In the Shadows of Prison: Sayyid Qutb’s Visions of a Perfect World. Peter C. Valenti - Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

In the Shadows of Prison:
Sayyid Qutb’s Visions of a Perfect World

Peter C. Valenti


Sayyid Qutb was a mid-twentieth-century schoolteacher, writer, literary critic, and activist who opposed the Egyptian government, advocating a radical new agenda for the country and for the Islamic world as a whole. He was deemed so dangerous that the Egyptian government executed him in 1966. Later extremists, such as Usama bin Laden, have cited his ideology and personal example. This has caused some U.S. media and analysts to dub Qutb “the godfather of terrorism.” However, there is an overlooked component to Qutb’s intellectual journey—eleven years as a political prisoner. His two most famous works, In the Shade of the Qur’an and Milestones, were written in prison and were dramatically influenced by Qutb’s time there. The prison experience affects all those who are incarcerated, and in this case it dramatically reshaped Qutb; in the confines of his prison cell he formulated an uncompromisingly stark manner in which to view the world.—J.W.R.


“Apparently, a church dance in Greeley, Colo., led to 9/11.” Thus opens an article in The New York Times written by Alessandra Stanley in 2007. She continues:

In 1948 Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer who became the father of the radical Islamist movement, was sent to the United States to temper his contempt for the West. What he saw over two years—postwar consumerism, suburban lawns, men and women dancing “breast to breast”—only further inflamed his conviction that the West was the enemy of Islam and doomed. Mr. Qutb went on to work up a pseudospiritual justification of Islamic terrorism that inspired and emboldened many, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri [sic]. And that modest Colorado mixer … was Mr. Qutb’s “epiphanic moment,” as Malise Ruthven, a Middle East expert, puts it in “Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda”….

Stanley’s article was a review of an 11-part series on PBS, “America at a Crossroads,” examining the post-September 11, 2001, world. Both a review article and emblematic of the public discussion regarding the causes of 9/11, Stanley concluded that people like Usama bin Laden and Qutb were fueled by anti-Western hatred, expressing the view that “it’s a worthy and worthwhile examination of the clash between Islam and the West, but it’s also the kind of sorrowful, all-knowing look backward that makes viewers wonder why all these journalists, experts, scholars and former government officials were not more outspoken about the impending crisis.”

There are three interesting points about the arguments in this article, and similar ones in the media since 9/11. First, it utilizes reductionist and teleological clichés about the motivations of so-called Muslim fundamentalists. The implication is Muslim fundamentalists have psychosocial hang-ups with social activities and habits that “we” in the “modern world” find innocuous and trivial. A prime example is how Stanley begins her article, which accepts Ruthven’s argument reducing the catalyst for Qutb’s supposed anti-Western ideology to a dance. Stanley also pointedly notes that Bin Laden “did not shake hands with women, wear shorts at soccer practice or listen to music.”

Yet the supposition that Muslim fundamentalists are motivated by an intense hatred of the West demonstrated by their reaction to Western sociocultural norms elides the long historical relationship of the European Great Powers, and later the U.S., with the Arab and/or Islamic world. The last 200 years of interventions, wars, colonization, and foreign policies have had a lasting impact. These events are well-known and routinely cited in the Arab and/or Islamic World as outstanding grievances (and, subsequently, motivations for hostility or revenge). Whether outsiders agree with interpretations of Arabs or Muslims about the impact of—for example—U.S. policies that supported dictators in the Middle East, attempted to or actually overthrew governments (the 1953 coup in Iran the classic example), and the continued support the United States has given to Israel and its policies, to ignore this historical context and processes leaves a person with no other explanatory factor as to what motivates these fundamentalists, thus making the suggestion explicit in Stanley’s narrative that—as per the Bushian argument—“They hate us for our freedoms [in this case, dancing]” seem correct.

Second, Stanley’s language exemplifies long-held assumptions that the West is the engine of history. This trope posits that the so-called Third World and its ideologies, movements, and intellectuals are influenced by, reacting to, or motivated by the West. It is correct that Qutb, and people like him, were highly critical of the West, though their first and most lasting experience of the West was through colonization. Qutb’s time in the United States did make him reflect on a variety of topics, nevertheless the argument reduces the long evolution of his thinking to just being a result of his encounter with the West (in this case, a dance). This argument ignores the complex—and more important—domestic influences and motivations for his thinking. Qutb reserved far more ire and focus for the Islamic World. When he did discuss the West’s impact on the Islamic World it was mostly as a symptom of what he saw as the decline of the Islamic World and not as the cause. Moreover, to use the argument that his time in the United States caused his “epiphanic moment” ignores his concerns in his writings predating his trip to the United States.1

The third and most relevant point is that if there was one experience that radically and unequivocally shaped Qutb, it wasn’t a dance or the trip to the United States, but rather his 11 years as a political prisoner in Egypt. While elements of his ideology were worked out prior to imprisonment, it was the harrowing experiences in prison, including torture and murder of fellow prisoners, which forced him to live in a complex mental world that was both confining and liberating. This better explains much of his later ideology, and to underscore this point, his most famous and influential works, Milestones and In the Shade of the Qur’an (henceforth ISQ), which became inspirational texts for later radical organizations, were both written in prison. Emphasizing his prison experience in shaping his mental universe is key to understanding his radicalization as well as the subtext for most of his late writings. As one author put it:

There is no doubt that the prison environment and repression inside President [of Egypt, Gamal ‘Abd al-] Nasser’s prisons were the nurseries that hatched these takfir jihadist ideas seen in Qutb’s Milestones … which has become since then a manifesto for jihadist Islamists throughout the world. The first kafir (infidel) in Qutb’s mind during his imprisonment, 1954-1964, 1965-1966, was President Nasser [Musallam 202].2


Sayyid Qutb Ibrahim Husayn Shadhili was born in 1906 in the village of Musha, in the south of Egypt near Asyut. Musha was a small farming community; most villagers were Muslim, but there was a sizeable Christian minority. His childhood was typical for rural Egypt in that Qutb was taught to respect and follow various moral and social duties, and he grew up in an atmosphere that emphasized religious practices and cultural norms such as hospitality and generosity.3

Qutb was deeply influenced by contemporary nationalist agitations. Egyptians were resentful of British imperial domination of Egypt (Britain occupied it in 1882), and they voiced a sense of cultural pride—which included a central role for Islam—and desire for independence. Qutb’s father encouraged him to participate in nationalist activities, including reading nationalist papers to illiterate villagers. Rural Egyptians had a deep mistrust of the state, seeing it as an oppressive and extractive institution, far away in Cairo, manipulated by British colonial authorities. Echoing the concerns of his fellow villagers, Qutb often expressed suspicions or disappointments about soldiers, state ministers, law, and justice. His deep sense of justice was a driving force that motivated him throughout his life.

The post-World War I nationalist upheavals in Egypt made travel to Cairo difficult, but eventually in 1921 his family sent him to the capital. After finishing his secondary studies, in 1929 he entered the Dar al-‘ulum, Cairo’s teacher training college. Dar al-‘ulum taught a mixed curriculum of “traditional” religious sciences, such as Qur’anic commentary (exegesis) and jurisprudence, and “modern” scientific subjects such as economics, history, and politics. The college was intentionally meant to decrease the influence of the preeminent institution of learning in the Islamic world, al-Azhar, founded in the year 970. While there, Qutb was exposed to many of the great nationalist and intellectual movements of the time. In 1933 he graduated with a degree in Arabic language and literature.

After graduation he taught elementary education around the country for seven years as a Ministry of Education employee. In the provinces he was further exposed to the economic and social ills of Egypt, deepening his concern for social justice. From 1936 onward he worked in Cairo; in 1940 he was promoted to the offices of General Culture and Translation and Statistics. This job entailed inspector responsibilities over education facilities. Furthermore, since his college days Qutb worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines as an editor and contributor. He wrote articles, novels, collections of poetry, and reviews. He moved in the artistic and intellectual circles of Cairo. At this time Qutb embraced literary modernism, also expressing enthusiasm for Western literature.

Qutb’s literary activities and publications are too numerous to list,4 so other than those mentioned throughout this essay, one more will be highlighted here. In late 1947 Qutb along with seven others5 founded a journal called al-Fikr al-jadid (New Thought). The journal’s purpose was to bring attention to contemporary social conditions, in particular the plight of the urban and rural poor. The journal exposed the corruption and nepotism of Egyptian officials. After only 12 issues the government closed it down. Despite its brief life we can see this journal as a manifestation of Qutb’s life-long concern for social justice and quest for solutions; it was also another fork in the road that put him at odds with the government. Al-Fikr al-jadid is also the tentative beginning of what became a more thorough exploration of these issues in his well-received book Social Justice in Islam, first published in 1949, and in later Islamist works.

As mentioned earlier, the argument that Qutb’s time in the United States caused him to formulate anti-Western ideology is grossly reductionist. Rather the salient point to be made is that Qutb was shaped much more by his experiences in Egypt, especially his time in prison. While the trip to the United States did have some importance in terms of confirming his ideas, Qutb’s thinking had changed long before he got on the boat for New York. Around 1939 Qutb began to shift his literary focus to the Qur’an and religious topics. Doing so, whether in the Islamic world or elsewhere, is not inherently a sign of radicalization. The Qur’an, as the font of the Arabic language, literature, and Islamic civilization, is a natural component of study for any Arab intellectual, whether a Muslim or not. His decade of research and publishing on the Qur’an and other religious issues, and gradual shift away from writing on poetry and literature, served as a foundation he could draw upon while later in prison.

But it is valid to ask: what led this esteemed literary critic, known for his prodigious publications on (non-religious) poetry, novels, and short stories as well as his generally secular nationalist political persuasion, to shift focus to religious topics? From 1939 onwards, a number of developments motivated Qutb’s shift. A general but important context was the massive political, social, and economic disruptions caused by World War II; Egypt was still occupied by Britain and was a critical strategic location. Egyptians suffered a great deal from wartime hardships, still felt years later. British promises of political change in return for Egyptians’ support during the war went unfulfilled. The political system—specifically the monarchy—was held in contempt and seen as little more than corrupt puppets of the imperialists.6 Qutb, always distressed by social injustice, poverty, political ineptitude and corruption, saw the war exacerbate these conditions greatly. Also, the 1930 and ’40s were witness to a revival of intellectual interest in Islamic history in tandem with an evolving dissatisfaction with the unfulfilled promises of liberal and nationalist political parties and institutions (repressed by the British) (Smith).

Furthermore, Qutb, like Egyptians in general, was disturbed by the effects of the British-supported Zionist movement in Palestine, culminating in the dislocation of approximately 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 with the creation of Israel. Prior to 1948 he believed that Zionism (post-1948, Israel) was another example of Western imperialism in the Middle East; later he added that Israel represented a historical enmity of Jews toward Islam. Qutb, like Arabs in general, was dismayed by what he saw as the U.S. abandoning its role as champion of justice, democracy, and anti-imperialism by ignoring Palestinian pleas for self-determination (Calvert, Origins 98-101, 120-22, 167-69).

More personal reasons for his shift include the death of his mother in 1940 and a failed engagement in 1943. These events plus his health problems, which continued to plague him throughout his life, caused periods of depression and a reason to “turn to his religion for refuge” (Musallam 12-14, 65-72).7 Living in this particular historical and personal context, the 1940s were, as one author describes it, a period of “alienation of Sayyid Qutb” (Musallam 73).

Trip to the United States

Contrary to Stanley’s assertion, Qutb was not “sent to the United States to temper his contempt for the West.” The reasons were far more complex. The Ministry of Education’s official reason was to study new pedagogy and curriculum. Due to his political and social criticism it seems an arrest was imminent, and so friends in the government arranged for him to leave the country. It is possible that those in the government who did not like his views hoped to remove him for a few years (Calvert, Origins, 139). In any case, in November 1948 he left, and he returned in August 1950. He lived throughout the United States, much of his time taking classes in academic institutions.

The choice to go the States (instead of the UK) was logical. Qutb had a favorable view of American culture and literature and was curious to see the country. He was impressed by American film and had a deep passion for classical music. His writings express admiration for U.S. technical and scientific achievements.8 He later wrote in an Egyptian newspaper of the reputation of “America,” describing what are very likely his own (initial) views: “America, the New World, is that vast, far-flung world that occupies in the mind’s eye more space than it really does on this earth. Imaginations and dreams glimmer on this world with illusion and wonder” (Qutb, “The America” 9). Qutb came to the U.S. curious but also with a strong sense of morality and worth of Egyptian—or Islamic and “Eastern”—identity. He didn’t accept the idea that the Third World needed to be remade by Western civilization; indeed, witnessing the impact of Western imperialism in the Middle East, he was already suspicious of the claims of the allegedly superior political systems and values of the West.

His curiosity and open-mindedness led him to meet different types of people in various settings, including Easter and Christmas celebrations in homes, and churches (according to an Arab-American friend of his at the time, often),9 and it is from his impressions of these that Stanley’s article explains his supposed motivations. Qutb, who certainly had traditional views about the nature of religious institutions, was quite shocked that a house of God was used on Sunday for, according to one advertisement, “snacks, magic games, puzzles, contests, fun,” and, as he famously witnessed, a provocative dance. His reaction to this, which will be useful to quote here, is indicative both of how he viewed the role of religion and, as is clear in the last line, his acceptance of difference:

And these ministers would say to you: ‘But we are unable to attract this youth by any other means!’

But none of them asks himself: ‘What is the value of attracting them to the church, when they rush to it in this way, and spend their time in this manner? Is church attendance a goal in and of itself?’ Is it not for the edification of feelings and manners? … But what can I say? Strange things can happen in this world! For God has created all kinds of people and things [Qutb, “The America” 19-21].

Throughout Qutb’s later writings he referred to what he saw as the overt materialism and loss of spirituality in the United States, verifying his suspicion of secularism. Qutb came to believe that people in the United States had lost their respect and awe for nature and God’s beneficence to humanity. Additionally, the strong American individualism and prominent sexuality, he felt, diminished the strength and value of family, having detrimental effects on society. Other encounters impressed upon him that the U.S. was not the champion of Third World independence and self-determination that he had hoped.

Finally, one cannot ignore another important aspect of his visit to the States. As a man of dark complexion, Qutb was exposed to the harsh realities of American racism.10 Experiencing racism in the United States had the effect of further alienating him and doubting the validity of so-called enlightened American (Western) values and societies. His later writings identify the hypocrisy of American (Western) claims regarding equality and human dignity while emphasizing the freedom and justice inherent in Islam.11 One section in ISQ contains a scathing indictment of American racism (Carré 293).

Return to Egypt

Despite some authors’ insinuations, Qutb didn’t return to Egypt and enter a new radical phase. Instead, he continued advocating his previously held convictions. Other than material and technological achievements, he hadn’t seen anything in U.S. society that necessitated remaking Egypt in the Western image. If anything, the trip strengthened his preexisting positions; the fact that he wrote Social Justice in Islam prior to the trip is evidence of this point. Rather it was domestic developments that directed his actions after his return to Egypt, and he maintained a reformist position into the 1950s (post-trip). The true radicalization happened in the late 1950s, well after the trip to the United States, so there is no direct causality, as claimed, between the trip and his later views.

Qutb returned to work at the Ministry of Education. As Qutb was evolving intellectually he took note of new organizations emerging in Egypt. The most important for Qutb’s life story is the Muslim Brotherhood (henceforth MB). In the late 1930s Qutb became aware of the MB and slowly grew more sympathetic to its views. In 1953, he officially joined. Until that point he had contact with the MB but one can not say he embraced its program. Certainly MB members were enthusiastic about him after the publication of Social Justice in Islam. The MB issued reprints of his earlier work. By early 1952 he started writing a column for the MB magazine alMuslimun entitled “Fi zilal al-Qur’an” (In the Shade of the Qur’an) which was a serialized Qur’anic exegesis. Thus were sown the seeds of his later book.

The MB was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), who, like Qutb, was a product of Dar al-‘ulum. The MB saw itself as a reformist organization serving the spiritual and educational needs of Egyptians. To these ends, it promoted an ethical and devotional lifestyle in addition to offering literacy classes and charity activities. The MB also hoped to strengthen Egyptians’ religious and cultural identity in the face of British domination, which it saw as having debilitating effects on society. By the 1940s it had around 500,000 members, and had spread throughout the Arab Middle East. By this time it ran many institutions, including charities, youth organizations, as well as press, film, radio, and publishing houses. Starting in the 1940s the MB began fielding political candidates.12 Its political activism and antagonism of the government, in tandem with a faction of the MB utilizing more violent means, led to al-Banna’s assassination followed by a tense relationship with the monarchy until the latter’s overthrow in 1952.

Intellectual Influences

Qutb was influenced by contemporary Islamist revivalist writers, in particular Abulhasan ‘Ali Nadvi (1913-99) and Sayyid Abu al-‘Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), both from the Indian subcontinent. These men’s works were translated into Arabic through the 1940s-‘50s, allowing Qutb to read them.13 Qutb drew heavily on both authors to expand upon his preexisting ideas,14 perhaps more so from Mawdudi.

Like Qutb, Mawdudi was greatly concerned by the impact of British imperialism, and all of his practical interaction with “Western civilization” was the colonial experience. He also faced government persecution (under colonial and Pakistani governments) and spent time in jail.15 Like Qutb, his most influential work was a multi-volume Qur’anic exegesis, Tafhim al-Qur’an; like Qutb’s ISQ, it is modernist and does not rely on traditional clerical scholastic methodology or sources (also like Qutb, partly written in jail).

Qutb was inspired by Mawdudi’s argument that it was not enough to reform the personal piety and religious practices of average Muslims. Individuals could only truly be transformed and bettered by a dramatic reformation of society and especially of the government that led it. Additionally, Mawdudi took the Islamic concept of the hakimiyah (sovereignty)16 of God and placed great emphasis on this, arguing that once a person was truly Muslim (either converting to Islam or no longer being just a nominal Muslim), he/she must acknowledge that submission and obedience belong to God alone. As he argued, “A Muslim is not a Muslim by appellation or birth, but by virtue of abiding by holy law” (Maududi, Fundamentals 21-22). Notice Qutb’s similar language in his late work: “Islam is not a few words pronounced by the tongue, or birth in a country called Islamic, or an inheritance from a Muslim father” (Qutb, Milestones 108; also 29).

Lastly, according to Mawdudi, God’s commandments, like His oneness, are exclusive and cannot be shared with, altered by, or replaced with another system. Thus a true government and society should only acknowledge, and be based upon, God and His commandments and the example set by Prophet Muhammad. Manmade laws and systems are seen as both faulty and premised on the idea that some humans know better than others (in the case of a liberal democracy, that the majority chooses what is best) as well as contravening what God wants for humanity.17 Any practice that was not in conformity with this previous argument can be seen as unIslamic, or as he called it, jahili.

His use of this Arabic term is both innovative and powerful. In traditional Islamic scholarship, the term jahili (an adjective) represents a period in time in history, al-Jahiliyah, or “Time of Ignorance.” This was the period, specifically in Arabia, prior to the life of Prophet Muhammad (570-632). Muhammad advocated a return to the original monotheism of Abraham and criticized the beliefs and practices of (polytheistic) pre-Islamic Arabia. This meant that the historical al-Jahiliyah ended with the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. 1300 years later Mawdudi was using the term in a different way. For him it transcended time and space and not only described a historical period but also a mode of individual and social existence. Thus Mawdudi’s life mission was to remove jahili influences and practices in the Islamic world (he was doubtful if this was the proper term)18 in order to (re)create the proper sociopolitical system that addresses modern needs by utilization of a pure (and purified) and correct interpretation of Islamic sources. This revisionist usage of the term jahili was extremely powerful, as well as polarizing, and had immense influence on Qutb.

Political agitation was not new in Egypt, but 1951-52 saw notable protests against the British presence as well as the government. Various groups were involved in confrontations with British and government forces; loss of life was common for the Egyptian protestors. Qutb was an enthusiastic supporter of these activists. The tense situation culminated in the July 23, 1952 “revolution” in which the monarchy was overthrown by a secret cell, the Free Officers, inside the Egyptian military. The Free Officers had met at Qutb’s house to liaison with MB members and plan the revolution.19 Over time one officer rose to lead the new revolutionary government: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir (commonly called “Nasser”). Qutb, like most Egyptians, was overjoyed by this so-called revolution, and it should be added that he and Nasser had a preexisting warm and respectful relationship. Qutb threw himself into the work of building a new government and society. His credentials as a social critic (and previous connections to the revolutionaries) got him appointed as an advisor to the government, with special focus on education; he was even given a radio program. This work lasted for the next six months.

Eventually Qutb began to question his role in the government. Friction emerged between the MB and the Free Officers in late 1952; the Free Officers began to see the MB as a political threat. Finally, Nasser and the other Free Officers embraced a secular nationalism which had little public role for Islam whereas Qutb and his MB allies disagreed. Despite his initial closeness to the Free Officers, Qutb felt it necessary to signal his dedication to Islamic social reform by resigning from the government and officially joining the MB in February 1953. To reiterate, until 1953 he had been sympathetic to the MB but was not a member; his joining presaged a wider rift between the MB and government and increased the prestige of the MB by having the widely respected figure of Qutb as a member. It should be added that Qutb, and the MB leadership, felt used by Nasser and his officer revolutionaries. Qutb was elevated to very prominent positions in the MB, and the MB joined in protests against the new government.

Prison Cell as Islamic World

The impact of Qutb’s 11 years in jail on his intellectual trajectory is undeniable, and it is the contention of this essay that it was the crucible in which he came to his most radical conclusions (and revisions of his own work). While he was already of an Islamist orientation prior to entering prison, there is no way of saying whether he would have come to the same conclusions had he not gone to prison. Also, prior to his incarceration, the Muslim Brotherhood did not embody nor promote any of these (Qutbian) ideas20—and the organization officially repudiated Qutb’s most radical core arguments by the end of the 1960s—so it cannot be said that he was unduly influenced by them.21 Actually Qutb still maintained a moderate Islamist position even in his first few years in jail. His ideas at this point could be best described as social reformism. It is only over the accumulating years in jail that Qutb moved to a radical position.

Just as MB members began meeting with dissident factions inside the government resulting from power struggles, the MB was declared an illegal political party. However, the ax came down on the MB in late 1954. While President Nasser was giving a speech on October 26, an assassin tried to shoot him, missing completely (debate remains whether this assassination was staged or a conspiracy within a conspiracy).22 Under the pretext of this conspiracy, Nasser was able to target all political rivals—as many as 20,000 people were arrested. The most prominent target was the MB, as the assassin caught was a MB member. Qutb, along with thousands of other Muslim Brothers, was imprisoned. Qutb was convicted of “anti-government” activity and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. During his court appearances, observers noted signs of torture on him. He famously lifted up his shirt during the trial, revealing his wounds, and stated “the principles of the revolution have been applied on us in prison” (al-Khalidi 347-49).23

For all Muslim Brothers in general and Qutb specifically, time spent in prison was initially an experience of bewilderment, disillusionment, and despair. They were shocked at how quickly relations with the new revolutionary government had deteriorated, putting the MB at the receiving end of its hostility, and they were not even sure if their own organization had the ideological vision and ability to go forward under these new circumstances (Zollner 412-15). A number of Brethren eventually began slowly and cautiously addressing perceived faults in strategy or ideas; Qutb became the most prolific in doing so.

Egyptian prisons were notorious (and unfortunately remain so) for their conditions and methods. Dank, unsanitary conditions and poor nutrition were coupled with frequent torture. Unsurprisingly for a 50-year-old who entered prison with health conditions, Qutb’s situation immediately grew worse. His arthritis, angina pectoris, and lung problems were exacerbated, he developed rheumatism, and probably contracted tuberculosis (al-Khalidi 347-49, 361-65). Frail and often sick, Qutb spent most of his time in the prison hospital; he wrote a good deal of his work while in a hospital bed.24 To understand Qutb’s prison writing, we must foreground torture and health problems as constant elements that affected his views. Evidence of this slips through his prose, such as during his discussion of obstacles the first Muslims (during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime) faced in the al-Jahiliyah.25

Despite the terrible afflictions he suffered, the sources are unanimous in painting Qutb as an exemplary prison comrade who shared food, diffused conflicts, assisted sick prisoners, and even managed to take care of a stray cat. All throughout, he saw his religious devotion and practice as the bedrock upon which he could maintain his steadfastness and moral character in the face of the horrors around him.26 In the confines of his prison cell he constructed an Islamic society.

Even though Qutb began to revise his earlier work in prison, his truly radical work started in 1957. This is important to further substantiate the point that Qutb’s so-called anti-Western ideology and “epiphanic moment” came not while in the United States but rather in an Egyptian prison. The event in question occurred when some MB prisoners refused to fulfill labor duties at the prison quarry; guards then shot the prisoners in their cells, killing 21 and wounding scores more. At the time Qutb was in the prison hospital, but saw the bloody bodies as they were brought in after the massacre (al-Khalidi 355-57). Both the secondary sources and the tone of Qutb’s own writing verify that this was the moment of absolute rupture. Until this point he saw himself as an Islamist reformer hoping to effect change in society. However, the catalogue of his terrible experiences in jail and 1957 massacre convinced him that no real social change could happen under an illegitimate political system; sweeping and revolutionary changes were needed. What was at stake was the end of immorality, oppression, and injustice. He now saw the situation in Egypt, and indeed in the world, in stark black-and-white terms.

In the intensely rigid and harrowing life of prison, he constructed an ideal—some might say imaginary—world. Calvert alludes to Qutb’s propensity to live a “dream life” which rounded out the “the limited range of experiences and influences” of prison life. He later adds that he “felt like a foreigner in the world” (Calvert, Origins 24, 200; Moussalli 35). He no longer had time for the frivolous writings of his past; with a new zeal he felt it necessary to find the solutions for not only Egyptians but all of humanity. His work took on a new urgency, underscored by the possibility that he could easily die in prison from health problems or at the hands of oppressive jailors.

He was able to finish his multivolume ISQ because his publisher sued the government for losses suffered from lack of contract fulfillment, and a court order allowed Qutb to write.27 Other works followed, including revising Social Justice in Islam,28 and all had to go through a censorship committee, which explains that while his vision was often stark he usually lacks specific details. Like any skilled writer operating under censorship, he found writing strategies to evade and obfuscate. On the other hand, this necessitated a wider latitude of interpretation by his readers as to how to implement his vision, often leading to more radical manifestations of his ideology.

During the years of his incarceration Qutb’s fame grew. More international pressure was placed on Nasser to release him. When Qutb suffered a heart attack in 1964, Iraqi President ‘Abd al-Salam ‘Arif intervened.29 Always practical, Nasser did not want Qutb’s death in prison on his hands, and he was attempting to moderate his relationship with political dissidents. Qutb was released in May 1964, but was weak and sickly. At home he was greeted by well-wishers, and Islamist visitors treated him with great deference. He was offered a position in the Iraqi government but he felt he should remain in Egypt. He began meeting with the Nizam 1965 (see below) but he was cautious. Their feelings—not surprisingly—were that they needed to be prepared once the government renewed its persecution of them; they did discuss ideas for militant action, including assassinating Nasser, but none of these reached planning stages (Calvert, Origins 240-44).

For the next year he was involved with the Nizam 1965 as well as with MB leaders. By summer 1965 the government discovered the secret Nizam 1965. Qutb and his brother, Muhammad, were arrested; his sister and two nephews were also arrested (one of the latter dying in prison). Other MB members were arrested and tortured. Muhammad Qutb was reportedly tortured to within an inch of his life. In April 1966 Qutb and 42 other Islamists were tried on counts of subversion, terrorism, and sedition. Excerpts of Milestones were used in the trial against him; prosecutors, just as later militants, read between the lines in the passages calling for the replacement of jahili systems. Qutb’s defense was that these passages discuss an evolutionary process over a period of time (Qutb, Milestones 28-29, 31, 120, 136).

Initially six defendants were sentenced to death, but Nasser commuted the penalty for three, leaving Qutb and two close companions, ‘Abd al-Fattah Isma‘il and Yusuf al-Hawwash, to face death by hanging. On August 29, 1966, the executions were carried out. Qutb reportedly shook hands with the guards prior to his hanging; this may seem strange, but until the end he lived a man of his principles.

The 30 Volumes of In the Shade of the Qur’an

Even though Qutb’s Milestones has gotten more attention in the non-Islamic world—seen as his definitive ideological treatise—the most important of his works is ISQ. This work is his most monumental and influential legacy. ISQ is a 30-volume Qur’anic exegesis that is Qutb’s statement on how to read the Qur’an as well as what Muslims must do based on that reading. Milestones is really a crystallization of ideas Qutb made in ISQ.30Finally, comparing the slim Milestones to the huge ISQ, we can see how Qutb himself certainly felt that ISQ was his greatest achievement. The majority of his prison years were spent writing and revising its many volumes.

Not only radical Islamists appreciate ISQ—a good number of moderate Muslims do as well. Qutb is viewed as an intellectual who sacrificed his life challenging the oppressive political and religious elite of his day. More importantly, the considerable popularity of ISQ as a Qur’anic exegesis is precisely because of the methodology used by Qutb. Qutb tried to make the Qur’an as accessible as possible. Qutb, utilizing his extensive skills in literary criticism and his ability to condense complicated ideas into simple, powerful statements, writes in a style that can be appreciated by elites and the less educated. Qutb makes reference to recent scientific developments as confirmation and explanation of Qur’anic phenomena. Finally, Qutb eschews the established traditional norms of Qur’anic exegetical literature: he avoids using highly technical, obscure vocabulary and its overly-referential style (reliance on the pre-existing religious scholarship)—he makes limited references to other Islamic scholars.31 These features led clerics (many being government-appointed) to dismiss Qutb’s work.

Thus ISQ is a conscious effort to bypass the methodology of the Islamic scholarly tradition to understand the Qur’an.32 Like Martin Luther, he claimed that average believers can interpret the holy book themselves; Qutb is a popularizer and, as with Luther, subjecting scripture to popular interpretation opens a “Pandora’s box” that can lead to all kinds of new readings of the holy book. This was a revolutionary act with incredible political and social ramifications. Therefore, despite Qutb’s emphasis on the absoluteness of God and His commandments, his masterwork of ISQ, in both its writing style and methodology, is a modernist innovation.

Qutb first began writing ISQ in the early 1950s as a column in an MB periodical which then grew into a book project; he finished the latter volumes in jail. He finished all the volumes by 1959, but then immediately started revising the collection, starting with the first volume.33 It is impossible to review in great detail the 30 volumes of ISQ, so some overall themes will be examined. A good quote to begin with is from volume 1; when commenting on 2:213 (that is, surah 2, verse 213), Qutb writes:

It is worth pausing here to consider the statement that the Book34 is “setting forth the Truth.” This is an affirmation that the Book … has come with the definitive and absolute truth. It is the ultimate, pre-eminent and sole arbiter and judge of all human thought and behavior. Without this authority society would be at a loss, life would descend into chaos, confusion and strife, and mankind would know no peace or happiness. This is vital in determining the source of human values, thought and understanding, and for defining the laws that govern human relations. The source is God, and God alone.

He later adds: “The fact is that it was necessary for a definite and firm standard to exist as a reference point for all mankind. It was likewise necessary that this standard should come from a source above the human mind and independent from it.” He inevitably concludes:

Society will progress and improve as long as it adheres to the teachings of God’s Book…. Right and wrong in terms of religious faith are not to be decided by human individuals or through a ballot box … the norms, traditions, systems, and laws people may adopt and accept as a way of life for human society at any particular time in history have no merit or consistency if they are at variance or in contradiction with God’s Book [Qutb, ISQ Vol. 1 247-49].35

It is not enough to have some/certain Islamic practices implemented—it must be a complete and comprehensive system. The idea of a separation of mosque and state, or different spheres for people’s religious and social lives, is antithetical to his understanding: “we cannot simply take one legal provision of one principle of Islam and try to implement it in a non-Muslim social setup” (Qutb, ISQ Vol. 4 95-96). If no human mind is perfect, it follows that any system (political, social, intellectual) designed by human reason is bound to have flaws. The best use of reason in his opinion was in dedication to understanding the fullness of the Qur’anic message. One of his major assumptions in this regard seems to be the ultimate possibility of clarity of revelation whereas he ignores the role of (subjective) human agency in interpreting and implementing it.36

Regarding Islamic scholarship or political and social developments of the past, his view is that Islamic history, indeed the current state of the Islamic world, had lost its essential Islamic character.

In Muslim society, for example, serious deviations have occurred at certain stages of its history, and at present there is a worsening decline…. For genuine Islamic life to be resumed and a distinctive Muslim society to be rebuilt, those parts of Muslim history have to be cast aside … [Qutb, ISQ, Vol. 1, 249; Milestones 13].

Qutb felt there were few elements in the Islamic world to draw upon for a (re)newed society. What was needed was a plan of action to put this renewal into effect. For his “plan” as to how to do this, we turn to his other prison work.

The Book Milestones

Despite all the attention this book has received, whether from the radicals who embrace it or from journalists, writers, and “security analysts” in the U.S. who point to it, Qutb actually viewed it as minor compared to his other works. In size alone it is a handbook (though portability may have enhanced its success); comparison to the impressive Social Justice in Islam or the compendious collection of ISQ makes it appear minuscule. As was revealed by memoirs of the participants and the 1966 court trial that condemned Qutb to death, Milestones was first written as a study guide for select members of the MB (many of whom previously prisoners).37 This small group, later dubbed “Nizam 1965” (or Organization 1965), was to be a new, invigorated, and activist “vanguard” of Muslims that would work towards creating an Islamic society; essentially Qutb was rejecting the mainstream MB, both in terms of methods and ideology, and instead creating a more select group of believers. While it cannot be inferred that these goals were predicated on militant methods (or Nizam 1965 was even capable of doing so), the organization clearly had the (long-term) goal of eventually replacing the government of Nasser. Thus, it is possible to see the potential for militancy. Obviously, so did the court that tried Qutb.38

Published in January 1964, Milestones is organized as a series of essays that frame belief and action as intertwined necessities for true Muslims. As the name implies, it is a handbook for working along the path of revolution to an ultimate and true Islamic order. Surprisingly, it got through the censors, being reprinted five times before the government banned it in mid-1964. In order to pass through the censors, Qutb again utilized a strategy of broad statements and obfuscation. Anyone searching for a detailed program of revolution or the desired Islamic state will be disappointed.

The people who do not understand the character and nature of Islam demand that it provide theories and a completed constitution for its system…. These people want Islam … [to] be reduced to the level of ordinary human theories and laws … [Instead] First, the hearts and consciences of a people must be committed to a belief system that forbids submission to anyone other than God and that rejects the derivation of laws from any other source … when such a group of people is ready and also gains practical influence in the society, various laws will be legislated according to their practical needs [Qutb, Milestones 28-29; also 35].

As evident, “Qutb’s mature Islamism thus makes the revolutionary process central to its concerns…. [It] does not extend beyond the stage of struggle to envision precisely what a ‘proper’ Islamic state should look like” (Calvert, Origins 211).

Perhaps the two most important themes in this book are the central role played by jahiliyah and revolution.39 Qutb nods to Mawdudi’s use of the concept of jahiliyah and stretches it further—so far, we might say that he makes a radical break with Mawdudi. Mawdudi saw what could be called a “mixed” society, making allowance for what he calls “partial Muslims” in distinction to “full Muslims” who are those who “completely merge into Islam their full personality and entire existence…. Everything is subservient to Islam” (Maududi, Fundamentals 69; see 67-71). For Mawdudi this state of being a “partial Muslim” also can include levels of unbelief:

Now if a person sets aside the system propounded by God and decides to work according to some other system, he, in reality, follows the path of Kufr [unbelief]…. And if he obeys the directions of God in some matters and, in some others, gives preference over these to selfish desires or customs or man-made laws, then he is involved in Kufr to the extent he has rebelled against the laws of God. Someone is half Kafir, someone fourth and someone one-tenth or one-twentieth. In short, Kufr is there in proportion to the extent of rebellion against the law of God [Maududi, Fundamentals 49-50].

While Mawdudi admits that most Muslims stray from a complete obedience to God’s laws and proper Islamic practice (Maududi, Fundamentals 64, 67), as can be seen above he still allows for them to be seen as Muslims, at least nominally.40

Earlier in his life, Qutb recognized a formulation not unlike Mawdudi. However, as he formulated in his 2nd edition of ISQ and Milestones, Qutb makes no such allowance. A person is either a Muslim or not; a person either fulfills Qutb’s definition of Muslim or doesn’t. Extending this logic, either a society is Islamic or not. If not, it is jahili. It is impossible, he writes, to have “a situation which is half-Islam and half-jahiliyyah” (Qutb, Milestones 112; also 114). Since Qutb came to feel that there are no true Islamic societies on earth, and there haven’t been since the earliest days of Islam,41 the whole world, both of non-Muslims as well as the Islamic world, is in a state of jahiliyah: “all the societies existing in the world are jahili” (Qutb, Milestones 66; also 7, 79, 117).42 This needs to be emphasized: while Qutb as well as those who later expand upon his ideas were opposed to Western systems of governance and society,43 he reserved his greatest hostility for the governments of the Islamic world. While he opposed the expansion of European or U.S. global hegemony, his primary target was the status quo in Egypt as well as other Arab, Middle Eastern, and Islamic countries.44

Qutb’s stark vision of the world smacks of Manichaeism. There is no middle ground here. Given Qutb’s context as a prisoner in terrible circumstances under an oppressive state, it would seem natural that Qutb could not fathom any form of accommodation. He says as much: “It is not for Islam to compromise with the concepts of jahiliyyah current in the world or to co-exist in the same land together with a jahili system.” Elsewhere he proclaims no compromise and “nor can we be loyal to it” (Qutb, Milestones 111; also 16, 39). This is a radical personal position to take. However, despite his extreme judgement of the unIslamic nature of people and society, he does not overtly utilize takfir. There may certainly be some convolutions involved in his avoidance of takfir, due to the doctrinally serious consequences of this practice, yet it is entirely possible for someone to interpret the thrust of his argument—read between the lines—as leading to this conclusion.45 Here is a telling passage: “people are not Muslims, even if they proclaim to be, so long as they live the life of jahiliyyah. If someone loves to deceive himself or to deceive others … it cannot change anything of actual reality. This is not Islam, and the deceived are not Muslims. Today a prime task of the Call to Islam is bringing these ignorant people back to Islam and make [sic] them into Muslims all over again” (Qutb, Milestones 118). Qutb takes us to the edge of the takfir precipice but doesn’t plunge over; he speaks generally of societies and behavior, but does not specifically identify individuals or set out a rubric for takfir. In later iterations of his ideology as adopted and integrated with other radical ideas—as, for example, seen among al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Iraq—the ideologues are not hesitant to identify specific individuals and groups (for example, Shi’is), and list rigorous criteria for declaring somebody an unbeliever (if they do not do x, y, and z).

This connects to the other theme of the book, one which has had powerful resonance ever since. If it is to be determined that a given society is not Islamic—easy to do for Qutb and his later followers who saw themselves engulfed in unIslamic societies—then it is the duty of (true) Muslims to work for a revolutionary change of that society. While overtly hostile to nationalism, he posits that all man-made systems that organize society and government along principles other than religious belief are bound to be oppressive. Faith should be the only criterion:

All men are equal regardless of their color, race or nation…. Man is able to change his beliefs, thinking, and attitude toward life, but he is incapable of changing his color and race, nor can he decide in what place or nation he is to be born. Thus it is clear that a society is civilized only to the extent that human associations are based on a community of free moral choice, and a society is backward in so far as the basis of association is something other than free choice. In Islamic terminology, it is a jahili society [Qutb, Milestones 81].46

Those who are within this society and decide not to choose Islam (that is, remain Christian, for example) have respected participatory roles, but are subordinate. Qutb is emphatic about forced conversion being forbidden (Qutb, Milestones 46, 59-60). However readers feel about this overall formulation, we should note that Qutb equates full membership as voluntary association (choice of religion) over hereditary factors about which we have no choice.

In creating this new Islamic society, Muslims may not be ultimately successful in this revolution (and use of the term jihad is appropriate here)—and Qutb and many assume martyrdom will be their end—but they are fulfilling God’s expectations to make the effort. His interpretation of the life of Prophet Muhammad is key in this regard.47 Qutb underscored Muhammad’s difficult struggle to create a new God-ordained society in Medina (in the years 622-32) after he abandoned the unIslamic society of his birth—the city of Mecca—in which true believers were ridiculed and oppressed. The Prophet and his first Muslim followers implemented God’s commandments as revealed; they incrementally removed those practices which were unIslamic. They faced immense obstacles and constant threats to their lives by the attacks made by Meccans; with telling language Qutb refers to these as “the Prophet … bearing tortures for 13 years” (Qutb, Milestones 21). Ultimately, the Prophet and the first Muslims were successful; with absolute surety, Qutb felt this would again be the case in the present age.

The Martyr’s Legacy

Shortly after Qutb’s execution in 1966 an article circulated entitled “Why Did They Execute Me?” in which Qutb speaks from the grave. Written in jail prior to his 1966 trial (though government censors removed references to torture), he outlines his explanation of his circumstances and makes his last riposte to the Egyptian government. He actually saw the article as a confession and final statement, assuming the end was near; since the government had already extracted confessions from his associates, at this point he had nothing to hide. He argues that it was state violence toward the MB that forced the organization to try to prepare itself militarily for defensive purposes; Nizam 1965 was the ultimate example of this. As a final nod to his overall thesis found in ISQ and Milestones, he again argued that Islam is a comprehensive way of life, and being a true believing Muslim necessitates all that this entails (as he saw it).

Today Qutb is widely considered a martyr, partially due to the successful campaign by the MB and his family to promote this image. This title of martyr is commonly used by sympathizers of his work, and even more so by radicals who claim his intellectual lineage. Even though the MB published the aforementioned book Preachers Not Judges as a rejection of some of Qutb’s ideas, it still held him up as an exemplary Muslim Brother. For a non-Qutbist Muslim to acknowledge his martyrdom is also an explicit condemnation of the Nasser government as repressive, so politics overlap with considerations of Qutb’s legacy.

After being released from jail, Muhammad Qutb went into exile in Saudi Arabia, as did many other MB members. There he taught Islamic studies and continued to edit and publish his brother’s writings, sometimes attempting to moderate more radical interpretations. He was an important link in continuing his brother’s legacy and teaching it to new generations. Some of these students later combined preexisting Saudi schools of religious thought—so-called “Wahhabism”—with Qutbism as well as adding more radical trends (the so-called takfiri), which has produced a number of political dissidents in Saudi Arabia and Islamist radicals elsewhere.

Empathetic authors (not the same as sympathetic) often make a salient point: later Islamists have taken Qutb’s ideas or terms and interpreted them in ways that Qutb would not have agreed with. One example of this sentiment is “Had the Nasser regime not executed Qutb in August [1966], the possibility was fair that Qutb would have clarified many of the controversial terms he had posited in his prison writings. Instead, with Qutb gone, his writings were left wide open for radical interpretations” (Musallam 202). Regardless of the veracity of this claim, it is the case that Islamist radicals have cited Qutb. Al-Zawahiri was reportedly spurred to action when he learned of Qutb’s execution, eventually leading the group Islamic Jihad. Its two most important thinkers, ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman and ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, expanded upon the stark dichotomy in Qutb—they rejected his more gradualist-revivalist and educational plans and wanted immediate violent revolution. Islamic Jihad later merged into Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri, long-considered the “brains” behind al-Qaeda, and now its leader after Bin Laden’s assassination, has written admiringly of Qutb.48

The interpretations that these radicals offer of Qutb are certainly among the possible interpretations of his work. As noted above, Qutb opened a Pandora’s box when he popularized Qur’anic exegesis for the non-specialist/non-cleric.49 Qutb set up such a stark dichotomy of the world—Islam vs. jahiliyah—that it enabled people to eliminate nuance, complications, and compromise from their ideology. Finally, Qutb’s argument that the governments of the (so-called) Islamic world were illegitimate—not to mention those of the rest of the world—and that they needed to be replaced with legitimate Islamic governments, is also suggestive of either an immediate or eventual revolution to remove those governments.

Despite the inspirational role of Qutb’s work to violent radicals like Bin Laden, there are some problems with the argument that this is a natural or exact link. Qutb himself never advocated anything like terrorism.50 He doesn’t dwell at any length on violence, though he did admit in “Why Did They Execute Me?” that his group tried to stockpile weapons. However, while Qutb is certainly suggestive of revolution aimed at governments, nowhere in Qutb’s works is there an advocacy of attacks against civilians, whether non-Muslim or Muslim (these kinds of attacks are hallmarks of groups like al-Qaeda). As a matter of fact, the mental and exegetical gymnastics that groups like al-Qaeda undergo in order to justify killing children, women, and elderly are a pointed disavowal of very specific injunctions of the Qur’an and hadith.51 Finally, there are important ideological differences between al-Qaeda and Qutb, despite the former’s use of the latter. Qutb describes a world that is not Islamic, including the lands in which Muslims live. ISQ and Milestones see Islam in a state of arrest; for this reason he wanted to rebuild a new Islamic society. However, even the most ardent radicals like Bin Laden didn’t embrace this formula. They operate on the assumption that if a government is attacked or overthrown (such as Saudi Arabia), and if enough Muslims are drawn (or dragged) into this fight, they will reunite and repower the Islamic world. This assumption, then, sees much (most?) of the Islamic world as the vanguard from which to reconstitute the proper Islamic order. Qutb saw nothing Islamic in the societies from which to draw upon.


1. For a well-researched and far better understanding of Qutb’s time in the U.S. and how he felt the experience reinforced preexisting beliefs, see Calvert, “‘The World Is an Undutiful Boy!’”

2. See later in this chapter for an explanation of the Arabic terms in the quote.

3. See Qutb’s autobiography of his childhood (published in 1946), translated as A Child from the Village.

4. For a list in English of Qutb’s major works, see Calvert, Origins 348-49.  

5. Including his brother Muhammad, Naguib Mahfouz, and Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad al-Ghazali.  

6. The evolution of Qutb’s thinking and writing seem to follow the “phases of development in the works of colonized writers” as outlined by Fanon in his revolutionary text, The Wretched of the Earth, 158-59.  

7. Qutb was in the hospital multiple times during his trip to the United States in 1949-50 (See Calvert, Origins).  

8. Even in his late, more radical years (see Qutb, Milestones 7).  

9. Interview with Saeb Dajani, found in Brogan.

10. One instance happened in Greeley, Colorado, when Qutb and another Egyptian were barred from entering a cinema. Qutb mentioned other incidents to his friend Dajani. See Brogan.

11. For example, in his later editions of Social Justice in Islam Qutb pointed to the “organized extermination” of American Indians and discrimination of African Americans (see the translation in Shepard, Sayyid Qutb and Islamic Activism 59).

12. For the classic study on the MB, see Mitchell.

13. Qutb actually wrote the introduction to the 2nd edition of the Arabic translation of Nadvi’s book (which translates as What the World Has Lost by the Decline of the Muslims). The chronology outlined above means that Qutb read Mawdudi and Nadvi after he had already written Social Justice in Islam, so their influence was on works after that book (as well as on Qutb’s revisions of Social Justice). Actually, Qutb met Nadvi in September 1950 on Hajj in Mecca and gave him a copy of his Social Justice in Islam (see al-Nadwi 101-6).

14. Nevertheless, as I have tried to show throughout this essay, Qutb was most influenced by and reacting to local developments. As Abu-Rabi‘ notes, the influence of Mawdudi and other thinkers was important but should not be overemphasized (Abu-Rabi‘ 139).

15. For a good study of Mawdudi (Nasr).

16.Hakimiyah of God is not a Qur’anic term, though it is derived from hukm (rule, judgment) which is found in the Qur’an. Mawdudi’s exact term in Urdu was hukumat-i ilahiya (which means “divine government”). See chapter 5 in Nasr for an outline of Mawdudi’s arguments—and this evolution—on this important aspect of his ideology. As a matter of fact, it has been noted that Qutb probably got the term hakimiyah from the Arabic translator of Mawdudi’s work (see Akhavi 378, 396) (note 7). Also, see Khatab, “‘Hakimiyyah’ and ‘Jahiliyyah.’”

17. A pithy statement in this regard is “The popular slogan … ‘Rule of man over man is exploitation; submission to Allah the Creator is the only way to emancipation’—best captures the essence of Mawdudi’s argument” (Nasr 88).

18. As Nasr argues, “Like other contemporary Islamic revivalists, Mawdudi did not view Islamic history as the history of Islam but as the history of un-Islam or jahiliyah. Islamic history, as the product of human choice, was corruptible and corrupted. For him, Islamic history held no value and manifested no religious truths, except during its early phase. The history of Muslim societies was not so much a testimony of divine will as an account of the fall of Islam…. The Islamic state [he wished to create] therefore had to stand outside the cumulative tradition of history of Muslim societies” (Nasr 60). As can be seen, Mawdudi, like Qutb, rejected nearly the entirety of the Islamic tradition, embodied in its history, scholarship, and institutions; this point, in and of itself, and not necessarily the nature of the government these men advocated, is what actually makes the term “radical” so applicable.

19. It is incontrovertible that there was a meeting at Qutb’s house days before the July 1952 coup but debate still exists among scholars as to the extent and nature of the cooperation. Furthermore, both Qutb (and MB) were enthusiastic about the plans of the Free Officers, and among the latter were admirers of Qutb and the MB, but it is also clear that both groups saw each other as tools for their particular goals (see Calvert, Origins 180-83).

20. That is, the more radical ideas he worked out in his revised editions of his works written in prison.

21. The most important statement in this regard by the MB was by their General Guide in his posthumous (and collectively-written) book which only alluded to Qutb but certainly rejected his (and Mawdudi’s) most radical interpretations. It seems to me that the entire chapter dedicated to hakimiyah was, in and of itself, a direct response to Qutb, as was the very suggestive language contained therein. Among the book’s many salient points is the argument that the suffering of MB members in jail pushed them to extremes. Its title translates as Preachers not Judges. Due to censorship, the book was published nearly a decade after its composition. I was able to read the second edition. See al-Hudaybi. There have been claims that the state intervened in the production of this book. For one version of this claim, see Khatab 149-51.

22. While most observers accept that the would-be assassin was a member of the MB, questions remain as to whether it was a “set up” (given his pitifully poor performance) and who knew about the plot in the MB; indications are that the leadership of the MB, and Qutb, did not.

23. A British Foreign Office report noted the torture evident on the prisoners (Calvert, Origins 193).

24. Due to her reputation as a liberal reformer, a very popular translated book used in the U.S. to understand the Egyptian prison experience is Saadawi. An actual MB prison memoir available in English is al-Ghazali. For further and more detailed reading on the critical role of the prison experience on Qutb (Abu-Rabi‘; Moussalli; Tripp; Calvert, Origins 193-98; al-Khalidi 345-73).

25. For example, he writes: “The Muslim encountered nothing burdensome except the torture and oppression of those who rejected Islam. But he had already decided in the depth of his heart that he would face the future with equanimity. Therefore no pressure from the jahili society could have any effect on his firm resolve. Today too we are surrounded by jahiliyyah” (Qutb, Milestones 15; qtd. in 129-31, 133-37).

26. Those works written by followers of his ideology emphasize his afflictions to underscore his martyrdom, but nevertheless this fact alone does not detract from the reality of his prison experience.

27. A number of scholars have suggested that the Egyptian government also allowed this to happen because Qutb’s (growing) celebrity as an imprisoned intellectual hurt it in the wider Third World political arena, and so now they could claim the conditions of his incarceration were mild enough to allow him productive work. While plausible, there is no access to government records that could substantiate this claim.

28. This essay focuses on ISQ and Milestones, but his revisions of Social Justice are equally interesting and demonstrate my argument (Shepard, “The Development” 196-236).

29. While ‘Arif was a nationalist military man like Nasser, he utilized religion as a political tool in a way that Nasser avoided. Furthermore, during the turbulent late 1950s in Iraq, ‘Arif himself had been a prisoner and had read ISQ—we might see this as a spiritual bond of imprisonment.

30. He says as much, as four chapters in Milestones are from ISQ (Qutb, Milestones 9-10).

31. Part of this methodology was probably practical—in jail he did not have access to the kinds of libraries that normal exegetes do.

32. It should be reiterated that Qutb was not a cleric nor did he have a clerical training, thus partially explaining his unconventional exegetical methodology. This fact underscores, again, the novelty in both Qutb’s approach to interpreting the Qur’an as well as the reception and consideration he has received as a religious authority by those sympathetic to his views. Calvert gives a good review of Qutb’s approach (See Calvert, Origins 173-75).

33. His execution curtailed these plans. Thus the volumes covering surahs 33-114 were written in prison up to the year 1959, surahs 16-32 are as published prior to his incarceration in 1954, and surahs 1-15 have a 1st edition and a 2nd edition, the latter being revised in his post-1959 phase in prison. It is when comparing the 1st and 2nd edition volumes, as well as the pre-1957 prison massacre and post-massacre writing, that we can see the clear evolution of his radicalization.

34. A generic term that means the message, or Word, of God that has been revealed throughout history culminating in the Qur’an.

35. Also see Khatab, “‘Hakimiyyah’” 159-60, 164-65.

36. We should add that he avoids addressing the intellectual context of any hermeneutical exercise, as briefly addressed in Nayed, 359-62.

37. The most important reading material given to the members of Nizam 1965 was by Qutb and Mawdudi (See Zollner, 418).

38. Zollner, 418-19; this concept of a vanguard to lead a revolution was not new. For Qutb’s context, see Calvert, Origins, 16-18. The court—as well as later followers—could “read between the lines” and interpret that Qutb, in his indirect fashion, announces a “declaration of war” against (assumedly) the Egyptian government in Milestones, 20-21.

39. It should be noted that there was an evolution of his interpretation of jahiliyah, and this is nicely traced in Khatab, Political Thought. Also, Shepard, “Doctrine” 532-33.

40.Takfir is declaring a person as disbelieving in God (he/she is a kafir). His discussion is ironic given his branding of some Muslims “half Kafir” or “fourth … one-tenth … one-twentieth,” but at least he still allowed for that person to be accepted as a “partial Muslim” and not full kafir.

41. Though one author points out that Qutb’s language is suggestive that earlier Islamic states were at “lower levels” of Islam; the point when the Islamic world became non-Islamic, that is, jahili, started during the European imperialistic period onwards (Shepard, “Doctrine” 529-30).

42. He is explicit on page 67: “all the existing so-called ‘Muslim societies’ are also jahili societies.”

43. It should be added that Shepard sees this argument of Qutb also in a defensive light: “Only an Islamic society can properly be said to be ‘civilized.’ Thus, Qutb inverts the usual Western judgment on the Islamic world” (Shepard, “Doctrine” 527).

44. As a matter of fact, Qutb would strenuously deny the validity of my usage of such terms as “Islamic world” and “Islamic country”—which I use for sake of ease of discussion—since he would point out that just because there are individual Muslim believers in a country doesn’t make it necessarily “Islamic”—and, of course, in this highly narrow view, he is correct.

45. As Zollner comments, therefore it is again necessary to complicate common critiques of Qutb because Qutb himself did not explicitly outline takfir. It was later interpreters of Qutb who emphasized the idea of takfir—or, put another way, they brought Qutb’s argument to its most extreme possible conclusion (see Zollner, 423-25; Shepard, “Doctrine” 529).

46. Also 40-41, 46, 88, 103, 107-10.

47. It should be noted that looking to the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and interpreting said example to support one’s particular religious and/or political agenda, is an old practice.

48. Al-Zawahiri was prolific in his praise of Qutb in his book Fursan taht rayat al-nabi.

49. Another important example: the fact that Bin Laden felt able to make fatwas (legal interpretations), even though this is only a prerogative of trained clergy, is a result of the open Pandora’s box.

50. Though an ill-defined term, as it is popularly understood this means use of nontraditional violent or military tactics that may include civilian targets for purposes of spectacle and symbolism.

51. It should also be added that the assumption of a direct transmission of Qutb’s ideas down a “direct genealogical line” to Bin Laden ignores both the specific and very different historical contexts (and motives) of both men’s lives as well as the role of the agency and individualized interpretation of Qutb’s works by later militants like Bin Laden. For a critique of scholarship that makes those assumptions, see Zollner.

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