ATbar ‘Offensive Jihad' in Sayyid Qutb's Ideology

‘Offensive Jihad' in Sayyid Qutb's Ideology

24/03/2011 | by Stahl, A.E.  

The term ‘jihad’ has become a buzzword in academic articles, news reports, movies, and even music. Any attack, in any country, by radical Islamists has caused the word to be put into play – whether correctly or incorrectly. What is perhaps more disturbing is the lack of understanding of this critical and oft-used term. As a result of the popular usage of this locution, much of the general public has come to believe that jihad is solely related to violence. Rather, jihad, historically speaking, has two critical meanings, of which violence plays a secondary and purely defensive role. What the world is witnessing today is a third type of jihad, known as ‘offensive jihad’, which is a fairly recent phenomenon and which can be tied solely to radical Islamists. This article is concerned with the third type of jihad and its founder, former Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Examining Qutb’s ideas, eponymously known as Qutbism, are important, as recent events in the Middle East show the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is growing in influence. Questions abound: where and why did it originate? What does ‘offensive jihad’ mean and what is its purpose? What are its ingredients? How is it different from other meanings of jihad, which have a 1,300-year dogmatic history?

Offensive jihad is a radical belief that can be traced to the dark cells of one of Egypt’s concentration camps of the Nasser Era. It was in this camp that Sayyid Qutb, one of the “original theorists of modern Islamism”,[1] offered justification for his radical view of jihad. According to Islamic Doctrine, the physical jihad refers to a defensive measure to be permitted only during acts of aggression upon the Muslim Community (Umma). However, to Qutb, jihad was not simply a tool limited to the defensive struggle against external aggression; nor was it restricted to the spiritual jihad (inner struggle).[2] Rather, he consigned the physical jihad to an illimitable utilitarian contrivance to be employed for an offensive assault in order to reform societies by spreading Islam, and to liberate all men, both Muslim and non-Muslim.[3]

Since Islamic doctrine has always designated military jihad to the realm of defense, the significance of Qutb’s reinterpretation lies in his overt defiance of 1,300 years of Islamic tradition.[4] Therefore, it can be argued that Qutb ultimately “broke with mainstream Islam” with his adaptation of jihad.[5] However, in order to appreciate the justification of offensive jihad, it is first critical to elucidate three specific tenets held by Qutb: Ubudiyya, Hakimiyya and Jahiliyya.[6] An examination of these three tenets are necessary, which will then illustrate Sayyid Qutb’s justification for the amelioration of society through the application of offensive jihad – a distorted belief, which is practiced today by radical Islamists.

Defining Jihad

Before examining Qutb’s beliefs and subsequent justification for offensive jihad, it is crucial to understand the meaning of jihad in Islamic Doctrine. Arguably, there is great misconception concerning the literal interpretation of the word jihad. First, jihad does not refer to war, in the secular idea. In Arabic, war is harb and the Islamic view of harb carries a severely negative connotation. According to Noor, “… Under Islamic doctrine, secular war is morally unacceptable …” and is viewed as a “social sickness”.[7] The literal meaning of Jihad is to strive, struggle or to exercise “one’s power in Allah’s path against that which is evil”.[8] Understanding jihad as the “struggle”, the “classical jurists” had set apart a total of four ways in which the struggle can be performed: the heart, tongue, hands, and sword.[9] For the purpose of this paper the focus is on the latter given Qutb’s personal rendition of jihad.

The physical and defensive jihad, the struggle “by the sword”, denotes a religio-military response and religious commandment towards aggression against non-Muslims that have attacked the Umma. In the history of the Muslim religion, the physical jihad was not advocated as a tool for societal reformation; that is, the implementation of Islamic values, morals, and law, was to be carried out by preaching and practice, not by way of the sword. Yet, Qutb came to view jihad as a religiously justified mechanism to ameliorate the tyrannical, “ignorant” and the falsely worshipped.

Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb was born in 1906 in Musha, a village in Upper Egypt. He received a semi-western, secular education at Dar al-‘Ulum, the same institute where the founder of the Ikhwan al Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood), Hasan al-Banna, studied.[10] During Qutb’s studies, he was not opposed to many ideas stemming from western civilization, such as technology, science, or even rationalism. He lived in the age of European imperialism; Egypt had been de facto conquered in 1882 by Great Britain and it would be nearly three-quarters of a century before the last British boots would walk off of Egyptian soil. Despite Western presence and influence, Qutb’s metamorphosis into a radical Islamist began with his more direct Muslim surroundings. In the summer of 1952, the Dhobat el-Ahrar (Society of Free Officers) led a successful coup d’etat against Egypt’s King Farouk. The Free Officers, led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, desired the establishment of a “new political order” that would be free of both King Farouk’s despotism and of Western (British) presence.[11] Initially, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) - the long-established, massive and wide-ranging political Islamist organization - and Nasser’s new government tolerated one another, though that would quickly change.

Qutb was a member of the MB, whose official organizational slogan was “The Koran is our Constitution”.[12] This is significant, as the Brotherhood’s religio-political system would eventually clash with Nasser’s secular ideology. By 1954, the MB was violently disassembled. Despite the Brotherhood’s initial support for Nasser’s rule, many of its members were murdered by State police or imprisoned. Many were tortured while others were executed by firing squads or faced the gallows.[13] Sayyid Qutb was one of those imprisoned members. He would spend the next decade in an Egyptian concentration camp living in abhorrent conditions, while being tortured and witnessing the torture of others by Muslim hands.

This period of Qutb’s life represents the watershed in his conversion to radicalism. It was then that Qutb redefined his Egyptian surroundings. Whilst in prison, Qutb penned Fi Zhalil al-Qur’an (‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’) and Ma’alim fi’l Tariq (‘Milestones’).[14] In these seminal works, Qutb described why society was ill and subsequently prescribed a cure for that illness. To Qutb, the entire world had to be transformed. Man was living in a state of Jahiliyya (ignorance) in which he had seized Allah’s sovereignty and chose to live under manmade laws. Thus, to Qutb, man’s sovereignty had supplanted Allah’s sovereignty, causing man to worship leaders and their ideologies, rather than the Divine. This was the illness, and offensive jihad would serve as the cure for societal reformation. An understanding of Qutb’s endorsement of jihad begins with an explanation of his immutable tenets.


The answer to why Qutb justified a kind of unbounded jihad begins with an understanding of two tenets. According to Kepel, two non-Qur’anic terms form an important argument in ‘Milestones’, which Qutb builds upon in order to explain the contemporary state of ignorance.[15] The first is Hakimiyya (sovereignty). To Qutb, sovereignty belonged to Allah, a “divine attribute” that had been purloined by man.[16] Whether through laws or ideologies, man was not permitted to take hakimiyya from G-d. Qutb states, “Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings … deifies human beings by designating others than God as lords over men.”[17]

Placing this in a contemporary historical illustration, Qutb viewed Nasser as representing the pilferer of Allah’s sovereignty. Rather than implement the laws of G-d (Shari’at Allah), Nasser instilled manmade legislation into Egyptian society, which Qutb believed was leading Muslims further into ignorance. Though Nasser paid tribute to certain Islamic traditions, he was, by all accounts, a secular nationalist who coveted the desire to spread an un-Islamic ideology, which Egyptians quickly adhered to. That is, Pan Arab Socialism took precedence over Shari’at Allah.

Therefore, according to Qutb, “Those who by themselves devise laws for others to follow … elevating themselves to the status of lords” have stolen G-d’s sovereignty and Nasser represented Qutb’s thief. To Qutb, the usurpation of G-d’s sovereignty has consequences, which leads to his next tenet, Ubudiyya (worship).


Complementing Hakimiyya is Ubudiyya (worship), the second non-Qur’anic term applied by Qutb whilst developing his case for jahiliyya. In ‘Milestones’, Qutb commented that the Prophet Muhammad explained, “in a final and indisputable verdict”, that compliance to anything other than Shari’at Allah is commensurate with ubudiyya and thus “falls outside the pale of the religion”.[18] Qutb was referring to a sentence spoken by the Prophet Muhammad who said, “Whatsoever their priests and rabbis call permissible, they accept as permissible, whatever they declare are forbidden, they consider as forbidden, and thus they worship them.”[19] Muhammad was referring to the “People of the Book”. Arguably, Qutb symbolized this sentence by attaching it to contemporary times: Egyptian Muslims and their worship of Nasser and his ideology of Pan-Arab Socialism/Nationalism.

For Qutb, Islam prescribed the practice of “worship” solely to Allah. As Qutb believed that false leaders and their various methods of legislation had usurped sovereignty, this, in turn, caused man to erroneously worship false gods and un-Islamic laws. With man as the sovereign, the people came to worship the leader and his customs and laws, as opposed to Allah’s laws and Islamic values.

Qutb also witnessed licentious forms of worship outside of his Egyptian environment. In the late 1940s, Qutb earned his masters degree at the Colorado State Teachers College. He would later write on Americans’ “feelings, lust, and urges”.[20] He wrote on American worship of political ideologies (democracy), materialism, its idée fixe of the human body, and even on American music, which he deemed “primitive”.[21] Qutb believed that Americans had placed sovereignty into a system created and governed by man alone. In turn, Americans came to worship everything but the spiritual.

As such, since Qutb held that Islam is a religion for “the whole human species-and its sphere of activity is earth”. Therefore, America too was living in a state of ignorance.[22] These two beliefs – sovereignty and worship – led Qutb to view not only his direct Egyptian surroundings but also rather the entire world as being “steeped in Jahiliyyah”.[23]


Sayyid Qutb viewed his surroundings in clearly defined opposing issues. “Islam knows only two kinds of societies, the Islamic and the Jahili.”[24] The former represents any society that has correctly applied Islam; that is, living under Islamic Law and abiding by Islamic ethics and morals. The latter represents any society that is void of the full application of Islam, such as, inter alia, democracy, socialism, and secular Muslim governance, all of which are “ignorant of the divine guidance”.[25] According to Qutb, jahiliyya society can also be one in which G-d is recognized but his powers have been relegated to the hereafter. That is, even if a society fully believes in the existence of G-d yet chooses to rule without Islamic Law, this society is branded “ignorant” and must be reformed. According to Qutb, “For human life there is only one true system and that is Islam; all other systems are Jahiliyyah.”[26]

Significantly, to Qutb, contemporary jahiliyya was not simply a state of living in ignorance, as the Arabs had done before the advent of Islam. Arguably, it was worse since it entailed the creation of manmade legislation, values, and virtues after Allah had already presented the world with the Holy Qur’an and Shari’at Allah. The un-Islamic being practiced in Muslim society resulted in Allah’s divinity being cast to the periphery. That is, democracy, communism, and secular Muslim nationalists, such as Nasser’s Pan Arabism, had succeeded in replacing Shari’at Allah. Resultantly, rather than a world of divination, there existed jahiliyya.

Experiencing a decade of imprisonment and torture, at the behest of his Egyptian Muslim leader, Sayyid Qutb came to the conclusion that the whole world was “steeped in Jahiliyyah”[27], conceivably even more so then the years prior to Muhammad’s revelations. “We are also surrounded by Jahiliyyah today … perhaps a little deeper.”[28] Specifically, Qutb viewed Muslims in Egypt as trapped in a state of worshipping “false and fabricated” gods (i.e. Nasser), and believing in a false system (i.e. Pan Arabism/Arab Socialism), all of which has claimed sovereignty over man. To Qutb, worship and sovereignty represented the two fundamental elements that formed Qutb’s belief that the world was “steeped in jahiliyyah.” Qutb held that all men had to be freed from these restraints and that Islam must be spread until the religion had attained “the status world leadership”. Being that sovereignty and worship were key to the foundations of jahiliyya, Qutb adapted a tool that would destroy the foundation of jahiliyya so society could be reformed. Jihad would serve as that tool to eradicate the “vast ocean of jahiliyya”.[29]

Most importantly, Qutb held that Jahiliyya was not a system that could live in harmony with a true Muslim society. “It is not the function of Islam to compromise with the concepts of Jahiliyyah, which are current in the world or to coexist in the same land together …” Qutb continues by making it clear that “either Islam will remain, or Jahiliyyah.”[30] Though, Qutb had made it clear that he had no intention of seeing the latter sustained any longer.

Qutb’s Justification for Offensive Jihad

Qutb believed that the seizure of G-d’s sovereignty by fallacious leaders and ideologies have led man to worship everything but Allah. Consequently, man was now living as a slave in a state of ignorance. To Qutb, Islam, through jihad, was the key that would unlock the spiritual shackles that had subdued man and kept him in his state of servitude. Qutb viewed Islam not only as the religion for Muslims but for all man: “Islam … is the religion of God and is for the whole world.”[31]

Therefore, jahili society represented the greatest hindrance for, not only the individual Muslim but for all men to properly obtain and adhere to Islamic values, morals and Allah’s law. Men in jahiliyya were living a life of forced servitude (i.e. slaves). As slaves (i.e. the oppressed), jihad is not only permissible but a commandment within Islam. Clearly, Muslims in 1950s Egypt were not “slaves” in the popular sense of the word (i.e. toil and bondage). However, to Qutb, Muslims were, in fact, slaves to aggressive and false systems and leaders, whether they realized it or not.

To Qutb, this system had been forced on Muslims, which deprived them of their freedoms; the idea was to regain man’s freedom by jihad. In ‘Milestones’, Qutb explains that “in the hearts of Muslim warriors”, none would have claimed to be fighting in defense of a country but rather “… to bring anyone who wishes from servitude to men into the service of God alone … If anyone accepts this way of life, we turn back and give his country back to him and we fight with those who rebel …” Qutb seems to be saying that jihad will free all men and liberate their countries but only once they accept Islam and live under Shari’at Allah.

According to Qutb, Islam is not “a defensive movement in the narrowest sense, which is today technically called a ‘defensive war’”.[32] He refers to such thoughts as “defeatist” and says that anyone who claims this interpretation is without a true “understanding of the nature of Islam and its primary aim”; the “aim”, of course, being the implementation of Islam to all mankind.[33] He continues by stating that if, in fact, jihad is meant as “defensive movement” than the word “defense” needs to be redefined. Qutb proposes that “defense” should come to mean “the defense of man” against any aspect that limits one’s freedom, which can refer to beliefs, racial and economic differences, and political ideologies. He holds that by viewing “defense” in this manner, one is able to see the true mission of Islam: the “proclamation of freedom of man from servitude … the establishment of sovereignty of God …” and the full implementation of Shari’a. Qutb was relaying that the modern world is lacking all of these elements that he believes are Islam’s mission in this world.

Consequently, Qutb’s notion of “defense” can actually be interpreted as the necessity to go on the offense, in order to implement Islam’s mission. By understanding the word “defense” in its Qutb’s context, man must seek (i.e. go on the offensive) the destruction of these elements (all of which form jahiliyya) and to establish Islam. This is the ultimate example within Qutb’s writings that justifies jihad to be utilized as a tool to ameliorate the societies of the world. In short, what Qutb is saying is that false gods and illegitimate belief systems have aggressively attacked man and as a result man has become a slave and lost his freedoms to these falsities. Man then came to worship his leader and his laws. Therefore, in order for man to release himself from bondage, jihad must be utilized. To Qutb, since man was under attack, this was a defensive action, when, in fact, he was advocating the use of jihad for offensive purposes; that is, for freedom and the reconstruction of society through jihad.


To Qutb, sovereignty and worship are proof of the existence of jahiliyya and offensive Islamic jihad can counter this state of ignorance by reforming society, ultimately freeing man of his forced servitude. The privations that Sayyid Qutb endured during his decade of confinement are viewed as the watershed of his transformation to radical Islam. This does not purport an apologetic sentiment but rather a commonsensical outlook. That is, a decade of torture, malnourishment, and isolation is enough to force severe changes in one’s mode of thinking. Though, it must also be taken into account that Qutb began flirting with radical Islamic thought years before he was imprisoned. This is significant since it cannot be wholly argued that Qutb simply became radicalized once imprisoned. Nonetheless, with the stroke of a pen, Qutb redefined the physical jihad to become a religious instrument to be used to reform all societies, giving it offensive character and justification.

However, Qutb has contradicted himself, which can be found in Sura al-Baqarah (256) stating, “There is no compulsion in religion …”[34] Many radical Islamists believe they have a duty to spread Islam “by the sword”.[35] In fact, Islam is to be spread by preaching and practice, not violence. Further, Islamic Doctrine holds that no one will be forced, threatened, or harmed should they choose to reject Islam. Qutb easily rejects this view as “defeatist” and, in turn, he altered more than 1,300 years of Islamic tradition.

Qutb’s radical perspective on, and justification of, jihad has resulted in severe consequences. It has survived over four decades and has become a linchpin of present-day militant Islamist organizations, including, inter alia, al-Qa’ida and Hamas. The former even declared jihad on fellow Muslims in order to establish their version of an Islamic State.[36] Consequently, one of Qutb’s greatest legacies is that these contemporary radical groups turn to Qutb’s misguided justifications rather than turning to fourteen centuries of Islamic tradition.

The true meanings of Jihad, as explained, have very little to do with Qutb’s radical distortion of the term. Yet, due to misunderstandings in, inter alia, the mass media, the true meaning of the word became wrongly associated with Qutb’s offensive jihad and wrongly associated with Islam, itself. Only by understanding and accepting the very real distortions of offensive jihad, will people begin to understand how little Qutb’s idea has to do with the majority of Muslims and with what Islam truly commands and demands from its followers.


[1] Kepel, Gilles. Jihad. 2006

[2] According to Qutb, “Those who say that Islamic Jihad was merely for the defense of the ‘Homeland of Islam’ diminish the greatness of the Islamic way of life…” Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones

[3] Moaddel, Mansoor and Talattof, Kamran. “War, Peace, and Islamic Jihad”. Chapter 21 in Contemporary Debates in Islam: An Anthology of Modernist and Fundamentalist Thought. 2000. For original writing, see Qutb’s Milestones, chapter 2: “Jihad and the Cause of Allah”. Qutb wrote that Allah was the “sustainer of all the people of the world”, not just the Arabs.

[4] It should be noted that there were Islamic theosophists, before Qutb, who had advocated offensive jihad in order to reform society. Though their writings, such as Ibn Taymiyya and his views of Jihad on the Monogls and Mamluks, are not Islamic Doctrine but rather interpretation.

[5] Eikmeier, Dale C. “Qutbism: An Ideology of Islamic-Fascism.” Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly. Spring 2007

[6] These beliefs are but three of many held by Qutb. However, these three are fundamental in understanding Qutb’s radicalization of jihad. Further, it is important to note that “Ubudiyya” and “Hakikmiyya” were two terms that Qutb borrowed from the writings of Abul a’la Mawdudi, the Pakistani political theorist. For further explanations on Qutb’s use of Mawdudi, see Kepel, Gilles. The Roots of Radical Islam. 2005.

[7] Mohammad, Noor. “The Doctrine of Jihad: An Introduction.” Journal of Law and Religion. Vol. 3, No. 2. 1985

[8] Ibid.

[9] Willis, John Ralph. “Jihad fi Sabil Allah: Its Doctrinal Basis in Islam and Some Aspects of Its Evolution in Nineteenth Century West Africa.” The Journal of African History. Vol. 8, No. 3 1967

[10] Ikhwan al-Muslimin, the Muslim Brotherhood, is also known as the Society of Muslim Brethren.

[11] Martin, Meredith. The State of Africa. 2006.

[12] “The Muslim Brotherhood: past struggle, future challenges.” Muslim Brotherhood Official English Website. 10 July 2007.

[13] Kepel, Gilles. The Roots of Radical Islam. 2005.

[14] Milestones is also known as Signposts on the Road or simply “Signposts”. It should also be noted that much of Milestones derives from his earlier work, In the Shade of the Qur’an, which Qutb wrote during his decade of confinement.

[15] Kepel, Gilles. The Roots of Radical Islam. 2005

[16] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Moaddel, Mansoor and Talattof, Kamran. “War, Peace, and Islamic Jihad”. Chapter 21 in Contemporary Debates in Islam: An Anthology of Modernist and Fundamentalist Thought. 2000. For original writing, see Qutb’s Milestones, chapter 2: “Jihad and the Cause of Allah”.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Feelings, lust, and urges” is a quote from the Pakistani Islamist Mawdudi, not Sayyid Qutb. Nevertheless, Mawdudi’s quote complements Qutb views. Moaddel, Mansoor and Talattof, Kamran. “The Fallacy of Rationalsim”. Mawdudi, Abul Ala. Chapter in Contemporary Debates in Islam: An Anthology of Modernist and Fundamentalist Thought. 2000.

[21] Siegel, Robert. “Sayyid Qutb's America: Al Qaeda Inspiration Denounced U.S. Greed, Sexuality.” 6 May 2003. National Public Radio (NPR).

[22] Moaddel, Mansoor and Talattof, Kamran. “War, Peace, and Islamic Jihad”. Chapter 21 in Contemporary Debates in Islam: An Anthology of Modernist and Fundamentalist Thought. 2000. For original writing, see Qutb’s Milestones, chapter 2: “Jihad and the Cause of Allah”.

[23] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones

[24] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones

[32] Ibid.

[33] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones

[34] Euben, Roxanne L. “Killing (For) Politics: Jihad, Martyrdom, and Political Action.” Political Theory Vol. 30 No. 1. February 2002. Retrieved from Jstor.

[35] Qutb was not alone is his ideas on societal reformation. Pakistani theoretician Abu’l A’la Mawdudi, whose writings inspired Qutb, was also an advocate of utilizing jihad to reform society.

[36] Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. 2002