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Sayyid Qutb: Father of Salafi Jihadism, Forerunner of the Islamic State (Part Two)

By Robert Manne

7 Nov 2016

The Paradox of Qutb's Politics

Most scholars regard Sayyid Qutb as the twentieth-century father of the political movement now called Salafi jihadism. Gilles Kepel describes him as its "greatest ideological influence"; John Esposito as its "architect." Nor is there doubt about the impact of his writings among all the key Salafi jihadist thinkers. In the years following his hanging a number of underground Islamist revolutionary movements formed in Egypt. For all of them, Qutb's work, and in particular Milestones, was seminal.

Qutb was the favourite contemporary author of Abdullah Azzam, the man who inspired and led the Arab mujahidin during the war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was educated at the King Abdul University in Jeddah. Bin Laden's closest friend from that time, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, recalls: "We read Sayyid Qutb. He was the one who most affected our generation." The most definitive statement of all however regarding the central place of Qutb in the ideological origins of Salafi jihadism can be found in Knights under the Prophet's Banner, the late 2001 memoir of Osama Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Sayyid Qutb's call for loyalty to Allah's Oneness and to acknowledge Allah's sole authority and sovereignty was the spark that ignited the Islamic revolution against the enemies of Islam at home and abroad."

Qutb's seminal role in the origins of the Salafi jihadist movement in the second half of the twentieth century cannot seriously be doubted. There are however certain paradoxes surrounding his centrality to the ideology that need to be identified and explicated.

"What is to be done?" is the most fundamental of all political questions. With Qutb the answer to that question is rather ambiguous. When writing about jihad in general, as the interpreter of the meaning of the Qur'an, Qutb is the unequivocal advocate of violence in the service of God and the Islamic faith. When, however, he turns his attention to the immediate tasks confronting his followers in Egypt and the contemporary Muslim world, his advice is "patience," spiritual or as some believed physical separation, and the building of a community of true Muslims, drinking from the pure waters of the Qur'an so as to allow its great truth to enter their hearts and minds.

The paradox was that he had gathered his following among youthful radicals very largely because of his stirring words about spreading the faith through violent jihad, found at length in In the Shade of the Qur'an and, more pithily, in Milestones.

There is another Qutbian paradox, in this instance not discovered within the logic of his argument but the discrepancy between his violent message and his gentle nature. Qutb provided the spark that inspired a generation of radical Muslims to practice violent jihad. Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that he was disturbed when he actually experienced or even allowed himself to imagine the reality of violence. In the United States, he described even the more physical sports he observed with revulsion. "Football, boxing and wrestling are tantamount to hitting in the belly, breaking arms and legs with all violence and fierceness and the crowds shouting, each encouraging his team: smash his head, break his neck, crush his ribs, knead him into dough."

Gilles Kepel tells us that according to several witnesses the barbarity of the prison guards he observed in the slaughter of 1957 provided the psychological foundation for the radicalisation of his politics and his hatred of the barbarous regime of President Nasser.

Even when his intellect was fully engaged with the passages in the Qur'an describing violent jihad, he emphasised the humanity of the Islamic war ethic. In volume 8 of In the Shade of the Qur'an Qutb reminded his readers of one hadith where the Prophet, on discovering that a woman had been killed during one of his expeditions, issued an order forbidding the killing of women and children. In the Islamic ethic of war, he argued, "kind treatment is extended even to enemies ... [Islam] has nothing of the barbarism against children, women or elderly people ... or the disfigurement of dead bodies."

Between Sayyid Qutb and the Islamic State, two changes have had to take place within the tradition of Salafi jihadism. A new jurisprudence and ethic of jihad had to be developed and a new hardened and brutalised psychological type had to be born.

The Legacy of Sayyid Qutb

None of this is meant to suggest that Qutb was not a dangerous thinker. Qutb thought only in Manichaean absolutes with no grey zone of complexity in between - truth or falsity; good or evil; the sovereignty of God or the sovereignty of Man; Islam or Jahiliyya. He advocated violent jihad and permanent warfare between Islam and the Jahili societies until the end of days.

Qutb called upon Muslims to give their lives to the ambition of world conquest which he regarded as the highest moral obligation that was asked of them. He did not understand that the attempt to drive the crooked timber of humanity towards an imagined utopia invariably ends in tragedy.

He was also apparently untroubled by doubt. Because he was a wonderful writer, he was able to intoxicate two succeeding generations of Salafi jihadists with his vision. Above all, he did not understand that the hope of recreating an imagined seventh century society in the middle of the twentieth century was mad.

Qutb was not responsible for the Islamic State. But he posted the first milestone on the road that would eventually lead there.

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at La Trobe University. This is an edited extract from his most recent book is The Mind of the Islamic State, published by Black Inc.