Sayyid Qutb: the origin of an ideology

(To Paolo Palumbo)

The doctrinal base of Islamic terrorism has remote origins, rooted in different interpretations of the Qur'an and the Qur'an Jihad through the centuries. The most flourishing period of this was the twentieth century, when Egypt became the intellectual center from which the most important Islamist movements were born, first of all the Muslim Brotherhood. The foundations of this powerful organization were thrown by some of the most prominent promoters of Islamic radicalism including Hassan al-Banna -Ikhwan al-Muslimum - and Sayyid Qutb, his spiritual heir. The ideas of these two thinkers and interpreters of the Koran gave a new meaning to the Jihad marking a substantial change in the modus operandi of the various terrorist organizations. Post-war Egypt - along with Algeria - became the main theater in which the dissent of thousands of Muslims oppressed by regimes matured, who in turn proclaimed themselves Muslims. The imprisonment, together with the torture to which the members of the Brotherhood were subjected, strengthened even more the conviction that the only remedy to eliminate the apostates in power was the armed struggle. The ideas of al-Banna and Qutb survived their death by becoming the political manifesto on which an ideology permeated with hatred and feeling of revenge was set up.

A special view

Egypt, where Sayyid Qutb matured his radicalism, was a hurtling country, a theater of internal conflicts and international tensions, mainly due to the strategic position of the Suez Canal. While France and Great Britain played the last cards of their eternal, how sterile, colonial dispute, the monarchy of Ahmad Faud and the party Wafd they plunged the country into a serious economic crisis that inflamed the spirits of the revolutionaries, projected towards a radical change of the situation. Qutb, born in 1906 in a small village in Upper Egypt, began his career in the 1930s as a school inspector for the Egyptian Ministry of Education. Sayyid was a lively young man with a brilliant mind and a very particular vision about the role that religion should play in his country: he never hid the sympathies for street movements and on several occasions he fiercely criticized the government. To entrust him with a government assignment was, in fact, a vain attempt to quell his party's real intimperations Wafd and the monarchy. At the workplace, Qutb always showed some dissatisfaction as he attempted to get rid of the tight state jets by taking the reins of two important newspapers: "The Arab World" and "New Thought". Despite Sayyid's literal value, journalistic experience was a hole in the water since, even on that occasion, he defied his intransigent character; overall it was more reasonable to stay at the Ministry where, at least, he could continue his studies. By the end of the forties, Sayyid was sent to the United States to refine his university curriculum: in fact many executives confided that contact with Western democracy would have dissipated its radicalism. In 1948, Qutb left for Greeley to attend a Master's degree at the University of North Colorado. Contrary to what they hoped for in Cairo's offices, Qutb's stay in America turned out to be a double-cut weapon. In one of the most interesting pages of his main work, he described the uses and customs of the Overseas: "It is astonishing to realize, despite his advanced education and his perfectionism, how primitive the American is really in his views on life ... His behavior reminds us of the era of the caveman. He is primitive in the way he lusts after power ignoring ideals and manner and principles "1. In addition to being critical of the coexistence of different religions, Qutb strongly condemned the support the Americans gave to Zionism over the mistrust of Islamists.

As Qutb studied in the United States, Egypt came again in a critical period, where the revolutionary thrust of the Muslim Brotherhood became more and more pressing.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Qutb

The main event that changed Egyptian politics in the post-war era was the Israeli Arab conflict of 1948. Despite the heavy defeat suffered by the Arab countries, Egypt began to occupy a prominent place in Middle Eastern balance, largely thanks to the prestige conquered by the military and in particular from a clandestine society called Free Officials. In 1952, led by Gamal Abd el-Nasser, Egyptian officers (photos) thrust King Farouk from the throne to initially establish a provisional government and then a republic. Reformist ideas were rapidly transformed into a rigid military dictatorship; Nasser's rival, the moderate Naguib, was removed because he was accused of connivance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

THEIkhwan al-Muslimun was founded by Hassan al-Banna (1906 - 1949) in 1928 in the city of Ismailia and then, after a few years, being transferred to Cairo; at the beginning, the Islamic movement was the bearer of reformist instances in the religious sphere, but in a short time political proposals were also advanced. Al-Banna was the spiritual guide of the group: a man dedicated above all to preaching and letters, rather than to the barricades and the din of the square. Despite his shy and unwillingness to expose himself, in 1949 al-Banna he was murdered in cold blood: his sudden death shook the soul of the Brotherhood which proclaimed him Imam Shahid, a martyr, though he had never fought2. Al-Banna's death fragmented the Ikhwan in various currents of thought, none the less abdicated from the idea that the only way forward to raise Islam to power and to lost dignity was the armed struggle3. In that moment of disbanding, but also of great spiritual activism of the Muslim Brotherhood, there was the entrance of Qutb who - in a short time - inherited the charism of al-Banna. Until then the military regime of Nasser had endured the claims of the Brotherhood, but when in 1954 Mahnud al-Latif ordered a plot to assassinate him, a real persecution broke out. For members Ikhwan the doors of hell were opened: many were imprisoned and subjected to unspeakable torture. Lawrence Wright, in the first chapter de The Years of Terror, has collected several testimonies about what a Brotherhood militant meant to end up in an Egyptian prison: in addition to daily torture and beatings, some were locked in cells with stray dogs to be crushed4. The unspeakable suffering to which he was subjected Qutb strengthened his faith: in that period of pain his most significant work was born, Ma'alim fi'l-tereeq, better remembered as Milestones (Milestones) destined to become the manifesto of Islamism for entire generations of jihadists.

After a short period of freedom, a new anti-government plot came to light in 1965, so Qutb and his brother Muhammad were again imprisoned. This time the translation into the cell of Qutb had only one purpose: to condemn him to capital punishment. After a process orchestrated by government propaganda, Sayyd Qutb was hanged on 29 on August 1966.

A few years later, Qutb's legacy was collected by Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, a self-taught theologian who was accused of being the organizer of the deadly assassination in Sadat. Faraj was the author of The Neglected Duty, a work pervaded by Qutb's thought about the need to break down the apostates first, and then America and the West were denied to Islam its purity5.


In the introductory pages of his most relevant work, Sayyid Qutb briefly described the focus of his thought by explaining how the West, but also the East, were on the brink of a chasm that would lead them to destruction.6. The cause of the socio-cultural decline was not the looming nuclear threat, but the total lack of values ​​revealed by the ruling class, promoter of modernity and progress: "all the nationalist and chauvinistic ideologies that appeared in the modern era, all the movements and the theories derived from them, have lost their vitality "7. For this reason, every model of life - Qutb explained - proved to be untenable and only Islam and the Muslim community would lead the world towards purity of values. Here the concept of"Jahilliya" the ignorance in which the peoples lived before the advent of Islam. Within the orbit of this irresponsible world, all governments, including Muslims, were guilty of being corrupted by the West: "The term Jahilliya assumed central significance for Sayyid Qutb, encapsulating the utter bleakeness of the Musilm prediction and serving as an epistemological device for rejecting all the alliance of Islam "8.

The theses of Qutb presented some original features, nevertheless they started with the vision of another of his contemporaries, Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979, left), student of the Deobandi school. Maududi emphasized the idea that Islam was not just a religion but a social system that guided and controlled every aspect of life9. On this point, the thought of Qutb differed substantially from that of al-Banna who wished for an Islamic statement emerging from below, by the will of the people. Sayyid, on the other hand, called for an inverse process with the demolition of governments, their replacement and the creation of a new ruling class faithful to Islamic law. The Jihad for Qutb it assumed a significant value especially against i takfir, apostates or excommunicated: a formula that justified the aggression of other Muslims who did not strictly respect the Sharia. The term Jihad for Qutb exceeded the mere spiritual value and the conversion of the infidels could not only be based on preaching (daw'a): "Since the movement is in conflict with the Jahiliyyah which prevails over ideas and beliefs, and which has a practical system of life and a political and material authority behind it, the Islamic movement had to produce parallel resoruces to confront this Jahiliyyahh. This movement uses the methods of preaching and persuasion for reforming ideas and beliefs, and it uses physical power and Jihad to abolish the organizations and authorities of the Jahili systems that prevent people from reforming their ideas and beliefs [...]10.

The theories contained in the paragraphs of Ma'alim fi'l-tereeq they gained concreteness in the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood and all other movements derived from them. Every form of moderate struggle was unbelievable because the one who dominated outside the word of Allah would not easily give up power: "This is not just a theoretical, philosophical and passive proclamation. This is the universal declaration of the freedom of man on earth, except for that of Allah, and the declaration that sovereignty is Allah alone and that He is the Lord of the universe. It is a positive, practical and dynamic message [...] "11. The dynamism referred to by Qutb served to justify armed struggle and coercion towards those who opposed Allah's absolute domination, whose benevolence was directed not only towards Arab peoples, but to the whole world. An evolving and violent vision of a "global Islam" was, therefore, the spin around which Qutb's thought revolved: "This is not a declaration of the freedom of the Arabs, or is its message confined toi the Arabs. It addresses itself to the whole of mankind, and its sphere of work is the whole earth "12. The mission was therefore to free the whole world from the Jahiliyyahh, releasing the Jihad from its traditional boundaries (the Arabian Peninsula) and turn the fight against the whole of humanity, slave of ignorance13.

The disciples

After the turbulent years of Nasser, the election of Sadat (in the photo together) to the leadership of the government seemed to mitigate the hostility towards the "Ikhwan: they were relatively peaceful years in which the new president sought a coexistence with the Islamists. The change in the direction of the wind was the wrong choices in foreign policy and the inappropriate rapprochement of Sadat to the Americans, but especially to Israel, which caused a definitive rift with theIkhwan. Among the students of Cairo sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood and then loyal to Sayyid Qutb there was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a promising young man of good family, oriented towards medical studies. Ayman al-Zawahiri was already very active in the world of jihad: together with his brother Mohammed founded the first cell of 'Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of the most determined groups in the jihadist landscape. Thanks to the macabre results of his organization, which became undisputed leader in 1975, came into contact with the first clutch that would join him to the fate of Osama bin Laden: Adullah Azzam who had come to Cairo to pursue the PhD in studies Muslims at al-Azhar University14. After being prosecuted for President Sadat's assassination in 1985, al-Zawahiri left for Pakistan. Arrival at Peshwar and the next meeting with bin Laden and Azzam are now known history, but it may be useful to understand how Qutb's teachings influenced thought and modus operandi of a new generation of jihadists. The meeting between the three characters produced a sort of balance between spiritualism and the necessary activism that made the formation of al-Qaeda possible. Azzam and al-Zawahiri represented the intellectual engine of the movement, bin-Laden, a businessman, was the one who could materially realize its ideas. The spiritual indoctrination of bin-Laden could not compete with that of al-Zawahiri, who wore the scars of his faith and years of struggle alongside Qutb on his skin. Osama, for example, had his first meeting with the Islamist doctrine of Qutb in the late seventies, at the university of Jeddah, thanks to the lectures given by his brother Mohammed Qutb. In the same period, Osama avidly flipped through the pages of Signpost and of the other monumental work of Qutb, In the Shade of the Koran in which the author explored numerous theories, even violent, on how to protect and liberate Muslims crushed by colonialism and the West15. The post-Afghan Islamist design thus underwent a definite change of course since both bin Laden and Zawahiri turned their hatred against the "far" enemy rather than the "near" target of organizations such as the Ikhwan, Jamaa al-Islamiya or the 'Egyptian Islamic Jihad16. Afghanistan expanded the prospect of fighting the Islamist front: once defeated the Soviets, they had to turn their weapons against Americans and their allies, though the weapons were sold by the CIA. In a timely analysis of al-Qaeda's military strategy, Rohan Gunaratna, specifies that bin Laden's achievement of the goals - including the creation of the Caliphate - was the result of a progressive action. The number one enemy was America and the West, the true demon that threatened the entire Islamic world; Secondly, support was given to brothers fighting against "false" Muslim governments (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Algeria) and then those who were persecuted for their faith (the Philippines, Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechnya)17. This modus operandi derived from the teachings of Sayyid Qutb who specified that the fight against ignorance was made of so many steps, one complementary to the other: "The second aspect of this religion is that it is a practical movement that progresses through stage, and at every stage it provides resources according to the practical needs of the situation and prepares the ground for the next one"18. A sequence sequencing theory that sanctioned the point of breaking between al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi re-proclaimed the Caliphate without the consent of Umma.

The alternative

As Sayyid Qutb has helped the radical Islamic world build an ideological building in which to lay the motives for their violent actions. Assassination thus becomes a useful tool as preaching, while the killing of apostate Muslims and infidels a mission necessary to absolve the whole world from ignorance and sin. Coranical paraphrase in this sense seems flaky and not all Islam has embraced these ideals; we can not, however, forget that the interpretation of al-Banna, then of Qutb, was based on a careful reading of the Koran. It would be a mistake for a moderate Muslim to be considered alien to the problem: Islam should help its faithful to learn how Qutb's ideas and his disciples have been a dangerous and misleading distortion to the true message of the Koran. Al-Zawahiri proclamations (photo) - explains Abdal-Hakim Murad, an eminent British Muslim scholar - banalize 14 centuries of Islamic history, reducing it to a mere clash with America and the West. Yemenite judge Hamoud Al-Hitar argues that terrorism has an intellectual base and can only be defeated intellectually; this is certainly true, but so far there have been fewer blatant messages from moderate Islam19. The struggle against terrorism must become a battle especially for the liberation of Islam itself: Qutb's belligerence must not fall into oblivion, but stored and preserved in the historical moment in which it was written when Muslims were persecuted by regimes whose leaders professed the same faith.

(photo: web)


1 Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, Birmingham, 2006, p. 8

2 Ronnie Azoulay, The Power of Ideas. The Influence of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb on the Muslim Brotherhood Organization, Przeglad Strategiczny, 2015, n. 8, p. 173. URL:

3 The successor of al-Banna was Hasan al-Hudaybi, a figure of compromise between the wishes of the monarchy and the instances of the Brotherhood. Gilles Kepel, Musilm Extremism in Egypt. The Prophet and Pharaoh, Berkley, 1986, p. 36.

4 Lawrence Wright, The years of terror, Milan, 2017.

5 C. Henzel, The Origins of al Qaeda's Ideology: Implications for US Strategy, in "Parameters, Spring 2005, pp. 69-90, URL:

6 Sayyid Qutb and al-Banna were not the first ideologues of Islam and their thinking was inspired by two pillars of the Sunni tradition: Taqi ad-Din Ahmed ibn Taymiyya (1263 - 1328) followed by Muhammad ibn 'Abd al Wahhab (1703- 1792) a Saudi theologian and co-founder of Saudi Arabia.

7 Qutb, cit., P. 24.

8 Ibid, p. 11.

9 Dale C. Eikmeier, Qutbism: An Ideology of Islamic Fascism, Us Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2007, Vol. 37, N. 1, URL:

10 Qutb, cit., P. 65

11 Qutb, cit., P. 68.

12 Ibid, p. 69.

13 Ibid, p. 71.

14 Ali Soufan, Anatomy of Terror. Form the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, New York, London, 2017, p. 165-167.

15 Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens. An Arabian Family in the American Century New York, 2009, pp. 204-205.

16 The text that marked a break of thought regarding the actions of other jihadist organizations was Knights Under the Prophet's Banner written by al-Zawahiri in which Qutb's theory is clearly married about a global and violent struggle.

17 Rohan Gunaratna, Inside the al-Qaeda Global Network of Terror, London, 2002, p. 55.

18 Qutb, cit., P. 65.

19 Eikmeier, cit., P. 93.