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"The Second Reality of Sayyid Qutb"

by Colin Cordner

A Biography[1]

Sayyid Qutb was a man who, at first glance, did not seem to have lived a life that was terribly out of the ordinary; before the year 1952, his experiences were of a fairly pedestrian nature. Born in 1906 in the provincial village of Musha, in the district of Asyut in Egypt, then a de facto colony of the British Empire[2], Qutb was the eldest of five children. He was provided with a traditional education at the kuttab, and by the age of ten had memorized the Koran - reputedly at the insistence of his devout mother, who wished him to eventually partake in an education at the University of al-Azhar - the prestigious center of Islamic learning and scholarship.

At the age of thirteen, his family moved to Cairo, and Qutb was enrolled at the Tajhiziyyat Dar al-Ulum preparatory and secondary school. In 1929 he joined the Dar al-Ulum teacher’s college; four years later, he gained a baccalaureate degree in the Arts of Education, and was appointed as an instructor at that same institution, thereby becoming attached to the Ministry of Education, upon graduation. He remained in that approximate position until 1939.

During the period of 1933 through 1948, Qutb took up the pen, and composed a number of books of literary and poetic form[3] . During this time, Sayyid is said to have taken up the company of other literary figures, whom also were noted critics of Westernization, such as Abbas Muhammed al-Aqqad, and Taha Husayn. By 1940, he had taken-up the habit of criticizing his ministry colleagues and the royal government; he was then sent to conduct research in the countryside after having his resignation from the Ministry refused the year earlier by Husayn. By 1948, his continued disputes with, and criticisms of, the establishment had earned him the honour of an extended research expedition to the United States of America at the insistence of the Ministry of Education.

It was during this time in the United States that Sayyid composed his first purely theoretical political work[4] “Al-Adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi'l-Islam” (Social Justice in Islam), in 1949. In 1951 he published both “Ma'arakat al-Islam wa'l-Ra's Maliyya” (The Battle Between Islam and Capitalism), and “Al-Salam al-'Alami wa'l-Islam” (World Peace and Islam). By the time he left the country in 1950, his American experience had made an indelible impression upon him, though not one that seems to have been terribly pleasant. In particular, he is reported to have been disturbed by the racism and bigotry that he encountered during his stay, the enthusiastic American response to the establishment of the state of Israel, the equally enthusiastic response to the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian government and the assassination of the group’s founder, Hasan al-Banna, and, finally, by the perceived materialism and moral laxity of American culture. By all reports, Qutb became thoroughly, and irrevocably disenchanted with Western culture as a result of his experiences in America and of his brief stopover in western Europe in 1951.

Interestingly however, Qutb’s disenchantment was limited only to the spiritual, religious, and ideological aspects of Western society. These he saw as listless, nihilistic, and ultimately degenerated and deracinated - a view he explored and developed at length sometime after 1952, in his book “Al-Mustaqbal li-hadha'l-Din” (Islam, the Religion of the Future), wherein he attempted to draw-out a story of the perceived fall of western culture as a product of a creeping spiritual malaise resulting from the progressive corruption of Christianity.

After his return to Egypt, in 1953 Qutb immediately took-up formal association with the Muslim Brotherhood - for whom he had developed stronger sympathies as a result of his stay in America - and eventually became one of organization’s most respected political theoreticians, though he never rose to the position of leadership. Both Qutb and the Brotherhood supported the 1952 overthrow of the royalist government - Qutb himself is said to have been a member of the Revolutionary Council along with future president Gamal Abdel Nasser - but became critical of it as a result of the new government’s pan-Arabist (as opposed to pan-Islamic) ideology, and its refusal to promulgate and enforce a strictly Islamic code of law.

In 1954, as result of an attempt on the life of Nassar, a political crackdown was initiated in Egypt, and many members of the Muslim Brotherhood - including Sayyid Qutb - found themselves imprisoned. Qutb would spend the next ten years in prison, and would take that time - during which he was reportedly abused and tortured - to compose the remainder of his known corpus of political texts and their supporting tafsir (exegenical texts); chief among them being “Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq” (Signposts on the Road, or Milestone) and “Fi Zilal al-Qur'an” (In the Shade of the Qur'an).

In 1964, Qutb was briefly released from prison, but was arrested again in 1965 upon suspicion of inspiring, if not leading, a revolutionary organization. After a trial of debated honesty in which he explicitly defended the doctrines laid-out in his later corpus - the “Milestone” in particular as it was presented as evidence of incitement of sedition - Sayyid Qutb was executed by hanging on August 29th, 1966.

Qutb as Critic of Modernity

Whatever else might be said of him, his writings, and his doctrines, Sayyid Qutb seems foremost to have been a critic of the modern age; albeit one who struggled throughout his life to grasp and identify the nature of the malaise of the modern spirit.

To make a proper account of Qutb’s criticism’s of the spirit of modernity however, it’s most helpful to know what it is that he perceived to be the idealic state of humankind - the state against which he measured the modern world and found it lacking. By the time of his return from the West, whatever his previous inklings, Qutb seems to have settled on the scriptural sources of the Koran for his depiction of the idealic life and political order. More to the point, Qutb identified the lives of the first generation of Muslims - those whom had entered into Islam under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammed - as his ideal.

Whatever though, was it about this time, these people, and this political order that Qutb found both so fascinating and so fulfilling? The tribulations of the first generation of the ummah certainly wouldn’t seem to amount to a utopian order; even under the living guidance of the Prophet, the ummah was beset by lapses in faith, by war, and by religious improprieties of various sorts - in short, it was a political order engaged in a constant struggle to define itself and cohere; it certainly was not a condition that much resembled the Edenic state of innocence, or utopian state of eternal grace that is normally yearned for by utopian thinkers. It begs the question then: what did Qutb perceive in this state of the early ummah that he found so fulfilling?

The answer likely does not lie in examining the material state of the early Islamic nation; after all, Qutb himself was prone to frequently cast his disdain on the materialism of the world that he laid eyes on. Given that fact, and the fact that the early years of the ummah were no more peaceful than the modern Egyptian political order in which he himself had been born, had which he adhered to and ultimately died within, it seems rather unlikely that Qutb was advocating a recreation of the state of political affairs of 7th century Arabia; such a recreation would amount only to a transposition of one state of violence and conflict for another, and it seems spurious to accuse Qutb of lacking the sophistication necessary to recognize that fact. To whit, it would also seem spurious to assume that Qutb advocated a return to the state of material wealth as it existed among the early ummah, for it is obvious from the scriptures that early Muslim society was neither materially better off, nor substantially less wealthy than that of the modern Egypt in which Qutb lived; the poverty of a poor Muslim of the 7th century did not obviously differ from the poverty of a poor, 20th century Egyptian - transposing one for the other would also have been an obvious toss-up with neither benefit or demerit.

It seems that the most likely attributes that Qutb perceived in the early ummah which he desired to recreate in the modern world therefore did not include the material state of affairs, but rather the spiritual and political states. And, in fact, this suspicion would seem to be born-out by a reading of his criticisms of modernity:

“Now, when a man’s conscience and feelings are governed by a certain law but his actual life and activities are governed by another, and when the two laws emerge from different conceptions, one from human imagination and the other from the inspiration of God, then such an individual must suffer something similar to schizophrenia. He would fall an easy prey to the consequences of the conflict between his conscientious feelings and his active material realities, and he would succumb to anxiety and bewilderment. This pathology is presently quite conspicuous in the most developed countries of Europe and America. It is the result of the suggle [sic] between the remnants of a vanishing religious conscience and other values disassociate from that conscience...” [Islam, Religion of the Future; p.20-21]

Qutb’s characterization of the modern human being as being taken by a sort of schizophrenic, pathological condition is certainly a hint that his interest is not so much with the wealth of men as with their souls or psychological states. It would appear therefor that it is the spiritual state of the original ummah that Qutb yearns for, and not its material conditions. But that begs another question: what is the spiritual state that Qutb perceived in the first ummah that he perceived as absent from his contemporary world?

A partial answer is certainly supplied by the passage quoted above: if the malaise of modern humankind is spiritual schizophrenia, and the idealic state is to be free of that schizophrenia, then Qutb must certainly have perceived an absence of that schizophrenic condition in the descriptions of the early ummah. Having made such an induction, Qutb then seems to have spent considerable time (apparently mostly spent while imprisoned by Nasser) trying to determine how such a blessed state of spiritual health was both obtained and maintained. The answers that he settled on before his death are laid out most clearly in his “Milestone”:

“There is another basic cause which has operated in creating this difference. That difference is in the method of learning of this unique generation.

They of the first generation did not approach the Qur'an for the purpose of acquiring culture and information, nor for the purpose of taste or enjoyment. None of them came to the Qur'an to increase his sum total of knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself or to solve some scientific or legal problem, or to remove some defect in his understanding. He rather turned to the Qur'an to find out what the Almighty Creator had prescribed for him and for the group in which he lived, for his life and for the life of the group. He approached it to act on what he heard immediately, as a soldier on the battle- field reads "Today's Bulletin" so that he may know what is to be done. He did not read many verses of the Qur'an in one session, as he understood that this would lay an unbearable burden of duties and responsibilities on his shoulders. At most he would read ten verses, memorize them, and then act upon them. We know this from a tradition reported by Abdullah bin Mas'ood .”
[Milestone, p.12]

Qutb’s somewhat innovative interpretation of Koranic scripture would thus seem to amount to this: the Koran is a system of standing orders for the conduct of all right-thinking Muslims. It is, in other words, a primarily orthopraxic system of conduct.

What, then, of orthodoxy, that other lynchpin of religiosity? Qutb’s view of the orthodoxic state is at least as interesting as his high regard for orthopraxy; it is summed-up rather expediently in two passages:

“Indeed, the spirit of submission is the first requirement of the faith. Through this spirit of submission the believers learn the Islamic regulations and laws with eagerness and pleasure. As soon as a command is given, the heads are bowed, and nothing more is required for its implementation except to hear it. In this manner, drinking was forbidden, usury was prohibited, and gambling was proscribed, and all the habits of the Days of Ignorance were abolished-abolished by a few verses of the Qur'an or by a few words from the lips of the Prophet- peace be on him.” [Milestone, p.27]

“God's religion is not a maze nor is its way of life a fluid thing, as the second part of the declaration of faith, "Muhammad is the Messenger of God", clearly limits it. It is bounded by those principles which have come from the Messenger of God - peace be on him. If there is a clear text available from the Qur'an or from him, then that will be decisive and there will be no room for Ijtihad (using one's judgement). If no such clear judgement is available, then the time comes for Ijtihad - and that according to well-defined principles which are consistent with God's religion and not merely following opinions or desires.” [Milestone, p.79]

Judging from these, it would appear that Qutb’s grasp of the proper orthodoxic state is one in which the true believer submits to the letter of scripture without questioning; the ‘right opinion’ is not to have opinion, it is the submission to the self-evident truth of revelation. This does of course raise many problems which he does not adequately address in his final work. Though Qutb leaves room for ijtihad (use of one’s own judgment) in such instances that there are no decisive orders provided by scripture, he refrains from entertaining the thought that many of the apparent orders themselves are in need of proper interpretation due to perceived contradictions within the letter of divine law.

Be that as it may, we cannot call upon Qutb himself to help resolve these obvious difficulties, for he is quite obviously unavailable. What is more important to the analysis of the man himself, and of his doctrine, is the discovery of his opinion on the relationship between humankind and scripture (that one is to submit to the word without questioning), and its potential relationship to his proposed remedy for the modern malaise. It is already evident that Qutb opined that spiritual schizophrenia was the root evil of modern society, that the affliction did not have any hold over the early ummah, and that submission to the word of the Koran was the panacea that relieved the latter from the pathos suffered by the former.

What is to be said, however, of other scriptures revealed by the God of Abraham? It would perhaps be facile to assume that Qutb held all revealed religions save the religion of Islam to be strictly false, but that would be an assumption that is not buttressed by his own words. In fact, Qutb’s knowledge of the Koran was too sophisticated to allow him such an easy prejudice; the mere fact that the word of the Koran as much as declares the Jewish people and the Christians as People of the Book - co-worshippers of the God of Abraham - prevents any scriptualist of intellectual honesty from dubbing them as simple pagans whom bow in worship to false gods. Qutb, thus seems to have been confronted with the quandary of explaining the spiritual degeneration of a western society that was steeped in Christianity - a legitimate faith. In fact, it was in reaction to this quandary that he might have first hit upon his definition of true religion as absolute submission to the word of scripture; it is within “Islam, Religion of the Future” that Qutb fully took-up the task of painting a tale of the history of the decline of Christendom, a decline that coincided almost strictly to the Christian nation’s gradual distancing from the word of God.

By his account, the basis of Christendom’s pathology lies not in the falsity of its fundamental faith, but its lack of a true scripture - one handed down directly from God to humankind through the intermediation of a Prophet. Jesus of Nazareth, to be sure, was to be regarded as a true Prophet of God, as was made clear in the text of the Koran, but, as Qutb was keen to note, the Gospels of the Christians were not penned by the Prophet Jesus himself, but rather by the eponymous Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. By Qutb’s measure, these gospels - written many decades after the death of Jesus, lacking in consistency, and, shockingly, even on occasion claiming the divinity of the Prophet - were a bastardization of the truth at best. Worse yet, they lacked the cosmological and legal consistency required by Qutb to judge them as true scriptures, for they did not present clear directives for the actions of the faithful, and a true religion - as Qutb has argued - is the unreflective submission of humankind to the word of God.

The Gospels, he then argued, were the foundations of a stunted religiosity that lacked the clarity necessary for proper orthopraxic action; the errors, however, did not stop there. By Qutb’s estimation, the error of the Gospels was compounded by the errors of Paul, who cut the Christian faith free of its only vestiges of reliably divine law - the Laws of Moses - and adopted the shirk of Trinitarianism, thereby insuring that, at best, future Christians would be guided in their actions solely by the pseudo-scripture of the Gospels [Islam, Religion of the Future, p.38-4] . Qutb’s tale of the fall of Christianity continues from that point, recounting the steady fall of the Christian faithful from the divine law as the Church allowed the creation of ascetic, monastic sects that contravened the laws of social participation and reproduction as revealed to the Jewish people and the Muslims. Then, the Western Church fell still further from the light of the divine law by introducing the innovation of sacraments and indulgences, and, finally, by claiming sole ownership and authority to read the scriptures (such as they were), and sole authority it determining scientific truth [Islam, Religion of the Future, p.41-59] .

Such errors of religion were not mere theoretical issues of faith from Qutb’s vantage, and the failure to live up to the word of divine law was no mere personal failing. As he made the point to pronounce, failure to act in strict accordance with divine edicts is the source of breakdowns in political order; as proof, he pointed to the progressively more violent schisms and wars that wracked Christian Europe as its people became ever more distant from God’s Word. The remarkable feature of Qutb’s variation of the story of Europe is its linking of periods of violence and political disorder with the aforementioned innovations or fallings-away-from the light and safety of the divine word. The Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment period, in his estimation, was merely the final drop for the West before hitting rock-bottom. Having fallen from the direct word of the Prophet Jesus, to the confusion of the Gospels, to the innovated doctrines of the Western Church, then the claims of ownership of universal truth, Europe was then split between faith in the fallen Church, and faith in a bastardized, atheistic science[5] . When atheistic science (as opposed to a theistic science guided by religion[6] ) triumphed, Westerners were left morally and spiritually naked, stuck in a state of “that Hideous Schizophrenia” [Islam, Religion of the Future, p.33-34] caused by the conflict between a vestigial moral-religious conscience, and a social order fabricated by human imagination to serve human ideals. As Qutb put it:

“The days of the white man have ended... It has no more pragmatic conceptions, ideas, principles, or values to offer searching humanity; nothing really appropriate for leading humanity to actual progress and development. Their civilization has become sterile after the achievement of the Magna Carta in Britain, the principles of the French Revolution, and the rights of individual freedom hammered out at the beginning of the so-called democratic ‘American Experiment’... they are insufficient for a progressive humanity... All these civilizations were cut off from the original source without which social orders, principles, and values cannot survive: the source of belief issuing from God which gives comprehensive interpretation to existence, to the status of man and his objectives on earth... Because these civilizations did not issue from that Divine source and origin, they were established on bases repugnant to the nature of life and human beings.” [Islam, The Religion of the Future, p. 62-63]

Even perceiving this much of the former-Muslim Brethren’s view of modernity is perhaps insufficient though, for it does not provide a link between his written thoughts, and the experiences of his life that gave rise to those thoughts. Sayyid Qutb did not merely write about modernity after all, he lived within modernity - or at least within a state and society that was rapidly modernizing, and had certainly been caught-up in the modern experiment for more than a century. For Qutb, modernity was not merely a cerebral abstraction of academic interest, it was an experience which had left the Egyptian people under the de facto control of the British Empire - an Empire that he perceived as driven by the worship of the false gods of Nationalism and Government. Worse yet, towards the end of his life, he quite rightly perceived that Egyptians had also been infected by the apostasy of racial Nationalism - as readily evinced by the pan-Arabic leanings of Nasser and his successors.

Modernity therefor was not seen by Qutb to be only a cultural failing of the West; it was instead a pernicious infection that had transformed formerly Muslim kingdoms into jahiliyyah - places living in ignorance of God. By the time of his death, Qutb blamed not only the West for infecting the Islamic world with jahiliyyah but also nearly all Muslims after the first generation, whom he saw as continuously falling into shirk (idolatry or assignment of the attributes of God to others) in, for instance, their submission to the will of sovereigns over and before the will of God. Indeed by his judgment, the very ascription of sovereignty to mere mortals was dire shirk, for humanity was to submit to none other than the Almighty, whose word and will was revealed within the Koran - the very idea of submitting to the will of a people or a monarch (to say nothing of a Leviathan), was to him, not only religiously anathema, but also a symptom and cause of the modern state of schizophrenia.

Qutb as Ideologue

It should seem clear then that Sayyid Qutb was vociferous critic of the modern age. What remains to be asked, however, is what he prescribed as the solution to the failings of modernity that he so vocally and heatedly castigated?

The trite answer to that question would be to say that he presented Islam as the solution to the “Hideous Schizophrenia” of the age. Such an answer, however, is characteristically shallow; it does nothing to inform the questioner as to what Qutb conceived Islam to be, to say naught of how he proposed that his conceptual Islam would solve the problems that he had enumerated.

As we have thus far seen, Qutb saw “true” Islam as a primarily orthopraxic faith, underpinned by a simple orthodoxy of faith in, and submission to, the literal word of the Koran. We say here Qutb’s “true” Islam, because it is clear from his writings that he perceives the overwhelming majority of Muslims, since the time after the first generation, as existing in the state of jahiliyyah. Qutb’s rationale for this pronouncement - the labeling of most Muslims as unbelievers - is a simple extension of his contrasting of “true” Islam with all forms of faith that do not conform to his model of religious behaviour:

“This [first] generation, then, drank solely from this spring and thus attained a unique distinction in history. In later times it happened that other sources mingled with it. Other sources used by later generations included Greek philosophy and logic, ancient Persian legends and their ideas, Jewish scriptures and traditions, Christian theology, and, in addition to these, fragments of other religions and civilizations. These mingled with the commentaries on the Qur'an and with scholastic theology, as they were mingled with jurisprudence and its principles. Later generations after this generation obtained their training from this mixed source, and hence the like of this generation never arose again...Thus we can say without any reservations that the main reason for the difference between the first unique and distinguished group of Muslims and later Muslims is that the purity of the first source of Islamic guidance was mixed with various other sources, as we have indicated. “ [Milestone, p.12]

All generations of Muslims after the first had therefor fallen back into a state of ignorance by virtue of their dabbling in theology, interpretation, and speculative reasoning; the true Muslims of the first generation “At most....would read ten verses, memorize them, and then act upon them” [Milestone, p.13], all later generations had fallen short of this pure state when they began to speculate on the meaning of the Koran rather than act upon its directives immediately.

Having become aware of Qutb’s strident denouncement of the majority of Muslims, most reader’s would perhaps be unsurprised by his opinions of other religions; as we seen, he clearly perceived Christianity as a hopelessly deranged psuedo-faith, lacking prophetic grounding with unambiguous commandments, and steeped in shirk. Judaism fares no better under his gaze, for, though Judaism benefitted from the guidance of divine law, it was a backwards religion by reason of its historic refusal to accept the commandments transmitted by the Prophets Jesus and Muhammed; Judaism, therefor, was an outdated religion of apostates. As for the non-Abrahamic religions, Qutb dismisses them simply as forms of atheism and ignorant idol-worship. [Milestones, p.75-76]

The true life, the spiritually healthy life, is thus available in only one form: the life of unreflective orthopraxic submission to a book of divine commandments. Whether or not the Koran is anything other that a book of commandments was, to Qutb, not a relevant question - the first and truest Muslims accepted every sura as a marching order, and it is their standard that must be imitated if humankind is to become closest to its nature as set by God. Furthermore, those who do question the interpretation of Koran-as-marching-orders are in fact in violation of the commandments, and were setting themselves on the path to apostasy. [Milestone, p.12-13]

It is at this point in his pronouncements - the point at which Qutb switches from a condemnatory polemic against modernity, to prescribing solutions to the modern condition - that the scholar begins to breech the line between doctrine and dogma, and then dogma and ideology. Having clearly described the dogmatic requirements of those who would be true Muslims, Qutb the dogmatist quickly transforms into Qutb the ideologist as he essentially fuses the states of religious and material excellence. For Qutb the ideologist, the degeneration of the immanent order is a direct outcome of the spiritual disorder of humankind. Furthermore, the spiritual disorder of humankind is a result of its ignorance of the one remaining true “method” and “system” of religiosity - Qutbist Islam; it is only through the adoption of this orthopraxic interpretation of Islam that human beings will immerse themselves in the rigorous system of divine guidance necessary for psychological health; God created humanity, God knows human nature, and God intends the best for his creation - God’s commands are therefor most purely in-sync with his creations’ nature, and thus following His commands will instill order and fulfillment in the individual soul. When all members of the political order have therefor submitted to the formulae of commandments inscribed within the Koran, all members will escape the Hideous Schizophrenia that afflicts societies, and the immanent order will be perfected.

It is a fascinating and relevant aspect of Qutb’s work that is illuminated through this rationale. By Qutb’s estimation, political disorder begins with psychic disorder - an estimation which might cause one to mistake him for a classical thinker of some sort. The Egyptian writer makes his first great break with classical thinking, however, when he argues for the perfectibility of the psychic order - a perfection achieved in fact through the submission to an external, immanent source of Divine knowledge. He makes a second, and equally tremendous, break with classical thought when he induces that the political order - which is, as we recall, only disrupted by individual psychic disorder - is equally perfectible as a result of the elimination of spiritual chaos; political disorder is the product of humankind’s spiritual malaise, and the spiritual malaise may be eliminated through the submission to Qutbist dogma; the political order will thus be made perfect when all members of political society submit to the commandments of God. To put the enthymeme in other, somewhat cruder, words, society will be perfected when individuals stop thinking about God’s words, and begin acting upon them.

Given these opinions, Sayyid Qutb should probably not be mistaken for a classical thinker, or for a simple critic of modernity; it seems better to recognize him as a modern ideologue, in the sense of being the proponent of, and believer in, the possibility of the perfectibility of immanent reality. Despite his vocal hatred of Marxism, and Marxist utopianism - which he saw as the final product of Western, godless schizophrenia - there is a certain irony in realizing that the hatred is not that of a Muslim theologian for a millenarian ideology besotted with magical thinking. Rather Qutb’s hatred for Marxism seems to be the professional disdain of one utopian for the methodology of another; he seems not to disdain the Marxist goal of paradise on Earth, so much as its basis in a ‘faulty’ understanding of human nature - for Marxism, being atheistic in creed, does not address humankind’s orientation towards God, its Creator.

In spite of his religiosity and his disdain for modernity, Qutb seems to have been very much taken with a central project of the modern age: the formulation of plots and schemes to perfect the immanent order. What is more, in the process of extracting the proper methodology and the nature of the perfected system from the revelations of his faith, the man called Sayyid explicitly sought to radically narrow the thinking and experiences of humankind in order to cut them into the shape demanded by the utopian order that he believed himself to have captured. His dismissal of the necessary of exegenical ijtihad is only a very obvious example of disdain for the human experience of uncertainty, of innocent questioning, and certainly of challenges and human willfulness. It is the queer rhetorical genius of his reasoning - or perhaps the narrowness of his own experience - that allows him to assert that questioning and doubt are the schizophrenic reaction to the failure to submit to scripture, as is demanded by human nature! By this rationale, one only questions if one is schizophrenic, and one becomes schizophrenic by thinking before obeying; it would almost seem as if Qutb were suggesting that humanity’s inhuman state of spiritual and temporal disorder is caused by reasoning.

If Qutb’s utopianism were restricted to these odd assertions, it would perhaps be easy for classical thinkers to dismiss his project. However, it is apparent, both through logical extrapolation and by referring to his own statements, that the Qutbist utopian project is not restricted to claiming the souls of willing adherents. The imperfection of the political order, after all, is caused by the continued existence of that Hideous Schizophrenia among its members, and, as long as there are schizophrenics amongst us, society faces the danger of either lapsing into jahiliyyah, or never breaking free of it to begin with. It is for that reason that Qutb himself calls for global jihaad (struggle) against jahiliyyah - a state which, if we recall - includes most of the world:

“First, the method of this religion is very practical. This movement treats people as they actually are and uses resources Which are in accordance with practical conditions. Since this movement comes into conflict with the jahiliyyah which prevails over ideas and beliefs, and which has a practical system of life and a political and material authority behind it, the Islamic movement had to produce parallel resources to confront this jahiliyyah. This movement uses the methods of preaching and persuasion for reforming ideas and beliefs and it uses physical power and jihaad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the jahili system which prevents people from reforming their ideas and beliefs but forces them to obey their erroneous ways and make them serve human lords instead of the Almighty Lord. This movement does not confine itself to mere preaching to confront physical power, as it also does not use compulsion for changing the ideas of people. These two principles are equally important in the method of this religion. Its purpose is to free those people who wish to be freed from enslavement to men so that they may serve God alone.” [Milestone, p.49]

Qutb in fact effectively advocates for jihaad as holy-war in order to “free those people who wish to be freed”. If we were to recall the details of Sayyid Qutb’s own life, we would not be much wrong in assuming that jihaad as holy-war was deemed a legitimate act against domestic governments that seemed to push a jahili agenda that threatened the holiness of believers. From this same passage, one could assume that Qutb would not be ideologically unsympathetic to acts of annexation, or support of revolutionary movements in places where some cadre of believers sought to free themselves from the jahili system.

His construction of a second reality[7] of true, submissive, unreflective Muslims who are obedient through action is thus not a simple matter pertaining only to its advocates. Qutb’s second reality not only demands a simplification of the world inhabited by its believers, it demands the deconstruction of those societies wherein they might wander or settle. At the extreme end of it, it also demands the deconstruction of all societies which might reinfect the world of true (Qutbist) Islam with jahili views; even when Qutb himself does not advocate the violent destruction of jahili societies, he does advocate non-violent jihaad or perhaps isolationism. But, given his experiences in growing-up in a rapidly modernizing world of global trade and transportation, trade interdependencies and imperialism, it seems absurd to think that Qutb himself would think that isolationism was a viable route to protecting the purity of a purified Islam in a world of jahiliyyah, and neither does it seem likely that he thought it likely that the imperialist powers of Europe and Judaism - whom he often painted as the natural enemies of Islam - would be anything less than violently hostile to such a project. Despite then his advocacy of the use of jihaad as holy-war only as a last resort, it seems likely that he in fact viewed the pragmatic conditions of the world (as he perceived it) as ripe for a continuous war with the forces of a jahiliyyah with which true Islam could not conceivably coexist peacefully.

In the final analysis then, it does not appear that the reality imagined by Sayyid Qutb would accept, without quarrel, the existence of a reality that conflicted with the simplified experiential existence that he and his followers advocated. If this conflict between the idealized, yet experientially stunted, reality of Qutbist ideology were simply a matter for academia or an historical curiosity, an understanding of his millenarian dogmatism would perhaps be a much less interesting thing. Given the apparent fact, however, that the thoughts of this long-dead Egyptian critic of the modern world have influenced the ideological development of such individuals as Ayman Zawahiri[8] and Osama bin-Laden, understanding Sayyid Qutb might yet be a matter of some importance, for it might be of some help in understanding the reality that his ideological descendants are attempting to erect.


1. Chief biographical points have been taken from Moussalli, Ahmad S.; “Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb”; American University of Beirut; Beirut, Lebanon; 1992

2. Egypt was declared a protectorate of the British Emprire in 1882, and remained a de facto possession of the Empire until 1952.

3. The list includes: “Mahammat al-Sha'ir fi'l-Hayah wa Shi'r al-Jil al-Hadir “ (The Task of the Poet in Life and the Poetry of the Contemporary Generation), 1933; “al-Shati al-Majhul “ (The Unknown Beach), 1935;“Naqd Kitab: Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr” (Critique of a Book [by Taha Husain]: the Future of Culture in Egypt), 1939;“Al-Taswir al-Fanni fi'l-Qu'ran” (Artistic Imagery in the Qur'an), 1945;“Al-Atyaf al-Arba'a “ (The Four Apparitions), 1945;“Tifl min al-Qarya “(A Child from the Village), 1946;“Al-Madina al-Mashura “(The Enchanted City), 1946;“Kutub wa Shakhsiyyat “(Books and Personalities), 1946;“Askwak “(Thorns), 1947;“Mashahid al-Qiyama fi'l-Qur'an “(Aspects of Resurrection in the Qu'ran), 1946; and “Al-Naqd al-Adabi: Usuluhu wa Manahijuhu “ (Literary Criticism: It's Foundation and Methods'), 1948.

4. A full list of Qutb’s theoretical and exegenical works includes: “Al-Adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi'l-Islam “(Social Justice in Islam), 1949; “Ma'arakat al-Islam wa'l-Ra's Maliyya” (The Battle Between Islam and Capitalism), 1951;“Al-Salam al-'Alami wa'l-Islam “ (World Peace and Islam), 1951;“Fi Zilal al-Qur'an “ (In the Shade of the Qur'an), first installment 1954;“Dirasat Islamiyya “ (Islamic Studies), 1953;“Hadha'l-Din “ (This Religion), n.d. (after 1954);“Al-Mustaqbal li-hadha'l-Din “ (The Future of This Religion), n.d. (after 1954);“Khasais al-Tasawwar al-Islami wa Muqawamatuhu “ (The Characteristics and Values of Islamic Conduct), 1960;“Al-Islam wa Mushkilat al-Hadara “ (Islam and the Problems of Civilization), n.d. (after 1954); and “Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq “ (Signposts on the Road, or Milestones), 1964.

5. Qutb in fact draws upon the work of one A. Nadawi in “What the World lost by Muslim’s Decadence” to contrast the state of science in the West to its status and practice within Islam; Qutb “Islam, Religion of the Future”, p.57-60.

6. Qutb was himself quite insistent on the view that Islam not only allowed for scientific discovery in areas of empirical materiality, but, in effect, mandated it; Qutb, “Islam, Religion of the Future”, p111-112.

7. “Second reality” is a term coined by Professor Eric Voegelin, and might be defined somewhat succinctly using the following passage taken from his paper entitled “The Eclipse of Reality”: “Imagination, it appears, can cut loose from reality and produce the sets of images that we call Second Reality because they pretend to refer to reality though in fact they do not; and, setting aside the phenomena of error or of imperfectly articulated experience, imagination will cut loose in this manner, when the imagining man has developed centers of resistance to participating in reality, including his own, so that his imagery will no longer be true but express reality in terms of his resistance to it. We are faced with the phenomenon of a cognitive tension of consciousness that will retain its form of referring to reality, even when in substance the contact with reality has been lost for one reason or another.”

8. Ayman Zawahiri has been described as the chief ideologist of first the Egyptian Islamic jihaad movement, and later the al-Qaeda terrorist organization headed by Osama bin-Laden. Zawahiri is said to have paid explicit homage to Sayyid Qutb in his publication “Knights under the Prophet's Banner.” , which was written shortly after the commencement of the American led invasion of Afganistan, which itself was retaliatory war in response to the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon is Washington D.C.


Moussalli, Ahmad S.; “Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb”; American University of Beirut; Beirut, Lebanon; 1992

Qutb, Sayyid; “Islam, Religion of the Future”; International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations; published by the Holy Koran Publishing House; printed in West Germany by Ernst Klett Printers Stuttgart, 1978

Qutb, Sayyid; “Milestone”; USA: SIME journal (http://majalla.org), 2005

Voegelin, Eric; “Eclipse of Reality”, Maurice Natanson, ed., Phenomenology and Social Reality: Essays in Memory of Alfred Schutz, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, (1970), pp. 185-194.

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