The Middle East Channel

The afterlife of Sayyid Qutb

The afterlife of Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb was executed in 1966 for his role in a failed conspiracy against the Nasser regime. Yet his call for Muslims to replace the sovereignty of man with that of God continues to haunt Egyptian state authorities. On Feb. 8, 2010, following a controversial election for the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide post, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak regime arrested three prominent Brothers belonging to the movement’s conservative wing — ‘Isam al-‘Aryan, Muhiy Hamid, and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Barr — accusing them of belonging to a radical organization inspired by the thinking of Sayyid Qutb, the prominent ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Almost certainly, the arrested men did not belong to a clandestine organization dedicated to violent political change. Nevertheless, by their own admission they upheld Qutb as the embodiment of the Islamist movement. In so doing, they allowed the Egyptian government to peg the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement that harbors revolutionary intent.

Given these risks, why do significant numbers of Muslim Brothers, including many in leadership positions, continue to invoke the example of Sayyid Qutb? Certainly, there are many politically engaged Brothers who would prefer to keep Qutb’s thought under wraps. A large part of the reason has to do with the weight and complexity of his thought. The diversity of Qutb’s ideas (Qutb’s thought traversed several stages), coupled with his status as a martyr make it difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood to cast a negative judgment on him. As a result, his influence persists — despite reservations on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s reform-minded political pragmatists.

Qutb’s Islamism has been a source of division within Muslim Brotherhood ranks from the beginning. In the early1960s, as Muslim Brothers languished in Nasser’s prisons, a number of them pointed out that Qutb’s censure of contemporary Muslim society smacked of takfir, the declared excision of Muslims from the body of the faithful. Such teaching, these Brothers said, went against the preference of Islamic theology for inclusiveness. They backed up their claim by pointing to Hasan al-Banna, who made clear that both the society and the state were Islamic despite the corruption wrought by the Western cultural onslaught. As far as al-Banna was concerned, Islam had not disappeared; it had only waned.

But other Muslim Brothers disagreed. They accepted Qutb’s explanation that he did not condemn individual Muslims but only the barbarism of the contemporary global culture. They lauded Qutb’s efforts to strengthen Islam against "ignorance" (jahiliyya) of the divine mandate, and admired him for standing up to the powers that be.

However, the matter was not allowed to remain moot. By the late 1960s, some Islamists — extrapolating from Qutb’s theory — had adopted an explicit takfiri point of view, one that would later feed the radical jihadi current. In response to this trend, then-Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi put his name to a tract called "Preachers, Not Judges," which argued that the Muslim Brotherhood’s job was to preach God’s message, not to evaluate the faith of others or to topple the political authority. Hudaybi hoped that the work would dampen the ardor of the extremists and save the Brotherhood from another round of persecution. The argument in "Preachers, Not Judges" remained the official position of the Muslim Brotherhood over the following decades. It laid the foundations for the Brotherhood’s reemergence on Egypt’s political stage as a tolerated, albeit officially banned, movement of politico-religious reform.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood repudiated the controversial aspects of Qutb’s thought, there was no question of eradicating his influence completely. As the Brotherhood’s only systematic thinker, his books could not be easily dismissed. Adding to the difficulty, many Muslim Brothers continued to defend Qutb’s reputation against detractors. Following the old line, these supporters argued that Qutb’s intentions had been misconstrued. If Qutb evinced a confrontational attitude, they said it was because torture led him to read the Quran through the distorting lens of anger. Moreover, his execution cut short an ideological project that might otherwise have had different emphases.

Acknowledging Qutb’s high status, Hudaybi and succeeding Supreme Guides allowed Muslim Brothers to read his works, but said that they must do so carefully, accepting from them what was good and rejecting what was problematic. The leadership discouraged Muslim Brothers without sufficient grounding in the religious sciences from delving into Qutb’s oeuvre. However, none banned his books.

Yet there always existed the possibility that circumstances might bring Qutb’s doctrinal certainty to the fore. During the Muslim Brotherhood’s January 2009 elections, the victorious conservative faction evoked Qutb’s legacy in order to shore up the spiritual, intellectual and organizational strength of the movement. In the view of this group, Brotherhood reformers had weakened the movement’s core values in their efforts to work within the prevailing political system. The time was ripe, its members said, to follow Qutb’s example of building a cadre of dedicated Muslims, unblemished by political compromise, which would pave the way for the future success of the Islamic movement.

The personal experiences of the conservatives led them to believe that their tact was correct. Many, including Muhammad Badi’a, the new Supreme Guide, belonged to the historic generation that had suffered in Nasser’s prisons. They understood that survival depended on a certain aloofness from the political culture of the secular state.

Many reformers within the Brotherhood, men like ‘Abd al-Mu’min Abu al-Futuh, questioned the wisdom of the conservatives in evoking Qutb. They regard the revival of Qutb’s thought as a slippery slope that could lead to the kind of zero-sum game that marked relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. One blogger insisted that the difference between Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb is that "between peace and war." Few reformers were surprised when in February 2010, the Egyptian state arrested the three Muslim Brothers mentioned above, accusing them of resurrecting Tanzim ’65, Sayyid Qutb’s ephemeral underground organization.

But the question remains: Why has the Muslim Brotherhood’s new leadership made a point of bringing to the fore aspects of Qutb’s ideology? What aspects of Sayyid Qutb’s discourse do they find appealing and/or politically useful? It seems that the conservatives are interested in Qutb’s emphasis on shoring up the spiritual, intellectual and organizational strength of Muslims. Reviewing the recent history of the Brotherhood, they see that the reformers’ efforts to work within the system, contest elections and move Brotherhood thought in a more liberal direction has only led to crackdowns by the state. The time is ripe, conservatives say, to affect a tactical withdrawal. Not a hijra — or migration — to remote places, but a strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood’s core values, which the reformers have compromised though their accommodations.

It’s worth speculating about how Sayyid Qutb would have regarded the 9/11 attacks. Almost certainly, Qutb would not have sanctioned the extreme violence that the hijackers employed. As Qutb pointed out in his writings, the killing of innocents finds no justification in the Quran. In fact, it’s a moot point whether he would have sanctioned violence, preemptive or otherwise, against state or military targets. Nor would Qutb have understood Al Qaeda’s desire to attack Western targets. In his mind, the jihad against the purported idolatry at home was always paramount. Yet Qutb would have appreciated Al Qaeda’s view of itself as knights under the Prophet’s banner; in other words, as comprising a vanguard striving to change society from outside. And although he would have disagreed with the hijackers’ purpose, he would have understood the substratum of their ideology: that the world, as it stands, constitutes a conceptual realm of irreligion, vice and exploitation that ought to be resisted in the name of God.

Qutb may be a divisive figure among the Muslim Brothers, but his presence within the movement’s discursive repertoire cannot easily be brushed aside. As the Muslim Brotherhood’s new leadership grapples with the policy implications of it new strategy, Muslim Brothers will continue to evoke Qutb, either as a model to be followed, or as an avatar of dangerous and outmoded thinking.

Dr. John Calvert is the Fr. Henry W. Casper SJ Associate Professor of History at Creighton University and author of the newly released "Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism."