Alternative spellings of his "first" and "last" names include Syed, Koteb (common), Qutub, etc.
He first received a religious education; in 1920, he moved to Cairo, where he received a Western education between 1929 and 1933, before starting his career as a teacher in the Ministry of Public Instruction. During his early career, Qutb devoted himself to literature as an author and critic, writing such novels as Ashwak (Thorns) and even elevating Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz from obscurity. In 1939, he became a functionary in Egypt's Ministry of Education (wizarat al-ma'arif); from 1948 to 1950, he went to the United States on a scholarship to study the educational system, receiving a master's degree from the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado). Qutb's first major theoretical work of religious social criticism, Al-'adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi-l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), was published in 1949, during his time overseas.
What he saw in the USA of racism, materialism, and loose sexual conduct is believed by some to have been the impetus for his rejection of western values and his move towards radicalism upon returning to Egypt. Resigning from the civil service he became perhaps the most persuasive publicist of the Muslim Brotherhood. The school of thought he inspired has become known as Qutbism.
The Muslim Brotherhood, and Qutb in particular, enjoyed a close relationship with the Free Officers in the time leading up to and following the coup of June 1952. But their early cooperation soon soured over such issues as the Free Officers' refusal to hold elections, to ban alcohol, or to take a hard line against the British presence in Egypt.
After the attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, the Egyptian government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, imprisoning Qutb along with many others. While in prison, Qutb wrote his two most important works: a commentary of the Qur'an Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Quran), and a manifesto of political Islam called Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones).
His commentary on the Quran has been extremely influential; some see him as the central theorist of twentieth-century Islamism. There is anecdotal evidence that Sayyid Qutb and Shaykh Taqi-ud-deen an-Nabhani founder of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, influenced each other. According to Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, "In a century in which some of the most important writing came out of prisons, Qutb, for better or for worse, is the Islamic world's answer to Solzhenitsyn, Sartre, and Havel, and he easily ranks with all of them in influence. It was Sayyid Qutb who fused together the core elements of modern Islamism.... Qutb concluded that the unity of God and His sovereignty meant that human rule – government legislates its own behavior – is illegitimate. Muslims must answer to God alone." [Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War Against America (New York: Random House, 2002) p. 62] ISBN 0812969847. This point is central to most modern Islamists, in thier assertion that all forms of governance over the muslims is illegitimate except the Islamic state Khilafah.
One of Qutb's main ideas was applying the term Jahiliyya, which originally referred to humanity's state of ignorance before the revelation of Islam, to modern-day Muslim societies. In his view, turning away from Islamic law and Islamic values under the influence of European imperialism had left the Muslim world in a condition of debased ignorance, similar to that of the pre-Islamic era (or Jahiliyya).
The conditions he experienced in prison pushed Qutb finally to the conclusion that the Egyptian state was totally illegitimate. Violence against the inmates was commonplace. Sometimes this took the form of torture, but it once climaxed in the murder of 23 Muslim Brothers and the wounding of 46 after a protest in which they refused to perform hard labor. This incident transformed Qutb’s view of the Nasser government, which he considered to be unparalleled in its cruelty. His radicalization culminated in a little book published in 1964 which was based on the ideas he had written in notes and letters during his time in prison. This is the famous Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq.
Qutb was let out of prison at the end of 1964 at the behest of the then Prime Minister of Iraq, 'Abd al-Salam 'Arif, for only 8 months before being rearrested in August 1965. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the state and subjected to a show trial which culminated in a death sentence for him and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. On 29 August 1966, Sayyid Qutb was executed by hanging.
His brother, Muhammad Qutb, moved to Saudi Arabia where he became a Professor of Islamic Studies. One of Muhammad Qutb's students and ardent followers was Ayman Zawahiri, who was to become the mentor of Osama bin Laden.
- Mahammat ash-Sha'ir fi-l-hayat wa-shi'r al-jil al-hadir, 1933
- ash-Shati al-majhul, 1935
- al-Taswir al-Fanni fi-l-Qu'ran (Artistic Representation in the Quran), 1944/45
- Tifl min al-qarya (A Child from the Village -- an autobiographical work), 1946
- Al-'adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi-l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), 1949, his first theoretical work
- Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), 1954, commentary of the Qur'an in 30 volumes, his most important theoretical work. In 1960, a revised edition started to appear which was to remain uncompleted; the last volume appeared in 1964. The commentary is interesting in so far as it is rather innovative in its methodical approach, borrowing heavily from the method of literary interpretation developed by Amin al-Khuli, while retaining some structural features of classical commentaries (for example, the principle of progressing from the first sura to the last).
- Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Signposts on the Road, or Milestones), 1964, Qutb's best known work, regarded by some as "in many ways mark the beginnings of modern political Islam"
- Egyptian Islamic Jihad
- Hasan al-Banna
- Yusuf al-Qaradawi
- Abdullah Yusuf Azzam
- Khurshid Ahmad
- Leo Strauss
- Shepard, William E., Sayyid Qutb and Islamic Activism. A Translation and Critical Analysis of "Social Justice in Islam", Leiden 1996
- Haddad, Yvonne Y., "Sayyid Qutb: ideologue of Islamic revival", in Esposito, J. (ed.), Voices of the Islamic Revolution, New York 1983