Sayyid Qutb

Two days ago, J.M. Berger of IntelWire wrote an article describing a recent trend in the statements and video releases published by Adam Gadahn and Anwar al ‘Awlaki that have tried to discredit the ‘ulama (religious scholars). These ideas, though, are not new, but provide further example of a trend, which has pervaded some of the key Jihadist intellectual thinkers in the post-Caliphate era (the Caliphate was abolished in 1924).

Today, Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers in 1928, would not be considered a global jihadist, but his ideas became a foundation for later thinkers to build off of and further radicalize his thought. al-Banna did not understand how the ‘ulama could do nothing in the face of what he percieved was happening to the Muslim world. He viewed the Muslim Brothers’ values as a refutation of the values of al-Azhar University (the most respected Sunni place of high education) and how the university dealt with contemporary issues. The late Richard P. Mitchell, a scholar at the University of Michigan and author of The Society of the Muslim Brothers, summed up al-Banna’s thought on the ‘ulama, stating:

Azhar had persisted in a time-worn, anachronistic approach to Islam and its teachings—dry, dead, ritualistic, and irrelevant to the needs of living Muslims.[1]

Sayyid Qutb, who is viewed as the godfather of the modern jihadist movement, was critical of the ‘ulama as well. He believed they were opportunists that were using religious texts to their own advantage, which is pretty rich coming from Qutb, a man that has a degree in literature and created his own innovative way of understanding Islam.[2] Even more zealous over the problems with the ‘ulama was Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, who coined the term the near enemy as well as led the group Tanzim al-Jihad (later Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. These are his thoughts from his book Jihad: The Neglected Duty:

There are some who say that what we should do now is busy ourselves with seeking knowledge, for how can we struggle in the cause of Allah while we are lacking the knowledge, which is fard(obligatory) to seek? But we have not heard anyone who says that it is permitted to abandon an Islamic order or an obligation of the obligations of Islam because of knowledge, especially if this obligation is Jihad. So how can we abandon a fard ‘ayn (individual obligation) because of fard kifayah (collective obligation)? … So he who says that knowledge is Jihad must realize that what isfard is fighting … If a person wants to increase his knowledge … he could do so, because there are no restrictions on knowledge, which is available for everybody. But to delay Jihad because of seeking knowledge is an evidence of the one who has no evidence … However, we do not underestimate knowledge and scholars, rather we call for that. But we do not use it as evidence to abandon the obligations that Allah ordained.[3]

More recently, Osama bin Laden argued:

Despite of this hard siege imposed on you O my Islamic Ummah, you still have a great opportunity to regain your freedom to go out of the submission to and the dependence of this Crusader/Zionist alliance. To reach that, you should free yourself from the fetters of humiliation and subservience shackling us by the agents of this alliance who are our countries’ governors and their helpers especially the fetters of the Ulamaa of the Sultan, as well the fetters of the Islamic groups which transform their method to recognize the governor who betrayed the religion and the Ummah, and they join the political process of the state of this governor, and no difference for them if they are in the rule or opposition.[4]

Further, last month, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri stated:

This orientation has the purer methodology and the more correct doctrine, because it relies on the explicit and definite proofs of the Qur’an and Sunnah [Prophetic Way], and cites the historical and political reality of the Muslim Ummah, and believes neither in the fatwas of the “Fuqahaa” of the Marines nor in the hired ‘Ulama in Riyadh, Cairo and Qatar.[5]

Finally, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian cleric who mentored Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and is considered the most influential living global jihadist theorist, has written about what he describes as the murji’ah (non-righteous scholars) on several occasions. Here are a couple examples:

I advise them not be deceived by the ambiguities of the phony scholars, who confuse the truth with falsehood and confuse the path to Paradise with the path to Hellfire.[6]

The Mujahideen do not need you, half men and with no resolve. They do not need any advice onJihad from scholars who are paid for and defeated. They do not need to ask you if it is okay with you or if their Jihad is compatible with you thinking. No, they do not need that. They have all the wisdom and the vision that they need. Die in your anger, and continue your criticism of the Mujahideen. You cannot destroy their resolve; your poisoned pins would not affect their Jihad. Nothing will affect them.[7]

Added up, one can see that individuals involved with the jihadist movement have tried to discredit the ‘ulama for quite some time now. One of the goals is to weaken state institutions linked to corrupt governments, as well as weakening potential enemies. Another is due to the lack of true religious legitimacy by many in the movement. As such, they are compensating and trying to discredit individuals who are trained in the religion and understand that their understanding of Islam is not based on the classical tradition.

[1] Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), 212-213.

[2] Roxanne Leslie Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 133.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, Jihad: The Neglected Duty (Birmingham, UK: Maktabah Al Ansaar Publications, 2000), 46-48.

[4] Osama bin Laden, The Way To Rescue Palestine (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2008).

[5] Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, A Victorious Ummah, A Broken Crusade: Nine Years After the Start of the Crusader Campaign (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2010).

[6] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, A message in support of the Mujahideen in Somalia and exposing the doubts created the Ullamah of Dajjaal (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad, 2009).

[7] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, The Caravan is Moving and the Dogs are Barking (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad).

Earlier today, Newt Gingrich, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, presented a speech titled: “America at Risk: Camus, National Security, and Afghanistan.” In it he discussed a variety of issues, but the one that stuck out for me dealt with thesharī’ah (Islamic law). Gingrich stated:

Sharī’ah in its natural form has principles and punishments totally abhorrent to the Western world, and the underlying basic belief is that law comes directly from God. It is therefore imposed upon humans, and no human can change the law without it being an act of apostasy [irtidād].

Any student of Islamic studies will realize this is a completely simplistic understanding of the sharī’ah. Before discussing the sharī’ah and the establishment of law in Islam it is crucial to understand a few things first.

Indeed, in Islam, God is considered the lone sovereign (ḥākimīyyah). For instance, in Qur’anic verse 2:107 it says: “Do you not know that to God belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the Earth”? But there are some Muslimjihādīs, such as Sayyid Qutb that link God’s sovereignty to governance. According to Sayed Khatab, Qutb’s theory of ḥākimīyyah denotes the following ideas: (1) “the system of government in Islam is not similar to any other system”; (2) “it is distinct from all forms of government in secular democracies”; (3) “it is constitutional”; (4) “it is not inherently theocratic or autocratic”; and (5) “the form of Islamic government has no impact on the Islamic identity of the state.”

In addition, the concept of ḥākimīyyah is connected to the concept of tawīd(oneness of God). As Qutb states:

Tawīd is that Allah is the Lord and Sovereign of people not merely in their beliefs, concepts, consciences, and rituals of worship, but in their political affairs … There is no God but God. There is no one worthy of worship except God, there is no creator or sustainer except God … There is no one in charge of the universe or even one’s own affairs except God … Thus, Muslims worship him alone … Muslims believe that there is no true ruler above them except Allah, no legislator for them except God, no one except God to inform them concerning their relationships and connections with the universe, with other living creatures, and with their fellow human beings. This is why Muslims turn to God for guidance and legislation in every aspect of life, whether it be political governance, economic justice, personal behavior, or the norms and standards of social intercourse.

When discussing the idea of Islamic governance, it was also essential for Qutb to connect the above terminologies – ḥākimīyyah and tawīd – to the sharī’ah. Qutb contends that for one to institute the sharī’ah one needs to first accept the idea behind tawīd, which based on the above definition, lends credence to the notion of ḥākimīyyah and one’s willingness to submit to the will of God and its laws. In other words, before one can follow the sharī’ah, one needs to believe in the idea of tawīd and ḥākimīyyah, which is a quintessential part of joining the faith of Islam.

The major problem with this is that Qutb and other jihadists for that matter are conceptualizing an Islamic state under the institutional framework of a nation-state, in that laws are codified and for jihādīs it is a totalitarian system that does not have any checks on power or law. This differs from the classical understanding, which Noah Feldman brilliantly explains in his book The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. In it, Feldman points out that in the classical Islamic state, the ‘ulamā (religious scholars) provided a check on the power of the ruler since law was not a monopoly of the state like it is in the framework of the nation-state. This legal system was ever evolving and changing since there was a separation between the state and the sharī’ah. Therefore, according to Feldman it created: “[a] crucially [important] balance between the authority of the ruler and the law itself.”

This returns us to the original point of this post, which dealt with the creation of the sharī’ah. One derives sharī’ah from two primary sources: the Qur’ān and theSunnah (actions and sayings of Muhammad). Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) allows the ulamā’ to interpret aspects of the sharī’ah to issues not directly addressed by the Qur’ān or Sunnah. These tools include using ijmā (consensus of the scholars) and after that qīyās (analogy), while Shī’ah use ‘aql (reason) instead of qīyās.

The only individuals who are allowed to practice fiqh are qualified mujtahid’s(one who performs ijtihād or independent thought) who have gone through extensive training in classical Islamic and Qur’ānic sciences. One might answer by stating, well, I think I heard or have read something about the “gates of ijtihad being closed”. This is also a misnomer. Hakim Murad explains: “sophisticated mechanisms were available which not only permitted qualified individuals to derive the Sharī’ah from the Qur’ān and Sunnah on their own authority, but actually obliged them to do this.” Further, there are different levels of ijtihādthat a mujtahid could perform. The highest level is mujtahid fī-l-shar, which is an individual who does not need to follow a particular madhhab (legal school, there are four in Sunnī Islam) because he is advanced in his knowledge of the Islamic sciences. These were the individuals whom Abū ‘Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Idrīs al-Shafi’ī (or al-Shafi’ī) explained the “gates of ijtihād” were closed for since amujtahid of those heights could no longer exist. Therefore, the “gates of ijtihād” being closed was in reference to not being able to establish another madhhaboutside of the established four. As such, the ‘ulamā’ were still allowed to performijtihād, just the lower levels. These included: (1) a mujtahid fī-l-madhhab who could perform ijtihād within a specific school on an array of legal issues; (2) amujtahid muttabi (follower) “who follows his madhhab while being aware of the Qur’ānic and adīth (sayings of Muhammad) texts and the reasoning, underlying its positions”; and (3) a mujtahid muqallid (emulator) “who simply conforms to the madhhab because of his confidence in its scholars, and without necessarily knowing the detailed reasoning behind all its thousands of rulings.”

These processes still exist at traditional religious establishments such as Jāmi’at(university) al-Azhar in Egypt, Jāmi’at al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, Jāmi’at al-Zaytuna in Tunisia, and others. For example, scholars at al-Azhar issued a fatwāthat discusses the permissibility of celebrating Mothers Day, a non-Islamic holiday (for the record it is indeed permissible). One can see that the process of the sharī’ah is far more complicated and intellectually rigorous than how Gingrich described it in his speech and that Islamic scholars have the tools to evolve the law as time changes. This does not excuse the heinous acts in the name of trying to establish the sharī’ah by jihadists, but most of them are not qualified to truly derive Islamic law, but that is a whole other issue.


Abdal-Hakim Murad, “Understanding the Four Madhhabs: The Problem with Anti-Madhhabism.”

Noah Feldman, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Sayed Khatab, The Power of Sovereignty: The Political and Ideological Philosophy of Sayyid Qutb (London: Routledge, 2006).

Sayyid Qutb, Khasa’is al-Tasawur al-Islāmī wa Muqawimatuh (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1995).