December 22, 2004

Qutb, Sayyid 2)

Biography isn't destiny, but sometimes a little context is in order, particularly so when we consider the writings of Sayyid Qutb. What follows is not so much a biographical essay, but a few odds and ends I've picked up here and there about Qutb that I either help explain or further muddy the question, "Who was Sayyid Qutb?" [A previous post considering this question can be found here.]

It's worth noting out that there's little in Qutb's biography to suggest that he himself was a violent man (though such notations can be meaningless -- the wheelchair-bound Sheikh Yassin comes to mind). The Egyptian authorities did arrest Qutb in 1954, imprisoned him for years, and later, in 1966, tried him for treason (this essay, rather sympathetic to Qutb, says that the charge was "plotting to bring about a Marxist coup), but most likely Qutb wasn't actively engaged in plotting of any sort (which doesn't mean he didn't advocate violence -- he certainly did, and argued that jihad could not be merely defensive -- the sword had to spread the one true faith). Of course, I could well be wrong -- he may well have issued secret orders to his devotees to assassinate the looming Satan -- Nasser -- but my hunch is that Qutb probably had little talent for or interest in the specifics of terror; his interests lay elsewhere.

Which is not to say that the figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser wasn't critical in Qutb's thinking. From our vantage point, Egyptian politics in the 1940s, 50s and 60s may seem to be a remote subject, but this was the milieu from which Qutb's thought emerged, and which led Qutb to label as jahiliyyah -- that horrible society of incest and corruption, an equivalent of Sodom and Gamorrah -- most of the modern world. Qutb's expansion of jahiliyyah may well have been a reaction to Nasser.

It's important to note that Qutb didn't spring full blown from Islamic or Arabic culture like Athena from Zeus' head. As a child he was a fairly diligent memorizer of the Qur'an; in his youth the provincial Qutb was shocked by the free and easy and cosmopolitan ways of British Cairo, but that shock didn't prevent him from at one point endorsing nudism (that is, nudism) as a means of regenerating Arab society. Qutb was close to the Muslim Brotherhood in the heady days before the free officers' revolt that brought Nasser to power, but he was also close to those officers as well. Nazih Ayubi related, in Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World, that Qutb,

...was no outsider to the revolution. He had met Nasser before the coup, and pinned great hopes on his movement. Indeed he had cooperated directly with the revolution from the beginning and had an office at the headquarters of the Revolutionary Command Council, where he was in charge of restructuring school curricula for the new regime. He was also later appointed as secretary-general to the Liberation Rally which had been announded in 1953 as the regime's first experiment with the single polticial organization formula. Qutb also knew Kamal al-Din Husain, the Free Officer with Ikhwan [or Muslim Brotherhood -- ideofact] sympathies who proposed him as a Minister of Education and who required the teaching of his nationalist hymns in government schools. Indeed Qutb's support for the revolution was so strong that he sent an open letter to Muhammad Nagib asking the latter to establish a 'just dictatorship' in the land through the revolution.

Dictatorship is what the Egyptians got, of course, and to Qutb's lights it was unjust. The military junta started acting like a junta, and once it had consolidated its power the Ikhwan -- which switched its allegiances to Nasser when Nagib, the first revolutionary leader of Egypt, got in Nasser's way -- ceased to serve a useful purpose. It was suppressed, along with anyone else who might challenge Nasser.

Ayubi notes two things that happened to Qutb at this juncture. Most obviously, the betrayal by Nasser and the Free Officers must have been, in Ayubi's words, psychologically devastating. (In fairness to Nasser, one should probably point out that Ikhwan in their turn saw him as a means to fulfilling their end -- seizing power and doing away with the "modernizing" Free Officers and pan-Arabists.) Qutb moved firmly into the Ikhwan camp in response. Secondly, and more subtly -- Nasser adopted much of the Ikhwan's (and Qutb's) social project. One party rule, enforced solidarity among the classes, nationalization of resources and industries, and so on. Qutb, in prison, watched in bitterness as the project he had envisioned as one of Islamic renewal failed under Nasser's stewardship. Qutb's writings ceased to offer social prescriptions on the order of the recommendations offered at the end of Social Justice in Islam. Instead (again quoting Ayubi) Qutb offered something else:

...the Qutbian discourse is political in only a rather unusual sense. It tends to influence people's thoughts and actions in a psychologically tense way that creates in the individual not the ability to reconstruct reality, but rather the dream of breaking with that reality. It is a position of utter refusal to enter into any dialectical relationship with objective realities or to prepare any societal alternatives to the status quo. Rather, the task is to obliterate the existing order completley, and it is only then that the opportunity for applying options and solutions may emerge.

A dream of breaking with reality, a refusal to enter into any dialectical relationship with reality -- that seems to be a fairly good description of those who plotted and carried out the September 11 attacks.

Posted by Ideofact at December 22, 2004 12:55 AM

Great post. A couple months ago I read Said Aburish's excellent biography Nasser: The Last Arab (it gives a great overview of the politics of the MidEast during the 40's, 50's, 60's and early 70's that makes it worth the price alone) and in it he describes the reasons for Ihkwan's disgust at Nasser's regime. You're right, after the Free Officer's Coup in 1952, the Muslim Brotherhood turned away from Nasser primarily because of his secular socialist policies. In 1954, there was an assasination attempt on Nasser that almost succeeded and the Muslim Brotherhood was the main suspect. So, Nasser arrested and tortured thousands of members, including Qutb, and banned the organization in Egypt.

I found this depiction of his initial torture on the Young Muslims site:

In early 1954, when the Egyptian secret service came to arrest him, Sayyid Qutb was running a high fever. They insisted on putting the handcuffs on him and forcing him to walk to prison. On the way, he fainted several times from weakness. Once inside the prison compound, a specially-trained dog was unleashed upon him which dragged him around for more than two hours. He was then interrogated for seven hours without a break.
I remain very intrigued by Qutb's life and works, how they gave birth to such a utopian nightmare ideology as radical Islamism is.

Your Qutb posts do everyone a valuable service.

Posted by: LJ at December 22, 2004 10:31 AM

LJ -- thanks for the kind words.

I'd heard about the handcuffs and the interrogation, but the dog story is a new one.

I miss your blog -- are you thinking of returning to it?

Posted by: Bill at December 22, 2004 10:58 AM

As salaamu 'alaykum,

To say that Sayyid Qutb was not interested in preparing an alternative but simply in destroying what existed is simply false.

His idea about societal change was a long term vision for truly changing the worldviews of people -- it was not a political program which desired to change one ruler for another or to make small minor changes in the division of the pie.

Most of all Sayyid Qutb, like all the Prophets -- Joseph, Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Noah, Muhammad and those who believed and followed them on their path throughout history WAS and IS primarily about the Hereafter. It is about realizing that this world is fleeting and illusory. When it comes to an end the true reality will begin.

This may seem fanatical or scary or just plain silly to those who do not believe. It is most troubling to those who rule societies or live with comforts they don't want to disturb. These people, these oppressors seek to maintain their status by telling people to be afraid. Be afraid of Jesus, be afraid of Moses, be afraid of Muhammad. Be afraid of the Muslims. These people are not logical. These people believe in fantastic notions like Virgin Births and revelation from God. They reject the idea that the creation of humans is a fortuitous accident of evolution.

And so the followers of God's Messengers have always been first and foremost among the poor, the slaves, the oppressed, and from others who were not interested in the comforts of this life and who were willing to give up everything they had only seeking reward in the HereAfter.

Indeed it is not a refusal to engage with reality -- only a refusal to agree with the oppresors and the tyrants and the disbelievers and the idol worshippers about what reality really is.

There is an amazing surah (and they are all amazing) in the Qur'an called Surah Haaqqah. One way to translate haaqah is the reality. (haqq means truth)

Read that surah. Indeed if you do not believe in God or the hereafter you will not find yourself in agreement with what God says in the Surah. But you will find what Sayyid Qutb and all those who do confirm the Qur'an as the word of God know to be the true reality.

If at the end of the day, the charge is that Sayyid Qutb did not understand Reality as you understand it but understood it as God told us all to understand it, then Sayyid Qutb stands guilty of your charge.

And I pray to God that I may stand guilty of that charge as well.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 27, 2004 06:38 PM

Here is a link to Pickthall's translation of the meanings of Surah Haaqqah.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 27, 2004 06:41 PM

Abu Noor,

I'm going to pick on one point you make in your post, a point I think we've touched on before. I think I've argued that Qutb's notion of a transformation being wrought in man -- his vision of the New Islamist Man -- isn't much different from the idea of the New Soviet Man or the New National Socialist Man.

If men were made of such stuff as could be perfected or transformed by the Qur'an, wouldn't that already have occurred? In the days of the Prophet, let us say? Among those who were closest to him? Surely murder wouldn't be the chosen means of transfering power from one Caliph to another among these men if such a change had been affected, no? Surely these men would be most likely to have stayed true to the straight and narrow, and not to have been seduced by worldly riches.

And please note I'm not suggesting the fault lies in Islam -- on the contrary. The mistake lies in believing that man is perfectable, that pious men and women will be immune to the seductions of power, that they'll be incorruptible.

Certainly some individuals have proven to be incorruptible (and this seems to have less to do with an adherence to any faith but rather a matter of individual personality), but they're rare, and a well-functioning society cannot count on them to appear like clockwork at the helm of state.

Qutb's prescription for a transformed humanity is no prescription at all. It is instead a break with reality.

Posted by: Bill at December 27, 2004 10:01 PM


All Muslims, including Qutb and myself understand that human beings are not perfect.

The Prophet (saw) who was an example of the perfect human being, but the Prophets are only so through blessings bestowed on them that are unique to the station of being a Prophet, himself said:

"Every child of Adam commits sins and the best of the sinners is the one who repents to God."

The Prophet (saw) also said that no one, not even himself would enter paradise solely because of his deeds. Instead, all humans depend on the mercy of God to enter paradise. (Deeds are still extremely important as a means of gaining the mercy of God -- Muslims do not accept the idea that faith alone can enter one into Paradise indeed to a Muslim the idea of true faith without deeds is an impossibility).

I know the above may seem off the point but to be honest I do not see where Qutb believes that humans can or will be perfect. This is why I stress to you -- its about the akhirah. I don't think the idea that humans can be better and can be different than they are now implies that they can be perfect. Humans aspire to certain standards and the life of this world is a struggle to purify and improve oneself. The aim is not to actually reach a state of perfection in this world. The aim is to sincerely show God that one is trying so that when one meets his or her Lord and is judged they do so in the best state possible.

Indeed the companions of the Prophet Muhammad have been testified by God and His Messenger to be the best generation ever. So, not only do we as Muslims realize we're not going to perfect, we realize we will never be as good, on the whole, as they were. They were specially chosen by God due to their individual qualities and on top of that they had the Prophet teaching them directly and they had the Qur'an being revealed to them as situations arose.

Due to the superiority of the companions over ourselves, we do not question their motives or ascribe any ill to them. When they disagreed, they all sincerely thought they were right, and we are in no position to judge.

The early Khalifas were not killed by other companions, by the way. It is true that during the time of 'Ali, some of the sahaba fought each other and as we said all are considered to have been sincere.

So, perhaps you can show me where, Bill, it is that Qutb suggests that humans can be made perfect or where he states this is his goal so I can better understand what you are saying.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 28, 2004 11:03 AM

As salaamu 'alaykum,

Just to add -- the question of human perfectibility is of course something which has been present throughout the history of human thought and philosophy and various different stripes of people have argued for or against it based on all different types of reasons or understandings of the world.

My contention is that you say that Qutb believes in human perfectibility but I don't see that he does and in fact think this is not the issue. I think, as I tried to argue above, that the whole idea that Qutb was utopian in this thought is incorrect. It is just a reflection of the inability of people who are completely secularized in their thought to really understand what Qutb is thinking and saying. One has to at least understand the idea of profound sincere belief in revelation to understand where Qutb is coming from. This is why if you really want to understand Qutb one should read his whole commentary of the Qur'an, instead of just picking books that are specifically addressed to aspects of Islamic thought that are more explicitly political in nature. If you did, you might well be uninterested in a large amount of 'religious' discussion, but this is why it is hard for a person who doesn't appreciate revelation to appreciate the worldview of one who believes in revelation.

I think this is an overall important point for those who wish to understand "Islamism" to grapple with. The ideas of people who take Islaam seriously and wish to bring it into the political realm are not, in fact, utopian.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 28, 2004 02:39 PM

Bill, one more point.

The idea that the Qur'an, or Islam, or profound religious faith can 'transform' people is in fact, part of Islam.

I have seen it in my own life as well as even much more dramatically in the lives of others around me.

The example of the people who lived on the Arabian peninsula at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) is probably the most glaring single historical example of Islam transforming a whole generation and whole societies but it is certainly not the only one. None of this means that these people are turned into angels (who never disobey God) nor that society becomes a utopia.

The transformation is nevertheless real.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 28, 2004 02:46 PM

I guess that should be 'nonetheless' real.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 28, 2004 04:39 PM

Abu Noor,

Go back and reread this post, which quotes Qutb's Milestones, specifically this:

This aspect of the nature of Islam defines the way it is to be founded and organized: by implanting belief and strengthening it so that it seeps into the depths of the human soul. This is essential for its correct development, for only through this method can a relationship be secured between that part of the tree of religion which reaches upward and the roots which are in the depths of the earth.

When belief in "La ilaha illa Allah" penetrates into the deep recesses of the heart, it also penetrates through the whole system of life, which is a practical interpretation of this faith. By this means, those who believe are already pleased with the system which this faith uniquely determines and submit in principle to all the laws and injunctions and details even before they are declared. 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. Compare this with the efforts of secular governments. At every stage they have to rely on legislation, administrative institutions, police and military power, propaganda and the press, and yet they can at most control what is done publicly, and society remains full of illegal and forbidden things.

Now, either Qutb's words actually mean something -- actually have some specific meaning which you and I can talk about, or, if you prefer, they mean nothing at all. I leave it to you to choose which.

As a more general comment, I'm starting to worry about you. Reread your first post on this thread, my friend. You're dangerously close to calling Qutb a prophet, and you also seem to want to defend him from any criticism, as if Qutb were infallible, as if any criticism of him were illegitimate, as if Qutb's word was holy writ.

The earlier Qutb -- the pre-arrest Qutb, the Qutb of Social Justice in Islam -- did offer a more specific program for governance (one party rule, nationalism of natural resources and key industries, converting the educational system into a progaganda arm of the regime), but none of these positions were particularly different from those of, say, Sati' al-Husri, who was in many ways Qutb's opposite number in the Arab nationalist camp.

The Qutb of Milestones, by contrast, offers sentences like, "...those who believe are already pleased with the system which this faith uniquely determines and submit in principle to all the laws and injunctions and details even before they are declared."

Clearly, any government with citizens like that wouldn't need to be a government.

I can certainly understand it if you'd argue that Qutb had no desire to design a specific government, that he was first and foremost a critic of the rotten Egyptian regime to which he initially gave his enthusiastic support, that having learned from bitter firsthand experience how inadequate his grasp of politics was, he demurred. There's no sin, after all, in not being a Madison or a Jefferson.

Posted by: Bill at December 29, 2004 12:07 AM


In no way do I think that Qutb is a prophet, (May Allaah (swt) protect us from such an idea!), nor do I really know what I've said that would lead you to conclude that.

You are correct that it may seem as if I am defending Qutb on every point you make but really it's just because I don't think you've made any valid criticisms, at least none that I've understood correctly.

In fact, I think our dialogue has run into dead ends for two basic reasons. First, because you continue to accuse Qutb of saying things that I don't see in my reading of Qutb. Second, because your other criticisms of Qutb for which you do provide specific quotes are often, perhaps unknowingly by you, just paraphrases of the Qur'an or of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). So by saying such ideas are unacceptable or are somehow communist, you're really accusing Islam of being unacceptable or of being somehow based on Marxism!

A good example is the statements you quote in this post: "those who believe are already pleased with the system which this faith uniquely determines and submit in principle to all the laws and injunctions and details even before they are declared."

The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said "None of you truly believes until your own inclinations are in accordance with the message I have brought"

The longer paragraph you quote above describes a historical fact. When you have a community full of believers such as the companions of the Prophet (saw) when a messenger ran through the streets shouting that verses had come down from God outlawing alcohol, the companions rushed to throw away their alcohol to such an extent that it flowed in the streets of Madinah. Some companions who had just recently finished drinking forced themselves to vomit to get the alcohol out of their bodies.

There are numerous other examples. The point is that if people believe in God and they believe God is telling them something they do not have to be forced to obey, but they will obey willingly. It's not any more mysterious of a concept than that. Which is precisely why Qutb, especially in his later years, realized that the important thing in bringing in Islamic society was encouraging people to renew their faith, their belief and knowledge of Islam.

So, the above words you quote mean something, something which is profound but is not really that complex or difficult to understand. I would be happy to discuss it more with you with specific examples if you wish. And it is exactly this point that a non-believer may find frightening or difficult to understand the true power of faith not just at an individual level, but at a societal level as well.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 29, 2004 11:30 AM

Just to pre-empt one possible misunderstanding.

There is no claim that no Muslim ever drank after the ayahs came down or that no Muslim engages in riba (interest) there are of course some people who call themselves Muslims that engage in both even up to this day.

By using the term 'call themselves Muslim' I am not saying they are not Muslim. They have to ask themselves that question: how do they reconcile the fact that God told them drinking is forbidden and they do it. But no one can doubt that there is a contradiction there, that there is a problem.

What I am saying is that there are many, many people who have true faith and when God says something it changes them immediately.

I have seen this power in my own life, and those around me. You probably have too Bill, or at least you've read about it.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 29, 2004 11:39 AM

I too have been feeling this dialogue hasn't been particularly productive.

So, just for the record, you have no problem with statements like this from Qutb:

The statement that "Culture is the human heritage" and that it has no country, nationality or religion is correct only in relation to science and technology-as long as we do not jump the boundary of these sciences and delve into metaphysical interpretations, and start explaining the purpose of man and his historical role in philosophical terms, even explaining away art and literature and human intuition philosophically. Beyond this limited meaning, this statement about culture 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 the Jews may penetrate into body politic 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.

You think that's perfectly legitimate, you have no problem with it whatsoever?

Posted by: Bill at December 31, 2004 12:02 AM