This essay concerns itself with exploring the Islamic and political orientation of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian civil servant turned political and religious activist, inspired by fundamentalist Islam. To gain an understanding of what influenced and formulated Qutb’s ideas it has been necessary to provide some background information relating the history of modern day Egypt and the emergence of reformist and fundamentalist Islam, from the 19th century until Qutb’s time. The essay also seeks to give some biographical information in order to provide a fuller picture of Qutb the man.
Qutb’s involvement with Egyptian religious politics caused him to come into conflict with the Nasser government of 1950s’ Egypt and Qutb spent a decade in prison. It was during this period he produced many of his seminal writings on the establishment of a truly Islamic society. By drawing on early Islamic thinkers and on direct interpretation of the Qur’an, Qutb advocated violence in establishing an Islamic state. The thinking behind and the implications of these interpretations are discussed at length in this essay to demonstrate how they have informed the belief of many Islamic fundamentalists, especially with regard to the use of violence to achieve their aims. The latter part of the essay focuses on the legacy of Qutb’s ideas and how these have been manifest in various fundamentalist groups. However, because academic literature is often a few paces behind the present it has not been possible to explore some recent developmenst of Islam inspired violence in any detail, namely the emergence of fundamentalist groups within the Muslim diaspora of the West.
The rise of fundamentalist Islam, especially when it has occasioned violence, has been the subject of much academic and political discussion. Esposito suggests three ideologues have been most influential in the development of radical or fundamentalist Islam, Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), Mawlana Mawdudi (1903-1979) and Sayyid Qutb (Esposito 2002: 50). The latter is the focus of this essay, however he cannot be discussed without some understanding of the historical and political background to the tensions which are now evident between some aspects of Islamic and Western thought. Yet the designation ‘fundamentalist’ also deserves brief consideration. For the purpose of this essay the term refers to Muslims who believe it is necessary to return to the fundamentals of Islamic belief in order to express ‘true’ Islam; this necessitates a narrow interpretation of Qur’anic texts and tradition. The term is problematic in that it is drawn into the conflicting territory of description and taxonomy, especially when, as is often the case, fundamentalism blurs the division between religion and politics. Is fundamentalism religion in the service of political ideology or ideology veiled as religion? (Moussalli (ed) 1998: 1, 27-28). A detailed discussion of these issues is not possible here, however discussing the political and religious views of Sayyid Qutb may be of assistance in discerning the political and religious dimensions of fundamentalism.
Islam, during its early years, was a dynamic force engendering rapid social change in the Arabian peninsula and its environs during the 6th and 7th centuries, therefore its impotence against the incursion of Western influence from the late 18th century onwards has been a source of perplexity and concern among various Muslim thinkers; not least those mentioned above (Esposito 2002: 49-51). Islamic reformers, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Mohammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (1869-1935), looked for a via media whereby Islamic society could benefit from its relationship with the West and yet retain its independent identity and regain its lost dynamism. They believed this could be achieved by a mitigated inclusion of Western scientific,...