On this date in 1966, author and intellectual Sayyid Qutb was hanged for plotting to overthrow the Egyptian state.
Qutb — whose names can be transliterated many ways (Saïd, Syed, Seyyid, Sayid, or Sayed; Koteb, Kotb, Qutub or Kutb) — was one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century, and helped shape the ideas of Osama bin Laden.
A traditionally-minded Muslim civil servant in a westernizing Egypt, Qutb’s journey to radicalism is traditionally dated to his late 1940’s study abroad in the U.S. at what is now the University of Northern Colorado, where the decadence, materialism, and lax morality of the global hegemon saw him seeing existential evil in the everyday all around him:
The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.
Qutb left Greeley, Colo., in 1950 with a master’s degree and an intention to mount an Islamic revolution in his home country that would implement sharia and keep shapely thighs safely under wraps. (Qutb never married, bemoaning the scanty pickings of pure fish in the sea. He may have faced the gallows a virgin.)
He hooked up with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, landed in Egypt’s famously savage prisons (future president Anwar Sadat was one of his judges), and the experience of torture hardened his commitment to a vanguard-led revolution. He kept up his prolific writing output, penning perhaps his most notable work, Milestones (the text was later used against him at his capital trial).
Qutb’s release in 1964 was only for a few months, before Egyptian security got wind of a new Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow the government and rounded up Qutb as the supposed ringleader — or just railroaded him because it didn’t like where he was going with passages like
there are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can readily imagine that his martyr’s death did not squelch his movement, but greatened his stature to admiring eyes.
But it was hardly a direct path into an un-critiqued hall of martyrs in an undifferentiated “radical Islam”. While Qutb had his own influence in Egypt, Cairo has managed to keep the lid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutbism, however, was exported to Saudi Arabia — which intentionally imported it for various practical and geopolitical reasons — where it flourished, often in a fractious relationship with official Saudi Wahhabism.
One of Qutb’s students was the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the hanged intellectual greatly influenced Zawahiri’s own path into radicalism and to al-Qaeda. Since September 11, of course, the path Qutb himself followed has become of much more pressing interest to the West as well as within the Muslim world.
Some noteworthy works by Sayyid Qutb