On August 29, 1966, the famous author and polemicist Sayyid Qutb was hanged for treason, along with five co-conspirators, in his native Egypt.
Qutb was the publicist for the organization known as Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, or in English the Muslim Brotherhood (caution: pdf link), and the author of a number of books on Islamic theology and governance. He had been in prison almost continuously since 1954, when he was convicted of conspiring to overthrow Gamel Abdel Nasser’s fledgling government.
Not so long before that he and Nasser had been on good terms. The Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser’s Free Officers Movement had worked together to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy and establish the United Arab Republic. But after Nasser took control, the relationship soured — it turned out that consolidating the government and assuring his own position of power was more important to Nasser than maintaining a purity of Islamic governance. Qutb, on the other hand, stuck by his principles, and as a result spent most of the rest of his life behind bars.
It all began in 1928, when Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ikhwan was based on the idea that the Egyptian government — and all the Muslim governments suffering under the infidel colonial yoke — had abandoned Islam and was, in fact, mired in apostasy. Kemal Attaturk was particularly worthy of opprobrium for abolishing the Caliphate and secularizing Turkey.
According to the Muslim Brotherhood, the duty of the believer was to resist subjugation by the infidel, follow the tenets of the Prophet, and return to the true practice of Islam. Al-Banna was not the first ardent Muslim to formulate such ideals, but his organizational skills made the Brotherhood into a formidable political force.
In the 1940s, as the Brotherhood acquired disciples among young and idealistic military officers, it moved away from its peaceful beginnings and became more and more violent in pursuit of its goals. After a series of assassinations of government officials, including the Prime Minister, King Farouk’s secret service retaliated by assassinating al-Banna in 1949.
If Sayyid Qutb had not joined in 1951, the Muslim Brotherhood might well have withered away. It almost certainly would not have developed into the influential organization it has remained until this day. Qutb acted as its theorist and popularizer, and became the Great Explicator of radical Islam.
Even as a young student, Sayyid Qutb had been interested in following the time-honored principles of Islam, but he did not become a radical — what is now known as an “Islamist” — until the late 1940s.
It was his extended visit to the United States that radicalized him. While studying here he had a close-up view of the decadence and moral degeneracy of a modern Western democracy. To him, the United States was a cesspool of salacious and sinful behavior. Jazz music, nightclubs, sock hops, and even churches appeared to him to be hotbeds of sin and licentiousness.
When he returned to Egypt, he was ready for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood was ready for him. He continued writing his treatises on Islamic theology, taking many years in prison to complete his 30-volume masterwork, In the Shadow of the Koran (Fi Zalal al-Koran). In 1963 he published Milestones (Ma’alim fi al-Tariq), which was even more incendiary. In fact, his trial and execution for treason were based on excerpts from Milestones. A quote:
The leadership of mankind by Western man is now on the decline, not because Western culture has become poor materially or because its economic and military power has become weak. The period of the Western system has come to an end primarily because it is deprived of those life-giving values, which enabled it to be the leader of mankind.
It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable.
Islam is the only System which possesses these values and this way of life.
This was Qutb’s thinking, his ideology, the set of principles for which he was willing to martyr himself.
But let’s leave aside the ideology and examine his methods and practices. More than anyone else, Sayyid Qutb resembles that other mad genius of the 20th century, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin. Like the Bolsheviks, the Muslim Brotherhood was a utopian revolutionary organization, and was structured similarly. Qutb believed that a select few among the true believers of Islam, with himself in charge, would form the vanguard of a revolutionary movement. Al-Ikhwan was to be the Bolshevik Party of the Islamic renewal.
Unfortunately, the masses of the Islamic world were not yet ready for the true purified faith, having been lulled into complacency and moral turpitude by the sinful West. But once the Brotherhood overthrew the existing order and took power, an Islamic state would be imposed and government according to the Shari’ah would gradually emerge.
Sound familiar? That’s not surprising, since every Islamist despot and would-be despot since then has drawn on Qutb’s works for support and inspiration. The late Mohammed Atef, formerly Osama bin-Laden’s military commander, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb’s brother, who was also a member of al-Ikhwan, moved to Saudi Arabia after his brother’s death and was the teacher of, among others, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the mentor of Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man.
There seems to be a sort of demonic version of the Apostolic Succession at work here, beginning with Qutb and ending with bin Laden, who in turn has performed the laying-on of hands with Mohammed Atta, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and all the other petty head-choppers the world over who are even now busy slaughtering infidels and each other in the name of Allah.
What surprised me during my research on Sayyid Qutb was the immense amount of intramural controversy over his ideas within the Islamic world. His work has proved inspirational to many Muslims; consider this example from the Islamic Circle of North America, “Sayyid Qutb” by Ahmed El-Kadi, MD:
Other than Prophet Muhammad (s), the contemporary men who had great influence on me were my father, [and then] Imam Hassan al-Banna, and Shaheed Sayyid Qutb. The first two Islamic books that I studied as teenager were “Dirasat Islamiyya” (Studies in Islam, or Lessons in Islam) and Aladalah Alijtima’eyyah Fil-Islam (Social Justice in Islam) both by Sayyid Qutb. Although I have never met or seen Sayyid Qutb, I knew him (as most other Muslims involved with Islamic work) through his many books, like the two mentioned above, his great commentary on the Qur’an, Fithilal-el-Qur’an (in the Shades of the Qur’an), and other books… Sayyid Qutb will always be remembered for his legacy of clearly defining the basic ideas of the Oneness and sovereignty of Allah, the clear distinction between pure faith and the association of partners with Allah (Shirk) overt and hidden, and the only hope for salvation of humanity. Sayyid Qutb was smiling when he was executed, showing his conviction of the beautiful life to come in paradise — a life he definitely and rightfully deserved.
The Islamic Circle of North America, which has just concluded a major conference in Connecticut, is a mainstream American Muslim organization, some of whose members are selected as spokesmen for Islam in America, despite the fact that their affiliates are often listed by our own government as terrorist organizations. It shows what a sorry pass we have come to that admirers of Sayyid Qutb can be considered “mainstream” Muslims.
Qutb has many admirers, but also many detractors, and the latter are not always criticizing him from a “moderate” viewpoint. In “The Wahhabi Myth”, Haneef James Oliver puts forth the Salafist refutation of Qutb’s ideas:
Qutb was not interested in following the traditional approach of explaining the Quran, which is to firstly refer to the Quran itself for other verses which clarify the meaning, then the Haadeeths of the Prophet (may Allah raise his rank and grant him peace) which deal with the meanings of specific verses, or if this does not exist, to refer to the explanations of his companions. Hence, it cannot be referred to as a tafsir [theological explanation] in the conventional sense… Instead of referring to these important sources, Qutb used his own opinions to explain the Quran — over and above these sources. Consequently, this tafsir contains numerous errors which the Salafi scholars have already clarified for the people. [emphasis added]
Mr. Oliver’s goal is to do away with the term “Wahhabi” (i.e., a follower of the ideas of the 18th-century cleric Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab) to designate those who wish to return Islam to its original form as practiced during the time of the Prophet. He prefers to be called a “Salafist”, that is, a follower of the salaf (literally “predecessors” or “forebears”), also known as the sahaba, the companions of the Prophet.
All of the orthodox scholars of Islam followed the way of the Salaf in understanding religion. Early scholars such as Imam al-Awzaa’ee, who died 157 years after the Prophet’s emigration to Medina, said: “Be patient upon the Sunnah, and stop where the people (i.e. the Salaf) stopped, and say what they said, and refrain from what they refrained from, and follow the path of your righteous Salaf; for verily, sufficient for you is what was sufficient for them.”
Today, one of the famous Sunni schools of jurisprudence is named after a scholar named Abu Haneefah. Millions of Muslims all over the world ascribe themselves to his school of jurisprudence; those who the media would term “mainstream” Muslims. Regarding adherence to the Salafi methodology, he said, “Adhere to the narrations and way of the Salaf, and beware of newly invented matters (in religion), for all of it is innovation.”
The orthodox scholars who came after these early generations also followed the understanding of the Salaf in religious matters. Imam ath-Thahabi said: “It is authentically related from ad-Daraqutni (a scholar from approximately 1,000 years ago) that he said: There is nothing more despised by me than ‘ilmul-kalaam (innovated speech and rhetoric). I (adh-Thahabee) say: The man never entered into ‘ilmul-kalaam, nor did he enter into argumentation (i.e. philosophy), he did not delve into that. Rather, he was Salafee (a follower of the Salaf).”
So the Salafist criticism of Sayyid Qutb is that, in his attempt to purify Islam and return it to its true path, he has in fact deviated from the true path. Qutb’s sin is innovation; his “calamities” consist of his own ideas.
I’ll extract from the Salafist treatise above to create a listing of the operative principles at work:
- Sufficient for you is what was sufficient for [the Salaf].
- Beware of newly invented matters… for all of it is innovation.
- There is nothing more despised by me than… innovated speech and rhetoric.
In other words, Islam cannot be improved, and any new idea which is employed in order to improve it will in fact do it harm.
From a mathematical point of view, Islam is a closed symbolic system. It consists of three sets of propositions (the Koran, the Hadith, and the Sunnah), plus a set of operations which can be performed on one or more of these propositional sets, each yielding another propositon. Each member of the set of operations is performed successively on the three sets of propositions. If the operation does not yield a member of one of the three propositional sets, then it is considered an invalid operation, and is discarded. No new propositions can be added, and only operations which elaborate previous operations can be expressed. A perfect, immutable, closed system.
Obviously, by Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Islam is thus incapable of explaining or representing itself. But the same could be said of any other religion, including atheism. What makes the Salafist version of Islam different is its closed nature. Christianity and Judaism — and also their bastard child, Secularism — have remained open systems, able to incorporate new propositions and operations whilst retaining their symbolic integrity.
Islam is structurally incapable of following suit, since to do so would violate Proposition #1, and bring the whole symbolic edifice crashing down.
Is it really any wonder that so few scientific patents come out of Islam? Need we investigate any further why none of the important inventions of the last thousand years emerged from an Islamic culture?
As a fully coherent, logical, symbolic system, Islam is incapable of innovation as long as it as practiced faithfully.
And yet the Salafist ideal has set fire to the hearts of thousands, if not millions, of devout Muslims, and inspired violent jihad the world over.
Mysterious indeed are the hidden chambers of the human heart.