Sayyid Qutb was born in an Egyptian village in 1906. Although the family was poor, Qutb’s father was educated and was an early supporter of the Egyptian nationalist movement. As a boy Qutb attended the local religious school (kuttab), where he reputedly had memorized the Qu’ran before his teenage years.
He attended a teacher’s college in Cairo and in 1933 earned a degree from Dar al-Ulam, the prestigious secular Egyptian university established in the late 19th century. After graduation Qutb worked for the Ministry of Education. A prolific writer, Qutb wrote fiction, poetry, and news articles during the 1930s.
Qutb studied for a master’s degree in education in the United States on a scholarship from 1948 to 1950. Qutb’s enmity toward the West seems to date from his stay in the United States, where he was infuriated by the racism, materialism, and casual social exchanges between the sexes that he observed there.
After traveling through Europe, he returned to Egypt and resigned from the Ministry of Education. In 1953 he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and was appointed director of the brotherhood’s propaganda section.
In the early 1950s Qutb may have been the brotherhood’s go-between with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers Group; he initially supported the 1952 revolution and the overthrow of the corrupt monarchy of King Farouk.
But after Nasser refused to institute an Islamic state, the brotherhood opposed him. After a failed assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954, members of the brotherhood were persecuted, and Qutb was imprisoned and tortured.
He observed other brotherhood members being tortured and killed and concluded that violence was justifiable to overthrow Muslim leaders and regimes that were unjust and did not adhere to the sharia and Islamic precepts.
While in prison Qutb wrote a commentary on the Qu’ran and an Islamic manifesto, Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones). He became more radical as the repression of the brotherhood intensified.
Qutb condemned Western civilization as primitive and materialistic and argued that Muslim leaders who adopted or cooperated with the West were in conflict with Islamic culture and tradition. He warned of jahiliyyah (ignorance), which he believed was imposed by the adoption of Western culture.
He rejected the ideologies of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, asserting that Marxism resulted in the enslavement of mankind. Qutb held an ultraconservative view of the role of women in society. He argued that although the Qu’ran mandated the equality of all humans the role of women was to maintain family values, with men as the head of households.
For Qutb the Qu’ranic text, and to a lesser degree the Hadith, were the sources of all law; be believed that the Qu’ran provided a comprehensive guideline for the conduct of all aspects of human life. Authority emanated from God and the Qu’ran; therefore jihad, or holy war against the modernization of the West and against unjust, corrupt Muslim rulers was the duty of true believers.
He advocated the creation of committed cadres of devout believers to teach Muslim youth and to struggle against "ignorant" or unjust regimes in the Islamic world as well as against the West.
Qutb was released from prison in 1964, but shortly thereafter was imprisoned again on charges of sedition and terrorism. Although in Milestones he had fallen just short of advocating the overthrow of Nasser’s regime, he was found guilty after a public trial. Qutb was executed in 1966 and promptly became a martyr for members of the brotherhood and a myriad of breakaway Islamist organizations.
For Qutb a theocracy was an ideal, and he envisioned the creation of a new society and government. He was a major force in 20th century Islamist movements. His books were translated into many languages and influenced a wide variety of contemporary Islamist movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iran. Qutb’s brother taught in Saudi Arabia, where he also influenced future Islamist radicals.
The Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri followed Qutb’s precepts and in turn became a theoretical mentor to Osama bin Laden. Qutb’s works have also remained a major force for the Muslim Brotherhood, an important factor in Egyptian politics until the present day.