Review Essay on Sayyid Qutb, the Trotsky of the Militant Islamists

Muslim versus Muslim – Understanding Sayyid Qutb – The Trotsky of the Militant Islamists

The Sayyid Qutb Reader Selected Writings on Politics, Religion, and Society; Edited by Albert J.Bergesen; Routledge; 175 pages; Stg £21.99.

Anyone who wants to understand what militant Muslims think has to understand what they read, and they read Sayyid Qutb.  He is recognised as the intellectual godfather of modern Islamist activism, Islamic radicalism, and militant jihad, the “Trotsky of the modern Islamic movement” (Genevieve Abdo). His famous book Milestones, targeted at the vanguard of the revolutionary Islamist movement, has been compared to Lenin’s What Is To Be.

The resurgence of religion as a factor in international relations is not what many expected . Mike Davis, a western commentator noted that in the 19th century: “In the slums of St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and even Tokyo, militant workers avidly embraced the new faiths of Darwin, Kropotkin and Marx. Today, on the other hand, populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Mumbai, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early 20th century socialism and anarchism.” 1.

 Whether this is part of an emerging theoretical paradigm for revolutionary change, or not, there is a body of Islamist theory that needs to be seriously engaged if one wants to understand the militant turmoil of the Muslim world and the growth of populist Islam in the mega-cities of the global South.  The book under review reproduces material from Qutb’s later more radical period, offering valuable examples “out of the horse’s mouth” into the thinking of his contemporary followers.  In reviewing it, I have augmented the material based on my own research assembled in writing my book on the ideology behind Al Qaeda, and other sources, to enable the reader to understand the formative influences at play. 2.

Qutb was born in 1906 into a political family in Musha in Middle Egypt. When he was 13 the family moved to Cairo. In 1929 Qutb went to Dara al-Ulum’s teacher college and in 1933 was awarded a BA in education. He excelled at literature and poetry.

 He was initially an admirer of the West and Western literature and published 40 books; many were translated into English and Farsi, and are still widely read. One story Thorns is a veiled account of his disappointment in love. Coming from a conservative rural society   he was shocked by the unveiled women he met in Cairo. Unwilling to choose a bride from what he called such “dishonourable” women yet unable for lack of family connections to meet a woman of “sufficient moral purity and discretion”, as he put it, he remained celibate for the rest of his life – a potentially important factor in his outlook.

He took part in many reform projects in Egyptian education. In 1948 the Egyptian ministry of education sent him to study American systems of education. It is very clear that “Qutb’s visit to the United States deserves to rank as the defining moment or watershed from which the Islamist war against America would flow.” 3.

Qutb received an MA in education from the University of North Colorado. Present for the beginning of the women’s liberation movement there and elsewhere, the collision between the sexually conservative Qutb and emancipating women was deeply traumatic, as is clear from his writing of this period. He was troubled by American secularism, overt sexuality, materialism and racism – becoming highly anti-Western. His reaction speaks volumes: “Jazz is (their) favourite music. It is the type of music invented by blacks to please their primitive tendencies and desire for noise.” 4.

He returned to Egypt in 1951 and became active in nationalist politics with the Muslim Brotherhood. He was the head of its propaganda section, held a position in its orientation office and was a member of the executive committee.  He was the only civilian to attend the first meetings of the revolutionary command council of the brotherhood and was an important intermediary between them and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the future president of Egypt. Four days before the coup that brought him to power, Nasser visited Qutb at his home in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood supported Nasser initially but eventually fell out with his government and attempted to assassinate him. Qutb and many other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were subsequently jailed, in 1954.  After being released briefly, he spent the rest of his life in prison. He was badly tortured, kept in terrible conditions, and eventually hanged in 1966.

Qutb’s work
Qutb’s work breaks into three broad periods. The earliest (1920-1947) is focused on literary works. The second (1948-1954) constitutes his first militant Islamic period. His final phase (1957-1966) when he was in prison was his most radical Islamist writings, the core of which is analysed below.

Western influences were unwelcome in Egypt in the 1950s. Colonial history and late colonial adventures, including Britain and France’s attempt to try to maintain control of the Suez Canal in 1956, saw to that. This further inflamed Qutb’s anti-Western outlook and supported his evolving view of the superiority of Islam over Western religions (Christianity and Judaism), philosophies (Greek rationalism, empiricism, and science) and political creeds from liberal democracy to Marxism, communism, and socialism.

Drawing from the beliefs of Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1328) who led the opposition to the Mongols who were practising Muslims but did not apply sharia law, and were therefore considered apostates, Qutb developed a theory of resistance and revolutionary politics by Muslims against political rule by fellow practising Muslims. He eventually defined these rulers as apostates, with all that entailed under Islamic jurisprudence. This was an extraordinarily radical development.

This  gained traction among some Muslims, inflamed with nationalism, provoked by Western cultural imperialism, and troubled by the perceived failure of Islam in religious, political and material terms. Qutb’s approach offered to return Islam to its fundamental roots, stripping away unacceptable modern practices and subsequent accretions. In his writings he returned to a mythical past where governance was in the hands of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions, where there was no conflict between civil and religious law. Such conflicts, he thought, would be explained away by the passage of time, and could be eliminated by going back to seventh century basics.

Core message
Many scholars and analysts have trudged through Qutb’s prolific writings and produced lengthy explanations of his thoughts. Prof Bergesen describes this collection and analysis as a “reader”, and the word fits. Most will find all they need to know about Qutb in these pages, and those who wish to know more have a good “base camp” from which to set out.

Both groups need to understand Qutb’s philosophy when confronting what I term Al-Qaedaism, the ideology of the militant Islamists, which derives from Qutb. Bergesen reveals the power and simplicity of Qutb’s core message, breaking it down into three interrelated elements. That power and simplicity, with varying layers of relevance for different levels of understanding among his followers, explains much of its potency.

And so Qutb’s ideas on how Islam is to triumph over the ungodly can be summarised thus:

The faithful are bound to pursue the Islamic cause by defining the goal to be achieved, overcoming the inevitable obstacles and deploying the means necessary to counter them.

Taking each point in turn, the first, the goal to be achieved, is realising the “Islamic project” worldwide. Qutb says that God has a plan for mankind as revealed by the prophet Muhammad which has not, been distorted as have earlier prophetic revelations (Judaism and Christianity). In addition, testimony to faith should be manifest in behavioural action to change society and bring it in accord with God’s plan, rules, or laws. Therefore, to return mankind to God  (meaning Islam) is a world revolutionary project.

In Qutb’s words:  “Believers in the Oneness of God [a core belief in Islam] by returning to the system of life that this belief entails and calling others to it are in a position to offer the whole world something possessed by no other religion, ideology, system, constitution, or philosophy. This is the grand opportunity for them to play a great and significant role in transforming the entire world.” 5.

The Oneness of God (rather than multiple Divines) rules out other religions, ideologies, and philosophies.  They are not reliable guides for human life. Crucially Oneness can be lost when some attributes of God are shared with humans.  This assertion turns our world upside down, for now ordinary, stable, non-aggressive political institutions, say a perfect democracy, becomes an aggressive means of taking worshippers away from God by establishing another deity (the state) that demands worship (obeying its laws). Obeying the law (being a good citizen) is now denying God (being a heretic).

For Qutb, Islam was not just another religion. “Islam is a revolutionary concept and a way of life, which seeks to change the prevalent social order and remould it according to its own vision. The word ‘Muslim’ becomes the name of an international revolutionary party that Islam seeks to form in order to put this revolutionary programme into effect.”

Qutb continues: “Wherever there are governments opposed to its perspective, Islam aims to change them, regardless of where they function and the people they govern. Its ultimate objective is to establish its way of life and put in place governments   that implement its programme.  Islam wants space – not a piece of the earth but the whole planet.” 6.

 What then of the obstacles?

To Qutb the obstacles are all humanly devised social relations and political systems, and all other religions, especially Judaism and Christianity. These obstacles therefore include all non-Islamic socio-political systems, whether based on nationality, race or economic relations, and even the power of the state itself. All these obstacles are  characterised by Qutb as being involved injahiliyyah (arrogance, ignorance and irreligion) and therefore all such were jahili(essentially pagan or ungodly) societies that actively resisted the implementation of the word of God on earth. Until Qutb, jahiliyyah had been  applied solely to the pagan period in Arabia, before the advent of Islam. Qutb revolutionised the concept, applying it to current circumstances, and defining all current Muslim states as jahili.

Thus, if the religious and political are to be fused, then the exercise of secular political sovereignty is actually an exercise in tyranny, and submission to it is servitude. The Oneness of God means only one source of political sovereignty.

So not just the Pharaohs, or Mongols, or Egyptian presidents Nasser and Sadat , but all historical forms of human political sovereignty, whether ancient Greek democracy, republicanism, kingship, dictatorship, one-party rule, constitute attacks upon divine sovereignty, for in all of these we see a “servitude of servants”, not humans serving their God.

What is to be done is to “eliminate all human kingship”, meaning all forms of God-devoid social and political systems which are seen as obstacles, through the material instantiation of the Oneness of God.

The means to overcome these obstacles is  – of course –  jihad. Qutb wrote extensively on how this struggle should be waged, fundamentally changing the understanding of  jihad in Islam.

Al Qaeda has further condensed Qutb’s teachings into a simple but powerful ideological message. Islam is the answer to the many problems of humanity. This is so obvious that only a massive conspiracy could preclude its success. Muslims are therefore entitled to wage war, jihad without limit, against all those who prevent victory, whoever they are, including so-called Muslims. The end fully justifies the means.

In Milestones, written for the vanguard who would lead the removal of the obstacles to the Islamic project, Qutb pulls no punches: “Other societies do not give it any opportunity to organise its followers according to its own method, and hence it is the duty of Islam to annihilate all such systems, as they are obstacles in the way of universal freedom.” 7.

How should Muslims achieve this? Qutb is quite clear. The Muslim umma or Islamic party, to use his term  “is not a party of preachers and missionaries but rather of divine enforcers … this Muslim party has no choice but to go for and control the power centres, for the simple reason that an oppressive immoral civilisation derives its sustenance from an immoral government set-up. Likewise, a righteous state apparatus cannot be implemented unless the reins of government pass from the mischief-makers to the peacemakers.’’6.

This is a direct challenge to all existing political systems. Striving through fighting (jihad bis saif) is an obligation on all true Muslims. Qutb explains: “the reasons for jihad … are these: to establish God’s authority in the earth; to arrange human affairs according to the true guidance provided by God; to abolish all the Satanic forces and Satanic systems of life; to end the lordship of one man over others since all men are creatures of God and no one has the authority to make them his servants or to make arbitrary laws for them. These reasons are sufficient for proclaiming jihad.” 5.

This obligation is on all Muslims, for all time, until Islam dominates the entire world. If any individual wishes to “opt out” of Islam at that point they may do so, once they fully accept the role of second-class non-Muslims   under Islamic jurisprudence. This is the meaning of the much-quoted Islamic term , as Qutb sees it  -“ there is no compulsion in religion”.


Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideological chief of Al Qaeda, said his movement began with the death of Sayyid Qutb in 1966.  Qutb overturned almost 1,200 years of Islamic tradition and jurisprudence in an attempt to apply sharia law today  as it was applied during the time of the Prophet and his Companions.

When I wrote my book five years ago, my purpose was to warn of the danger of seeing Al Qaeda purely as a terrorist threat to be defeated by security measures. I said then that the real threat came not from the fluid groups of like-minded people spread across the world, but from the ideology, Al-Qaedaism, which links them. I also pointed out that  ultimately Islam had more to lose from Al-Qaedaism than those in the West on the receiving end of their “hit and run” campaign of jihad.

Five years on, we have taken the security measures, at considerable cost. The  greater challenge of facing down ideologically driven covert groupings who claim that their terrorism has the protection of God, and that those who obey the civil law are fair targets in their project of transforming the world, has yet to be dealt with. Prof Bergeson has done us a service with his compact and accessible rendering of the vicious and dangerous nature of the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, and the followers of Al -Qaedaism.

A longer version of this review essay appears in Studies, An Irish Quarterly Review, in their Winter 2010 edition, published December 2010. Their website is

Richard Whelan is the author of Al-Qaedaism The Threat to Islam The Threat to the World, published by Ashfield Press in Ireland and in translation by Platin in Turkey. His website is

  1. Planet of Slums, Mike Davis, NLR, March/April, 2004.
  2. Al-Qaedaism The Threat to Islam  The Threat  to the World, Richard Whelan, Ashfield Press, 2005.
  3. A Fury for God: the Islamist attack on America, Malise Ruthven, Granta Books, London, 2002.
  4. Ibid
  5. The Islamic Concept and its Characteristics, Sayyid Qutb, Plainfield, IN : American Trust Publications, 1991.
  6. In The Shade of the Qur’an, Prologue, Volume 7,Surah 8, Al- Anfal (The Spoils of War), Sayyid Qutb, Translated and edited by Adil Salahi, Leicestershire, The Islamic Foundation, 2003.
  7. Milestones, Sayyid  Qutb, Kazi  Publication Inc., 1964.
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