The Muslim Brotherhood’s second great theorist, after its founder Hasan al-Banna, was Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern jihad theory. He sharpened his distaste for the West while living in the United States from November 1948 to August 1950. While hospitalized for a respiratory ailment in Washington, D.C., in February 1949, he heard of the assassination of al-Banna, an event which, he later claimed implausibly, set the hospital staff to open rejoicing.
His disgust with the gaudy materialism of postwar America was intense. He wrote to an Egyptian friend of his loneliness: “How much do I need someone to talk to about topics other than money, movie stars and car models.” Moving to Greeley, Colorado, he was impressed by the number of churches in the city, but not with the piety they engendered: “Nobody goes to church as often as Americans do. . . . Yet no one is as distant as they are from the spiritual aspect of religion.” He was thoroughly scandalized by a dance after an evening service at a local church: “The dancing intensified. . . . The hall swarmed with legs . . . Arms circled arms, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of love.” The pastor further scandalized Qutb by dimming the lights, creating “a romantic, dreamy effect,” and playing a popular record of the day: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” He regarded American popular music in general with a gimlet eye: “Jazz is the favorite music [of America]. It is a type of music invented by [American] Blacks to please their primitive tendencies and desire for noise.”
Ultimately he concluded: “I fear that when the wheel of life has turned and the file on history has closed, America will not have contributed anything.” He didn’t find American prosperity to be matched by a corresponding wealth of spirit. “I am afraid that there is no correlation between the greatness of the American material civilization and the men who created it. . . . In both feeling and conduct the American is primitive (bida’a).”
When he returned to Egypt, he characterized the influence of the West in the Muslim world as an unmitigated evil. He derided “American Islam,” a counterfeit of the religion that was designed only to combat Communism in Egypt. (In this he may have been referring to the Egyptian dictator Nasser’s 1964 overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he hoped would join an anticommunist alliance.) Even before his stay in the United States he cautioned that “Islam is a comprehensive philosophy and an homogeneous unity, and to introduce into it any foreign element would mean ruining it. It is like a delicate and perfect piece of machinery that may be completely ruined by the presence of an alien component.”
This chief alien component was secularism. Qutb regarded Western secularism not as the solution to the problems of the Islamic world (as many have proposed) but as the chief source of the problem: it destroyed the fundamental unity of Islam by separating the religious sphere from that of daily life.
Qutb saw the West’s two dominant political and social philosophies, capitalism and Communism, as bankrupt and valueless. With notable and often moving passion and vigor, Qutb’s influential book Milestones explicitly positions Islam as the true source of societal and personal order, as opposed to both capitalism and Communism. “Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice,” he asserted in this Cold War-era manifesto, “not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head — this being just a symptom and not the real disease — but because humanity is devoid of those vital values which are necessary not only for its healthy development but also for its real progress.” Perhaps with his time in America in mind, he went on: “Even the Western world realizes that Western civilization is unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind. It knows that it does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.”
To Qutb, both capitalism and Communism were spent forces: “Democracy in the West has become infertile to such an extent that it is borrowing from the systems of the Eastern bloc, especially in the economic system, under the name of socialism. It is the same with the Eastern bloc. Its social theories, foremost among which is Marxism, in the beginning attracted not only a large number of people from the East but also from the West, as it was a way of life based on a creed.”
With admirable prescience for a man writing in 1964, when Marxism looked to many observers to be still positioned at the vanguard of history, Qutb proclaimed that “now Marxism is defeated on the plane of thought, and if it is stated that not a single nation in the world is truly Marxist, it will not be an exaggeration.” He asserted that Marxism was doomed to fail because “on the whole this theory conflicts with man’s nature and its needs. This ideology prospers only in a degenerate society or in a society which has become cowed as a result of some form of prolonged dictatorship.” A quarter-century before the fall of the Soviet Union, he described “the failure of the system of collective farming” as just part of “the failure of a system which is against human nature.”
Qutb concludes: “It is essential for mankind to have new leadership!”
That new leadership would come from Islam. To Qutb, what the Muslim umma needed was a restoration of Islam in its fullness and purity, including all the rules of the Sharia for regulating society. “If we look at the sources and foundations of modern ways of living, it becomes clear that the whole world is steeped in Jahiliyyah [Ignorance of the Divine guidance], and all the marvelous material comforts and high-level inventions do not diminish this ignorance. This Jahiliyyah is based on rebellion against God’s sovereignty on earth. It transfers to man one of the greatest attributes of God, namely sovereignty, and makes some men lords over others.”
True freedom could come to man only by restoring the divine sovereignty — that is, the Sharia. To further this end he formally joined the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after his return to Egypt from the United States.
In articulating his vision for a resurgent Islam that would lead the way to a restoration of civilization and true values in the world, he made one great departure from the thought of other Muslim intellectuals of his day: he classified not only non-Muslim lands but also large portions of the Muslim world as lands of jahiliyyah, the Muslim term for the pre-Islamic period of unbelief, ignorance, and darkness. He based this assessment on the fact that most Muslim lands did not follow the Sharia either in whole or part, writing in Milestones that “it is necessary to revive that Muslim community which is buried under the debris of the man-made traditions of several generations, and which is crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to the Islamic teachings, and which, in spite of all this, calls itself the ‘world of Islam.’”
He advances Islam as “a challenge to all kinds and forms of systems which are based on the concept of the sovereignty of man; in other words, where man has usurped the Divine attribute. Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings by designating others than God as lords over men.”
Islam, says Qutb, in response to this wrongful deification of human beings, must “proclaim the authority and sovereignty of God” and thereby “eliminate all human kingship and to announce the rule of the Sustainer of the universe over the entire earth. In the words of the Qur’an: ‘He alone is God in the heavens and in the earth.’ (43:84) ‘The command belongs to God alone. He commands you not to worship anyone except Him. This is the right way of life.’ (12: 40)”
In practice, this meant implementation of the Sharia. Qutb therefore despised democracy for subjecting society to manmade laws that were the product of deliberation by the electorate or the legislature. The laws of Allah were not a matter for majority vote. He advocated active and all-encompassing resistance to governments in Muslim lands that did not implement the Sharia. He insisted: “We must also free ourselves from the clutches of jahili society” — that is, society ordered according to human laws (literally, those of ignorance) rather than divine ones — “jahili concepts, jahili traditions and jahili leadership. Our mission is not to compromise with the practices of jahili society, nor can we be loyal to it. Jahili society, because of its jahili characteristics, is not worthy to be compromised with. Our aim is first to change ourselves so that we may later change the society.”
This resistance must be international, in accord with the traditional Islamic view that religion transcends nationality: “A Muslim has no country except that part of the earth where the Shari’ah of God is established and human relationships are based on the foundation of relationship with God; a Muslim has no nationality except his belief, which makes him a member of the Muslim community in Dar-ul-Islam; a Muslim has no relatives except those who share the belief in God, and thus a bond is established between him and other Believers through their relationship with God.”
The idea that Muslim governments lose their legitimacy if they don’t enforce the Sharia has recurred throughout Islamic history. The famous medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) “declared that a ruler who fails to enforce the shari’a rigorously in all aspects, including the conduct of jihad (and is therefore insufficiently Muslim), forfeits his right to rule.” Nevertheless, such a view was relatively unheard-of among the secularized, Western-influenced Muslims of Qutb’s day; thus it has led numerous analysts of Islamic radicalism to label him an innovator and contrast his views with those of “traditional Islam.”
But Qutb’s views of the Sharia were not innovative at all. And he argued that they were not extremist, but simply the rule of Islamic law. “The way to establish God’s rule on earth is not that some consecrated people — the priests — be given the authority to rule, as was the case with the rule of the Church, nor that some spokesmen of God become rulers, as is the case in a ‘theocracy’. To establish God’s rule means that His laws be enforced and that the final decision in all affairs be according to these laws.”
“Insight: In Egypt, ideas of a radical Islamist make comeback,” by Tom Perry and Abdelrahman Youssef for Reuters, December 2:
ALEXANDRIA/CAIRO (Reuters) – Young Egyptian Islamists seeking a way to confront the military-led state are turning to the ideas of a radical ideologue who waged the same struggle half a century ago and later became a source of inspiration for al Qaeda.
The revolutionary ideas of Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood leader executed in 1966, are spreading among Islamists who see themselves in an all-out struggle with generals who deposed President Mohamed Mursi in July.
Their radical conclusions underline the risks facing a nation more divided than ever in its modern history: after Mursi’s downfall, the state killed hundreds of Islamists, and attacks on the security forces have become commonplace.
Qutb’s writing, much of it produced while a prisoner in President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s jails, has supplied ideological fuel for militancy in Egypt and beyond for decades.
He has been cited as a source of inspiration by Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian doctor who was Osama bin Laden’s deputy as leader of al Qaeda and took over the militant network after bin Laden’s death in 2009.
Within the Brotherhood itself, which decades ago declared itself opposed to violence, Qutb’s writings were widely respected but his revolutionary approach took a back seat as the 85-year-old movement focused on seeking power within the system.
Not any more, said Omar Magdy, 23, a Brotherhood activist who likens the crackdown on Islamists today with Nasser’s.
“The era in which Sayyid Qutb wrote his work resembles the one we are in now, so his ideas are being revived,” Magdy explained in a seafront cafe in Alexandria. “Sayyid Qutb embodies the revolutionary Islamist idea. I support it.”
After the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Brotherhood pursued its agenda through the ballot box, relying on its organizational muscle to win two parliamentary elections, a presidential vote and two constitutional referenda.
But that all ended in July, when the military, responding to mass demonstrations against Mursi, toppled Egypt’s first freely elected leader and launched a crackdown on his followers.
Thousands have been rounded up and many hundreds killed, particularly in the storming of a pro-Mursi protest camp which Islamists see as a massacre that proved the generals wanted to eradicate the Brotherhood once and for all.
Since Mursi’s downfall, the Brotherhood has experienced an ideological crisis. For many youths, the ideas of democracy – and even the very concept of the nation state itself – have been discredited.
Magdy, 23, said his uncle was among those shot dead by police. He evokes Qutb by likening Egypt with the Jahiliya – the period before the emergence of Islam in 7th century Arabia.
“Does society have the features of the Jahiliya? Yes it does,” he said.
Qutb was one of thousands of Islamists tortured in jail under Nasser. He was eventually tried and executed for calling for the overthrow of the state.
The Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, served jail time with Qutb in the 1960s, as did Mahmoud Ezzat, a highly influential figure and one of the few Brotherhood leaders yet to be caught. Qutb has been cited as a major influence over both.
His main political work, “Milestones”, was banned in Egypt until the 1990s. After its publication, Egypt’s official Islamic establishment declared some of Qutb’s ideas blasphemous. His writing also stirred controversy within the Brotherhood itself.
Magdy said Qutb’s work is more widely discussed than before by Islamists who, with the benefit of hindsight, now believe the Brotherhood was mistaken to focus on gradual change.
“Mursi was waging the battle to reform the state. I see that we must wage the battle to break up the institutions of state,” Magdy said. Asked how, Magdy echoes the Brotherhood’s position: “Popular, peaceful activism against military rule”.
But other Islamists are more openly following the revolutionary logic through to more extreme conclusions: that violence is the way forward.
“The idea is now discussed,” said another Islamist activist, also in his mid-20s, who asked not to be identified. “Even thinking about it before was scary. But now, to a degree, it is acceptable.”…
“Is there really a Brother out there who still believes … democracy is the way to Islamic government?” one Brotherhood activist asked in a recent discussion on Facebook with other Brotherhood members….