Ash-Shaheed (the Martyr) Sayyid Qutb, who some thirty years after his death is still the most influential ideologue of the as-Sahwah (Islamic revival) in the contemporary Muslim world, began life in the obscurity of the village of Musha (or Qaha) near Asyut in Upper Egypt. He was born there in 1906 to a father who was well regarded in the village for his zuhd (piety) and ilm (learning). He was the eldest of five children and was followed by a brother, Muhammad Qutb, also destined to gain fame as a prolific writer and da’ee (caller to Islam). His sisters, Amina and Hamida, came to attain some prominence in the ranks of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood).
Encouraged by both his parents, Sayyid Qutb swiftly developed a love for learning, and by the age of ten he had become a hafidh (memorizer) of the Qur’an at the local primary school. Three years later, the family moved to Helwan, enabling him to enter the preparatory school for the Dar al-Ulum in Cairo - a prestigious teachers training college which he joined in 1929.
On graduating in 1933, he was appointed to teach at the Dar al-Ulum, and a few years later entered the service of the Egyptian Ministry of Education. The year 1933 also saw the beginning of Sayyid Qutb’s extraordinarily varied and prolific literary career. His first book was Muhimmat al-Sha’irf ‘l-Hayah (The Task of the Poet in Life), and for more than a decade literature remained together with education his principal preoccupation. He wrote poetry, autobiographical sketches, works of literary criticism, and novels and short stories dealing with the problems of love and marriage. Later he came to repudiate much of this early work and publicly distanced himself from his own writings.
Sayyid Qutb was an active member of the oppositional Wafd party, and he became a prominent critic of the Egyptian monarchy. This brought him into inevitable conflict with his superiors at the Ministry of Education, and it took the efforts of Taha Hussain to dissuade him from resigning. Sayyid Qutb sought anew, in 1947, to emancipate himself from government employment by becoming editor-in-chief of two journals, al-‘Alam al-‘Arabi (The Arab World) and al-Fikr al-Jadid (New Thought). He lost his position with the former as a result of editorial disagreements, and the latter which sought to present the model of an Islamic society free of corruption, tyranny, and foreign domination, was banned after only six issues. While continuing to write for a wide range of literary and political periodicals, ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb stayed in the Ministry of Education.
Impressions of America
In 1948, the Ministry sent him on a study mission to the United States, doubtless with the assumption that direct acquaintance with America would incline him more favourably to official policies and induce him to abandon the oppositional activities that were increasingly taking on an Islamic dimension.
Sayyid Qutb’s impressions of America were, however, largely negative. While noting American achievements in production and social organization, Sayyid Qutb laid heavy emphasis on materialism, racism, and sexual permissiveness as dominant features of American life.
It is astonishing to realize, despite his advanced education and his perfectionism, how primitive the American really is in his views on life…His behaviour reminds us of the era of the ‘caveman’. He is primitive in the way he lusts after power, ignoring ideals and manners and principles…It is difficult to differentiate between a church and any other place that is set up for entertainment, or what they call in their language, fun.
His sojourn in the United States coincided, moreover, with the first Palestine war, and he noted with dismay the uncritical acceptance of Zionist ideals by American public opinion and the ubiquity of anti-Islamic prejudice. After completing a master’s degree in education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb decided to forego the possibility of staying in America to earn a doctorate and returned to Egypt in 1951.
Return to Egypt
For his part, Sayyid Qutb had been increasingly well disposed to the Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) ever since he witnessed the ecstatic reception given in America to the news of the assassination, on February 12 1949, of Imam Hasan al-Banna, founder of the organization. His perception of the Ikhwan as defenders of Islam was further strengthened after his return to Egypt when a British official, James Heyworth Dunne, told him that the Ikhwan represented the only barrier to the establishment of ‘Western civilization’ in the Middle East.
Sayyid Qutb’s joined the Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) almost immediately after his return from America and in 1953 became the editor-inchief of ‘al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun,’ the Brotherhood’s official journal.
On July 23, 1952, the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in a coup d’etat mounted by a group of soldiers who styled themselves the ‘Free Officers’. They were formally led by General Muhammad Najib (aka Naguib), but it soon became apparent that Jamal Abdul Nasir (aka Nasser) was the driving force behind the group. Although originally welcomed by the Ikhwan, it became obvious that the revolution was being led by the Revolutionary Command Council (R.C.C.) towards a secular state rather an Islamic one. On July 26, three days after the revolution, the Ikhwan publicly announced that the R.C.C. must establish the Shari’ah (Islamic law) as the basis of Egypt.
On July 19 1954, the R.C.C. concluded an agreement with Great Britain which meant that British forces would retreat from the Suez Canal in exchange for Egypt’s co-operation for British commercial interests. The Ikhwan outright rejected the treaty and denounced it as ‘treason’ to Islam.
Sentenced to Fifteen Years Imprisonment
The R.C.C. decreed the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood and arrested the leaders of the Ikhwan, including Sayyid Qutb, along with 4,000 members, many of whom were given sentences of life imprisonment. Ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb had a high fever when he was arrested, but the state-security officers handcuffed him and took him to prison. He fainted several times on the way. For several hours, he was kept in a cell with vicious dogs, and then, during long periods of interrogation, he was beaten. His trial was overseen by three judges, one of whom was a future President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. In the courtroom, Sayyid Qutb ripped off his shirt to display the marks of torture. He was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment and was now destined to spend the rest of his life in prison, with the exception of eight short months of relative liberty in 1965.
Inhumane treatment and torture was used regularly in interrogating members of the Ikhwan. Zainab al-Ghazali, one of Ikhwan’s leading female members, recalls in her memoirs,
The door was locked and a bright light switched on….the room was full of dogs! I could not count how many! Scared, I closed my eyes and put my hands to my chest. Within seconds the snarling dogs were all over me, I could feel their teeth tearing into every part of my body…the dogs were unrelenting, digging their teeth into my scalp, my shoulders, back, chest and wherever another had not already taken hold.
The ordeal of imprisonment has been a common, almost universal experience for Ulema (scholars) and Du’at (callers) in the modern world. For many of them, it has meant not only suffering, but also the opportunity to reflect on past struggles, to review theories and strategies, to deepen and sharpen their insight, to plan and reorganize.
Western writers in recent years have focused on ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb as one of the two most influential Muslim thinkers of the 20th century, the other being Maulana Mawdudi. In prison, ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb was introduced to Maulana Mawdudi’s ideas, especially his emphasis on Islam being a complete way of life and the establishment of the Shari’ah (Islamic law) on earth as every Muslim’s primary responsibility.
While in jail, ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb was also able to complete a number of his most important writings including the Qur’anic commentary Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur’an). His tafsir (exegesis) has been acclaimed as one of the best contemporary tafsir of the Qur’an in any language and one that has passed through several editions and reprints.
Professor Muhammed Qutb (Sayyid’s brother) writes,
(In the Shade of the Qur’an) is the fruit of the most productive years of its author’s (Sayyid Qutb’s) intellectual life, and at the same time, a vivid expression of the sacred battle which he fought and which culminated in his martyrdom in 1966.
Prof. Muhammed Qutb further notes that if one reads the Qur’an in a sort of passive, detached state one is sure to miss a lot of its indications and purposes. But when one reads it while actually involved in the cause trying to establish ‘la ilaha illallah’ (There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah), one’s heart will open to receive its meanings which would otherwise have missed, and will draw interferences of which one was totally unaware. ‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’ is a proof of this fact.
Clearly inspired by the circumstances of daily struggle and confrontation in which he lived, ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb concludes,
To live ‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’ is a great blessing which only can be fully appreciated by those who experience it. It is a rich experience that gives meaning to life and makes it worth living. 
Along with writing his exegesis of the Qur’an, ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb also dedicated some time in writing poetry. His most famous poem is entitled ‘From Behind Bars’ which begins with the following verses:
My brother, you are free behind these gates.
My brother, you are free within these chains.
For if upon Allah you do rely.
The intrigues of his slaves can bring no pains
The savagery and torture ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb and other inmates suffered over the years, including the massacre of twenty-one members of the Ikhwan at the Liman Tura military jail in June 1957, forced him to conclude that a regime unprecedented in its ruthlessness had come to power in Egypt and that the primary problem was no longer overt foreign rule or the absence of social justice. It was rather the total usurpation of power by forces intensely hostile to Islam, with the result that the entire life of society was fixed in the non-Islamic patterns into which it had gradually fallen as a result of decay and neglect.
Sayyid Qutb concluded that the Egyptian government along with all other governments in the Muslim world were strictly comparable to pre-Islamic Arabia in its ignorance and disregard for divine precepts and that its state could therefore rightly be designated by the same term – Jahiliyyah. Occurring four times in the Qur’an, the term Jahiliyyah assumed central significance for Sayyid Qutb, encapsulating the utter bleakness of the Muslim predicament and serving as an epistemological device for rejecting all allegiances other than Islam.
According to Sayyid Qutb, this new Jahiliyyah had deep historical roots, and it was moreover fostered and protected by all the coercive apparatus of a modern, authoritarian state; it could not, therefore, be easily remedied in the short term. What was needed was a long-term program of ideological and organizational work, coupled with the training of a dedicated vanguard of believers who would protect the cause in times of extreme danger (if necessary by recourse to force) and preside over the replacement of Jahiliyyah by the Islamic state.
Sayyid Qutb first developed these ideas in dialogue with a small number of his fellow inmates, and then included them in notes that were smuggled out of jail to be read by members of his family and others close to them. These notes then became the basis of his most prolific book, Ma`alim fi Tariq (Milestones). The
leader of Ikhwan at the time, Murshid al-Hudaybi said,
With Allah Almighty’s grace, this book (Milestones) has confirmed all my trust in Sayyid, may Allah preserve him. Sayyid, God willing, is now the awaited hope for da’wah.
It began to be circulated underground in manuscript form for a couple of years before being published in Cairo where it was quickly banned. Consequently anyone caught with a copy would be charged with sedition. In its final form ‘Milestones’ consisted of some of the letters ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb had sent from prison and key sections of Fi Zilal al-Qur’an. It represented a concise and forceful summary of the main ideas Sayyid Qutb had developed: the Jahilli nature of existing society, government, and culture, and the long-term program needed for the establishment of an Islamic state.
Ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb writes in ‘Milestones’,
Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice. Humanity is threatened not only by nuclear annihilation but by the absence of values. The West has lost its vitality and Marxism has failed. At this crucial and bewildering juncture, the turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived.
Continuously read and reprinted down to the present, and translated into most languages, ‘Milestones’ is arguably the most important Islamic literary piece written in the 20th century.
Released and Re-arrested
In December 1964, Sayyid Qutb was released from jail. It is said that his release was due in part to continuing ill health and in part to the intercession of Abdul Salam Arif, the president of Iraq, who invited him to settle in his country. Given the tragic denouncement to this last period of relative freedom in the life of Sayyid Qutb, it is however, possible that the Egyptian government set him free in order to create the conditions for his re-arrest, trial, and final elimination. Although accused of a conspiracy, he was in fact the victim of one.
On August 5, 1965, Sayyid Qutb was rearrested; two weeks later, his sisters Amina and Hamida were also arrested, together with Zaynab al-Ghazali, the leading female member of the Ikhwan. Sayyid Qutb was accused of subversion and terrorism and the encouragement of sedition. The first charge rested only on the fact that, in 1959, he had been entrusted by Murshid al-Hudaybi with responsibility for organizing the Ikhwan in the jails and prison camps of Egypt. This organization, known as the Tanzim, was supposedly linked to the circles studying his prison letters and dedicated to the immediate and bloody
overthrow of the Egyptian government. No evidence was presented in court to show that Sayyid Qutb or any group linked to him was plotting armed insurrection, and Sayyid Qutb was even able to establish that on two occasions he had dissuaded members of the Ikhwan from attempting such activity, not least because the needed change, by its very nature, had to be brought about by popular action.
In support of the second charge, the encouragement of sedition, the prosecution placed great emphasis on Milestones, and it became apparent that this book, with its proven widespread appeal and long-term revolutionary implications, represented the crux of the Egyptian government’s concern. So on May 17, 1966, the court condemned ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb to death, together with six other prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including al-Hudaybi.
Ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb received the death sentence by saying,
Alhamdullilah (all praise is for Allah) I performed Jihad for fifteen years until I earned this Shahadah (martyrdom).
Sentenced to Death
Sayyid Qutb anticipated his end before the sentence was issued welcomed it and did not accept any attempts to change his stance until his end came because this, he felt, was how his words would truly impact the masses. He writes,
Indeed our words will remain lifeless, barren, devoid of any passion, until we die as a result of these words, whereupon our words will suddenly spring to life and live on amongst the hearts that are dead, bringing them back to life as well…
He would tell his fellow inmates,
Brother(s) push ahead, for your path is soaked in blood. Do not turn your head right or left but look only up to Heaven.
The journalist Mahmud ar-Rakaabi narrated a strange discussion that took place between himself and ash-shaheed Sayyid Qutb at his house before his imprisonment. Ar-Rakaabi recalls,
I said to him, ‘Praise be to Allah upon well-being – whatever Allah wills – your health is good, all you need now is a bride?’ So Sayyid laughed very much and said, ‘Which bride are you referring to [in this world or the next?]’ I said, ‘We were created for both of them.’ So we spoke for a while, then he suddenly asks me, ‘Can you interpret dreams? For I had a vision last night that a red snake wrapped itself around me and then tightened itself on me. Then I woke up that hour and couldn’t go back to sleep. I said, ‘My sir! That’s a gift, to be presented to you by one of the believers, wrapped with a red ribbon, and if you wish I will present it to you now, so take it and continue with your sleep.’ He said, ‘Why can’t the interpretation of the dream be that I am the gift presented to the believers?’ I said, ‘Isn’t the existence of the righteous more beneficial for the Islamic Da’wah? He said, ‘Not always. In fact, sometimes their departure is more beneficial! Although, I am not intending my own destruction, but we must intend firmness in our stance, knowing that the firmness in stance can bring about destruction.’ I said, ‘O Man! Don’t be pessimistic like that, for people should aim to be balanced in everything.’ He said: ‘You will come to know.
Many offers were made to ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb in order that he abandon his views and declare himself free from the Ikhwan. He was requested to write a mere line or a sentence to President Abdul Nasir seeking his pardon which would lead to him being released from the prison, the death sentence alleviated and the world opened up to him, for him to take from it what he liked from positions in government to incalculable amounts of wealth. Yet ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb completely rejected any attempts made to make him deviate from his beliefs in return for removing his death sentence.
Such attempts at bargaining continued until the last night of his life when the Egyptian government used his sister Hameedah to pressurise him to respond to her request. She says,
Hamzah al-Basyuni – the Prison Officer – called me to his office, and showed me the death sentence and the signature on it. Then he said to me that the government would be ready to alleviate the sentence if my brother were to respond to their request. He said to me, ‘Surely, your brother is a loss to the entire Egypt, and not you alone. I cannot imagine losing this person after a few hours. We want to save him from execution, by any way and by any means. Only a few words need he utter to save himself from execution, and no one can have the same influence over him as yourself, and you alone can be responsible for saying this to him. Whilst I am responsible for informing him about this, there is no one better than you to inform him of this matter. He need only say a few words, and that will be the end of the matter. We want him to say: this movement (Ikhwan) has connections with such and such front… After that, the matter has ended, as far as you are concerned, and as for him, then he would be pardoned due to health reasons!'
I said to him,
But you know as Abdul Nasir knows that this movement has no connections with any front.
Hamzah al-Basyuni said,
I know, and we all know that you are the only front in Egypt that works for the sake of Aqeedah. We know that you are the best of people in the country, but we want to rescue Sayyid Qutb from execution.
So he looked at Safwat ar-Rubi and said,
Take her – O Safwat – to her brother.
So I went to my brother and informed him of what they wanted from him. He looked at me to see the expression on my face, as if he were saying - Are you requesting this, or is it them? I managed to convey to him through my actions that it was them. Then he looked at me and said,
By Allah! If this speech was true, I would have surely said it! No power on the face of this earth would be able to prevent me from saying this. But it didn’t happen, and I would never tell a lie.
Safwat asked him,
Meaning, this is your opinion?
Then Safwat left us saying,
Anyhow, sit with each other for a while.
Then I informed him of the story from the beginning, and said to him,
Hamzah al-Basyuni called me and showed me the death sentence, and asked me to request this of you.
He asked me,
Are you pleased with it?
They cannot harm or benefit themselves. Indeed, the span of one’s life is in the Hands of Allah. They are not able to prolong a life span or shorten it, for all of that is in the Hands of Allah, and Allah is all encompassing their affairs.
Ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb uttered many expressions in the air of bargaining and persuasion, rejecting all efforts to shake him from his stance and to abandon his Aqeedah (beliefs). One of his inmates asked him, ‘Why were you so open in the court that holds your neck under its threat?’ He replied,
Because concealment is not permissible in ‘Aqeedah, and it is not for the leader to take the allowances in religion.
One of his most infamous sayings was uttered when he was asked to write a few words seeking pardon from Abdul Nasir. He said:
Verily, the index finger that testifies to the oneness of Allah in prayer, utterly rejects to write even a letter, endorsing the rule of the Taghout (tyrant). And, ‘Why should I seek his pardon? If I have been imprisoned rightfully, then I accept the right judgement, and if I have been imprisoned falsely, then I am greater than having to seek pardon from falsehood.
Sayyid Qutb is Martyred
Generally prisoners would not know when they are due to be executed because of public sensitivities. Consequently, the date of the execution of Sayyid Qutb was kept hidden even from Qutb himself. On the day of his execution the military officer entered Sayyid Qutb’s cell under the pretext that he has been ordered to change his cell quarters. However ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb knew that this was not just another cell change and said,
I know where you are taking me, for the Prophet Muhammed (ﷺ) came to me in my dream and told me (about today), so take me.
After many attempts by politicians and scholars to intercede on his behalf, including King Faisal and Ibn Baz, ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb was hurriedly hanged on August 29th 1966, together with two of his companions, Muhammad Yusuf Awwash and Abdul Fattah Isma’il.
Zainab al-Ghazali recalls hearing the news in her prison cell with Sayyid Qutb’s sister, Hamidah,
We heard that the death sentences on Imam Shaheed Sayyid Qutb (along with the others)…had been carried out. News of the executions fell on us like a dead weight, for those executed were all dear, good Mujahids. How was I to console Sayyid’s sister?...Rather, how was I to console myself and find comfort in all this calamity?.....Such a great loss. Sayyid Qutb, the Mufassir (exegete) of the Qur’an and Islamic Da’iyah (caller), a sage in his understanding, eloquence, clarity and force of argument. A man who held fast to his religion, trusting in Allah’s victory…Words do not console at the time of such events! Read Milestones to find out why Sayyid was executed! Sayyid Qutb even forecast Islamic resurgence in the lands of both superpowers. That meant the end of these superpowers, one day, and the establishment of the rule of Islam in order to abolish Jahilli anarchy. Indeed, the rise of Islam means the establishment of the only legal power which has the right to govern the world.
On the day of ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb’s execution, Zainab al-Ghazali saw Sayyid Qutb in a dream; he told her,
Know that I was not with them, I was in Madinah in the company of the Prophet (ﷺ).
The following day Zainab had another dream,
I..dozed after Fajr prayer while reading the supplication of the concluding prayer, and heard a voice saying, ‘Sayyid is in the highest (Jannat) Firdaws (highest part of Paradise)’. I woke and related the same to Hamidah who cried, saying ‘I am sure of Allah’s favour on us and that, God willing, Sayyid in the highest Firdaws…these visions are consolation, a strengthening from Allah, the Exalted, the High.
Legacy of ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb
For such a worthy son of Islam to be so mistreated and humiliated in a Muslim country showed the depths of depravity to which the regimes in the Muslim world had sunk. Perhaps this was partly the reason that Nasser's army faced such an ignominious defeat at the hands of the zionist forces a year later, in the 'Six Day war' of June 1967.
Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, who became a pivotal Qutbian ideologue in Egypt, writes,
Sayyid Qutb underscored the importance of Tawheed (monotheism) in Islam, and that the battle between it and its enemies is at its core an ideological difference over the issue of the oneness of God. It is the issue of who has the power: God and his Shari’ah (Islamic law) or man-made, materialistic laws. Although…(Sayyid) Qutb…was oppressed and tortured by Nasser’s regime,…(his) influence on young Muslims was paramount. (Sayyid) Qutb’s message was, and still is, to believe in the oneness of God and the supremacy of the divine path. This message fanned the fire of Islamic revolution against the enemies of Islam at home and abroad. The chapters of his revolution are renewing one day after another.
Within Egypt itself, the legacy of ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb helped give rise to a new generation of Muslim activists calling for the Shari’ah (Islamic law) such as Abdus Salam Faraj, author of al-Faridat al-Ghaibah a text that supposedly inspired the assassins of Anwar Sadat to act and their supposed mentor, Shaykh Umar Abdul Rahman, now incarcerated in the United States on dubious charges.
Many insights of ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb have stood the test of time. His assertion that a virulent crusading spirit remains at the core of Western culture, despite a relative decline in active adherence to Christianity, has been tragically vindicated by the genocidal assaults on the Muslims of Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the false imprisonment of tens of thousands of Muslim activists around the world re-enforce ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb’s analysis of the Western world and their hatred of the Muslim World.
Sayyid Qutb’s death earned him the ‘highest honour in Islam – Martyrdom – and his memory still provokes deep passions among millions of admirers.’ His books have been translated into virtually every language that Muslims read and remain hugely influential.
Ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb will be remembered in history for his legacy of clearly defining the basic ideas of Tawheed (oneness of Allah) and Hakimiyyah (sovereignty of Allah), the clear distinction between pure faith and the association of partners with Allah, in worship and governance - overt and hidden, and the only hope for salvation of humanity. Ash-Shaheed Sayyid Qutb was smiling when he was executed, showing his conviction of the beautiful life to come in Jannah (Paradise) – a life he certainly and rightfully deserved.
Adapted from a biography written by A.B. al-Mehri in Milestones (Special Edition).
 Derkmejian, R.H., Egypt under Nasir, p. 25.
 Ibid, p. 27.
 Al-Ghazali, Z., Return of the Pharaoh, p.50.
 Qutb, M., Foreword: In the Shade of the Qur’an, p.xi
 Qutb, S., Introduction: In the Shade of the Qur’an, p.xvii.
 Al-Ghazali, Z., Return of the Pharaoh, p.40.
 Qutb, S., Milestones.
 Zhawahiri, Sh., Dr., A., Knights under the Prophets Banner, al-Sharq al-Aswat.
 Fareed, A., Mawaaqif Imaaniyah, p. 265, Dar Taybah ed.3.
 Refer to Milestones (Special Edition), Appendix VI: Fatwa by Shaykh Ibn Jibreen.
 Refer to Milestones (Special Edition), Appendix III: An Interview with the wife of Yusuf Awwash.
 Al-Ghazali, Z., Return of the Pharaoh, p.165/6.
 Bangash, Z., Remembering Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic Intellectual and leader of rare insight and integrity.
 Zhawahiri, Dr., A., Knights under the Prophets Banner, al-Sharq al-Aswat.
 He passed away on 18 February 2017 due to diabetes and coronary arterial disease in FMC Butner, North Carolina. May Allah have mercy on him.
 Abdo, G., No God But God, p. 53.
 El-Kadi, A., Sayyid Qutb.