the Spiritual Father of Radical Movements in Muslim World

Sayyid Qutb:

the Spiritual Father of Radical Movements in Muslim World


Gholam Ahya Hoseini

Sayyid Qutb is the most influential figure within the contemporary fundamentalist movements. He is known as one of the prominent figures and theorists of Muslim Brotherhood movement who spread his ideologies and views among the Muslim youths through writing books such as the Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (commentary of the Quran) or Ma'alim fi al-Tariq.

By the help of a special writing style which enjoyed fluency and smoothness, Sayyid Qutb posits that all governments are illegal – Taghut- and so promotes his own point of views. Meanwhile, he outlines issues such as social justice in Islam, ignorance of people in today’s world, and dividing the whole world into Dar al Islam and Dar al Kufr,. 

Sayyid Qutb introduced Jihad and Islamic migration as solutions to these problems within the books that were written during the last years of his life. The principles that are now seen very highlighted in radical groups such as ISIL.

The works of Sayyid Qutb, has brought three important functions for the radical Islamist movements: first, they provided the intellectual justifications for the anti-western inclinations both from cultural and political standpoints. Second, they presented the proofs for establishing an Islamic state based on Sharia rulings. The third function of Sayyid Qutb's works was to organize the issues related to the legitimacy of overthrowing all governments around the world including Islamic states, through the application of jihad.

In fact, Sayyid Qutb has had the biggest impact on the violent doctrine developed in contemporary Muslim World. His works have spread significantly among the Egyptian Islamist groups. The most famous ones are Takfir va al hijrah, that were responsible for assassination of Egyptian Agriculture Minister in 1977.  Shukri Mustafa who led the Takfir group and was arrested in 1975, described Sayyed Qutb as an intellectual leader. The other group was called Islamic Jihad of Egypt that carried out the assassination of Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat in 1981. The third group is Jamaat-e-Islami that caused chaos during 1990s. Qutb is a prominent figure among the radical groups in Palestine who presents a real example of Islamic revolution. Hamas is the most famous Palestinian organization in terms of challenging the concept of ignorance- Jahiliyyah –.   Its spiritual father, Ahmad Yasin, was arrested in 1965 along with Sayyed Qutb.[1]

Sayyed Qutb's Biography

Sayyed Qutb was born in Asyut, Egypt in 1906 and graduated from Al-Azhar University. Hs is considered as one of the most influential figures in Islamic fundamentalism. It is important to note that, Sayyed Qutb has adopted four types of attitudes during the last four decades of his life. We will elaborate his special standpoints and different levels of his thoughts through the following part.

First Stage: Atheism (1925-1935)

This period of Sayyed Qutb’s life is coincident with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, governmental structures of the countries under the Empire’s domination were changed. In addition, various social and political ideas that had arisen from social conditions of that era were emerged. Influenced by the atheist currents of the time, Qutb believed in the elimination of religion from different spheres of life.

Most of the Qutb’s works through this period is related to literature and art. According to one of his views expressed at time, the poets enjoy a higher level of spirituality than the divine messengers do, and it is better that religion not to be involved in people’s lives.

Second Stage: Challenging Religion (1935-1945)

Through this period, Sayyed Qutb tended to have a favorable attitude to the thoughts of Taha Hosein and Ahmad Amin. Adopting a critical approach towards religion, underscoring the preference of spirituality expressed throughout East over the materialistic inclinations of West, and highlighting Arab Nationalism are among the distinguished features of this time.

Third Stage: Observing the Moderate Islam (1945-1955)

Sayyed Qutb lived and studied in the United States from 1948 to 1951. We do not know much about these three years, but evidently, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became editor of the Muslim Brotherhood newspaper after returning to Egypt. He authored several books during this period, some of which are Ma'rakat al-Islam wa'l-Ra's Maliyya (The Battle between Islam and Capitalism), Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an) and Al-Salam al-'Alami wa'l-Islam (World Peace and Islam).

Fourth Stage: Radical Islam (1955-1965)

Due to the disagreements between Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein- the president of Egypt at time- and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb spent most of this time in prison (about 8 years). This period saw the composition of his works including a multi-volume commentary of the Holy Quran. In these writings, he emphasized the need for using force when necessary in order to overthrow the existing regimes. The massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood prisoners in 1965 reinforced his view that only a radical force would eliminate the old system and create an ideal society based on divine laws. During this period, we see a strong tendency to radical ideas within Qutb’s views that later on inspired many Islamic radical movements throughout the Muslim world.[2]

Some of his works in this time are as follows:

Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq (Signposts on the Road, or Milestones)

Hadha'l-Din (This Religion is Islam)

Khasais al-Tasawwur al-Islami wa Muqawamatuhu (The Characteristics and Values of Islamic Conduct)


Fundamentals of Qutb’s View

Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq encompasses the most important ideas of Sayyed Qutb with respect to Jihad. This influential manifesto has distinctive features some of which are the text cohesion, turning the ideologies into practices as well as providing legal references from Quran, Sunnah, and practical behavior of Prophet’s companions. With that said, the Arabs would be able to simply perceive and affected by the Jihadi ideologies of Qutb.[3]

Jahiliyyah (Ignorance)

Ibn Taymiyyah was the first one to use the term Jahiliyyah, who called his fellow Muslims at time the Jahils- ignorant. In addition, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab believed that Muslims today, even those who are living in Saudi Arabia, are in a Jahiliyyah status similar to that of Muslims in the first days of Islam. In early 20th century, the contemporary reformists Muḥammad 'Abduh and Rashid Reza,  compared their societies with the Age of Ignorance and pointed out that nowadays there is more corruption within some of Muslim nations in terms of religious and ethical standpoints. Nonetheless, Syed Abul A'la Maududi and his student Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi (1903-1979) ascribed the term Jahiliyyah to modern world for the first time. They identified western and communist countries as Jahil (which means to be deviated from the Islamic standards) but never did so with respect to the Muslim nations.[4] It was Qutb who divided the Muslim societies into the Islamic and Jahil one.[5] According to this view, all of today’s nations are included in the category of being Jahil and since all Muslim countries one way or another deviated from the accepted standards of Islam, therefore they all counted as Jahil – we have seen this view in the emergence of Khawarij movement in the first days of Islam. Clearly, this type of ideology is threatening.


Since all communities and countries are considered to be Jahil and there is no Islamic society available right now, therefore a third concept would arise:


We must form a community in order to be able to build the Islamic society. A congregation is composed of three believers, but normally, when a congregation is formed, the discussion of authority and ruler ship occurs.


Sovereignty over people belongs only to Allah (the same was stated by Khawarij)




Also Qutb took issue with the coexistence of religion and new civilization and since he believed that the governments do not conform to Shari’a of Islam, therefore they were regarded as being Dar al-Harb.( Territory of war).

Sayyed Qutb's Views and the Formation of ISIL

Qutb’s ideas inspired many groups throughout the Muslim world especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are demonstrating the possibility of applying the Prophet’s lifestyle in contemporary times. In addition, they assume that we must strive for building an Islamic society and fight with corrupt governments. This idea has given rise to many underground organizations, such as al-Jihad, al-Tahrir al-Islam, al-Takfir va al-Hijra, al-Qaeda, and also the al-Qaeda-based group that is called ISIL, which is menacing the Islamic world.

The official magazine of ISIL, known as the "Dabiq"[6], seeks to shape the future of the Islamic caliphate. Interestingly, the terms used in this journal are very similar to those used by Sayyed Qutb. Through this magazine, ISIL describes how Islamic caliphate would form its global strategy.[7] According to one of the articles published in Dabiq , Zarqawi's[8] plan as one of the main founders of the ISIL for the establishment of the caliphate includes five steps: migration, congregation(community) , destabilizing the tyrants, and founding the caliphate.[9] A plan that is very close to the literature used by Sayyed Qutb and his ideas.



[1] [1] - بخشی شیخ احمد، مهدی، سید قطب و اسلام‌گرایی معاصر، علوم سیاسی - دانشگاه باقرالعلوم (ع)، بهار 1385 شماره 33، ص 184.


[2] Ibid. 173.

[3] فاطمی نژاد، مجید، برداشت‌های القاعده از افکار جهادی سید قطب، سراج منیر، زمستان 1392، سال سوم، شماره 12، ص 31 تا 51.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See:

Sayed Khatab, Hakimiyyan and Johiliyyah in the thought of Sayyid Qutb, Middle East Studies, Vol.38, No.3, pp.145-170. (July 2002)

William Shepard, Sayyid Qutb's Doctrine of Jahiliyya, International Journal of Middle East Studies, No.35, pp.521-545



[6] Dabiq was an online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for Islamic radicalization and recruitment. It was first published in July 2014 in a number of different languages including English.

[7] Gambhir, Harleen K, "DABIQ: The Strategic Messaging of the Islamic State", ISW: Institute for the Study of War, august 15: 8, 2014. p 10.


[8] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian jihadist who ran a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan. He became known after going to Iraq and being responsible for a series of bombings, beheadings, and attacks during the Iraq War, reportedly "turning an insurgency against US troops" in Iraq "into a Shia-Sunni civil war". He was sometimes known as "Sheikh of the slaughterers".

[9] اشرف نظری، علی؛ السیمری، عبدالعظیم، بازخوانی هویت دولت اسلامی در عراق و شام (داعش): فهم زمینه‌های فکری و سیاسی اجتماعی، نشریه علوم سیاسی - دانشگاه باقرالعلوم (ع)، زمستان، 1393، شماره 68، ص 80.

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