Islamic Studies Sayyid Qutb
William Shepard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0072


Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) (sometimes spelled Sayed and Qutub or Kotb) was one of the leading Islamist ideologues of the 20th century. For the first half of his adult life he was part of the secular literary movement in Egypt as a poet, literary critic, and social critic. He also worked in the Ministry of Education. In 1948 he adopted an Islamist position, reflected especially in his book Social Justice in Islam (Qutb 1949, cited under Early Islamist Period [1948–1954]). Two years spent studying in the United States (1948–1950) confirmed and strengthened his view of America as technologically great but morally bankrupt. Some time after his return Qutb joined the Muslim Brothers, the leading Islamist movement in Egypt, and became one of its spokespeople. In 1954 he was imprisoned along with other members of the Muslim Brothers and remained in prison for ten years. Qutb was allowed to write, however, and his writings from prison became increasingly radical and even revolutionary, claiming that all so-called Muslim societies were anti-Islamic (jahili). It is generally held that the harsh treatment he and others suffered in prison was a major factor in this development. Qutb was released in 1964 but rearrested the following year and accused of conspiring against the government. He was convicted and executed in 1966, becoming a martyr in the eyes of many. Probably his most important and long-lasting work is his multivolume Qurʿan commentary, begun in 1952, In the Shade of the Qurʿan (Qutb 1952–1959, cited under Radical Islamist Period [c. 1957–1966]), parts of which reflect his radical views. His most influential radical work, published in 1964, was Milestones—sometimes translated as Signposts (Qutb 1964, cited under Radical Islamist Period [c. 1957–1966]). His later works have been widely read and have helped inspire several violent radical groups in Egypt and elsewhere, including al-Qaeda and other “jihadis,” though whether al-Qaeda’s sort of violence was his intent is a matter of debate. Many of the details of Qutb’s life and writing, such as when he joined the Muslim Brothers, are uncertain and also subject to debate.

Studies Covering Qutb’s Complete Life and Works

These items deal with the entirety of Qutb’s career or at least the whole of his Islamist period from 1948. Tripp 1994 is a good short item to start with, while Calvert 2010 is probably the best single book on Qutb. Mousalli 1992 provides a fairly detailed treatment. Musallam 2005 covers the whole of Qutb’s life and work in a readable way, and Toth 2013 has a number of interesting points. Khatab 2006a and Khatab 2006b are not for the beginner. Both Musallam and Khatab translate some of Qutb’s poetry. Of the works in Arabic, al-Khalidi 1981 and Hamuda 1987 are basic, whereas Yunus 1995 is more detailed and probing. Al-Namnam 1999 is shorter but also probing. Diyab 1987 has a good list of Qutb’s writings.

  • Abu-Rabiʿ, Ibrahim M. Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

    Chapter 3 deals with the Muslim Brothers, and chapters 4 through 6 cover Qutb’s pre-Islamist, early Islamist, and later Islamist thinking.

  • Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

    Examines key concepts and finds an “aesthetically” based praxis in Qutb’s version of Islam. See chapter 5.

  • Calvert, John. Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. Ithaca, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    Excellent and clear treatment of Qutb’s whole life and the development of his thinking, integrating these well with the political and social developments of his time.

  • Diyab, Muhammad Hafiz. Sayyid Quṭb: Al-Khitāb wa al-Aydiyūlūjiyāh (Sayyid Qutb: Discourse and ideology). Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 1987.

    Examines Qutb in the light of recent theorizing about discourse and ideology. This work has the most complete list of Qutb’s writings.

  • Hamuda, ʿAdil. Sayyid Quṭb: Min al-Qarya ila al-Misnaqa; Tahqīq wathāʿiqī (Sayyid Qutb: From the village to the gallows; A documentary study). Cairo, Egypt: Sina li-l-Nashr, 1987.

    A journalist’s study of Qutb’s life and work.

  • al-Khalidi, Salah ʿAbd al-Fattah. Sayyid Quṭb, Al-Shahīd al-Ḥayy. Amman, Jordan: Maktabat al-Aqsa, 1981.

    This highly sympathetic study of Qutb’s life and work is regularly referred to by later writers. The author has written a number of other books on specific aspects of Qutb’s writings, including America from Within as Seen by Sayyid Qutb (al-Khalidi 1986, cited under Early Islamist Period [1948–1954]), studies of his books on the literary aspects of the Qurʿan and his Qurʿan commentary.

  • al-Khalidi, Salah ʿAbd al-Fattah. Sayyid Quṭb: Min al-Mīlād ila al-istishhād (Sayyid Qutb: From birth to martyrdom). N.p., 1991.

    An expanded and corrected study of Qutb’s life and work by the author of Sayyid Quṭb, Al-Shahīd al-Ḥayy.

  • Khatab, Sayed. The Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb: The Theory of Jahiliyyah. London and New York: Routledge, 2006a.

    Detailed study of Qutb’s much-discussed and -debated concept of jahiliyya. Covers the whole of Qutb’s career and seeks to minimize, more than most would, the changes in Qutb’s thinking and his differences from other Muslims.

  • Khatab, Sayed. The Power of Sovereignty: The Political and Ideological Philosophy of Sayyid Qutb. New York: Routledge, 2006b.

    Detailed study of Qutb’s much discussed and debated concept of hakimiyya (sovereignty). Like the previous item, it covers the whole of Qutb’s career and seek to minimize the changes in Qutb’s thinking and his differences from other Muslims.

  • Mousalli, Ahmad S. Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb. Beirut, Lebanon: American University of Beirut, 1992.

    Presents and critiques Qutb’s Islamist views from 1948 to 1966 but pays little attention to the changes in them during this period.

  • Musallam, Adnan A. From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

    This thoughtful account of the whole of Qutb’s life, career, and writings is especially good on the earlier years. It also deals with Qutb’s influence on later radicals.

  • al-Namnam, Hilmi. Sayyid Quṭb wa-Thawrat Yūlyū. Cairo, Egypt: Mirit li-l-nashr wa-l-maʿlumat, 1999.

    Covers the whole of Qutb’s life, focusing on his relation to the government and questioning many commonly accepted facts about Qutb.

  • Toth, James. Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199790883.001.0001

    Deals with the whole of Qutb’s life and writings, focusing on his Islamist works. Has considerable detail and some valuable insights.

  • Tripp, Charles. “Sayyid Qutb: The Political Vision.” In Pioneers of Islamic Revival. Edited by Ali Rahmena, 154–183. London: Zed Books, 1994.

    A good introduction to Qutb, including a comparison of his earlier and later Islamism. A new updated edition of this book was published in 2005 (London: Zed Books).

  • Yunus, Sharif. Sayyid Quṭb wa-al-Uṣūlīyya al-Islāmīyah (Sayyid Qutb and Islamic fundamentalism). Cairo, Egypt: Dar Tibah, 1995.

    A detailed and penetrating study of Qutb’s whole career, with some attention to his psychology. Yunus sees romanticism and elitism as characteristic of Qutb in all stages of his career. This book seems to have received less attention than it deserves.

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