Iran’s revolution and Sayyid Qutb
Qutb once wished to initiate an Islamic state in some Muslim countries. His dream did not take place in any Sunni country but did in Shia Iran
Sixth Finnish colloquium of MENA studies- Helsinki 9-10.12.2021
By: Hossein Alizadeh
Four years after the Caliphate’s destruction in 1924, the Society of the Muslim Brothers (also the Muslim Brotherhood –al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Arabic–) was created by Hassan al-Banna (1906-49) in Egypt in 1928.
When speaking at the fifth conference of the Muslim Brothers in Cairo, Hassan al-Banna clearly states that:
“Some people think of us as a group of preachers, concerned only to call people to virtues and abstain from sins. Others believe it is a mystical trend. We are not any of those. We call to return for true Islam, which is a belief and application, a home and a nationality, a religion and state, a spirit and body, and a Quran and Sword.”
However, a prominent figure in the Muslim Brothers whose thoughts more than al-Banna still influence the Muslim world is Sayyid Qutb. He joined the organization after al-Banna’s death. That means he had found commonalities between his thoughts and al-Banna’s, for example, in social issues, by sharing the idea of purifying society through the application of genuine Islam.
Growing up in Egypt under the British protectorate, al-Banna and Qutb were deeply concerned about the decline of Muslim civilization against the rising tide of westernization and materialism. Also, frustrated with the repressive colonial powers at the time, the two ideologues prioritized the resurrection of the Islamic State, for which they presented Islam as an ideology and a comprehensive system of life with the Quran as its constitution. That means they developed Islam from faith to be a political ideology.
However, the Muslim Brothers under al-Banna was different from the Muslim Brothers under Qutb. Al-Banna, advocating gradualist moral reform, sought to reconstruct an Islamic society through good individual Muslims, good Muslim families, and a good Muslim society, which eventually led to the Islamization of the state. However, unlike the Bothers under al-Banna, Qutb believed in a top-down Islamized society.
In other words, the difference between the two was in Qutb’s revolutionary approach in seeking the overthrow of any un-Islamic governments and rulers -Gamal Abdul Nasser in the case of Egypt- in order to establish an Islamic State. In contrast, al-Banna held the evolutionary approach of gradual educational and moral reform. Put differently, their distinction was respectively in bottom-up or top-down Islamisation.
Qutb’s pathology: modern Jahiliyyah
Sayyid Qutb is a prominent figure in the Muslim Brothers. It must be remembered that by the end of the 1960s, the concept of modern Jahiliyyah was introduced through Qutb’s lens to the Arab and Muslim world. The Jahiliyyah is a Quranic term implied to refer to pre-Islamic decadent age of ignorance/obscurantism/heathenism/savagery. Sayyid Qutb believed that the modern Jahiliyyah is the one “which has again prevailed in the world ever since Islam lost its world leadership.” In this respect, the term Jahiliyyah is a concept “to identify everything in the world that was un-Islamic, insufficiently Islamic, or impurely Islamic.” 
In this sense, he divides societies, even Muslim ones, into two: the one that obeys God and the one that does not, like Egypt under Jamal Abdu al-Nasser. This led to tension between the Brothers and Nasser’s government. Once the tension escalated, Qutb published in secret his al-Ikhwan fi al-Marakah, (the Brothers in Battle), launching hundreds of attacks on Nasser, including denouncing his Arab nationalism. As a result, within two years of the Free Offices’ revolution, he was sentenced to prison in 1954, like thousands of his fellow Brothers, after they exposed Nasser to an assassination attempt. That further radicalized Qutb via developing Jihadism’s ideology. While ten years in prison, Qutb released his masterpiece, Maalim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones), his manifesto of political Islam. The book represents Qutb’s school of thought, known as Qutbism.
Qutb’s principal innovation in the Milestone presents a radical new definition of Jihad as destroying the kingdom of man to bring about the kingdom of God (Hakimiyyah). Therein, legitimizing Takfir (ex-communication), he radically suggests that anyone (like Nasser) who does not rule by God’s law is not a true Muslim. The book is considered one of the most radical texts with a massive indelible impact on a new Islamist generation to come, as the Takfir ideology spread rapidly among them until today.
For Qutb, a society is either Islamic or Jahili (an adjective attributed to Jahiliyyah). A Jahili society is one whose citizen serves other humans rather than God. A Jahili society, according to Qutb, is rejected in its entirety and requires a radical overhaul to be imposed from above by an Islamic State.
After stating that “there is one system which is the Islamic system and what is other than that is Jahiliyyah,” he concludes that “If Islam is again to play the role of the leader of mankind, then it is necessary that the Muslim community be restored to its original form.”
Holding that current Muslim societies had reverted to the decadent system, Qutb presents his most radical suggestion, which later became a cornerstone for all Islamist groups, including those in Iran. The consequent outcome of Qutb’s argument is that, in his view, the way to get rid of Jahiliyyah is to take action to establish full sovereignty and dominion of God. The law of humans should be abolished, and a unique, supreme divine law should be established by Jihad.
Iran’s revolution and Sayyid Qutb
Exhibiting a new blueprint from Islam, Qutb is recognized as one of the twentieth century’s premier Islamists, if not the top one.
Yvonne Y. Haddad, in Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival, is literarily precise in expressing that in the twentieth century, few Muslim thinkers had such a significant impact on the reformulation of contemporary Islamic thoughts as Sayyid Qutb had. In Halil Ibrahim Yenigun’s words, due to Qutb’s anti-hermeneutic stance, he is recognized as a paradigm shift in contemporary Muslim political philosophy from the more reconciliatory attitude towards Western civilization to almost-total rejectionism of Western civilization.
As a founding father of the global Islamist movement and trans-national solidarity in the Muslim
world interestingly, Qutb’s Jahiliyyah doctrine was heard in Iran. In other words, Sunni revivalist ideology paved the way for the 1979 Iranian revolution. It is almost undeniable that Qutb’s political interpretation of Islam helped to bring about Iran’s current revolutionary establishment in 1979. His thoughts influenced Iranian revolutionaries who toppled the pro-American monarchy of the Shah of Iran in 1979, just thirteen years after Qutb’s execution in 1966. It is worth remembering that almost all his works have been translated into Persian and have gone into multiple printings both before and after the Revolution. Thus, it is fair to say his thoughts played an instrumental role in shaping the discourses of Islamism in pre-revolutionary Iran and functioned in the background of the Iranian Revolution by presenting Islam more than a faith as an ideology of political mobilization.
The relationship between the Muslim Brothers and Iranian revolutionaries goes back to a meeting in the Hajj ceremony in 1948 between Hasan al-Banna and Ayatollah Abul Ghasem Kashani, a powerful Shia Marja. The two agreed on rapprochement to bolster ties based on shared Islamist goals. The meeting was followed by invitation from Sayyid Qutb to Sayyid Mujtaba Mirlavhi, a Kashani’s close circle, to visit Egypt in January 1954. Mirlavhi (commonly known as Navab Safavi) is the founder of Fedaiyan-e Islam group (“Self-Sacrificers/Devotees of Islam”). The fundamentalist group of Fedaiyan-e Islam was already founded in 1946 in Iran, but Navab Safavi’s visit to Egypt and meeting with Qutb made the group a copy and an unofficial offshoot of the Brothers in Iran but in the Shia version.
By way of example, the group under Navab Safavi sought to purify Islam in Iran by ridding it of corrupting individuals of the system of Iranian monarchy through the assassinations of certain leading intellectual and political figures. Similar to the terror attack implemented by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Fedaiyan-e Islam under Navab Safavi assassinated a number of top officials of the Iran monarchy regime like Prime Minister Abdolhossein Hazhir, Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara, and Culture Minister Ahmad Zangeneh. Additionally, in an unsuccessful attempt, the group tried to assassinate Prime Minister Hosein Ala. Also, the group, in another unsuccessful assassination attempt, badly injured foreign minister Hossein Fatemi. Also, the secular reformist Ahmad Kasravi, a leading Iranian nationalist whose goal was to build an Iranian secular identity, was assassinated by the group.
It is noteworthy that Safavi’s and Qutb’s destination was similar. Navab Safavi was executed by the Shah of Iran in 1956, and Sayyid Qutb was executed by Abdul Nasser in 1966. However, their difference is that Safavi has left no book, but Qutb was a figurehead who authored a number of influential works.
Had it not been for Fedaiyan-e Islam’s early sympathetic support of the Muslim Brothers, many of their political writings might never have been as influential in Iran. This connection popularized Quṭb’s thoughts in Iran. When Ayatollah Khomeini declared that “Islam was political or nothing else,” he was copying something that Muslim Brothers had long said. In this sense, Sayyid Quṭb was an influential figure among the Iranian revolutionaries and his thoughts played a crucial role in shaping the discourse of Islamism in pre-revolutionary Iran and also when the Islamic Republic of Iran was established.
Rached Ghannouchi, Tunisian Muslim thinker and co-founder of pro-Brothers the Ennahdha Party recalls that:
“As we readied to accept the notion that conflicts other than the ideological existed along the political and social fronts, the Iranian revolution came to give us a new set of Islamic discourses. It enabled us to Islamize some leftist social concepts and to accommodate the social conflict within an Islamic context.”
Although Safavi was executed, his pro-Qutb’s thoughts influenced young revolutionaries in Iran. On the top of those revolutionaries unequivocally stands Ali Khamenei (b.1939), the former president and second supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who is profoundly impressed by Qutb’s revolutionary thoughts through Navab Safavi’s lens.
In his autobiography, Ali Khamenei reveals that when he met Safavi at his 15 “the first inspiring sparks of the Islamic Revolution were ignited in me by Navab-Safavi, and I have no doubt that the first fire ignited in our hearts as because of Navab-Safavi… His position was expressed as Islam must be revived; Islam must rule over the country; and those who are at the top of the government are lying. They are not Muslims.”
Qutb’s profound impression on Ali Khamenei, Iran’s future leader, was to the extent that Khamenei as a young cleric in his mid-1960s and early 1970s, translated into Persian Qutb’s three works, namely al-Mustaqbal li-hadha’l-Din (meaning “The Future of This Religion”), al-Islam wa Mushkilat al-Hadara (meaning “Islam and the Problems of Civilization,”)  and chapters from Fi Zilal al-Quran (meaning “In the Shade of the Quran” translated by Kameneie as “Return to the Quran).  It is noteworthy that at least more than ten other works of Said Qutb were translated into Persian by others, including Ali Khamenei’s brother, Mohammad Khamenei, also a cleric, who translated Qutb’s Khasaes al-Tassavvor al-Islami ( entitled “Vijeggi-ha-ye Ideology Islami,” published by Tehran: Moassesseh-ye Melli, 1975 (1354).
Crucially significant, while ignored in Egypt, in post-revolutionary Iran, the revolutionary governmental post company of Iran in 1984 issued a stamp as a tribute to Qutb’s “martyrdom,” depicting him behind bars in a trial in which he was sentenced to death by the Egyptian court in 1966.
As stated before, Qutb once wished to initiate an Islamic state in some Muslim countries. His dream did not take place in any Sunni country but did in Shia Iran. Fedaiyan-e Islam was the pioneer in advocating an Islamic state in Iran, the idea presented by the Brothers first. It was no surprise that the Muslim Brothers were among very early groups who rushed to recognize 1979 Iran’s new Islamic regime due to their understanding that the Iranian revolution was the first Islamist revolution of the modern era. This was a happy event for Muslim Brothers whose figurehead, Qutb, was praised in Iran.
Nevertheless, the Brothers’ welcoming to revolutionary Iran did not last long. Soon they vehemently refused its pro-Shia constitution, accusing it as a sectarian state rather than an inclusive Islamic State to represent all Muslims, including Sunnis in Iran. Furthermore, the Brothers’ relations with Iran’s revolutionaries deteriorated during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) once it was seen as a war between Sunnis and Shias. Also, when revolutionary Iran solidified its alliance with the anti-Brothers Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad that was waging war against Islamists at home, Muslim Brothers affiliates across the region increasingly looked at Iran with suspicion. Consequently, the Brothers’ and Iranian revolutionaries’ relations came to an end.
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 Andrea Mura. “The Symbolic Scenarios of Islamism: A Study in Islamic Political Thought”. Routledge. (2015).139.
 Haddad. “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival”. ۶۷-۸٫
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 Translated by Khamenei as “Ayandeh dar Qalamrov-e Islam”, published by Entesharat-e Sepideh, Mashhad, 1966 (1345).
 Translated by Khameneie as “Eddea Nameh-I Alay-he Tammaddon-e Gharb va Resalat-e Islam,” meaning “An Indictment against the Western Civilization,” 1970 (1349).
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 Mahdi Akbari. “A comparative study on Sayyid Gutb’s and Ayatollah Ali Khameneie’s political thoughts (in Persian)”. University of Religions and Denominations in Iran. December 2014. Available at: https://urd.ac.ir/fa/cont/778/%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%B4%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D9%82%D8%B7%D8%A8-%D9%88-%D8%A2%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%AE%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%86%D9%87-%D8%A7%DB%8C-(%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%B1%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%AA%D8%B7%D8%A8%DB%8C%D9%82%DB%8C) (Accessed October 14, 2021)
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 Hossein Alizadeh. “Tarikh e Ravabet e Iran wa Mesr (The History of Iran-Egypt Relations)”. MFA of Iran. “۲۰۰۵” (۱۳۸۴ Iranian calender). 62.