Sayyid Qutb: The Karl Marx of the Islamic Revolution

 "From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism" -- Adnan A. Musallam. Westport, Connecticut: 2005. 261 pp.

"The Philosopher of Islamic Terror" -- Paul Berman. New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003


By Leslie Evans

Sayyid Qutb (October 9, 1906-August 29, 1966), the Egyptian literary critic, philosopher, and theorist of the contemporary jihadist movement is only becoming a familiar name in the West in recent years, but his voluminous writings have had and continue to have enormous impact in the Muslim world. It is not an overstatement to say that it is hardly possible to understand the reasoning and goals of the Islamic militants without some familiarity with the outlook Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb) enunciated.

A search of returns no less than seven books in English about Sayyid Qutb as well as collections of his writings and many of his own books in translation. The two works touched on here are only a random sampling of a very large literature which is again but a minute fraction of what exists in Arabic. These two are quite different in scope and attitude. Adnan Ayyub Musallam, a Palestinian native of Bethlehem, holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan and is currently professor of history, politics, and cultural studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank. His generally sympathetic but critical biography concentrates on the evolving politics of Qutb's affiliations and thought. The quite brief and more critical piece by Paul Berman for the New York Times looks at Qutb's theology and helps to clarify his argument with Christianity and Western secularism.

Brilliant from his earliest youth, Sayyid Qutb was an unlikely figure to serve as the inspiration for a global revolutionary movement. Although for a brief period he was a member of the militant Muslim Brothers, where he served as an editor not as an organizer, he spent most of his life as a lone intellectual. Where Marx, the theorist of world communism, labored in the British Museum, Sayyid Qutb wrote his most influential works in an Egyptian prison, where he spent most of the last eleven years of his life, until his execution by the Nasser government in 1966. Even his turn to Islam in any serious way did not take place until he was past forty, yet in prison in his fifties he produced a controversial rethinking of the religion that reverberates around the world.

Qutb was born in the village of Musha, between Cairo and Aswan into a family of small landowners. He was sent to the local madrasa, the government school, rather than the still more religious kuttab, the Islamic school, but he won a contest between the two schools for the best memorization of the Qur'an. He recalled his life there in his only biographical work, "Child from the Village," recording local customs and superstitions. From that period he acquired a belief in the world of spirits that he carried with him all his life.

At fifteen Sayyid Qutb went to Cairo to live with an uncle. This was in 1921, in the midst of the 1918-22 nationalist revolt against British rule led by the secular Wafd Party of Sa'd Zaghlul. Qutb attended intermediate and high school in Cairo, then college, graduating in 1933 from Dar al-Ulam with a BA in Arabic language and literature and in education. Around that year his father back in Musha died and his brother and two sisters came to Cairo to live with him. At the age of nineteen he began to write and publish poetry. Musallam describes Qutb's poems as fascinated with death, travel in the spirit world, and idealization of a fantasy beloved. He also, however, wrote a poem in support of the Palestinian anti-Jewish uprising of 1936-39.

The Secular Literary Critic

Responsible for supporting his siblings, Qutb became a teacher in government schools, writing literary criticism on the side for various small magazines. In 1940 he got a job with the Ministry of Education. In a pattern common for Egyptian intellectuals, Qutb built his literary reputation while holding down a full-time government job. During the 1930s he came strongly under the influence of Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, a prominent journalist, literary critic, and poet. Al-Aqqad was a modernist supporter of the Wafd Party and secular nationalism, and these were Qutb's views as well into the 1940s.

Musallam quotes a reminiscence of Qutb in the 1930s penned many years later by the journalist 'Adel Hammuda, who said "there is no doubt he was audacious. . . . His words were sharp sometimes. His expressions were sticks of fire. . . . His pencil was a whip. The one who sees him does not believe that he is the same person who writes. . . . For with people he was milder than the breeze. . . . With the paper and the pencil, he was a hell which does not cool off." Similar sentiments were often voiced about George Orwell, who was gentle in person but vitriolic in print.

Sayyid Qutb was a prolific writer. He published some twenty books and monographs during his lifetime, or in a few cases posthumously. One of them, "In the Shade of Islam," by itself runs to fifteen or more volumes depending on the edition and language. Half a dozen of Qutb's works are available in English translation, but except for his youthful autobiography, "A Child from the Village," the rest are from his Islamic period and do not include the few volumes of his poetry from the 1930s or his literary criticism of the 1940s and two novels, "The Bewitched City" (1946) and "Thorns" (1947).

Sayyid Qutb is credited with being one of the first to write laudatory reviews of the work of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 and who died in August 2006.

Qutb's transition into Qur'anic studies began as an extension of his literary criticism, with a study of artistic images in the Qur'an begun in 1939. Musallam recounts how Qutb when he was drawn back to the Qur'an he had memorized as a schoolboy was enthralled by its stories. A favorite was the tale of the Virgin Mary (Maryam in the Qur'an), her hostile reception by her family when she returned home with her baby and claimed to her incredulous relatives that it was not the product of sex with a human being. At risk of retribution for her apparent sin, Maryam is saved when the infant Jesus cries out from his crib, "Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet." Sayyid Qutb himself dated his serious re-attraction to the Qur'an to the writing and publication of this work, published as "Artistic Portrayal in the Qur'an" in 1945.

Musallam makes the point that in Qutb's return to religion neither he nor al-Aqqad had ever been Western-style materialists. Al-Aqqad advocated a kind of nationalist rationalism but he remained a believer in Islam and rejected both Marxism and materialism. Qutb even more than al-Aqqad always retained a belief in the supernatural. In the 1930s, Musallam characterizes Qutb as a "Muslim secularist," not irreligious but inclined to see religion as a private matter. He did go so far, Musallam avers, as to have doubts about his faith. This was a view he would put behind him in the 1950s.

Musallam notes that Qutb's new interest in Qur'anic studies was part of a broad current among the liberal Egyptian intelligentsia in the 1940s "inspired by resentment against Western hegemony in Egypt and the Arab world and a gradual loss of faith in the popular appeal of liberal nationalist parliamentary ideals." This period also saw a decline in interest in the pre-Islamic civilization of the ancient Pharaohs, to which several periodicals had been devoted.

The death of Qutb's mother Fatimah in 1940 and the collapse of what seems to have been his only serious love affair, in 1942 or 1943, appear to have propelled Qutb to devote the rest of his life to religious studies. By 1946 in an article entitled "Schools for Indignation" (Madaris lil-sakht) his writing became openly theological. In this period he wrote admiringly of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), advocate of a pan-Islamist religious and cultural revival to counter European influence, as an example of the need for a spiritual dimension to political reform movements. He also began to look back to an imagined golden age of "the first towering flow" of Islam in the days of the Prophet and the first caliphs.

Moral puritanism emerged in Qutb's thought before his general rejection of the separation of religion and the state. Already by 1940 he repudiated his earlier somewhat bohemian ways, campaigning in his essays against broadcasting popular music on Egyptian radio. Musallam recounts that Qutb "asserts in his writings that such songs destroyed Egyptian social structure and personal character because they corrupted the virtues of men and women." He advocated the formation of a censorship committee "empowered to prevent, if necessary, the broadcasting of songs, the production of records and tapes, and the showing of films." He also called for new laws to prosecute singers of disapproved songs.

World War II further hardened Qutb's anti-Western views. Egypt had been essentially a British colony since 1882, and as such was attacked in the war first by the Italians and then by the Nazi armies under Rommel, who was under orders to break through Egypt to exterminate the Jewish population of Palestine and try to spark an Arab revolt (study of Nazi archival documents by Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cueppers of Stuttgart University reported by Agence France-Presse on April 13, 2006). Rommel penetrated deep into Egypt and the country endured severe hardships in the war. Qutb, according to Musallam, was particularly outraged by the arrogance of British troops stationed in Cairo.

A Growing Hostility to the West

The end of the 1940s saw Sayyid Qutb's transformation, as Musallam puts it, into "a stern moralist, an anti-Western thinker, and an anti-political, anti-literary establishment intellectual."

Much like the Manchu rulers of China in the last years of the Qing dynasty, Qutb advocated retention of Islamic and Egyptian religion and culture while adopting Western science and technology. Even here, however, he rejected Darwinism and biological materialism.

"By the mid 1940s," Musallam writes, "Qutb became fiercely anti-Western. In 1944, he attacked Western civilization and hailed its demise. In his view the West has failed and it is now the turn of the East to take over the leadership of the world and create by the power of its spirituality a new civilization." He condemned French colonialism from the days of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt to more recent French suppressions of nationalist movements in Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. The British were excoriated as the colonial masters of Egypt, particularly for imposing a Wafd cabinet on the king in February 1942. And the Americans were censured for their support of Jewish immigration to Palestine.

In an article in al-Risalah (The Message) of October 21, 1946, Qutb wrote, "How I hate and despise those Westerners! All without exception: the British, the French, the Dutch and now the Americans who were at one time trusted by many. . . . And I do not hate or despise these alone. I hate and despise just as much those Egyptians and Arabs who continue to trust Western conscience."

At about this time Sayyid Qutb became more strongly concerned with reducing inequality, which led to his disillusionment with the existing nationalist parties such as the Wafd. He condemned the Egyptian upper classes for their privileges and their subservience to the British, as well as the press, broadcasting, and well-known literati figures both for defending the status quo and for disseminating material he regarded as immoral. Still, at this time his views have more of pan-Arabism about them than Islamism.

In the late 1940s Qutb appeared ideologically restless. Though not a member of any party or definite group, he was briefly but prominently associated with two different radical journals, The Arab World (al-'Alam al-'Arabi, a pan-Arabist monthly) and The New Thought (al-Fikr al-Jadid, a weekly published between January and March 1948 by a member of the radical Islamic Muslim Brothers). While exposed at this time to frequent solicitation from the Muslim Brothers, or Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan as it is also known, Qutb was not yet convinced that any existing Islamic organization was what he was looking for. He did see Islam as the alternative to communism, which was then on the rise among Egyptian nationalists. Qutb and the other editors and writers of the short-lived al-Fikr al-Jadid preached a fiery sermon of the need to feed, house, and clothe the Egyptian poor and to find new ways within traditional Islam to redistribute wealth and power for a more egalitarian society. Qutb called for taking a portion of the land of large landowners and distributing it to the landless peasants, forming cooperative societies, and adopting legislation ameliorating the conflicts between capital and labor.

The monarchy responded to these appeals by ordering Qutb's arrest. He escaped only because the prime minister, Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, an old acquaintance from the Wafd days, ordered Sayyid Qutb's superiors in the Ministry of Education to send him abroad to America on a mission to study the U.S. educational system. He left for New York in November 1948, leaving behind the just-completed manuscript of his first fully Islamic political work, "Social Justice in Islam" (al-'Adalah al-Ijtima'iyyah Fi al-Islam). This book was published in an English translation by the American Council of Learned Societies in 1953 and remains the best-known work of Sayyid Qutb in English, though there are various editions involving numerous changes by both the author and translators.

In this work Qutb expounds the thesis that only the earliest days of Islam should serve as the model for successful social life. Musallam writes, "According to Qutb, as long as Muslims adhered to Islam (including its political and economic systems), they manifested no weakness and no tendency to abdicate their control of life. When they deviated from their religion, however, weakness overtook them." In Qutb's view the fatal drift away from true Islam began not with modern Western imperialism but already with the with Umayyad dynasty (661-750) only a few years after the death of Muhammad in 632. True Islam lasted for only 29 years. Islam, he contended, was corrupted by the tyrannical monarchy of the Umayyads. Here Qutb develops his idea of the utopian golden age of Islam marked by "charity and benevolence, mutual help and responsibility, tolerance and freedom of conscience and human equality, payment of the poor-tax and the alms." He regards the succeeding history of Islam as one long decline from these noble principles, even in the heyday of its expansion and intellectual vigor, culminating in its "final overthrow" at the hands of European colonization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Qutb takes a firm stand in the debate that raged throughout the colonial world over how to relate to modernism. Where the Chinese in the 1920s became enamored of the slogan "Science and Democracy," Qutb in the 1940s urged Muslims to reject borrowings from Western ideas with the exception of technology. In economics Qutb advocated an Islamic welfare state that would redistribute income from the rich to the poor and offer universal health care and education. At the same time he rejected Western democracy as based in a human-oriented materialism no different in kind from communism.

Qutb in America, November 1948- August 1950

Sayyid Qutb sailed from Alexandria to New York in November 1948. During his brief stay in the United States he lived in New York; Washington, DC; Greeley and Denver, Colorado; and finally California, where he spent time in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and San Diego. As an outsider and sexual prude he felt revulsion at American society, particularly its overt sexuality (this, almost two decades before the free love movement of the 1960s). Musallam draws on Qutb's correspondence to illuminate this period of his life:

"[H]e found harried crowds resembling an excited herd that knew only lust and money. He describes love in America as merely a body that lusts after another body, or hungry animal that craves another animal, with no time for spiritual longings, high aspirations, or even the flirtation that normally precedes 'the final step.'" Qutb accused Americans he had observed of "absolute licentiousness." He was particularly offended by homosexuality and the failure of the government to enforce laws against it that were then still on the books.

Qutb was no more impressed by American music. Jazz, he wrote, "was created by the negroes to satisfy their primitive inclinations and their desire." He also disapproved of U.S. participation in the Korean War, which broke out in July 1950.

Musallam concludes, "Qutb's stay in the United States reinforced his earlier belief that the Islamic way of life was man's only salvation from the abyss of godless capitalism." When he left Egypt in 1948 Sayyid Qutb was critical of the militant Islamist society of Muslim Brothers founded by Hassan al Banna in 1928. The Brothers were so anti-British that they allegedly established relations with the Nazis in the 1930s. After the war they had turned to assassination in an effort to overturn the Egyptian monarchy. The government responded by banning the Muslim Brothers in December 1948. They retaliated by assassinating Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha the same month. Egyptian government agents then tracked down Hassan al Banna and killed him in February 1949. Sayyid Qutb, in his strongly alienated state in America, reacted angrily to U.S. and British news reports celebrating the death of the radical Islamist leader, and reconsidered his relations with the Brothers. On his return to Egypt in August 1950 he was met at the airport by a delegation from the Muslim Brothers.

Visions of an Islamic World Government

Qutb's writings in the period before the Nasserite coup in 1952 had a sharp anticapitalist edge, eloquently berating the rich parasites, the corrupt and immoral court, and mistreatment of the poor. He began to develop a pan-Islamist doctrine calling for a global struggle between three forces: capitalism, communism, and Islam. He more and more began to visualize Islam as a political power, not as a personalized religion, transcending national boundaries as a world government. Musallam summarizes:

"Islam must rule; it must not be confined merely to places of worship, to hearts, or to conscience like Christianity. The system of belief is not in itself valuable; it must be translated into a 'Shari'ah,' an all-encompassing law which governs personal, penal, civil, and commercial affairs." Qutb cited the admonition of the Qur'an 5:44: "Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers." That included all non-Muslims, and all Muslims content to practice their religion in private while ceding lawmaking to politicians and parties not based on the Qur'an. Qutb added that rejection of God's supremacy must be resisted if international harmony was to be achieved. For that to happen, Muslims must be entrusted with the welfare of humanity. "The most serious injustice," Qutb wrote in that period, "is luring people from the worship of God and forcing them to deify those rulers who empower themselves to legalize what God has prohibited and prohibit what God has allowed."

This was the beginning of his doctrine of world domination by Islam that has come to inspire militant Islamists around the planet.

"When dealing with its enemies Islam takes one of three courses: they may adopt the religion, or pay tribute or fight. . . . If the enemy rejects the religion and also refuses to pay tribute, Muslims must declare war (jihad) on those who obdurately stand between men and Islam's righteous and peaceful principles. If the enemies are defeated they are obliged to pay the tribute in return for which they become wards of the Islamic state." (Sayyid Qutb, Islam and Universal Peace, Indianapolis, 1977, pp. 73-74)

He called for a single Islamic state, becoming more and more hostile to nationalist Arab leaders, accusing them of playing into the hands of imperialism "by tearing up the Muslim nation into narrow national entities."

In 1951 Qutb began writing regularly for publications of the Muslim Brothers. He publicly hailed them for engaging in an armed struggle against the British, who still exercised what amounted to a protectorate over Egypt. The Muslim Brothers were organizing guerrilla units for battles with British troops stationed along the Suez Canal.

Several thousand of the Muslim Brothers had been imprisoned after terrorist actions at the end of the 1940s, but by May 1952 when martial law ended the society was again legal. After the July 1952 officers' revolution that ended the monarchy there was a period of uneasy collaboration between the Muslim Brothers and the new government, originally headed by General Muhammad Naguib but ultimately led by Colonel Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser.

The revolution had been planned, in part, at Sayyid Qutb's home and he knew many of the leaders, including Nasser, well. When the new government was formed Qutb was given an office in the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) building, where he was in charge of revising the school curricula. He was being considered for the post of Minister of Education. He now moved away from the pluralism within Islam he had advocated in the past and called for a strict dictatorship to defend the revolution. Initially tolerant of the communists, he supported executing two workers who took part in a communist-led strike in August 1952 at the Misr Fine Spinning and Weaving Company in Fafr al-Dawwar.

Naguib and Nasser's Revolutionary Command Council of the Free Officers came to power in alliance with the Muslim Brothers. But it was not willing to make post-revolutionary Egypt an Islamic state. The RCC soon purged from its own ranks officers too close to the Brothers. In January 1953, all political parties were dissolved except the Muslim Brothers, who were exempted as a religious organization. But the military government founded its own rival movement, the Liberation Rally. Qutb objected and resigned from his government post. That ended his chance to become Minister of Education.

About that time Sayyid Qutb accepted an appointment to head the Muslim Brothers' propaganda department, called the Propagation of the Message Section. In a statement written in prison in 1965 looking back he said he joined the Muslim Brothers because of their effectiveness "for confronting Zionist and imperialistic Crusader schemes about which I knew a lot especially in the period of my stay in America." This was language that would become more familiar to the outside world many years later from Qutb's intellectual descendants in Al Qaeda.

The Muslim Brothers became increasingly critical of the Naguib-Nasser military government, claiming it was insufficiently anti-British. After a January 1954 protest meeting by the Brothers the government declared the organization a political party and added it to the previous ban, briefly arresting many of its leaders including Sayyid Qutb. Shortly after, Nasser succeeded in reducing General Naguib to a figurehead president and consolidated power in his own hands. In October 1954 the Muslim Brothers attempted to assassinate Nasser during a rally in Alexandria. He retaliated by placing President Naguib, who he accused of complicity, under house arrest. The government sentenced Hassan Isma'il al-Hudaybi, the head of the Muslim Brothers, to life imprisonment, and hung six leaders of the Brothers' secret paramilitary section. The Brothers were then outlawed. Qutb was arrested in November 1954. The following year he was sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor. He remained in prison until May 1964 when his poor health secured his release.

A Decade in Prison: The Excommunication of Secular Society

Sayyid Qutb spent much of his prison time in hospitals for lung and heart ailments. During the decade behind bars he became increasingly radical. A key event was the shooting of twenty-one Muslim Brother prisoners in Liman Tura prison on June 1, 1957, when they refused to report to their labor assignment.

Qutb was permitted to write. While he was in prison, Musallam writes, he produced "many works that would eventually make him the leading ideologue of radical and jihadist Islamists. Indeed, Qutb's prison writings in 1954-1965 would become an integral part of Islamic resurgence in the next forty years."

Two central concepts, adapted from the Pakistani radical Islamist Abu al-A'la al-Mawdudi, became central to Sayyid Qutb's thought and later became the "common denominator among extremist factions in the Islamic awakening movements." These were al-Jahiliyyah (paganism), and al-Hakimiyyah (God's rule on earth). As you might guess, these are mutually exclusive opposites.

Jahiliyyah is an Arabic term with many overtones. It was used by Muhammad to describe Arab societies before Islam. But this was a period in which contention between the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople and the Persian Empire had led to decimation of the trade routes to the east that had passed through Arabia. The Arab economy and civilization itself declined into a dark age. In Muslim history, Muhammad and Islam rescue Arabia from this darkness, the age of Jahiliyyah. Hence Jahiliyyah has extremely negative connotations. Sayyid Qutb adopted the term to mean secular society in general; all societies, including Muslim ones, that were not governed under Sharia law.

Sayyid Qutb's prison output was phenomenal. His first project, begun before his arrest, and continued in prison under a court order on a lawsuit by his publisher, who claimed they would lose money if it was not finished, was to complete his multivolume masterpiece, "In the Shade of the Qur'an" -- see below Paul Berman's comments on this work. Qutb went on to write six more books during his prison years. "In the Shade of the Qur'an" was a vast lyric verse-by-verse commentary on the whole of the Qur'an, today widely published in both print and online editions including partial publication in English.

Of the later six books the most widely read was "Milestones on the Road" (Ma'alim fi al-tariq, sometimes translated as Signs on the Path), first published in Cairo in 1964. This was the clearest statement of his later views rejecting compromise with Jahili states and institutions, and has become a core text of the jihadist movement. Here he proposed that all existing human societies, including those with Muslim majorities, were Jahiliyyah, pagan. The Islamic utopia was yet to be created. He wrote, "We may say that any society is a Jahili society that does not dedicate itself to submission to God alone, in its beliefs and ideas, in its observance of worship, and in its legal regulations. . . . Our foremost objective is to change . . . the Jahili system at its very roots."

This led him to one more concept, excommunication (takfir). Qutb called for the excommunication of all existing pagan societies and their replacement by Islamic ones reflecting al-Hakimiyyah. He called for "Jihad through sword" to achieve "the establishment of the sovereignty of God and His Lordship throughout the world, the end of man's arrogance and selfishness, and the implementation of the rule of the Divine Shari'ah in human affairs."

In a kind of mirror image of Leninism the once-mild-mannered literary critic proposed that the world Islamic revolution be led by an Islamic revolutionary vanguard (tali'ah). Like the Leninist denunciation of capitalism, Qutb poses a Manichean division in the world. In another work of his prison period, "The Religion of Islam" (1962), he makes this clear. There are two parties in the world, "that of God and that of Satan. The party of God stands beneath the banner of God and bears His insignia. The party of the Devil embraces every community, group, people, race, and individual who do not stand under the banner of God." In another of his works, "Islam, the Religion of the Future" (1965), he writes that "the civilization of the white man has already exhausted its restricted usefulness . . . because [it] did not issue from that Divine source and origin [but] was established on bases repugnant to the nature of life and human beings."

Qutb was released from prison at the end of 1964 at the behest of the then Prime Minister of Iraq, Abdul Salam Arif. He immediately joined an underground group of the Muslim Brothers. Musallam says that the group's aim was long-term education of the Egyptian people to prepare for the creation of an Islamic state. However, they made plans to assassinate Egyptian leaders in the event they were discovered. The plans were never carried out, but were discovered by the government. At the end of July 1965 the government began to arrest the Muslim Brothers, picking up Sayyid Qutb on August 9.

The group's leaders were charged with planning the assassination of Nasser and trying to overthrow the government. Qutb and his book "Milestones on the Road" figured prominently in the government's case. Despite protests by Amnesty International, Sayyid Qutb was sentenced to death and hanged on August 29, 1966.

Paul Berman on Qutb's Critique of Christianity

It was Paul Berman in his New York Time article who coined the apt comparison of Sayyid Qutb with Karl Marx, or as he put it, "the Karl Marx of Jihad." Berman in his brief essay began to explore Qutb's most substantive work, "In the Shade of the Qur'an." In print in Arabic for decades, an English edition is underway that is expected to run to fifteen large volumes. Berman at the time of his writing in 2003 had read the part that had already appeared in print, about half of the projected total.

"Shades" highlights the centrality of the law, or Sharia, to Islam. The Qur'an and its subsidiary literature like the Torah and the Talmud of Jewish holy writings, contains a vast body of legal opinion on every aspect of life by authoritative spokesmen of the religion. This is quite unlike the Christian scriptures, which are not law-centered. For staunch literalists and traditionalists within Islam it is this jurisprudential tradition that makes separation of church and state so unacceptable.

Berman writes of "Shades of the Qur'an:

"He quotes passages from the chapters, or suras, of the Koran, and he pores over the quoted passages, observing the prosodic qualities of the text, the rhythm, tone and musicality of the words, sometimes the images. The suras lead him to discuss dietary regulations, the proper direction to pray, the rules of divorce, the question of when a man may propose marriage to a widow (four months and 10 days after the death of her husband, unless she is pregnant, in which case after delivery), the rules concerning a Muslim man who wishes to marry a Christian or a Jew (very complicated), the obligations of charity, the punishment for crimes and for breaking your word, the prohibition on liquor and intoxicants, the proper clothing to wear, the rules on usury, money lending and a thousand other themes. . . . As he makes his way through the suras and proposes his other commentaries, he slowly constructs an enormous theological criticism of modern life, and not just in Egypt.

Qutb, he says, "wrote that, all over the world, humans had reached a moment of unbearable crisis. The human race had lost touch with human nature. Man's inspiration, intelligence and morality were degenerating. Sexual relations were deteriorating ''to a level lower than the beasts.'' Man was miserable, anxious and skeptical, sinking into idiocy, insanity and crime. People were turning, in their unhappiness, to drugs, alcohol and existentialism."

This is familiar ground, the well-known moral crisis of modern industrial society, grounded in the growth of urbanism, the expansion of scientific knowledge discrediting the earlier certainties of tribal religions, and the extensions of states and empires bringing together believers in many creeds and world views while abjuring the previous practice of imposing state religions, thus reducing these beliefs to mere private affirmations. Though many regret the loss of externally assured certainty, purpose, and protection, we generally get on with our lives. In contrast, every utopian or millenarian movement offers to repair the loss through its particular panacea. Each recites more or less that same litany of social disintegrative evils (although the religiously based utopians have their own list of sexual offenses secular utopians such as the communists usually do not share), then rides off on its own reformative hobby horse, from communism to the second coming of Christ, or in Qutb's case, Islamic world government.Qutb did put his finger on a cardinal difference between Islam and Christianity's attitude toward the world. Islam meant to rule in the here and now, while Christianity in agreeing to the separation of church and state conceded the function of rulership to someone else while viewing this world, as Berman puts it, as "something alien to spirituality or as a way station on the road to a Christian afterlife."As Qutb saw it, Berman writes, "Europeans, under Christianity's influence, began to picture God on one side and science on the other. Religion over here; intellectual inquiry over there. On one side, the natural human yearning for God and for a divinely ordered life; on the other side, the natural human desire for knowledge of the physical universe. . . . Everything that Islam knew to be one, the Christian Church divided into two." Qutb in a dramatic image called this separation of society and religion, of science and belief, of church and state as a "hideous schizophrenia."As might be guessed, the Jews come in for a particularly negative assessment in Qutb's cosmology. Beginning with the Egyptian captivity in the time of Moses, Berman summarizes, "the Jews acquired a slavish character, he believed. As a result they became craven and unprincipled when powerless, and vicious and arrogant when powerful. And these traits were eternal. The Jews occupy huge portions of Qutb's Koranic commentary -- their perfidy, greed, hatefulness, diabolical impulses, never-ending conspiracies and plots against Muhammad and Islam. Qutb was relentless on these themes. He looked on Zionism as part of the eternal campaign by the Jews to destroy Islam."Qutb rejected the United States not because of its deeds but because of its values and system of organization. He wrote: ''But in reality the confrontation is not over control of territory or economic resources, or for military domination. If we believed that, we would play into our enemies' hands and would have no one but ourselves to blame for the consequences.'' Qutb in "Shades of the Qur'an" repudiated "an effort to confine Islam to the emotional and ritual circles, and to bar it from participating in the activity of life, and to check its complete predominance over every human secular activity, a pre-eminence it earns by virtue of its nature and function.''

Berman comments: "The true confrontation, the deepest confrontation of all, was over Islam and nothing but Islam. Religion was the issue. Qutb could hardly be clearer on this topic."

Unluckily for non-Islamists who can look forward to having their every secular activity regulated by Sharia law, Qutb and his followers are strict constructionists, far more so than most of the Jews who adhere to the legal texts of Deuteronomy and the Talmud. Berman writes:

"Qutb cited the Koran on the punishments for killing or wounding: 'a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear.' Fornication, too, was a serious crime because, in his words, 'it involves an attack on honor and a contempt for sanctity and an encouragement of profligacy in society.' Shariah specified the punishments here as well. 'The penalty for this must be severe; for married men and women it is stoning to death; for unmarried men and women it is flogging, a hundred lashes, which in cases is fatal.' False accusations were likewise serious. 'A punishment of 80 lashes is fixed for those who falsely accuse chaste women.' As for those who threaten the general security of society, their punishment is to be put to death, to be crucified, to have their hands and feet cut off, or to be banished from the country."

Qutb often insisted that Sharia means freedom of conscience, though Berman qualifies this. "Freedom of conscience, in his interpretation, meant freedom from false doctrines that failed to recognize God, freedom from the modern schizophrenia. Shariah, in a word, was utopia for Sayyid Qutb. It was perfection. It was the natural order in the universal. It was freedom, justice, humanity and divinity in a single system. It was a vision as grand or grander than Communism or any of the other totalitarian doctrines of the 20th century. It was, in his words, 'the total liberation of man from enslavement by others.'"


The Jihadist Movement and Sayyid Qutb's Legacy


Sayyid Qutb's influence has continued to grow since his death. Adnan Musallam quotes prominent Lebanese intellectual Radwan al-Sayyid to the effect that "Milestones on the Road" is "the founding text for the jihadist Islam. From between the lines of that booklet, all groups in jihadist Islam, in the Arab domain at least, came out."Adnan Musallam lists some of the groups that publicly trace their ideological lineage to Sayyid Qutb and his Islamist permanent revolution. These include the Taliban, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and "Islamists in Europe and the former Soviet Republics" as well as the extremely violent Armed Islamic Group in Algeria and the Muslim Brothers of Syria.The military officers who assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981 were members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of two violent Islamic groups that grew out of the Muslim Brothers. The principal leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad is Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who is the second in command and principal ideologist of Al Qaeda. In his autobiography published in a London Arabic newspaper in 2001-02 al-Zawahiri talks about the impact of Qutb in his own decision to become a jihadist.
In 1998 Al Qaeda formed an alliance with jihadist groups from the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa called the International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Christians which, Musallam writes, "called on every Muslim to kill Americans and their allies in any country 'in which it is possible to do it.'"The other Egyptian offshoot of the Muslim Brothers imbued with Qutb's theology is the Islamic Group (Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, also transliterated as Jamaat al-Islamiyya) led by the blind Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman. By far the most devastating of the Islamic Group's attacks occurred on November 17, 1997, in Luxor, when terrorists opened fire on tourists at an ancient temple, killing 58 and injuring 20 more.
The Council on Foreign Relations described the Islamic Group as "Egypt’s largest Islamist militant organization" and said it "has a presence both in Egypt and worldwide." The Islamic Group is said to have participated with Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the assassination of President Sadat. Sheikh Omar prior to the assassination issued fatwas excommunicating Sadat and calling for setting up an Islamic state through jihad. He was arrested in 1981 but released in 1984 and expelled from Egypt.Sheikh Omar spent much of the 1980s in Afghanistan where he reportedly worked closely with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the armed struggle against the Soviet Union. He moved to New York City in 1990. His New York followers were involved in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Shortly after, several were arrested for conspiring to blow up the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and a federal building housing the FBI. Government prosecutors showed videotapes of defendants mixing bomb ingredients in a garage before their arrest in 1993. Al-Rahman was arrested in 1993 along with nine of his followers. In October 1995 he was convicted of seditious conspiracy and was sentenced to life in prison. He was also accused of soliciting the murder of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.Musallam quotes the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as describing itself as "the Islamic vanguard Sayyid Qutb talks about," and includes Hamas in the circle of Qutb's disciples.
The Islamist organization Hizb al-Tahrir, founded in Jerusalem in 1952 and active in various countries of the Middle East and also in Britain, has also come under the influence of Qutb's framing of the global issues.Musallam theorizes that had Qutb not spent so many years in prison his writings might not have been so embittered, and not provided so fruitful a basis for the jihadist movement. Nevertheless he summarizes Qutb's final work, "Components of the Islamic Conception," left unfinished and published only in 1986, as maintaining that Jahiliyyah "has no right to exist" and that "there is no meeting between Islam and al-Jahiliyyah." In regard to Christians and Jews, Qutb grants them the right to maintain their religion but only if they are submitted to Muslim rule and pay the Jizya, "the land tax imposed on infidels out of humiliation and servility."Musallam cites a criticism of Qutb's radical interpretation of the Qur'an by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, "a noted Egyptian Islamist propagator," who accuses Qutb of selective quoting of only the "sword-oriented" verses of the Qur'an while ignoring many Qur'anic verses that call for peace with non-Muslims.Fawaz A. Gerges in his book "The Far Enemy: The New Definition of Jihad" (Cambridge University Press, 2005) describes Qutb's position as Islamic Permanent Revolution. Gerges writes:"More than anyone else, Sayyid Qutb . . . inspired generations of jihadis, including Al Qaeda's senior leaders, Osama bin Laden and his deputies, . . . theoretician Ayman al-Zawahiri, and thousands of others -- to wage perpetual jihad to 'abolish injustice from the earth, to bring people to the worship of God alone, and to bring them out of servitude to others into the servants of the Lord.' Far from viewing jihad as a collective duty governed by strict rules and regulations (similar to just war theory in Christianity, international law, and classical Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh), jihad, for Qutb, was a permanent revolution against internal and external enemies who usurped God's sovereignty. He attacked Muslim scholars and clerics with 'defeatist and apologetic mentalities' for confining jihad to 'defensive war.' There is no such thing as a defensive, limited war in Islam, only an offensive, total war."

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Excerpts from "Milestones on the Road" by Sayyid Qutb

The Right to Judge


It is not the function of Islam to compromise with the concepts of Jahiliyyah which are current in the world or to co-exist in the same land together with a jahili system. This was not the case when it first appeared in the world, nor will it be today or in the future. Jahiliyyah, to whatever period it belongs, is Jahiliyyah; that is, deviation from the worship of One Allah and the way of life prescribed by Allah.It derives its system and laws and regulations and habits and standards and values from a source other than Allah. On the other hand, Islam is submission to Allah, and its function is to bring people away from Jahiliyyah towards Islam. Jahiliyyah is the worship of some people by others; that is to say, some people become dominant and make laws for others, regardless of whether these laws are against Allah's injunctions and without caring for the use or misuse of their authority.Islam, on the other hand, is people's worshipping Allah alone, and deriving concepts and beliefs, laws and regulations from the authority of Allah, and freeing themselves from the servitude to Allah's servants. This is the very nature of Islam and the nature of its role on earth.Islam cannot accept any mixing with Jahiliyyah. Either Islam will remain, or Jahiliyyah; no half-half situation is possible. Command belongs to Allah, or otherwise to Jahiliyyah; Allah's Shari'ah will prevail, or else people's desires: "And if they do not respond to you, then know that they only follow their own lusts. And who is more astray than one who follows his own lusts, without guidance from Allah? Verily! Allah guides not the people who are disobedient."[28:50]; "Do they then seek the judgment of (the Days of) Ignorance? And who is better in judgment than Allah for a people who have firm faith"[5:50].The foremost duty of Islam is to depose Jahiliyyah from the leadership of man, with the intention of raising human beings to that high position which Allah has chosen for him. This purpose is explained by Raba'i Bin 'Amer, when he replied to the Commander in Chief of the Persian army, Rustum. Rustum asked, "For what purpose have you come?" Raba'i answered," Allah has sent us to bring anyone who wishes from servitude to men into the service of Allah alone, from the narrowness of this world into the vastness of this world and the Hereafter, from the tyranny of religions into the justice of Islam."