– Syed Qutb: Separating Fact from Fiction.


(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

In the book, Fighting the Ideological War (published by Westminster Institute), Robert Reilly says Syed Qutb is the

“chief Egyptian ideologue of the radical Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks our destruction….The entire Islamist world revolves around the thinking of this man […]” (p.153).

He also says,

“You can be sure to find his writings at the foundation of any radical Muslim group today, including al Qaeda” (p.154).

Sebastian Gorka, another author in the book, and Islamophobe par excellence, says that Qutb’s “only way” of cleansing society from alleged jahiliyya “is through jihad, through holy war” (p.198), and then quotes Qutb as saying, “Islam is not a religion, it is a revolutionary party” (p.198).

However, Gorka seems unaware of the fact that there is debate on whether Qutb was calling for revolutionary violence or not. Extending linkages from Syed Qutb to the “entire Islamist world” is an exaggeration that has been addressed by scholars John Calvert, Fawaz Gerges, and William Shephard.

Reilly, it seems, follows the same strange logic in his explanation of Islamic history when he somehow links his understanding of the classical Sunni Ash’ari school of creed with the rise of Osama bin Laden.

John Calvert, author of “Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islam,” says that present-day Islamists read Qutb differently: moderates (such as mainstream Muslim Brothers) downplay his revolutionary religio-political message, and radicals (such as al Qaeda members) exaggerate it:

“Yet, if the Al Qaeda threat has made Qutb a household name, it has also monopolized and distorted our understanding of his real contribution to contemporary Islamism. In the search for Al Qaeda’s origins, even well intentioned observers tend to focus on points of similarity between Qutb’s thought and that of Al Qaeda at the expense of significant anomalies between the two. Some have even suggested that the global jihad has remote origins in the Qutb’s uncomfortable experience at a church social in the conservative town of Greeley, Colorado in the late 1940s. Read backwards from the event of 9/11, these accounts enfold Qutb in the Al Qaeda mantle in an attempt to make the variegated history of the Islamic movement into a cohesive narrative.”

He continues,

“If some students of the jihad are careful to situate Qutb correctly in relation to Al Qaeda, still they often consign him to the position of opening act. Rarely do observers of the scene address Qutb’s singularity.”[[i]]

Calvert continues – and this is important:

“Yet in resorting to short cuts, we pass over a history that is as nuanced as any other. We run the danger of succumbing to a ‘neo-Orientalist’ trop that subordinates particulars to an essential and enduring identity, and ignores complexity in favor of simplicity. Just as it makes no sense to confuse the outlook of Hamas, an organization focused on redeeming land lost to Israel, with the pan-Islamism of Al Qaeda, so too is it unwise to assume a direct link between Sayyid Qutb and Usama bin Laden. Researchers need to study each on its own terms with reference to its distinctive environment and concerns”[[ii]]

Fawaz Gerges, best-selling author and al-Qa’eda scholar, says,

“After September 11, Western commentators and analysts suddenly discovered Qutb, and portrayed him as the ‘philosopher of terror,’ the spiritual and operational godfather to bin Laden and Zawahiri; they have drawn a direct, unbroken line between Qutb and al-Qaeda.”[[iii]]

Gerges continues,

“This connection fits perfectly with al-Qaeda’s own designs. The organization has engaged in a systematic effort to claim the Qutbian legacy.”

He says,

“Despite their claim of kinship, bin Laden and Zawahiri twisted Qutb’s idea to suit their purposes. According to Qutb’s contemporary followers, some of whom spent years with him in prison and underground, Qutb never called for a confrontation with the West and instead exhorted them to strike at Arab rulers who conspired with Islam’s external enemies and allowed them to infiltrate Muslim lands.”

Gerges continues,

“Contemporary followers maintain that he showed no interest in either the internationalization of jihad or the targeting of Western powers. Nonetheless Qutb essentially called on Muslims to defend dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) against crusading intrusion and cultural invasion. Yet both bin Laden and his detractors have claimed that Qutb supplied the fuel that powered al-Qaeda’s transnational jihad.”[[iv]]

Gerges then says, “This could not be further from the truth,” and “None of the surviving chiefs of the Secret Apparatus” – Qutb’s organization – “whom I interviewed ever mentioned that Qutb had instructed them to attack the United States and its Western allies or had theorized the need to confront the enemy without.”

Quoting a close confidant of Qutb inside and outside prison, Sayyid Eid, who calls Qutb al-shahid, said,

“I do not ever recall al-shahid saying that we should wage war against America or Britain; rather he wanted us to be vigilant against the West’s cultural penetration of our societies.”[[v]]

“While Qutb’s diatribe against America has widely resonated among Islamists, al-Qaeda’s actions cannot be traced to his rhetoric. Indeed, transnational jihad took Qutb’s strategic priorities and turned them on their head” (italics added by reviewer).[[vi]]

Author and scholar William Shepard says,

“the ‘terrorism’ and the ‘martyrdom operations,’ which are seen as the particular trademarks of al-Qaeda and, to some extent, Hamas, have the least grounding in Qutb’s writings. We can say, however, that his dichotomous ‘Manichaeism’ and his theological absolutism do provide fertile ground for the seeds of ‘terrorism’ and ‘martyrdom operations,” even if they are initially alien to him. Any ideologue who feels certain about ultimate truth and perceives a clear and absolute distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, is capable of justifying even the most horrendous of actions. History illustrates this all too well. This far, but no further in my view, can we call Qutb an ideological father of Islamist violence[[vii]] ” (italics added by reviewer).

Reilly’s and Sebastian Gorka’s understanding of Qutb and links to al-Qa’eda lack the sophistication and scholarship needed for a more informed and realistic understanding.

[[i]] John Calvert. Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.  p.7.

[[ii]] Ibid., p.8.

[[iii]] F. Gerges, op. cit.,pp.31-32.

[[iv]] Ibid., pp.31-32.

[[v]] Ibid., p.32.

[[vi]] Ibid., p.33.

[[vii]] Zaid Shakir, “Sayyid Qutb and Modern Islamist Violence,” Seasons Journal 4:1 (Autumn 2007): 36.

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