Fifty years have passed since the execution of the Islamic thinker Sayyid Qutb. All contacts and interventions made by many leaders (including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s President ‘Abdul Salam ‘Aref) and other Arabic and Muslim intellectuals, personalities and entities failed in dissuading Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abdul Naser from executing him; the execution was carried out on August 29, 1966.
Perhaps both ‘Abdul Naser and Sayyid recalled during the execution that meeting, which was more like an honouring ceremony for Sayyid Qutb hosted by the officers of the July 23 Revolution, 1952 (which toppled the monarchy in Egypt), in the presence of ‘Abdel Nasser himself, along with a wide audience of officers, diplomats, writers and other interested personalities. It took place in August 1952 at the Officers Club in the area of Al-Zamalek. In the meeting, Sayyid said, “The revolution has undoubtedly started, but we shall not praise it, as it has yet to achieve something. The exit of the king is not the aim of the revolution, but rather returning this country to Islam…”. He then continued, “During the monarchy, I was always ready for prison, and still during this era, I do not feel safe, and I am ready for prison and other [ordeals], even more than before”!!
‘Abdel Nasser stood and in his baritone voice said, “My big brother Sayyid, by Allah they will only reach you over our dead bodies…”
This event was recorded by someone, who attended the ceremony: the well-known Saudi writer, founder of Okaz newspaper, Ahmad ‘Abdul Ghafoor ‘Attar; he later published it in Kalimat Haq magazine, second issue, May 1967.
After 14 years, Sayyid’s predictions turned out to be true, and he was executed after having spent most of the rest of his life in the prisons of his “disciples”: officers of the July Revolution.
Fifty years have passed since the execution of Sayyid… but very few have mourned his death… or showed loyalty to him; many turned against him… and the daggers of those overscrupulous, half-educated know-alls… and pro-regime imams (scholars) … pierced deep in opposition to his attitudes and thinking… launching smear and incitement campaigns… until his image was falsely confined to a closed-minded, takfiri (a Muslim who wrongly accuses another Muslim of apostasy) and extremist personality. Even many of his fans and disciples avoided the mention of his name, and wrote about him in a shy and apologetic manner… However, I think writing in an objective balanced manner is the duty of academicians and everyone seeking the truth.
Most of those who wrote about Sayyid Qutb, whether accusatively or critically… often focused on Sayyid and his thinking based on isolated excerpts, or based on what others have written… They focused on some “ambiguous” aspects in the writings of Sayyid… disregarding his wonderful literature and creative and innovative texts, as well as his revolutionary spirit and attitudes for which he sacrificed his life… Those wronged Sayyid… and participated in placing a psychological barrier between him and people… By this, they only served corrupt and tyrannical regimes.
Even from a historical point of view, texts attributed to Sayyid Qutb need to be treated cautiously; for instance, according to his brother Muhammad Qutb, the book Limatha A‘damuni (Why They Executed Me), was not actually a book; it was a collection of records of investigation sessions conducted with him in the ‘Abdul Naser Prison. In the book, the questions addressed to him by the investigator were omitted, and only the answers were kept. Mohamed Hasanein Heikal (a famous Egyptian writer and a close associate of ‘Abdul Naser) was the one who extracted the answers from the prison records and sold them to the Asharq Alawsat newspaper, which published them in Al-Muslimun newspaper in a fragmented manner, then later in the form of a book. Notably, parts related to the torture of Sayyid were deleted. In fact, it is known that historians treat investigation records with caution and scepticism, let alone for records taken under torture in ‘Abdul Naser’s infamous prisons?!
Yes, Sayyid made mistakes like other human beings; let them be known and let his thoughts and performance be criticised like other intellectuals, reformers, politicians… There is nothing wrong with that… but to discredit and demonize a person and cancel his role… then no!!
Taha Husein (the well-known Egyptian writer and the former minister of culture), who was once in charge of Sayyid Qutb in the Ministry of Education, said in the honouring ceremony referred to above, “Sayyid has two characteristics: idealism and stubbornness.” Then after he talked about Sayyid’s impact on the July Revolution 1952 and its men, he concluded his speech by saying, “Sayyid Qutb has reached the top ranks of literature; he is a true servant of Egypt, Arabism and Islam.” Perhaps “idealism and stubbornness” was an accurate description of Sayyid; however, being a committed Muslim, his true qualities reflected “piety, patience and courage in truth”; these are the most prominent characteristics of reformers and Da‘wah leaders.
Oppressed Sayyid did not get the credit he deserved as a first-class writer and literary critic although the most important fields of literature were open to him at the time. He showed the beauty of the Arabic language, as well as the miracles of the Qur’an and greatness of its verses. He wrote in Arabic the following books “Literary Criticism: Its Foundation and Methods,” “Artistic Imagery in the Qur’an” and “Aspects of Resurrection in the Qur’an”. In his book “In the Shades of the Qur’an” he showcased the verses of the Qur’an, highlighting their strength, eloquence, beauty and effect, in a strong, contemporary style, fully encompassing the verses and words of the Qur’an and their meanings, besides giving a strong push to the school of subjective interpretation of the Qur’an.
Sayyid also wrote beautiful poetry characterised with nationalism and Islamic and humanitarian values, touching the concerns of people and society. Additionally, he wrote about people and places, love, nostalgia, reflection, lamentation, revolution and Palestine…
On the other hand, Sayyid showed a tremendous revolutionary, patriotic and Islamic spirit, which acted as an incentive and inspiration for many people of his generation and the generation that followed in the face of corrupt politicians, intellectuals and corrupt authoritarian regimes. He highlighted Islam in its proactive and practical spirit, which refuses injustice, extends a helping hand to the oppressed and delegitimizes tyrants. Thus, he offered with his “masterful” articles and intellectual visions an infrastructure, which was the driving force for the revolution against the Egyptian monarchy, as well as other revolutions and movements for change (regardless how his ideas were interpreted by those inspired by him). The officers of the July Revolution looked on him as an inspiration, and four days before the revolution (19/7/1952), a number of officers, including ‘Abdul Naser, met at his home to orchestrate their plan; after its success, Sayyid was the only civilian to often attend the meetings of the Revolutionary Command Council.
Six months through, Sayyid parted ways with the revolution and its figures, having seen what he did not like, so he left… and criticised them. In 1954, ‘Abdul Naser’s regime sentenced him to 15 years in prison (as part of their campaign against the Muslim Brothers (MB) Movement)… But he grew stronger and more determined despite the illness and pain he suffered in prison… and wrote his famous poem “My Brother, You Are Free behind These Gates;” He also wrote the poem: “Hubal… Hubal,” (Hubal is the most infamous idol worshipped by the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period) which was widely seen as a description of ‘Abdul Naser and his regime.
Sayyid’s writings took a sharper rhetoric, which called for the revival of true revolutionary movement against tyrants by focusing on the principle of “Hakimiyyah (Governorship),” returning legislation to Allah and restoring His rule. When he was released from prison in May 1964 (with the intervention of Iraq’s president at the time ‘Abdul Rahman ‘Aref), he did not hesitate to accept a supervising and organizing role in a secret MB group that was focusing at that point on Islamic values in education and movement.
Sayyid was arrested on August 9, 1965 on the charge of leading a secret, MB military organisation aiming to undermine the country’s security and assassinate ‘Abdul Naser, as well as mount a coup against the regime. He was sentenced to death based on these fabricated charges. Still, Sayyid received his death sentence with a sarcastic smile saying, “Thank Allah, I have worked for 15 years to attain martyrdom.”!!
Sayyid’s biographers reported his statements when he was requested to ask for ‘Abdul Naser’s mercy after the death sentence verdict; he said, “The index finger, which bears witness to the Oneness of Allah refuses to write a single letter acknowledging the rule of the tyrant.” He also said, “Why to ask for mercy; if I am rightly imprisoned, I accept the judgement, and if I am falsely imprisoned, I am bigger than asking for falsehood’s mercy”!!
Sayyid believed that sacrificing his life for his faith and in defence of his words and ideas was normal, rather it was what gave those words meaning and impact. He said, “Our words remain wax dolls… until we die for them. Only then they become full of life.”
From a third perspective, Sayyid was one of the leading Arab and Muslim thinkers of the twentieth century, who wrote about human pride, dignity, freedom and powerful faith; if there was room, we could come with ample evidence of that; for instance, “In the Shades of the Qur’an” is full of such meanings. Perhaps his article on “Slaves” in his book “Islamic Studies” is one of the finest pieces of literature on exposing the way human deviant behaviour deals with the meanings of freedom.
From a fourth perspective, Sayyid Qutb was one of the most prominent thinkers, who introduced Islam as a universal and lively religion, suitable for every time and place, with its ability to govern and treat the problems of civilization and achieve balance between the requirements of spirit and material.
At the same time, he was one of the most prominent writers, who critiqued the Western civilization, revealed its faults and exposed the Western colonialism and its ambitions in the region… He wrote a scathing criticism of capitalist and communist regimes… his well-known article “American Islam,” which was published in Al-Resalah journal in 1952, exposed the American policy and its agents in the region… In his opinion, “The Islam that Americans and their allies want in the Middle East is not the Islam that resists colonialism, or the Islam that resists tyranny… they do not want Islam to rule because when Islam rules, it will transform people and teach them that preparing power is an obligation, and that communism, just like colonialism, is an epidemic…Both are enemies.” To Americans and their agents, Islam “may be consulted about preventing pregnancy, women’s participation in parliament and nullifiers of ablution (wudu), but never about our social or economic situation or financial system; never about our political and national situation…”!!
In other articles, Sayyid not only expressed his contempt for the Western colonial behaviour but also for those Egyptian and Arabs who still believe in the Western “deceptive promises made by it”!! Sayyid attacked that ruling class saying… “That old, soft, weak, dilapidated and nerve-racked bunch, are unable to fight and do not let people do so… That bunch is the one, which invented the words negotiations, talks and conspiracies…” (See the article “the American Conscience and the Question of Palestine” in Al-Resalah journal, 21/10/1946).
The human spirit and deep expression of humanitarian meanings were, from a fifth perspective, aspects in which Sayyid excelled, aspects obliterated by his opponents (perhaps even by some of his fans). His book “The Joys of the Spirit,” although short-paged, probably rises to the ranks of Universal Human Literature, but it did not receive the attention and consideration it deserved from writers and researchers… Although it is thoughts he wrote while in prison, but you feel like you are reading for a thinker who is flying over the wide horizons of freedom and human dignity, feeling the meanings of love and compassion, as well as mingling with others, opening to them and tolerating their harm. It was peculiar that Sayyid, who was often accused of isolation and seclusion by his opponents (without understanding the “conscious isolation” he talked about), wrote a “golden” text about socialisation and isolation, stating:
“When we isolate ourselves from other people because we feel that we have purer souls, kinder hearts, more tolerant minds or smarter brains, we are not doing something noteworthy… we then have chosen the easier, least costly way! True greatness means mixing with these people, saturated with a spirit of tolerance and compassion for their weaknesses and faults, and to have a real desire to cleanse and educate them, raising them to our level as much as we can!… This does not mean abandoning our high ideals and top perspectives or flattering these people and praising their wrongdoing. Also, it does not mean making them feel that we are superior to them… Striking a balance between these contradictions and having tolerance for the effort it takes to reconcile them is the true greatness…!”
From a sixth perspective, Sayyid was wronged because he was accused of apostasy by some pro-Salafist groups, based on incomplete excerpts taken from his writings. On the other hand, Sayyid also suffered from being accused of accusing Muslim communities of apostasy… His opponents, especially secular and leftist researchers and writers, as well as other opponents of the Islamic trend… used incomplete excerpts to prove that. Since there is no room in this article to discuss all accusations, we’ll talk about the main points worth mentioning in this context:
1. The historical evolution of Sayyid’s thinking and Islamic commitment should be considered, as they took the mature shape in the last years of his life. It is wrong to hold Sayyid accountable for a period of time he repented or ideas he retracted. Sayyid’s brother Muhammad Qutb explained in a letter he sent to ‘Abdul Rahman al-Harfi that Sayyid, prior to his death, recommended that only some of his books should be read, including “In the Shades of the Qur’an,” especially the first twelve parts, which he was able to revise, “Milestones,” “This Religion,” “The Future of This Religion,” “The Characteristics and Values of Islamic Conduct”, “Foundations of Islamic Conduct” and “Islam and the Problems of Civilization.” These are what Qutb should be held accountable for, not what he retracted.
2. Qutb was a critic and writer, before being a Muslim scholar and jurist as is known in current terminology. He campaigned for Islam as a doctrine, conduct and way of life, paying with his life for that. He was granted success in thousands of topics, explanations, fascinating descriptions and valuable thoughts… Perhaps some of his words and improvisations betrayed him, but these were later cleared up elsewhere.
3. Senior scholars, including the Salafists, did not accuse Sayyid of takfir; some of them stood in the face of those who accused him, as the Great Scholar Bakr Bin ‘Abdullah Abu Zayd, president of the International Islamic Fiqh Academy and member of the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia, did in response to Rabi‘ al-Madkhali asking him not to publish his accusations against Sayyid because they were mostly unfair, stressing that he should instead “Pray for him to be forgiven, and benefit from his knowledge…”
In Majid Shabalah’s study about “Sayyid Qutb’s Methodology of Islamic Doctrine,” thanks to which he earned his Ph. D from the University of Sanaa (in Yemen), he reached the conclusion that Sayyid Qutb had the same understanding about Islam as Sunni Islam adherents, and that Sayyid was interested in Islamic doctrine, its characteristics and nullifiers, denouncing the methodology of those violating the way of the ancestors… Shabalah said that Sayyid’s misunderstood words are matched by clear, conclusive speech compatible with proper understanding, as in the questions of Qur’an createdness and unity of existence… among others.
It is worth noting that Sayyid, during his supervision of the secret organization, prescribed two doctrine books for his “brothers” written by Ibn Taymiyyah. These were Risalat al-‘Ubudiyyah (The Message of Worship) and Kitab al-Iman (The Book of Faith).
Sheikh ‘Umar al-Ashqar (a scholar highly respected and accepted by Sunni and Salafi scholars), told me how he and his colleagues followed Sayyid Qutb’s writings, how they were deeply moved by the news of his execution and how Sheikh ‘Abdul Rahman ‘Abdul Khaliq (a well known Salafi scholar) came to him in tears telling him about his execution.
4. Sayyid set forth the nullifiers of faith prescribed by the Qur’an and Sunnah, showing a strong interest in “Shirk Al-Hakimiyyah (Believing there can be other lawgivers besides Allah) which means renouncing the law of Allah, and adopting ideologies and legislation contrary to Islam and its teachings; that is considered (by many scholars) the most prominent types of infidelity in this day and age. Despite the strength, and sharpness at times, of Sayyid’s words, the fair-minded scholars who studied Sayyid’s writings, including the prominent Sheikh ‘Umar al-Ashqar (the writer of this article heard the following directly from him), mentioned that Sayyid’s writings did not include a single text accusing communities or individuals of infidelity… Some writings by Sayyid, as in his commentary on the Qu’anic verse (and so that the way of the guilty may become clear) Surat al-An‘am (The Cattle) 6:55, could be deduced to have some meaning of takfir… However, reading it in the light of other solid texts he wrote… such as his commentary on the verse (and do not say to anyone who offers you peace: “You are not a believer”) Surat al-Nisa’ (The Women) 4:94… distances Sayyid from the accusation of takfir. A very large number of Sayyid’s associates denied that he was a takfiri.
Finally, it is time to do justice to Sayyid Qutb and read his writings objectively. His position should be maintained as one of the prominent pioneers in Islamic thought and reform and renewal in the twentieth century…
For more information on Sayyid, refer to the distinguished reference studies by Dr. Salah al-Khalidi (from which this article benefited), Dr. ‘Abdulla al-Khabbas and Mr. ‘Abdul Baqi Muhammad Hussein… among others.
This was first published on Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies & Consultations on 7th September 2016.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.