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Quṭb, Sayyid

Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966), or more fully, Sayyid Quṭb Ibrahīm Ḥusayn Shadhilī, was a literary critic, novelist, activist of the twentieth century, exceeding in reputation even the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ḥasan al-Bannā (1906–1949). His passionate writings contain powerful images of the maladies of contemporary Islamic societies and an idealization of the faith, through the words of the sacred texts. In his overall standing as an Islamic thinker and activist, he may be compared with Turkey's Bediüzzeman Said Nursî (1873–1960), Pakistan's Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979), and Iran's ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933–1977) and Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902–1989).

Early Life.

Born on October 9, 1906 in the village of Musha near the city of Asyut in upper Egypt, Quṭb was partly of Indian extraction. He was the eldest of five children, two brothers and three sisters. His father, al-Ḥajj Quṭb Ibrāhīm, was a member of Muṣṭafā Kamīl's Nationalist Party (al-Ḥizb al-Watani) and a subscriber to its newspaper, The Banner (al-Liwaʿ). Quṭb's family was in economic decline at the time of his birth, but it remained prestigious owing to his father's educated status.

Quṭb was a frail child, which may have influenced his tendencies toward deep spirituality. He is reported to have memorized the entire Qurʿān by the age of ten. Although he attended the village kuttāb (elementary religious school), he soon transferred to the government school, from which he graduated in 1918. Quṭb moved to al-Hilwan (a suburb of Cairo) in either 1919 or 1921. He is said to have lived with a journalist uncle from 1921 until 1925, enrolled in a teacher's training college in 1925, and graduated in 1928. He apparently attended classes informally at the Dar al-ʿUlum, established in 1872 as a modern Egyptian university on the Western model. In 1930 he was formally admitted to this institution and graduated in 1933 with a B.A. in arts education. In recognition of his accomplishments, he was appointed instructor at the Dar al-ʿUlum, but he mainly earned his living between 1933 and 1951 as an employee of the Ministry of Education, where he later held the post of inspector for some years.

During the 1930s, Quṭb wrote works of fiction, literary criticism, and poetry. He was influenced by such modernists as Tāhā Husayn (d. 1973), ʿAbbās al-ʿAqqād (d. 1964), and Aḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt (d. 1968). Al-ʿAqqād in particular introduced Quṭb to editors of various newspapers, and he wrote scores of articles over the course of his career for the Egyptian press. Ṭāhā Ḥusayn, who was a major advisor of the Ministry of Education, also encouraged him, at one time introducing his lectures to the Officers’ Club after the July 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy. However, Quṭb turned against both al-ʿAqqād, whose writings he deemed overly intellectualized, and Ḥusayn, on account of his Western orientations. Eventually, Quṭb left the Ministry of Education owing to disagreements with the government's educational policies as well as its submissiveness to the British. Quṭb joined the opposition Wafd Party of Saʿd Zaghlūl but eventually abandoned it to enter the breakaway Saʿdist Party on its emergence in 1937, only to break with it in 1942.

In 1948, still in the Ministry's employ, Quṭb was dispatched to the United States to study Western methods of education. He studied at Wilsons Teacher's College (now the University of the District of Columbia), at the University of Northern Colorado's Teachers’ College, where he earned an M.A. in education, and at Stanford University.

Quṭb spent about three years abroad, leaving America in the summer of 1950 and visiting England, Switzerland, and Italy on his way back to Egypt in 1951. His trip to the United States was a defining moment for him, marking a transition from literary and educational pursuits to intense religious commitment. Although he acknowledged the economic and scientific achievements of American society, Quṭb was appalled by its racism, sexual permissiveness, and pro-Zionism.

Political Involvement.

Back in Egypt, Quṭb refused a promotion to adviser in the Ministry of Education and began writing articles for various newspapers on social and political themes. In 1953, Quṭb joined the Muslim Brotherhood and was appointed editor of its weekly paper, al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn. Not long afterward, he became the director of the Muslim Brotherhood's Propaganda Section and was chosen to serve on the organization's highest bodies, the Working Committee and the Guidance Council.

It is said that Quṭb was a key liaison between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers, who overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Some of these men, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, visited his house just before the coup, and Quṭb was the sole civilian to attend meetings of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) after the seizure of power. He agreed to be an adviser to the RCC in cultural matters and briefly headed the Liberation Rally, the government-sponsored mass mobilization organization.

However, relations between the Free Officers and the Brotherhood soon deteriorated as it became clear that each side had a different agenda. The Brotherhood called for a referendum on the new constitution, anticipating that Egyptians would demand an Islamic fundamental law, but the RCC refused. The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the RCC's agreement with Britain in July 1954 to end the occupation because that agreement allowed the British to return their troops at any time during the next seven years if they perceived a threat to their interests. The Brotherhood demanded a plebiscite on the agreement, but it, too, was rejected out of hand. A tense standoff prevailed until October 1954, when shots were fired at Nasser during a speech.

The Muslim Brotherhood has always maintained that this incident was a provocation engineered by the regime to justify a sweeping crackdown against it. Quṭb, whom the regime had already detained for three months in early 1954 but then released, was caught in the net of arrests. Although he suffered from poor health, Quṭb was brutally tortured. In May 1955 he was transferred to the prison hospital. In July, the court sentenced him to fifteen years in prison, most of which he spent in the hospital. He witnessed continued torture against his colleagues in jail, with perhaps the worst episode occurring in 1957, when more than a score of the Muslim Brotherhood inmates were killed outright and dozens injured. Accordingly, Quṭb set in motion ideas for the creation of a disciplined secret cadre of devoted followers whose task originally was limited to self-defense. Without declaring it publicly, however, Quṭb came to believe in using violence against the government if it used force against his organization. Still later, he came to the view that violence was justified even if the regime were merely deemed unjust and refused to alter its behavior.

Owing to intervention by the Iraqi president, ʿAbd al-Salām ʿĀrif (in office 1964–1966), Quṭb was released in May 1964. But in August 1965 he was rearrested on charges of terrorism and sedition. The trial was a fiasco. The authorities initially permitted media coverage, but when the defendants talked about their torture, the proceedings were shifted behind closed doors. Incontrovertible evidence against Quṭb was apparently not presented, as his revolutionary tract, Maʿalim fi al-Ṭariq (Milestones, 1964)—the chief document upon which the prosecutors relied—did not explicitly call for armed overthrow of the government. Rather, it urged resistance by encouraging believers to turn away from existing society and create a model ummah (Islamic community) that would eventually establish true Islam. Despite great international pressure, including from the Vatican, the government executed Quṭb and two colleagues on August 29, 1966. Ever since, his supporters have considered him a martyr.


Perhaps more than any other post–World War II Sunnī Muslim thinker, Sayyid Quṭb personifies the determination of Islamist movements to oppose the West, Israel, and leaders in Islamic societies whom they consider to be disregarding Allah's law. Quṭb regarded the leaders of Islamic societies of whom he disapproved, and the societies they ruled, as living in a state of jāhilīyah (literally, ignorance of the truths of revelation). His most important political work, Milestones, contains trenchant attacks against jāhilīyah, which he perceived to pervade contemporary life throughout the world. The symbolism of this concept is highly charged because it is the term used to describe pagan Arabia prior to the revelation. Quṭb's writings have been translated into Persian, Turkish, Urdu, English, and other languages. Their availability in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s is a matter of public record. Indeed, ʿAli Khameneʿi, who was to succeed Khomeini as the “revolutionary leader,” translated into Persian parts of Quṭb's Qurʿānic commentary, Fi Zilal al-Qurʿān (In the Shade of the Qurʿān).

Quṭb's writings show his uncompromising commitment to the sacred text. It is self-evident to him that if the Qurʿān contains a message, then human beings must obey that message. Quṭb was so clear on this in his own mind that it did not occur to him that Muslims, living in historical time, might reinterpret their traditions and their past in the context of their contemporary historical circumstances, nor that earlier understandings of scripture by the pioneers of Islam were themselves interpretations of texts whose true meanings could not be categorically determined. Quṭb plainly held that Islam is a timeless body of ideas and practices whose import is self-evident. Thus, in his mind, people have no excuse to fail to adhere to God's word. This failure is a brazen refusal, as he sees it, to accept God's commands and is not due to ambiguities that must be construed via hermeneutical discourse.

Quṭb thought of Islam as a comprehensive way of life. Islam thus provides model solutions to all aspects of human existence. In his most sustained exposition of his views, Khasaʿis al-tasawwur al-Islami wa muqawwimatuhu (The Characteristics and Constitutive Elements of the Islamic Conception; 1962), Quṭb elaborates on the themes of the oneness of Allah, Allah's divine nature, the permanence of Allah's order, its all-encompassing nature, the balanced interplay between what can be known and what must remain unknown, the positive quality of Allah's construction of the universe, and the real, practical engagement by the individual in this universe. It is sufficient to say here that ultimately these qualities range Islam, in Quṭb's perspective, along an axis of social commitment and activism.

One key to Quṭb's overall social and political program is its organic view and connotations of corporatism. This is interesting in view of his explicit rejection of Greek thought and Islamic Neo-platonic philosophy, themselves steeped in corporate and organic assumptions about society. More specifically, Quṭb believes that Muslims cohere in an entity that he calls tajammuʿ haraki (which Binder has translated as “dynamic concrescence”). This entity is, in fact, the embodiment of the ummah, which he reifies into a living organism with attributes of thought and behavior. The success of this dynamic concrescence lies in its acceptance of the trust given to it by Allah to master the world and benefit from its resources, but the purpose of this mastery is to obey the sovereign commands, the ḥākimīyah of Allah. Quṭb holds that the dynamic concrescence is a real phenomenon acting in society and the world, and that it experiences change, has practical purposes, and is thoroughly enmeshed in the immediacy of everyday existence. The sources for its existence and behavior lie entirely outside itself and are rooted in revelation (Binder, pp. 178–179).

Quṭb is suspicious of human reason as an instrument that guides human action. The reason is that individuals are either going to obey or disobey God's commands. If they disobey, then reason is one of the causes of their disobedience. If they obey, it is purely the result of submission to the divine purpose. The apprehension of true knowledge is not a matter of intellectual activity but of the reception of truths that are absolutely divine in their origins. As he sees it, the workings of discursive logic or inductive analysis are not necessary for, and are actually inimical to, the triumph of mankind in Allah's universe. Rather, that triumph depends upon the ability and willingness of the human being to follow God's commands as they are inscribed in scripture.

Reflecting the ideas of Mawdūdī, Quṭb focused on the so-called ḥākimīyah (sovereignty) verses of the Qurʿān (5: 44, 45, 47; 12: 47, 60). Verses 44, 45 and 47 of the fifth surah of the Qurʿān are nearly identical and have been classically understood by the commentators of the Qurʿān across the centuries to state: “And those who do not judge according to what God has revealed are unbelievers… oppressors… sinners.” Verses 47 and 60 of the twelfth surah, according to these commentators, state: “Verily, judgment is God's alone.” Like Mawdūdī, Quṭb understands the verb in verses 44, 45, and 47 to be “rule,” and the noun in verses 47 and 60 to be “rulership.” Rendered in this innovative way, the verses implicitly sanction collective action to dismiss rulers who fail to apply Allah's revelations. Quṭb invoked the precedent of Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), who anathematized the Mongols, despite their adoption of Islam, for their impious beliefs and actions. Just as the fourteenth-century jurist had advocated disobedience to Mongol leaders, so Quṭb and his supporters came to the view that Islam made armed resistance not only permissible or commendable but mandatory against nominally Muslim rulers who were deemed to be anti-Islamic in their beliefs and conduct.


Among the movements that Quṭb's writings have inspired are the Egyptian groups known as al-Fanniyah al-ʿAskariyah (The Technical Military Academy Group), Jamāʿat Takfīr wa al-Hijrah (Those Who Pronounce Unbelief Upon Others and Advocate Emigration to Islam), al-Jihād, the group that claimed responsibility for the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, and al-Jamāʿat-i al-Islāmī (the Islamic Group). A reading of al-Faridah al-Ghaʿibah (The Neglected Duty, manuscript, 1979–1980, first published in December 1981), by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj on behalf of al-Jihād, reflects that organization's indebtedness to Quṭb's ideas about jāhilīyah, ḥākimīyah, and jihād (struggle for the sake of God). Groups outside Egypt have claimed Quṭb's legacy as well. His writings are frequently read by Sunnī opposition groups, such as Jabhat al-Inqādh al-Islāmī (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria; the Tunisian Islamic Tendency Movement (al-Ittijāh al-Islāmī); now called Ḥizb al-Nahḍah; the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, Syria, and Jordan; Ḥamās, in the Gaza Strip and West Bank; the Ṭaliban in Afghanistan; and, among others, a number of Islamist groups across Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Africa. The transnational Tanẓīm al-Qaʿida also considers itself to be a legatee of Quṭb's tradition. Shīʿī groups, including Ḥizbullāh in Lebanon, the Ḥizb al-Daʿwah in Iraq, and even the Iranian clerical establishment, have taken certain cues from Quṭb, although they disagree with him on the question of leadership. It can thus be concluded that Quṭb's role in inspiring Islamic revivalist movements since the late 1960s might be even greater than that of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Critiques of Quṭb's Thought.

Ultimately, Quṭb's worldview rests on a manifest ahistoricity. He is not interested in a historically grounded analysis of the development of law in Islam, for example. Rather, one finds repeated references to the primary sacred texts, the Qurʿān and, to a lesser extent, the ḥadīths. Quṭb does not acknowledge that Qurʿānic and ḥadīth texts might not be self-evident and that, as they are interpreted over the centuries, people might come to different conclusions as to their meanings.

The tone of Quṭb's writings is exhortatory and didactic. As a professional educator, Quṭb stressed the role of tutor instructing students in the verities of the true faith: the enemy is at the gates in the form of international neo-Crusaders seeking to destroy the identity of the Muslims and domestic despots who set up their own laws in defiance of what Allah has revealed. He believed both the capitalist and communist systems were materialistic, spiritually bankrupt, and hostile to Islam. The one, he believed, fell victim to rampant and grotesque individualism while the other brutally enslaved the human being.

Despite his unreconstructed rejection of “Western” values, Quṭb, as is often the case with other twentieth-century Islamic thinkers, does not hesitate to invoke concepts rooted in the Western tradition. He does not acknowledge the Western provenance of such ideas, reaching into the early Islamic period instead to argue that they in fact are endemic to Islam. In fact, however, many of these concepts derive either from the ancient Greek tradition or otherwise emanate from the period of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and its aftermath.

An example of Western roots to Quṭb's thought can be seen in his concept of democracy. No Arabic word for this term exists, so the cognate al-dimuqratīyah has been devised. Despite Quṭb's sensitivity to language issues, he never asks why Muslims use the word in this cognate form. He is satisfied to find two brief references to shūrā (consultation) in the Qurʿān (3:159 and 42:38), from which he constructs a full-blown system of (Islamic) “democracy.” Although commentators of the Qurʿān for centuries have understood these two verses to mean something different from the modern notion of political democracy in its twin attributes of individual freedom and social equality, as institutionalized in representative bodies endowed with sovereign authority, Quṭb is not deterred from vindicating the Islamic roots of democracy.

The same can be said of social justice. It was not until the twentieth century that the phrase al-ʿadālah al-ijtimaʿīyah (social justice) was even used by jurists in Islamic law, although medieval writers, such as Abū Bakr al-Turtushi (d. 1127), Najm al-Dīn al-Tūfī (d. 1316), ibn Taymīyah, and Abū Zayd ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406), focused on the justice and injustice of rulers and the requirement that the state pursue justice to ensure the maṣlaḥah (public interest) of the Muslims. Quṭb's method is to find verses in the Qurʿān referring to Allah bidding people to “justice” (16:90) or verses pertaining to the perfection of Allah's words in “justice” (6:115). The view of justice that emerges from the scripture is a highly abstract and idealized interpretation of what can be termed “divine justice,” perceived without regard to social reality as captured in the historical record.

By contrast, social justice, as understood in modern discourse, comes from the tradition of natural law and the philosophy of law, which are anthropocentric. The very phrase “social justice” implies equity considerations in the context of the development of human societies in historical time, rather than a reified category that is theocentric at its very core. Accordingly, the phrase “social justice,” so important for Quṭb, contains within it the subversion of his project, which is based on the belief that truth is to be found immediately in revelation, not be referenced to human endeavors in history.

Notwithstanding, as would be the case with Iranian ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (d. 1977), a critique of Quṭb that remains at this level misses the point. His advocacy of revolutionary change to restore a pure Islamic order has resonated powerfully among those disgusted with the system that the leaders of the Muslim world have erected. Quṭb's evocations and invocations of concepts that seemingly come from Western traditions are apparently one of the ironies of the Islamic resurgence that has evolved during the last two generations. But the measure of Quṭb's contributions will no doubt be the impact that he has had in this period as the nonpareil exemplar of collective protest against those deemed to be the enemies of Islam.



  • Akhavi, Shahrough. “The Dialectic in Contemporary Egyptian Social Though: The Scripturalist and Modernist Discourses of Sayyid Quṭb and Ḥasan Ḥanāfī.”International Journal of Middle East Studies29 (August 1997): 377–401.
  • Akhavi, Shahrough. “Sayyid Quṭb: The ‘Poverty of Philosophy’ and the Vindication of Islamic Tradition.” In Cultural Transitions in the Middle East, edited by Serif Mardin, pp. 130–152. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill Publishers, 1994. Examines Quṭb's indebtedness to concepts from Western political and social traditions.
  • Barkat, Muhammad Tawfiq. Sayyid Quṭb: Khulasat hayatihi, manhajuhu fi al-harakah, al-naqd al-muwajjah ilayhi (Sayyid Quṭb: A Summary of His Life, the Dynamics of His Method, and a Critique). Beirut, 1970. Particularly useful for certain biographical information.
  • Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Sophisticated and incisive analysis of Quṭb's writing in the context of a critique of the liberal dimension in contemporary Muslim thought.
  • Euben, Roxanne. Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Subtle examination of the meaning of rationalism and non-rationalism in relationship to Islamic and Western post-modernist thought, finding significant overlaps in both.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Y.“The Qurʿānic Justification for an Islamic Revolution: The View of Sayyid Quṭb.”Middle East Journal37 (Winter 1983): 14–29. Important essay delineating Quṭb's political activism by reference to the sacred texts of Islam.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Y.“Sayyid Quṭb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 67–98. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. Assessment of Quṭb's writings in the broader context of activist Islamist movements.
  • Jansen, Johannes J. G.The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East. New York and London: Macmillan, 1986. Noteworthy work that includes an assessment of the ideas of the “al-Jihād” organization, focusing on their revolutionary tract, al-Faridah al-Ghaʿibah (The Neglected Duty), whose author was influenced by Quṭb's ideas.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Contains important information on Islamic groups influenced by Quṭb.
  • Khalidi, Salah ʿAbd al-Fattah. Sayyid Quṭb, al-Shahid al-Hayy (Sayyid Quṭb, the Living Martyr). Amman: Maktabat al-Aqsa, 1981. One of the most reliable works on Quṭb's life.
  • Mitchell, Richard P.The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Classic work on the Muslim Brotherhood, including references to Quṭb's role.
  • Mawsilli, Ahmad S.Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Quṭb. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1992. Sustained analysis of Quṭb's ideas by a keen observer, emphasizing the progressiveness of Quṭb's writings in the context of Muslim fundamentalist and modernist thought.
  • Quṭb, Muhammad ʿAli. Sayyid Quṭb: al-Shahid al-Aʿzal (Sayyid Quṭb: The Unarmed Martyr). Cairo: al-Mukhtar al-Islam, 1974. Appreciation of Quṭb's work by his brother.
  • Shepard, William. S.“The Development of the Thought of Sayyid Quṭb as Reflected in Earlier and Later Editions of ‘Social Justice in Islam.’ ”Die Welt des Islams32 (1992): 196–236. Study of Quṭb's earlier social writings, especially various editions of his Social Justice in Islam (1948).
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