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Sayyid Qutb: Father of Modern Islamic Extremism

Profile and Biography

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Name:
Sayyid Qutb

Dates:
Born: October 8, 1906
Died: August 29, 1966 (executed by hanging)
Visited the United States: 1948-1950
Joined Ikhwan (The Muslim Brotherhood): 1951
Published Ma'aallim Fittareek (Milestones): 1965

While barely known in the United States, Sayyid Qutb is the one man who could be considered the ideological grandfather of Osma bin Laden and the other extremists who surround him.

Although Sayyid Qutb started out as a literary critic, he became radicalized on a trip to the United States. Qutb travelled through America from 1948 to 1950, and was shocked at the moral and spiritual degeneracy he observed, stating that "No one is more distant than the Americans from spirituality and piety." This is something that would probably surprise Christian fundamentalists, who look upon this time quite fondly.

Not even American churches escaped his angry notice, and in his narratives he relates this incident:

    Every young man took the hand of a young woman. And these were the young men and women who had just been singing their hymns! Red and blue lights, with only a few white lamps, illuminated the dance floor. The room became a confusion of feet and legs: arms twisted around hips; lips met lips; chests pressed together.

It was partially due to such experiences that Qutb came to reject everything about the West, including democracy and nationalism. The United States at that time was, politically and socially, perhaps at the height of the West. Because it was so bad, he concluded that nothing the West had to offer was particularly good.

Unfortunately for him, the Egyptian government at that time was very pro-Western, and his new views brought him into conflict with the current regime. Like so many other young radicals, he was thrown in prison, where deprivation and torture were the norm. It was there, horrified by the barbarism of the camp guards, that he probably lost hope that the current regime could be called "Muslim."

Yet he had a lot of time to think about religion and society, allowing him to develop some of the most important modern ideological concepts which Islamic extremists still use. Because of this, Qutb wrote the widely influential book Malim if al-Tariq, "Signposts on the Road" (often simply called "Signposts") in which he made his case that social systems were either Nizam Islami (truly Islamic) or Nizam Jahi (pre-Islamic ignorance and barbarism).

This colored the world in stark terms of black or white; still, his immediate focus was Egypt, not the world at large, so the fact that the Egyptian government seemed to be squarely on the Nizam Jahi side determined the direction of his efforts for the remainder of his life. Qutb's role was important, because there had been an ideological vacuum in the Muslim Brotherhood since its leader Hasan al-Banna had been assassinated in 1949, and in 1952, Qutb was elected to the leadership council of the Brotherhood.

One of the most important things Sayyid Qutb wrote about was his explanation of how a Muslim might justly assassiate a ruler. For a long time, killing political rulers was expressly forbidden in Islam - even an unjust ruler was regarded as better than the anarchy of no ruler. Instead, the religious leaders of the ulama (Islamic scholars) were expected to keep the rulers in line.

But to Qutb, that obviously wasn't happening, and he found a way around it. According to him, the ruler of a Muslim nation who doesn't implement Islamic law is not really a Muslim. That being the case, they aren't really a Muslim ruler any more, but rather an infidel. This means that they can be killed with impunity:

    Thus, a society whose legislation does not rest on divine law (shari'at allah) is not Muslim, however ardently its individuals may proclaim themselves Muslim, even if they pray, fast, and make the pilgrimage.

But he did not simply make this up on his own. Like Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, founder of Pakistans radical Jamaat-i-Islami, Qutb relied on the writings of Ibn Taymiya (1268-1328), who argued the same thing during a time when the Mongols were attacking Islam, and many Muslims were forced to live under Mongol rulers. His equation of Taymiyya's political struggles with his own problems with the Nasser regime was risky because, in Islamic tradition, any Muslim who falsely accuses another of being an infidel could end up in hell.

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