly Western European politics, West African Politics and Latin American, I recently came in contact with Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution , Book by Alastair Crooke and it was an eye opening as it really goes into detail about Sayyid Qutb …. Thanks for your article