the romantic who became the chief ideologue of global jihad


Graffiti in Cairo sums up the global jihadi movement and Qutb’s doctrine

“The world stands on the brink of the abyss” is the opening sentence of Sayyed Qutb’s seminal tract, Signposts, arguably one of the most influential books in the Muslim world today.

The small book has been rightly described as the manifesto of global jihad. It’s main ideas still resonate with millions of Muslims around the world and inspire today’s global jihadis, whether they come from Egypt or Western Europe.

In my opinion, Qutb proved to be far more influential than the founder of the Muslim Brothers itself, of which he was a member, and had to pay with his life for his radical views.

While Al-Banna’s chief drive was to reform Muslim societies, Qutb’s ambition was global. It’s true, both were against Western hegemony, but while Al-Banna focused on ridding Egypt of the evil of westernisation, Qutb’s had a much bigger and far more ambitious plan : to conquer the entire world.

Qutb’s goals were not limited to Muslim societies, but were truly global. He clearly had Western civilisation in sight from the start. The opening chapter of Singposts, which was written at the height of the cold war in the 1960’s, is a tirade against the decadent materialism of Western civilisation (be it the capitalism of America and Western Europe, or the socialism of the Soviet Union) that was teetering and was about to fall, argues Qutb.

In hindsight, we can also see that it was the fist shot in a long and violent supremacist campaign – still with us today – to empower the Muslims and resurrect a supposedly lost Islamic utopia because, according to Qutb, Isalm as it was revealed to Mohammed in the seventh century,  was meant to do precisely that : to prevail.

While some of the various conflicts we see around the world today that involve radical jihadis may originate in a local context, Qutb’s ideas provide the ideological framing of these conflicts as a global fight between Islam and the rest. In a sense, his doctrine serves both as a motivation and justification at the same time. In this lies his particular appeal to global jihads, be they from Britain, Egypt or France, who leave their countries of birth to join the global war between Isalm and its enemies, wherever and whoever they are. Not only does his ideology  inspire them, but it also provides them with an intellectual defence of their conduct.

Sayyed Qutb photo

I have to admit that I have long been a fan of Qutb’s beautiful and erudite prose, which I believe has played no small part in winning the hearts and minds of angry young souls.

At heart, Qutb was a “romantic” in pursuit of an ideal world from which “evil” is purged and banished for ever, a utopia. Hence his appeal to idealists of all kinds, but his influence is particularly sinister if it touches individuals prone to violence. Just look at the so called Islamic State, and their recruits from Britain, Belgium or France and what they are prepared to do !

Qutb was once a poet and literary critic before he embarked on a different path — a transformation that has had a lasting and devastating impact on Muslims and the perception of Islam worldwide.

His writings in general and his interpretation of the Quran shows a sensitive mind, that of a poet attuned to the finer nuances of language and the parable-like logic of the Quranic narrative.

Mixing the poetic with the declamatory, the smooth flow and the cadence of his sentence, impregnated with references to the Quran along with the promise of a return to a lost Islamic paradise, still work their magic on the angry young minds, who feel either powerless or alienated, be they in Cairo, Damascus, London’s inner city or the suburbs of Paris.

One hears echoes of his vision today among the jihadis of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq or European capitals, who abandon the comfort and security of life in the immoral West, to join the holy wars of the Middle East.

This is worth remembering as the British government has yet to release the findings of its investigation into the Muslim Brothers. It may never be possible to prove that the MB is a terrorist organisation according to the letter of the law, but if one considers the far-reaching impact of the writings of Qutb (who the Muslim Brothers has never disowned and continues to use his literature in its internal training and indoctrination of new recruits) then it would be extremely difficult to come to a different conclusion.

The violence may not come out of its ranks today, but it is happy to see it “contracted out” to other outfits that serve its long term ambition and goals : global dominance in the name of Islam.

The main thrust of the book is to argue that western civilisation is morally bankrupt, and has nothing to offer to humanity. The world, writes Qutb, has reverted to jahiliyya – roughly Arabic for paganism. Only Islam has the answer to the spiritual malaise that grips the modern world, he says emphatically throughout the book.

All political systems , he writes, are based on the enslavement of man by man. Islam is the only doctrine that rejects that, because man in the truly Muslim society accepts no other authority than that of God.

What Qutb clearly misses is that the will of god is neither apparent nor transparent to all Muslims, and the community (who more often than not tend to be illiterate) will inevitably entrust the learned class to formulate the nature of that god-inspired authority. Sharia itself, as we know, is the result of human effort. While it is true that Islam has no official clergy like other religions, in reality and for practical reasons, a de facto clerical class has developed over the years.

In other words, the dream of a direct and unmediated access to the meaning of the sacred text is an illusion, and that applies not just to Islam, but is a fact of any textual interpretation and the authority that follows thereof.

But that was not Qutb’s only non sequitur. In a little noticed article, the Tunisian Islamist leader, Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, castigates Qutb for equating Islam with civilisation, and failing to acknowledge that other cultures have produced their own civilisations without being believers in Islam.

Relying on the work of another Islamist thinker, the Algerian Malik Ben Nabi, Ghannouchi concludes that “Islam is not [in itself] a civilisation. Islam is a revealed religion, while civilisation does not come down from heaven. It is made by human beings when they deploy their skills well in time and place. Islam on its own does not produce civilisation. Only human beings who understands it as it truly is do as they set about fusing it with the soil, time and place, thus creating a civilisation.”

It might seem like common sense for many, Muslims or non-Muslims, but not for the Qutbist leaders of the Muslim Brothers and their Salafi or Wahhabi allies across the world, whose pursuit of power is threatening to plunge the whole of the Middle East into chaos and human suffering on a scale not seen before in the modern era.

[ A slightly different version of this article was published by IslamistGate : ]


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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