Who was Sayyid Qutb?
Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian writer, poet, critic, religious leader and a part of the 'Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.' He was a prolific writer who influenced several people. He wrote over 24 books, of which many were still unreleased at the time of his death or destroyed by the government. He also authored more than 581 articles on various subjects like literature and art, and several educational journals. He is renowned for his major work ‘Ma'alim fi al-Tariq’ or ‘Milestones,’ which laid out the socio-political significance of Islam. He also wrote ‘Fi Zilal al-Quran’ while in prison, which was a critique on the Quran. The literati community surrounded him throughout his life, and his community included political figures, poets, artists, and thinkers of his generation and also his seniors. His works were inculcated in several universities and colleges and taught as a part of school curriculum. His disdain of the Western culture, especially that of the United States, was evident. He viewed their lifestyle as obsessive, violent, and capitalistic. He was a proponent of jihad. His followers are now known as "Qutbists" or "Qutbi." He was executed after being arrested for conspiring against Gamal Abdel Nasser, the President of Egypt.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on 9 October 1906, in a village Musha in the Asyut district of Egypt, Sayyid Qutb Ibrahim Husayn Shadhili belonged to a family of landowners. His parents were Hajjī Ibrāhīm Qutb and Fātimah Husayn 'Uthmān.
He was the eldest of his siblings. He had a brother, Muhammad, and sisters, Amīnah and Hamīdah.
He grew up in a culturally-rich environment. His father held political discourses and also recited the Quran at home.
From a young age, he was an avid reader. He started to collect books like the Sherlock Holmes series. Books on magic and astrology fascinated him, and he was often found helping the locals with various rituals.
During his teenage years, he was doubtful of the religious organizations and how public opinion could be swayed by such organizations.
He also disliked educational institutions that focused mainly on religious education rather than a composite structural education of all subjects that would benefit the students.
He developed contempt towards the imams who taught only traditional educational subjects.
During 1929-33, he settled in Cairo and received a formal education which was at par with the British schooling system and started teaching at the Ministry of Public Instruction.
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Sayyid Qutb began his career as a teacher. In 1922, he published his initial paper in the magazine 'al-Balagh.' His first book, 'Muhimmat al-Sha'ir fi al-Haya waShi'r al-Jil al-Hadir' (The Mission of the Poet in Life and the Poetry of the Present Generation) was published in 1932, during his final year at the institution Dar al-Ulum.
He was impressed with philologist Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani and held him and his works in high esteem. By 1939, he was appointed as the 'wizarat al-ma'arif' in the Ministry of Education in Egypt.
During the 1940s, he came across the works of surgeon and Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel. His depiction of modern western civilization influenced him and he called it "depreciated humanity." He stated that the contemporary western culture created an individualistic society rather than cohesive communities.
Sayyid Qutb traveled to US and lived there for two years from 1948 to 1950. He was enrolled at the Colorado State College of Education, modern-day University of Northern Colorado.
He studied their educational system and also published one of his most significant works 'Al-'adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi-l-Islam' (Social Justice in Islam) in 1949.
He returned to Egypt and quit his government job and joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s. He started editing the 'Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin,' the Muslim Brotherhood weekly journal.
Views on Secularism
Sayyid Qutb started as a supporter of secularism; however, his views changed over time. Scholars have several theories on his change of mind.
Some believe that life in imprisonment from 1954 to 1964 altered his views. He saw how the Muslim Brothers were physically and mentally tortured, which made him think about a government that upheld the Islamic law that could limit the mistreatment.
Another explanation was his experience in US as a brown person, and Nasser's leniency towards the west showed him how being ignorant could be a threat to secularism.
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Sayyid Qutb in his later years based his political opinions on Islam and believed that it was a complete guide to an ideal life. He also thought that the government should incorporate sharia laws, though opinions vary in this regard.
He proposed the idea of a "just dictatorship" and political freedom based on the judgment of the just dictator.
Later, he revised his statements and said that according to the sharia laws, there should be no governing body above the laws. In his previous works, he had described military jihad as a means of defense, while later he stated that it could be considered offensive.
Sayyid Qutb opinions on the subject of Islamic governance differed from those of the reformists and modernist Muslims. The modernists believed that democracy was Islamic, as chapter Shura of the Quran legitimized elections and democracy.
However, he explained that the chapter of Shura was only known during the Mekkan period, where there was no issue of governance. He said that there was no mention of election or democracy in Shura, and the monarch conferred with only some of the ruled, as stated by the law.
He witnessed gruesome violence, assault, and torture during the 1952 Nasser Revolution and also was against the rising ideology of Arab nationalism.
Sayyid Qutb's works encouraged several Muslims but also faced harsh criticisms. In the aftermath of his book 'Milestones' and the failure of the conspiracy to assassinate Nasser, the orthodox Muslims opposed his views on "physical power, "institutions” and “traditions."
The scholars of Al-Azhar University declared him a "munharif" or deviant after his death. Modernist Muslims questioned his understanding of sharia, which he considered a remedy to all problems.
He was also criticized for his views on not only non-Muslim cultures, but also his rejection of the Muslim culture and the teachings of the first four caliphs.
The conservatives, on the other hand, considered his Islamist and reformist ideas as western and innovative, therefore blasphemous.
Family & Personal Life
Sayyid Qutb had respiratory problems coupled with other physical ailments. He remained a bachelor throughout his life. His religious beliefs stopped him from marrying.
He thought that the Quran taught women that "Men are the managers of women's affairs," and he said that he could never find a woman who possessed "moral purity and discretion" and therefore remained single.
In 1954, Qutb and the other Brotherhood members conspired to kill Nasser and overthrow his government. However, his plan was unsuccessful, and he was imprisoned along with the other Brotherhood members.
He was released from prison in 1964 at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Salam Arif. After eight months, he was again arrested for conspiring against the government.
Several charges were levied against Qutb. However, his trial was considered to be a sham. Eventually, he was given the death sentence along with six other participants from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sayyid Qutb was punished for plotting against the president and other Egyptian executives and conspiring to murder Nasser even though he never led any attacks. He was executed by hanging on 29 August 1966, when he was 59 years of age.