Sayyid Qutb on the jahili system

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Ramadan 23, 1434 2013-08-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 6, Ramadan, 1434)

Sayyid Qutb’s martyrdom anniversary falls on August 29 but how many Muslims—even committed ones—are aware of this? Should this great scholar of Islam not be remembered for his immense contributions?

Zafar Bangash updates a version of an article that first appeared in the Crescent International issue of September 1–15, 1999.

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 marks the 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 mesmerized by such Western secular notions as nationalism, the nation-state and fathers of nations. Nationalist rhetoric laced with socialist slogans was in 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 jahiliyah (the group solidarity of pre-Islamic days that followed no law and observed no morals). In this, Sayyid Qutb departed from Maulana Maudoodi’s articulation of “partial jahiliyah” 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. He followed precisely the articulation given by Allama Iqbal,

Batil do-eey pasand hay, Haqq la sharik hay (Falsehood loves doublespeak while truth has no alternates)
Shirkat mian-naye Haqq-o-batil na ker qubool (Do not accept the mixing of truth with falsehood)

It was this forthright formulation that sent Qutb to the gallows on August 29, 1966 together with two other Ikhwan leaders, Muhammad Yusuf Awash and ‘Abd al-Fattah Isma‘il. The specific charge against Qutb was based on his now-celebrated book, Ma‘alim Fi al-Tareeq (Sign-posts on the Road, also translated as Milestones). The book denounced the existing order in Muslim societies as jahiliyah, provided guidelines for Muslim activists, and described the steps they must take to establish a society based on divine guidance.

The Ikhwan 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.” Recent developments in Egypt once again bear this out.

Sayyid Qutb was a prolific writer. His best works, however, were produced after his sudden return from the US. What disappointed him most 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 that 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, “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 [sic] 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 1980s or 1990s. It has been in circulation for more than 50 years. One can immediately see the emotionally-loaded expressions — “terrorist,” “extremist,” “outlawed,” etc. — used for al-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 vicious attacks on the character of an exceptional Islamic leader can be imagined.

According to 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.

When Qutb returned to Egypt, he started working with the Ikhwan, 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 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 assumed all powers. He then came down on the Ikhwan with the iron fist.

Within two years of the coup, Nasser had assumed all powers. He then came down on the Ikhwan with the iron fist. 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 revolutionary pretensions. The treaty allowed British troops to enter Egypt if British interests were threatened in the Muslim 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 completely false charges. The real reason for the prosecution was Sayyid Qutb’s denunciation of the system and the regime as jahiliyah. Nasser knew that if such ideas were allowed to circulate, they would threaten his rule and ultimately lead to his overthrow. Qutb had to be eliminated.

“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.”

Shortly before his scheduled execution, an emissary of Nasser came to 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 tafsir, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur’an), in which he explains Qur’anic ayat with references to other ayat 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, Imam Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei, himself. This is a great tribute to the martyred scholar of Islam.

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