Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was an Egyptian writer, educator, and religious leader. His writings about Islam, and especially his call for a revolution to establish an Islamic state and society, greatly influenced the Islamic resurgence movements of the 20th century.
Sayyid Qutb was born in 1906 in the village of Mūshā in the Asyūt province of upper Egypt. His father was Hajjī Ibrāhīm Qutb, a well-to-do farmer of the region. The family, which traces its ancestry ultimately to Central Asia via India, in addition to father and mother consisted of two brothers and three sisters, of whom Sayyid Qutb was the eldest. His brother Muhammad and two of his sisters, Amīnah and Hamīdah, were also writers active in Islamic causes; all suffered arrest for their views along with their brother in 1965.
In his writings Sayyid Qutb attributed his strong bent towards religion to the influence of his parents. His mother, Fātimah Husayn 'Uthmān, had a particular love for the Koran (Qur'ān) which she inculcated in her offspring; she was determined that her children should all become buffāz (memorizers of the holy book). It was her custom to invite professional Koran reciters to the family home during the nights of the month of fasting (Ramadān), and Sayyid Qutb later recalled listening to the chanting of the sacred verses at his mother's side. He also mentioned the care exercised by his father to impress upon the youth the significance of the coming day of judgment.
Sayyid Qutb's earliest education was in the local village school where by the age of ten he had memorized the Koran. His mother was the sympathetic ear for his recitations during this time. At age 13 he went to Cairo for further study and there entered the Dār al-'Ulūm secondary school (established 1872), which offered an essentially secular education; among its purposes was the preparation of students for employment with government. At this stage of his life he was much influenced by the Westernizing tendencies prevalent in the school and among some Egyptian intellectuals. In 1929 he gained admission to Cairo University, where he earned the B.A. degree in education in 1933. After graduation he became a professor of the college, where he taught for some time before joining the Ministry of Education as inspector of schools.
A turning point came for Sayyid Qutb in 1949 when he was sent to the United States for higher studies in educational administration. Over a two year period he worked in several different institutions including what was then Wilson Teachers' College in Washington, D.C. and Colorado State College for Education in Greeley, as well as Stanford University. He also travelled extensively visiting the major cities of the United States and spent time in Europe on the return journey to Egypt. His reaction to the Western experience was decidedly negative; he found Western society hopelessly materialistic, corrupt, morally loose, and ridden with injustice. He was especially distressed by the disrespect shown to Arabs in the United States and the overwhelming support of its people for the state of Israel, founded in 1948. One of the most popular of his books, Social Justice in Islam (1948), reflects his critical attitude to the West.
Even before the journey to America Sayyid Qutb had begun to manifest interest in the teachings of the Society of Muslim Brothers (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn), the foremost of Egypt's resurgent Islamic organizations. Founded in 1929 by Hassan Al-Banna (Hasan al-Bannā'), the society had numerous followers and sympathizers and wielded much political influence. In 1949, however, it was banned, and many of its members were arrested after the assassination of the Egyptian prime minister, al-Nuqrāshī, by one of the Brothers. The society gained a new lease on life in 1952 with the coup d'état of the Free Officers which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. Many of the Free Officers had long had clandestine and sympathetic relations with the Muslim Brothers. The society's members were released from prison, a new leader was chosen to replace al-Bannā' (who had been murdered in the violence of 1949), and Sayyid Qutb, formerly a mere member, emerged as one of the foremost figures. He was employed in the society's Bureau of Guidance and was placed in charge of the office that bore responsibility for the propagation of the society's Islamic views. In this position he exercised the function of intellectual leader of the Brothers, expressing his opinions in books and numerous articles in a variety of journals.
In July 1954 he was made editor of the society's newspaper, al-Ikhwān al-Muslimu, but held the post for only two months when the newspaper was closed by Gamal Abdel Nasser ('Abd al-Nāsir) because of its opposition to the Anglo-Egyptian pact of that year. Originally, the relations between the Muslim Brothers and the Free Officers had been close, but they soured as the Brothers began to oppose government policy. There was a complete rupture in 1954 after an attempt on the life of President Nasser by a Brother. Six members of the society were executed, thousands of others were arrested, and the society was again declared illegal.
Sayyid Qutb was among those arrested and was sentenced by the People's Court to 15 years' rigorous imprisonment. The experience was extremely difficult for Sayyid Qutb, especially the first three years, for he was a generally sickly man who suffered from a number of afflictions. It is alleged also that he was made to undergo torture of various kinds. Nevertheless, during the years in jail—which lasted until mid-1964—he completed his influential commentary on the Koran (In the Shadow of the Qur'ān) in 30 parts (eight volumes).
Sayyid Qutb was released from prison because of an appeal by Iraq's president Abdul Salam Areb to Nasser, but he remained under surveillance. However, he continued to write and to work for the Islamic cause. After less than a year of freedom he was again arrested on a charge of attempting to overthrow the Egyptian government by force. The basis of the charge was his last book, Milestones, which sanctioned force as a means to bring about an Islamic revolution and to transform society. On August 19, 1966, Sayyid Qutb and two companions were sentenced to death by a military tribunal, and the sentence was carried out on the morning of August 25 following. Sayyid Qutb is, thus, known as shahīd, or martyr.
In his personal intellectual evolution Sayyid Qutb passed from a westernizing tendency in his youth to a revolutionary Islamic radicalism in the years before his death. He is a hero and one of the principal ideologues of the Islamic resurgence in the last third of the 20th century. His writings have been translated into many languages, and he is read wherever Muslims are found. His teachings concerning jihād and the Islamic revolution were major influences on 'Alī Sharī'atī' and the students who, following him, participated in the Iranian revolution.
Further Reading on Sayyid Qutb
There is an article on Sayyid Qutb by Yvonne Y. Haddad in Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John Esposito (1983). Detailed information on the Muslim Brothers and their history up to 1954 may be found in the work by Richard Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London, 1969). Many of Sayyid Qutb's beliefs are set forth in the paperback Islam and Universal Peace (1977).