Remembering Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic intellectual and leader of rare insight and integrity

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Jumada' al-Ula' 20, 1420 1999-09-01


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 13, Jumada' al-Ula', 1420)

It is perhaps indicative of the present state of the Ummah that, outside his native Egypt and a small circle of Islamic activists, few Muslims are aware that August 29 marked the thirty-third anniversary of the martyrdom of Sayyid Qutb. He was no ordinary Muslim. A man of impeccable Islamic credentials, he made an immense contribution to Muslim political thought at a time when the Muslim world was still mesmerised by such western notions as nationalism, the nation-State and fathers of nations. Nationalist rhetoric laced with socialist slogans was the vogue.

It was in this atmosphere that Sayyid Qutb raised his voice - indeed his pen - against these false ideologies and in one clean sweep denounced them as the modern-day jahiliyyah (the primitive savagery of pre-Islamic days). In this Sayyid Qutb departed from Maulana Maudoodi’s articulation of “partial jahiliyyah” in which the late Pakistani scholar was prepared to concede to the systems prevalent in Muslim societies some room for modification and hence a degree of respectability. Sayyid Qutb would have none of it; he insisted that, being a complete system of life, Islam needs no additions from man-made systems.

It was this forthright formulation which sent him to the gallows on August 29, 1966 together with two other Ikhwan al-Muslimoon leaders, Muhammad Yusuf Awash and Abd al-Fattah Ismail. The specific charge against Sayyid Qutb was based on his now-celebrated book, Ma’alim fi’l-tareeq (‘Sign-posts on the Road’, also translated as Milestones). The book denounced the existing order in Muslim societies as jahiliyyah, provides guidelines for Muslim activists, and describes the steps they must take to establish a society based on divine guidance.

The Ikhwan al-Muslimoon is no longer the movement that Sayyid Qutb had joined when he returned from the US in 1950. It has since been reduced to a shell, being little more than a political party with an Islamic flag. Even this mild version of Islamic expression is not tolerated by the pharaohs of Egypt, who are beholden to their masters in Washington and Tel Aviv. Yet it is the Muslim activists who are accused of ‘intolerance.’

Sayyid Qutb was a prolific writer. His best works, however, were produced after his sudden return from the US. What disappointed him most there was the infatuation of American society with materialism and the widespread sexual anarchy. He could have gone on to study for his doctoral thesis, but decided instead to return to Egypt and devote his life to the Islamic movement.

If there was one particular moment in his life which proved crucial in this decision, it was his pain at the manner in which Hasan al-Banna’s martyrdom was reported in the American press. Crescent International readers will not be surprised at the manner in which the New York Times reported the martyrdom of Imam Hasan al-Banna. It wrote: “In Cairo the leader of the outlawed terrorist Moslem Brotherhood Hasan el-Banna, was killed by an assassin” (February 13, 1949). It went on to say: “Sheikh Hasan el-Banna, 39-year-old head of the outlawed Moslem Brotherhood extremist Egyptian nationalist movement that was banned after authorities had declared it responsible for a series of bombing outrages and killings last year, was shot five times by a group of young men in a car and died tonight in hospital.”

The “terrorist” appellation for Islamic activity is not a phenomenon of the eighties or nineties. It has been in circulation for more than 50 years. One can immediately see the emotionally-loaded expressions - “terrorist”, “extremist”, “outlawed”, etc - used for the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon by the mouthpiece of the zionist establishment in America. Qutb’s disappointment at seeing the supposedly respectable organs of public opinion indulging in a vicious attacks on the character of a leading Islamic leader can be imagined.

When Sayyid Qutb returned to Egypt, he started working with the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon, which he had not previously been a member of, as well as continuing to think and write. At the time, the Ikhwan were working with the ‘Free Officers’ plotting to overthrow the monarchy of king Farouk. Among the Free Officers were such figures as colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasser and colonel Anwar Sadat. According to the Sadat’s own account, Sayyid Qutb was the main ideologue of the Free Officers’ ‘revolution.’ Had the coup failed, it is clear that Sayyid Qutb would have paid with his life. Sadat, again according to his own account, had gone to the cinema on the day of the coup in order to have an alibi in the event that ‘things went wrong.’ He went on to become the president of Egypt after Nasser’s death from a heart attack in September 1970.

The Free Officers, however, soon fell out with the Ikhwan. That can be no surprise to those with even a superficial familiarity with such institutions as the military in the Muslim world. The coup-plotters were young and inexperienced; they needed a father-figure and an intellectual guide; Sayyid Qutb fit the bill well. But once the coup had succeeded, the Free Officers had other plans.

Within two years of the coup, Nasser had taken full control of the state. He then came down hard on the Ikhwan. Two events in particular contributed to the break: the Ikhwan’s insistence on an Islamic constitution and a free press; and their denunciation of the July 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement pertaining to the Suez Canal. This totally exposed Nasser’s false revolutionary credentials. The treaty allowed British troops to enter Egypt if British interests were threatened in the Middle East. In fact, it actually permitted the presence of British troops on the Suez Canal.

>From the beginning of 1954 until his execution, Sayyid Qutb spent most of his time in prison. In early 1954, when the Egyptian secret service came to arrest him, Sayyid Qutb was running a high fever. They insisted on putting the handcuffs on him and forcing him to walk to prison. On the way, he fainted several times from weakness. Once inside the prison compound, a specially-trained dog was unleashed upon him which dragged him around for more than two hours. He was then interrogated for seven hours without a break.

At his ‘treason’ trial in 1966, he was accused of plotting to bring about a Marxist coup in the country. This ludicrous charge was made by a regime that was already a close ally of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The rulers of Egypt knew that they were trying a man on wholly false charges. The real reason for the prosecution was Sayyid Qutb’s denunciation of the system and regime as jahiliyyah. Nasser knew that if such ideas were allowed to circulate, they would threaten his rule and ultimately lead to his overthrow. Sayyid Qutb had to be eliminated.

Shortly before his scheduled execution, an emissary of Nasser came to Sayyid Qutb asking him to sign a petition seeking mercy from the president. Sayyid Qutb’s reply was forthright: “If I have done something wrong in the eyes of Allah, I do not deserve mercy; but if I have not done anything wrong, I should be set free without having to plead for mercy from any mortal.” The emissary went away disappointed; Nasser was denied the pleasure of turning down Sayyid Qutb’s ‘appeal’ for mercy.

Sayyid Qutb wrote a number of books, including the well-known tafseer, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (‘In the shade of the Qur’an’), in which he explains Qur’anic ayaat with references to other ayaat of the noble Book. This he compiled during his long confinements in prison on spurious charges. Similarly, his contribution to Muslim political thought was immense. He categorically rejected any borrowings from the west and insisted that Islam is self-sufficient.

That such a worthy son of Islam should be so mistreated and humiliated in a Muslim country shows the depths of depravity to which the regimes in the Muslim world have sunk. Perhaps this was partly the reason that Nasser’s army faced such an ignominious defeat at the hands of the zionist forces a year later, in the ‘Six Day war’ of June 1967.

Sayyid Qutb lives in the hearts of millions of Muslims worldwide. His books have been translated into virtually every language that Muslims read, and remain hugely influential. The main translations into Farsi have been done by the Rahbar of the Islamic Republic, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, himself. This is a great tribute to the martyred scholar of Islam.

[Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).]

Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1999

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