Sayyid Qutb - an Islamic fundamentalist

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

17 Pages, Grade: A (1)



This paper deals with one of the most important Islamic thinkers of the 20th century, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt. Taking into consideration his importance and impact on the Islamic world, the amount of research done on him seems to be very modest and is difficult to get hold during these times/ at the moment of writing.

In this paper first, the life of Sayyid Qutb is presented and related to the historical events in Egypt and the Middle East in general. After a short summary of some of Qutb’s most important writings, an overview of his political ideas, his views of the world and Islam is given. Afterwards his most important single concept of jahiliyyah and hakimiyyah is presented, followed by a summary of Qutb’s call for activism and his theological discourse. Finally, I tried to assess the importance and the impact of Sayyid Qutb’s live and writings.

Vita of Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb Ibrahim Husayn Shadhili was born in 1906 in the village Musha in the district of Asyut, Egypt. He was the eldest of five children. His father was an educated man, and his mother is said to have been deeply religious. The family had been well-off at one time but the wealth had diminished at the time when Qutb was born.[1] Qutb’s relationship to his father is described as formal, but that to his mother and siblings was closer and more affectionate.[2] Qutb was brought up in a religious way and memorized the whole Qur’an at the age of 10. In 1921 Qutb left for Cairo[3] and lived in Zaytun, a middle-class suburb of Cairo, with his uncle for four years.[4] In 1929 Qutb joined the Dar al-‘Ulum’s Teachers’ College, where he received his B.A. in Arts of Education in 1933.[5] Because he distinguished himself from other students, he was appointed as an instructor at the same institution immediately after his graduation. From 1933 till 1939 he was also employed by the Egyptian Minister of Education as a teacher. 1939 he wanted to resign from his government post as an inspector in the Education Ministry, because of differences between Qutb and the government, but Dr. Taha Husayn wanted him to stay.[6]

At that time Qutb was also active in “the modernist trend in Egyptian letters”[7]. This “literary modernism displayed an appetite for innovation and individual expression that contrasted sharply with the traditional thematic types (aghrad) and impersonal subject matter favored by the neo-classicist writers”[8] Qutb himself preferred “the ‘new’ (al-jadid) over the ‘old’ (al-qadim) in Arabic literature”.[9] He was active in the inter-war phase of Egyptian secular nationalism as a social commentator and literary figure.[10] For Egyptian liberal thinkers at that time, including Qutb, “the West was the model to be followed and imitated, and its political and social values were accepted.”[11]

In 1947, Qutb unsuccessfully tried to quit his government post again. In 1948 Qutb was sent to the United States of America, officially to study the educational system there. Qutb studied at different universities in the United States and also traveled in the country. He received an M.A. degree in Education from Wilson’s Teachers’ College, Washington. He was also enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado and maybe at Stanford University.

Qutb’s stay in the US is often mentioned as his intellectual and religious “turning point” in his career. Instead of becoming familiar with the American culture, he became even more opposed to it. Qutb, who began his career as a modernist literary critic, “was radicalized by a roughly yearlong stay in the United States”.[12] Shehadeh mentions that Qutb’s “disenchantment with the West started to creep in after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and reached its zenith when he traveled to the United States still believing it to be the land of liberty and social justice.”[13] America’s growing support for the Zionist cause in Palestine was regarded by Qutb as “a manifestation of European imperialism.”[14]

Qutb’s attitude towards the United States “was framed by the specific cultural conditions and historical circumstances surrounding Egypt’s post World War I struggle for full independence.”[15] Qutb left a text about his stay in the United States in which he talks about his impressions, encounters, experiences and opinions. Calvert notes about this text: “In much the same way as a many modern-era Europeans who traveled to, and wrote about, the ‘Orient’, Qutb would either purposefully ignore or simply not see anomalies which contradicted a view of America that was congruent with the exigencies of the Egyptian nationalist struggle.”[16] Thus he “was genuinely taken by the vastness of the land and by the beauty, inventiveness and organizational expertise of its people. But all of these traits and accomplishments, Qutb believed, had been gained at the expense of basic human values and moral depth.”[17]

Another factor that contributed to Qutb’s unfavorable view of about the US were some American reactions towards the assassination of Hasan al-Banna in 1949. Al-Banna was called a “terrorist” in newspapers and an official probably told Qutb that the Muslim Brotherhood is the last barricade for Western culture to enter Egypt.[18] Qutb’s stay in the US thus became a milestone for his own future career. It is best summarized by Shehadeh:

During his stay in the United States between 1948 and 1951, he was shocked by the American bias against Arabs and their unstinting support for the newly established state of Israel, the materialism of the West, and the sexual permissiveness that pervaded the continent. This brought him to the second station in his intellectual life during which he rejected the liberal secularism in which he had believed as a result of what he regarded as the failure of both Marxism and capitalism to provide for the welfare and dignity of humanity. This realization precipitated his inward search for an authentic alternative that would bring the Arab demise to an end. He found his answer in Islamic tradition. He came to believe that Islam had a superior ideology on which the Muslims build upon to ensure success in this world and the world to come, being the only true path for a moral and political regeneration.[19]

Although his scholarship was open and Qutb could have stayed for a Ph.D. degree or further university studies, Qutb quit his studies in summer 1950 and returned to Egypt in 1951. He returned with the conviction that Islam was a superior creed and ideology, that an Islamic revival was necessary, that the West had deep hatred for Islam and that Islam was the correct path for political and moral regeneration and strength.

Back in Egypt he then quit his job as Adviser to the Ministry of Education, a prestigious post that Taha Husayn had held before him, joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became one of its main ideologists. Before the coup in 1952 Nasser probably visited Qutb at his home, “presumably to get his backing”[20]. The 1952 revolution first wanted to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the new system and Qutb was offered different important positions in the new government. He rejected all of them. After the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood was declared illegal and thousands of its followers were arrested. Qutb’s first arrest lasted from January till March 1954. In July 1955 Qutb was sentenced in absentia to 15 years of prison. While in prison he was tortured severely.[21] In prison he also wrote his most important works, e.g. his commentary of the Qur’an “In the shade of the Qur’an”, “this gigantic study, which must surely count as one of the most remarkable works of prison literature ever produced.”.[22] Qutb was released in 1964, just to be arrested eight months later again, together with more than 20.000 people. A court then found him guilty of “destructive and terrorist activities” and of “encouraging sedition”. On August 29, 1966 Qutb was hanged by the Egyptian government. It was mentioned in the international press, but not as an important event.[23] Shehadeh has described his whole life as a “journey of metamorphosis.”[24]


[1] See Calvert, John, The individual and the nation: Sayyid Qutb’s Tifl min al-Qarya (Child from the Village), in: The Muslim World, Spring 2000, pp. 108-132.

[2] See ibid.

[3] It is worth mentioning that contradictive explanations are given for his departure for Cairo. Some say he left on his own, others say he moved together with his family. Some say he settled in Helwan immediately, others state that he settled there later.

[4] See Calvert, The individual and the nation.

[5] Another source says: Diploma in Arabic language and literature, see: Calvert, The individual and the nation.

[6] See Moussalli, Radical Islamic Fundamentalism, 23-24.

[7] Calvert, The individual and the nation.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Calvert, The individual and the nation.

[10] See Calvert, John, ‘The world is an undutiful boy!’: Sayyid Qutb’s American experience”, in: Islam & Christian Muslim Relations, Mar 2000, p. 87- .

[11] Moussalli, Radical Islamic Fundamentalism, 23.

[12] Worth, Robert, The Deep Intellectual Roots of Islamic Terror, in: The New York Times, Oct 13, 2001.

[13] Shehadeh, Lamia Rustum, Women in the discourse of Sayyid Qutb, Arab Studies Quarterly, Summer 2000, pp. 45-55.

[14] Calvert, ‘The world is an undutiful boy!’.

[15] Calvert, ‘The world is an undutiful boy!’.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Moussalli, Radical Islamic Fundamentalism, 30.

[19] Shehadeh, Women in the discourse of Sayyid Qutb.

[20] Berman, Paul, The Philosopher of Islamic Terror. The roots of Al Qaeda are not in poverty or in anti-Americanism but in Sayyid Qutb’s ideas about how Christianity went wrong and how martyrdom could change the world, in: The New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003.

[21] See ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kepel, Gilles, Jihad. The political trail of Islam, translated by Anthony F. Roberts, London, New York, 2002, 23.

[24] Shehadeh, Women in the discourse of Sayyid Qutb.

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Sayyid Qutb - an Islamic fundamentalist
Lebanese American University  (Political Science Department)
Graduate Seminar: Modern Arab Political Thought
A (1)
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Sayyid, Qutb, Islamic, Graduate, Seminar, Modern, Arab, Political, Thought
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Andre Kahlmeyer (Author), 2003, Sayyid Qutb - an Islamic fundamentalist, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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