Sayyid Qutb and the Radicalization of the Brotherhood

The writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) were instrumental in the radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood. An Egyptian educator, Qutb joined the Brotherhood on his return from a trip to the United States. Shocked and appalled by what he perceived as moral decay of American society, he subsequently came to reject Western values altogether, and under the banner of the Brotherhood sought to protect Egypt from the insidious threat of Westernization. Originally supportive of the Free Officers Movement headed by Nasser, as an opposition to Egypt’s pro-Western monarchy, Qutb and the Brotherhood quickly grew disillusioned with Nasser as the latter’s policy of Pan-Arab socialism was deemed incompatible with Qutb’s vision of an ideal Islamic society.

As part of Nasser’s 1954 crackdown on the Brotherhood, Qutb was imprisoned for several years. Under the yoke of torture by Nasser’s security forces, Qutb’s religious thought became increasingly radicalized, and culminated in his seminal text Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones on the Road). In this text, he argued that Egyptian society was not truly Islamic, but instead steeped in jahiliyya—a state of ignorance characterized by pre-Islamic Arabia. He urged the formation of a vanguard of devoted Muslims to actively struggle against the deleterious influences of jahaliyya, through active jihad. Fearing the serious threat Qutb’s thought posed his regime, Nasser executed him in 1966.

Qutb’s writings led to a split within the Muslim Brothers. Following his arrest and execution, many young members within the Muslim Brotherhood grew increasingly dissatisfied with what they perceived as the group’s passivity toward the government’s oppression. They split up and formed new militant groups inspired by Qutb’s ideas (Soage and Franganillo, 2010). On the other hand, the mainstream within the Muslim Brotherhood remained anti-violence and inclined to social and political activism within the existing system. This moderate and strategic line was represented by Hassan al-Hudeiby’s 1971 book Du’a la Quda (Preachers, Not Judges). This publication was, implicitly, a criticism of the takfiri (excommunication) thought of Sayyid Qutb.

Motivated by the ideas of Qutb and others of comparable ideological bend, a number of individuals split from the Muslim Brotherhood and established militant groups. The Brotherhood origins of some of these militant groups generated fears and criticisms in the West that the Brotherhood was itself a terrorist group. In fact, militants had left the Brotherhood in the 1970s because the Brotherhood preferred a moderate approach to involvement in the political sphere.

Next: Politics and the Brotherhood in the Sadat Era