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Sayyid Qutb

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Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb (Arabic سيد قطب‎; October 9, 1906 - August 29, 1966) was an Egyptian Islamist, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and inspiration, through his brother Muhammad for the Al-Qaeda group, and through his student Ayman Zawahiri, for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Sayyid Qutb: Biography

Qutb grew up in the small Egyptian village of Musha and educated in the traditional way based on the Quran. He moved to Cairo.  There he got a Western-style education between 1929 and 1933 and took a job as a a teacher in the Ministry of Public Instruction. In this period he was apparently a secular reformist, but was mostly concerned with literature rather than politics. He  wrote novels including  Ashwak (Thorns) and helped to publicize liberal Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. In 1939, Qutb became an administrator in the Egyptian Ministry of Education.

In 1948, Qutb was sent to the United States on a scholarship, ostensibly to study the educational system and possibly because the authorities wanted him out of Egypt. He  studyied at what was then Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley, Colorado. Qutb's stay in the United States was marked by culture shock evidently, though the ground must've been prepared beforehand. The town of Greeley was stern and conservative, but Qutb saw sin everywhere, and his memories of that period are peppered with misogynist and racist observations. He claimed that the United States had sent a female "agent" to seduce him while he was on the boat traveling from the United States. He was shocked by dancing between men and women, by Jazz music, democratic institutions and just about everything he saw in America. 

Qutb never married, because, he claimed, he could not find a woman pure enough to fit his ideal, and willing to satisfy his notions of the subservient place of women in Islam. His obsession with sexual purity, the fact that he never married and apparently had no sexual contacts, hint at repressed homosexuality or a psychosexual disorder that colored his thinking. 

Qutb's first major theoretical book about religious social criticism, Al-'adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi-l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), was published in 1949, during his stay in the United States.

Upon his return to Egypt, Qutb became active in the Muslim Brotherhood and soon took a leading role in it. Islamists of the Brotherhood supported Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers Coup. When the new Junta refused to turn Egypt into a theocracy, Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood plotted to kill Nasser. The attempt was foiled and Qutb was jailed in 1954. 

While in jail, Qutb composed what are considered his two most important books. He wrote a commentary of the Qur'an Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), considered the most popular Tafsir (exegesis) today. However, his most famous work is his exposition of political Islam  (Islamism), Milestones  (Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq). Milestones describes the very radical anarchistic ideology that formed the basis of modern Islamism and the cult of violent Jihad.  The school of thought they founded directly  is called  Qutbism.

In 1964 Qutb was released from prison, but in August of 1965, Qutb was rearrested after the Egyptian authorities uncovered another Muslim Brotherhood plot to assassinate Nasser. Sayyid Qutb was executed on August 29, 1966 for his part in the plot and in part evidently, for his writings in Milestones. He was immediately turned into a martyr and cult figure by Egyptian Islamists. Those who fault the Egyptian government of Nasser for executing Qutb should contemplate the fate of Anwar Sadat, who exercised greater leniency against the Jamaat Islamiyah, radical offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood who assassinated Sadat. 

Sayyid Qutb's Ideology

Qutb's ideology is based on that of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al Banna and that of Maulana Mawdudi and is a radical extension of both. The major premise of Qutb's ideology is  that the entire world has lapsed into a state of Jahiliyyah - intellectual and moral darkness such as reigned in Arabia before the advent of Islam. This included both the nominally Muslim states and the West, because all are ruled by the law of man rather then law of God.  For Qutb, the law of God must be derived directly from the Quran. He ignores all the schools of Muslim jurisprudence (Fiqh), all of which were formed and came into being after the end of the initial period of Islam and are therefore invalid. His aim is to free man from the rule of man. Therefore, in his view, the triumph of Nizzam al Islam - the Islamic order, will free everyone, and they should not be opposed to it.

Like Banna, Qutb advocated violent Jihad. Qutb's innovation is that he provided a theological basis for violent Jihad against Muslim governments as well. Explicitly, Jihad is to encompass the entire world. All current Muslim governments are heretical - Takfir according to Qutb, because they do not obey the rule of law- Sharia. Jihad must be carried out in all countries that do not obey Sharia law:

Any place where the Islamic Shari'ah is not enforced and where Islam is not dominant becomes the Home of Hostility (Dar-ul-Harb) ... A Muslim will remain prepared to fight against it, whether it be his birthplace or a place where his relatives reside or where his property or any other material interest are located. The homeland of the Muslim, in which he lives and [upon] which he depends, is not a piece of land; the nationality of the Muslim, by which he is identified, is not the nationality determined by a government ... striving is purely for the sake of God, for the success of His religion and His law .... [Milestones, pp 124-5]

There can be no coexistence with non-Islamic nations or between Muslims and non-Muslims except in abject subservience of non-Muslims:

Islam cannot accept any mixing with Jahiliyyah, either in its concept or in the modes of living which are derived from this concept.[Milestones, p.130]

It may happen that the enemies of Islam may consider it expedient not to take any action against Islam, if Islam leaves them alone in their geographical boundaries to continue the lordship of some men over others and does not extend its message and its declaration of universal freedom within their domain. But Islam cannot agree to this unless they submit to its authority by paying Jizyah, which will be guarantee that they have opened their doors for the preaching of Islam ...[Milestones p.73]


It is not the function of Islam to compromise with the concepts of Jahiliyyah which are current in the world or to coexist in the same land together with a jahili system. This was not the case when it first appeared in the world, nor will it be today or in the future. Jahiliyyah, to whatever period it belongs, is Jahiliyyah; that is, deviation from the worship of One God and the way of life prescribed by God. It derives its system and laws and regulations and habits and standards and values from a source other than God. On the other hand, Islam is submission to God, and its function is to invite people away from Jahiliyyah toward Islam.

Jahiliyyah is the worship of some people by others; that is to say, some people become dominant and make laws for others, regardless of whether these laws are against God's injunctions and without caring for the use or misuse of their authority.

Islam, on the other hand, is people's worshipping God alone, and deriving concepts and beliefs, laws and regulations and values from the authority of God, and freeing themselves from servitude to God's servants. This is the very nature of Islam and the nature of its role on the earth. This point should be emphasized to anyone whomsoever we invite to Islam, whether they be Muslims or non-Muslims. ref

The outlook of Qutb is reactionary regarding science:

The period of resurgence of science has also come to an end. This period, which began with the Renaissance in the sixteenth century after Christ and reached its zenith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, does not possess a reviving spirit. [Milestones p.8]

Qutb's views of the West, women, morality and the race question may summarized by these quotes:

About American women:

the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs -- and she shows all this and does not hide it. (source

About American music and Africans:

Jazz is his preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noise and to whet their sexual desires...

About Jewish people:

....explaining the purpose of man and his historical role in philosophical terms ... is one of the tricks played by world Jewry, whose purpose is to eliminate all limitations, especially the limitations imposed by faith and religion, so that Jews may penetrate into body politics of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs. At the top of the list of these activities is usury, the aim of which is that all the wealth of mankind end up in the hands of Jewish financial institutions which run on interest. [Milestones, p.110-111]

At the beginning the enemies of the Muslim community did not fight openly with arms but tried to fight the community in its belief through intrigue, spreading ambiguities, creating suspicions. They do likewise today. They have plotted and they go on plotting against this nation. Hundreds and thousands have infiltrated the Muslim world, and they still do in the guise of Orientalists. The pupils of the latter fill today the positions of the intellectual life of the countries whose people call themselves Muslim. Their aim is clearly shown by the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion]. The Jews are behind materialism, animal sexuality, the destruction of the family and the dissolution of society. Principal among them are Marx, Freud, Durkheim and the Jew Jean-Paul Sartre.


The Jews have confronted Islam with enmity fromt he moment the Islamic state was established in Mediana... the Muslim community continues to suffer the same Jewish machinations and double-dealing which discomfited the early Muslims... This is a war which has not been extinguished...for close on fourteen centuries its blaze has raged in all the corners of the earth and continues to this moment.

(Sayyid Qutb, "Ma'rakatuna ma'a al-Yahud," (Our Battle Against the Jews) [essay] 1951. Published in book of the same name [Ma'rakatuna ma'a al-Yahud], Jedda, Saudi Arabia, 1970)

Just as Wagner and the Nazis insisted that the Judentum  had "corrupted" "true" Aryan and German culture, Qutb expounded on the idea that Jews had infiltrated and corrupted Islam. This idea may have begun from his efforts to discredit the "Israeliyya" - portions of Islamic lore that were believed to have been inserted by Jews into Islamic tradition, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to Nazi propaganda. It's purpose is to discredit the ideas of other Muslims: 

Just as in the past, it was the Jews who had disrupted the early Islamic community... it was the Jews who had more recently undermined Islam by installing a generation of fifth-columnists in its midst, posing as true Muslims but in reality betraying the Muslim cause... The Jews have installed... a massive army of agents in the form of professors, philosophers, doctors, researchers... some even from the ranks of the Muslim religious authorities...intending to break the creed of the Muslims by weakening the Sharia in many ways... with this and that they fulfil the ancient rule of the Jews.

(Sayyid Qutb, "Ma'rakatuna ma'a al-Yahud," (Our Battle Against the Jews) Jedda, Saudi Arabia, 1970)

The basis of Islamism as developed by Qutb is therefore virulently anti-Semitic, independent of any issues related to Israel or Zionism. This explains the targeting of Jews in attacks by Al-Qaeda such as the one in Mumbai in November, 2008.

In Qutb's system, the confession of faith, the Shahada, seems to be a central mantra that is supposed to solve problems in and of itself. It is repeated quite often in Milestones in various contexts. At the same time, the individual confession of faith is not enough, there must be a Muslim society: 

This decisive step must be taken at the very moment a person says, "La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadar Rasul Allah" with his tongue. The Muslim society cannot come into existence without this. It cannot come into existence simply as a creed in the hearts of individual Muslims, however numerous they may be, unless they become an active, harmonious and cooperative group, distinct by itself, whose different elements, like the limbs of a human body, work together for its formation, its strengthening, its expansion, and for its defense against all those elements which attack its system, working under a leadership which is independent of the jahili leadership, which organizes its various efforts into one harmonious purpose, and which prepares for the strengthening and widening of their Islamic character and directs them to abolish the influences of their opponent, the jahili life. ( ref )  

Qutb, unlike the Shi'a Islam of the Ayatollah Khomeini and some others, had no concept whatever of Islamic governance, and said so expressly.

God Most High did not desire that all laws and regulations be revealed during the Meccan period so that Muslims would have a ready-made system to be applied as soon as they reached Medina; this is out of character for this religion. Islam is more practical than this and has more foresight; it does not find solution to hypothetical problems. It first looks at the prevailing conditions, and if it finds a viable society which, according to its form, conditions or temperament, is a Muslim society, which has submitted itself to the law of God and is weary of laws emanating from other sources, then indeed this religion provides a method for the legislation of laws according to the needs of such a society.

People who demand from Islam that it provide theories, and that it provide a completed constitution for its system, and that it provide laws, while they observe that there is not a single society on earth which has rejected man-made systems and agreed to enforce the Shari'ah, in addition to having political power for such enforcement, show that they are ignorant of the character of this religion and the way it operates in life. They are also ignorant of the purpose for which God revealed His religion. Ref  

There is no room, theoretically, in this system for anyone to interpret the Sharia. It is not necessary, because the truth will become manifest to the believers automatically through the practical daily application of Islam, without the intervention of human interpreters, as Qutb believed the laws were revealed and evolved gradually during the early years of Islam. 

Nonetheless it is clear that in Qutb's view the belief must in some way lead to an absolutist society, since surrender to the Quran must be total, and since the Muslim brotherhood itself is an absolutist hierarchy, as are all other organizations that sprung from Qutbist thought. 

The essence of Qutbism, the repetition of the phrase, "there is no God but Allah" as if it can answer all needs, perhaps provides the key to understanding its appeal to Muslims. According to Qutb:

The Meccan portion of the holy Qur'an, revealed to the Prophet - peace be on him - over a period of thirteen years, dealt with only one question. The nature of this question did not change, although the manner of its presentation varied according to the style of the Qur'an, which refers to this question in new ways, always as though it had been raised for the first time.

... This is that human problem which does not change; this is the question of man's existence in the universe, his ultimate goal, and his position and relationship to the universe; and the question of the relationship between him and the Creator of the universe. This aspect of man's life cannot change, as it relates to his very being.

During the Meccan period, the Qur'an explained to man the secret of his existence and the secret of the universe surrounding him. It told him who he is, where he has come from, for what purpose and where he will go in the end, Who brought him from nonexistence into being, to Whom he will return, and what his final disposition will be. It also informed him concerning the nature of the things which he can touch and see and the things which he can sense and conceive but which he cannot see, Who created and administers this marvellous universe, Who alternates night and day, and Who renovates and varies things. It also told him how to relate to the Creator, to the physical world, and to other human beings.ref

For Qutb, all this is one question, and the answer is "There is no god but Allah." The Islamists believe they are the only monotheists, a point that Qutb emphasizes in many places, and because of that, they deserve to rule.

The appeal of this idea to Muslims is explained in this candid, naive and openly racist and arrogant exposition by moderate Muslim Bassam Tibi:

Like peoples in non-Western civilizations, Muslims suffer the concrete effects of disruption and dislocation, but unlike the others they have a worldview that entitles them to dominate. But to to the contrary, they are dominated by others, to whom they feel -- thanks to their divine revelation -- superior. If this point is missed, Western observers will fail to grasp how Muslims feel about the current world order. (Tibi, Bassam, The Challenge of Fundamentalism, University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002, p 61).

To those familiar with European Fascist ideologies, it should not be necessary to elaborate on the psychology behind such a statement, and what it reveals about the nature of Islamism and the reasons why it has such wide support.

Muslim Critique of Sayyid Qutb

Muslim's criticize Qutb on various grounds. Social conservatives reject his advocacy of sharing wealth and social justice, which they consider to be unlawful innovation. Most official Muslim authorities condemn the idea of overthrowing Muslim governments by force.  Conventional religious conservatives object to his denial of the validity of Fiqh and wholesale accusations of Takfir and consider that there are many errors in his interpretation of the Quran, rejection of miracles and similar matters. A Salafi group has published a detailed critique of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideology developed by Banna ad Qutb: Historical Development of the Methodologies of the Ikhwan al Muslimeen and their effect on contemporary Salaafi Dawah. They claim that Muhammad Abduh, Hassan al-Banna and Muhammad Rashid Rida created an activist movement that was falsely presented as Salafiyyah, which damaged

Ami Isseroff

December 7, 2008


Loboda, Luke, The Thought of Sayyid Qutb: Radical Islam's Philosophical Foundations

Qutb, Seyd, Milestones

Swenson, Elmer, Sayed Qutb's Milestones

Tibi, Bassam, The Challenge of Fundamentalism, University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002.

Synonyms and alternate spellings:  Sayyed Kutb, Said Kotb, Kooteb

Further Information:  Muslim Brotherhood   History of Islam and the Arabs Al-Banna, Hassan Islamism Jihad Islamism Maududi, Abul ala Al-Afghani, Jamal_al-Din Muhammad Abduh Muhammad Rashid Rida

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