The Father of Violent Islamism

Sayyid Qutb in prison in Egypt, where he was executed in 1966

Religion, religion…. This is the battle cry of the feeble and the weak person who defends himself with it whenever the current threatens to sweep him away.

—Sayyid Qutb, 1938

Humanity will see no tranquility or accord, nor can peace, progress or material and spiritual advances be made, without total recourse to God.

—Sayyid Qutb, 1959

Few men have contributed so strongly to the tenor of modern political Islam as Sayyid Qutb, who died in 1966. Fastidious and shy in person, the Egyptian intellectual made an unlikely Savonarola figure. Yet his prolific writings, whose passion resonated amid the anti-imperialist ferment of the 1950s, grew increasingly strident in championing Islam as the cure to every ill of his age. Qutb’s peculiar fusion of romantic socialism with Muslim neopuritanism struck a chord that echoes loudly to this day.

Imprisoned by Egypt’s secular, army-backed regime along with thousands of fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb was executed in Egypt in 1966 for plotting against the state. His posthumous revenge has been long and sweet. Coming just months after Qutb was hanged, Israel’s crushing triumph in the Six-Day War dealt not only personal humiliation to his chief persecutor, President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It also discredited Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism and strengthened those who, like Qutb, saw Egypt’s trials as divine retribution for straying from the faith.

Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, freed the imprisoned Brothers in the 1970s, prompting a split among Egyptian Islamists. A quietist mainstream focused on preaching, with the aim of transforming society from within. Activist groups argued instead, following Qutb, that change would come only through the deeds and example of a revolutionary vanguard. The jihadist assassins who felled Sadat in 1981 were acting upon Qutb’s dictum that even a nominally Muslim leader could be considered fair game, should he fail to impose their own narrowly defined form of “Islamic” rule.

Three decades later, the broad Islamist fraternity rode the revolution that toppled Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, to electoral success. Now deeply embedded in society and steeled in politics by years of oppression, the Muslim Brotherhood captured both Egypt’s parliament and presidency. Within the Brotherhood itself, hard-liners who are often referred to as Qutbists had succeeded not long before in purging the group of liberal dissenters. Muhammed Badie, the Brothers’ current Supreme Guide, had known Qutb well from the time they shared in prison in the 1960s. A top lieutenant of Badia’s, Egypt’s current president, Mohamed Morsi, has described Qutb as a thinker who “liberates the mind and touches the heart,” and who offers “the real vision of Islam that we are looking for.”

Further afield, Islamist parties of varied stripes now either dominate politics or represent the main challengers in nearly every Muslim-majority country. For many of these movements Sayyid Qutb remains an inspirational figure. The…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.