Barracks and madrasas in Egypt

Nasser’s Pan-Arabism

The centre of power of the Arab world in 1950s was Egypt under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He rose to power in 1952 when a group of army officers led by Nasser and Mohamed Naguib mounted a coup and ousted king Farouk. Four years later Nasser stepped out of the shadows and became the president of the Republic of Egypt. Nasser’s coup d’état was the moment modern Egypt was born.

During his reign, patriotism and nationalism flourished like never before first in Egypt and then beyond its borders and among all Arabs.[i] Nasser was a talented politician, an outstanding orator and his personality became a cult. The politics of Egypt and the Arab Nationalist Movement merged with the image of Nasser. Meanwhile, Syria had seen in 1947 the birth of its own nationalist movement in the form of the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party or Baath. The party existed as a single entity until 1963, when it split into an Iraqi and Syrian branch. While the Syrian branch is still active under the Assad dynasty, the Iraqi Baath movement met its end in 2003. Nasser’s political orientation or Nasserism and the Baath movement are both characterised by a particular mix of Arab nationalism, Pan-Arabism and moderate socialism (rather than communism). Even though Nasser and the Syrian Baath movement cooperated gladly with the USSR, they did not become dependent on it. The agenda of the two very close political movements was to try and bolster the glory and honour of Arabs as a nation, to get rid of colonialism that was still lingering in secret, to create a united Arab country, to achieve economic growth and social justice. Gilles Kepel, a researcher of political Islam, writes: “The nationalists took control of the tools of modern communication — newspapers, books, radio, and television — and placed them at the service of ideals, such as freedom and equality, translated and adapted from the European Enlightenment. This project of emancipation — which was propounded in the vernacular language of the people — allowed nationalists to thrust aside the religious establishment in their pursuit of secular goals.”[ii] Whatever its success, this was undeniably a modern and secular political program the purpose of which was to make Arab countries great.

The enormous and galvanizing popularity of Nasser was essentially a ‘gift’ from the UK and France. Nasser tried to procure modern weaponry for the Egyptian army from the USA, but, as he was not willing to provide any guarantees that he would never use such military equipment against Israel, the deal did not go through. Nasser simply turned to the USSR, incurring the wrath of Western countries that withdrew their funding for the construction of the Aswan Dam. The response of Nasser was to denounce imperialist pressure and nationalize the Suez Canal from the UK and France.  The two great powers decided that it was time to put an end to Nasser’s arbitrary actions and ambitions. In secret, the UK and France entered into an agreement with Israel, producing a stunning plan: Israel was to invade Egypt and occupy the entire Sinai Peninsula; this would be followed by an ultimatum from the UK and France requesting that both countries cease hostilities, expecting, of course, that it would be ignored and thus enable the two great powers to send their armies to ‘protect’ the canal. This cunning operation was launched on 29 October 1956 and proceeded according to plan, except for one thing – the conspirators had not coordinated their adventure with the USA, which was outraged by this move. At the end, the invaders had to withdraw from Egypt.

The victory of Egypt and Nasser thrilled the Arab world and his fame knew no bounds – Nasser was seen as the liberator and defender of Arabs, the one who had finally managed to deliver a proper whipping to the old colonial powers. The Suez Crisis lifted Nasser along with his ideas of Arab nationalism, socialism and Pan-Arabism to unprecedented highs. Yet this conflict had other consequences as well. The abject failure of the UK showed that light was fading in the empire on which the sun never sets. The lion’s mighty roar had been replaced by mewling. It was clear to everyone that Washington was the new centre of power and that the USA would soon have to ‘look after’ the Middle East.

The idea of Pan-Arabism — the creation of a single Arab state — reached its zenith soon after. In 1958, after a Syrian proposal, Egypt and Syria unified into a single country and proclaimed the United Arab Republic ruled by president Nasser. The same year a coup d’état took place in Iraq. The inclusion of Iraq into the new country was seriously discussed but never actually happened. Nasser was also actively supporting rebel activities in other countries (Yemen, Jordan) in the hopes that monarchies would fall and the new secular and national states would take part in his project, but it did not turn out that way. The union lasted only for a short while and already in 1961 Syria withdrew from it. Despite this setback, Arab nationalism maintained its credibility for some ten years.

Nasser was an extremely talented politician, but a poor manager. People expected more from him than he could deliver. This led to increasing discontent and the rise of a competing ideology in the shadow of the president’s magnificent image. Two ideologies were fighting for influence in Egypt: Nasser had total control over the barracks while the Muslim Brotherhood, and more radical movements associated with it, ruled the madrasas and mosques.

Qutb’s Pan-Islamism

Sayyid Qutb was one of the most prominent thinkers and ideologues of Islamism and an inspiration for military jihad. The tragic life of Qutb is the quintessential reflection of the conflict that had tightly interwoven the new countries of the Middle East. On one side the disintegration fall of the Ottoman Empire and the promises of the national formations that followed created an illusion of a utopian future in which the Arab community, lagging behind the rest of the world in many areas, would move at a breakneck pace towards the greener pastures of secularism, industrialisation and free markets. On the other side, however, this ‘behind’ community had inherited a monumental culture and religion. Qutb and Egypt, as well as the entire community of the wider region, was vacillating between the temptations of the New World – the siren call of power held by Imperial Europe, consumer goods provided in heaps by industrialism and capitalism, the frivolous cheapness of American mass culture – and the traditional values of agricultural Islamic communities, which had existed for a long time with little intervention and had permeated the public life of Qutb’s time.

Qutb could be considered to be one of the most important ideologues and philosophers of Islam.[iii] Educated in the West, Qutb worked for most of his life as a civil servant in Egypt and gained recognition through publications critical of the authorities. The first turning point in his life came when he went to Colorado, USA for masters studies from 1948 to 1950. Contrary to all expectations, he was not captivated by the benefits of Western capitalism and liberalism. Experiences in the USA caused a radical change in Qutb. Disappointed in all things Western he turned wholeheartedly towards Islam. Qutb found America to be in a state of total moral decadence — its people cared only for material comforts and sexual debauchery, its art was primitive and their behaviour like that of animals: “And they danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire.[iv]

On his return from the USA, Qutb saw Egypt to be a disappointment as well. The king of Egypt, Farouk, ruled under the thumb of the British and cared more for sumptuous feasts. The modernisation of Egypt was faltering and this led Qutb to conclude that Western modernity, capitalism, nationalism or socialism were all unacceptable. The better alternative was the Muslim Brotherhood which was already banned at the time but still existed and maintained a sort of parallel state, providing its own public services and Islamic-tinted education. Qutb joined the Brotherhood at the beginning of 1950s and became an active publicist on its behalf. As indicated before, the Muslim Brotherhood initially welcomed Nasser’s coup d’état, but the relations deteriorated rapidly and broke down completely in 1954. Authorities persecuted the conspirators and its wrath touched Qutb as well, who was imprisoned and tortured. It was the second turning point of Qutb’s life.

The harrowing prison torture later became a legendary story, but it clearly brought about a genuine change in Qutb. He lost any remaining tolerance towards Nasser’s nationalism and its followers. As Qutb saw it, his torturers had rejected God by serving Nasser and thus could no longer be considered to be Muslims and should be expelled from the Islamic community — the umma.

Takfir — excommunication or expulsion from the community of believers is a serious step with dramatic consequences since those who suffer it lose all legal protection and are essentially exposed to the risk of death. For this reason religious authorities have always requested strong arguments and clear evidence of the crime before taking this step. Qutb never provided a detailed explanation for his position on this essential aspect. According to Gilles Kepel, a researcher of Islam, this caused at least three different interpretations. The more radical Islamists claimed that the scourge of godlessness had spread across the world and touched every layer of society. Those of a more moderate conviction indicated that expulsions should only apply to the highest echelons of power. Meanwhile the majority, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, believed that Qutb had written in allegory, while the social split was spiritual in nature and not material. In order to survive the age of godlessness the duty of the brothers was to preach and not to judge.[v]

Qutb spent almost the rest of his life in prison and wrote two books during this time — a commentary of the Quran in thirty volumes “In the Shade of the Quran” (completed in 1965), and a religious political manifest “Milestones” (1964).[vi] Qutb used a simple and clear language in his works so the wider masses could understand them and the masses did indeed listen to him. The writings of Qutb discuss the leading role of Islam in the revival of society. He was convinced that adherence to Islamic law was the only way to salvation.

An influential forerunner of Qutb’s and a significant source of inspiration was Pakistani journalist, philosopher and cleric maulana Abul Ala Maudidi, who presented ideas on how Islamism could adapt to the requirements of the times, i.e., the 20th century. Maudidi lived and worked in Pakistan and published his works, including the book “Jihad in Islam”, in Urdu. Like Hasan al-Banna and then Qutb, Maudidi was against nationalism and believed that the fundament of the state of Pakistan should be formed by Islamic theology. His most important thesis was his belief that God is the sole sovereign of the state (the hakimiyyah principle).[vii] Therefore all human attempts to usurp power are un-Islamic and unacceptable. He maintained that Islam and politics form integral parts of each other.[viii]

Already at the beginning of the 20th century Maudidi expressed ideas with revolutionary undertones in his speech “Jihad in Islam”. Even though he was adamantly opposed to the ideas of Marxism and socialism, his message was delivered in a similar way. Using the language of Islam, Maudidi called for a global revolution which, would deliver social and economic justice based not on atheism as Marx proposed but on religious dogmas.

He claimed that the West misunderstood jihad due to two preconceptions, namely, that Islam was a regular religion and that Muslims are a nation. Having explained that Islam is not a system of beliefs and rites but rather “a revolutionary ideology and practice which aims at changing the social order of the world”, Maudidi provides the following definition: “Jihad is this revolutionary fight.”[ix] The revolutionary work of Muslim true believers should result in a fundamental change of worldwide social and political order, because, as Maudidi put it, “Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments which are opposed to the ideology and program of Islam, regardless of the country or the nation which rules it.”[x]

Qutb continued to work with and expand on Maudidi’s ideas. His most original and influential thesis was his conviction that the modern world of Islam had fallen back into jahiliyyah — a spiritual state before the creation of Islam — and as a result Islam had to be re-introduced. Just like the Arabs of the past had worshiped idols made from stone, so today they were venerating false deities — Nasser, country, party, socialism and so on. The root of all misfortunes, according to qutbists, was the replacement of God’s laws with human ones.

The question about the place of Islam in modern society forms the core of Qutb’s thoughts on theology and political science. In his writings he identified the imposition of European values on Islamic culture as one of the causes of failures in the Muslim world at the time. The values themselves are derived from a misguided interpretation of Jesus, a prophet recognized in Islam. Trying to please the rulers of Rome, the Christian theology performed a ‘schizophrenic’ separation of the realms of Caesar[1] and God, which are not and could not be separated in Islam. The attempts of the wise men of Christian Europe to separate everything — sacred and profane, state and religion, mind and soul — only intensified and have produced a peculiar situation. On one side the separation of material and spiritual realities enabled the economic and military boom of the Western world, but on the other side it also caused Europe’s spiritual crisis. Qutb’s ambition was to destroy this dual worldview, to dispose of the philosophical heritage of European Enlightenment and modernity and to return to the pure origins of Islam, where, in principle, there could be no doubt as to the integrity and wholeness of God. Namely, Qutb was convinced that by its very nature Islam could not be secular. And he found it depressing that Muslims, while flirting with the West, had forgotten about this as it was the exact source of their weakness.

Constantly stressing the importance of the principle of God’s sovereignty or hakimiyyah, Qutb tirelessly argued that the biggest problem is the ‘schizophrenic’ secularism which will be employed by ‘crusaders and zionists’ to undermine the Muslim community, which has already been infected with such ills as individualism, democracy, materialism, various sexual peculiarities etc. He believed in “a well thought out scheme” with objective “to shake the foundations of Islamic beliefs and then gradually to demolish the structure of Muslim society.”[xi] Yet the question of religion remained above everything else. Just like Samuel P. Huntington was to write 30 years later, Qutb warned that the conflict arises from a clash of religions. Diabolical crusaders and zionists wanted to annihilate Islam. This war, however, was not a physical fight for territory. Instead it was, in a very clever turn of phrase, first and foremost a spiritual and legal fight. Western secularists hoped to make Islam a ‘hobby’, something done in silence, in private and away from the public eye. But, according to Qutb, Islam is public and political. Islam is absolute, din wa dawla, it encompasses everything from private matters to public life. There is no such thing as partial Islam. Islam is whole or it is nothing.

The solution proposed by Qutb is a return to orthodox Islam as the basis for the order of all things. Only then will Muslims regain their lost honour and their place under the sun. Striving towards this goal is the duty of all Muslims. The greatest burden would be carried by a ‘vanguard’ — an elite of politically active true believers that would fight through jihad. In Qutb’s interpretation jihad is more than just the inner spiritual growth of an individual. He argued that jihad is not the defence against enemies, and even if it was, the concept of ‘defence’ should be reviewed. Qutb was right in pointing out that in a strictly theological sense Islam can not be reduced to a specific territory or particular people (unlike, for example, Judaism). This shows that Islam is universal and by the will of God it should spread all over the world. While the Pan-Arabism of Nasser sought to unite ethnic Arabs, the concept of Pan-Islamism stands for the protection of the religion of Islam rather than of any particular country. And with this initial mission successfully completed the next task is to travel to other lands to ‘liberate’ people from deception and establish the rule of God. So it is a fallacy on the part of atheists and Christians to think that jihadists oppose them out of aggression, as they are actually ‘protecting’ these poor souls from their own deception. Qutb was deeply convinced that sharia held the key to success. He saw sharia as liberty and deliverance from human law, since God’s law is not coercive. Qutb’s grand utopian project was an Islamic state ruled by sharia.

His life ended at the gallows on 29 August, 1966. An apocryphal story goes that shortly before the execution Nasser realised that Qutb could be more dangerous dead than alive. When Qutb was brought to the gallows, Nasser’s people offered him a presidential pardon if only Qutb would request it and repent his actions in public. Qutb turned down their offer. Just like when Socrates refused Crito’s offer to escape, Qutb explained that after so many years and words he is not allowed to give up at the last minute: “Sayyid looked up with his clear eyes. A smile which one cannot describe appeared on his face. He told the officer in a surprisingly calm tone: “Never! I would not exchange this temporary life with a life which will never disappear!””[xii]

Many people did hear the words of Qutb, including future leaders and members of terrorist organizations. Qutb’s ideas about jahiliyyah and excommunication or takfir made a long-lasting impact among radical Islamists. The idea, among others, that the Muslim community is actually un-Islamic and thus sinful, that the renaissance should be implemented by a narrow elite or vanguard, that Islam is incompatible with secular nationalism opened the door to terrorism practiced by Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and many other Islamic terrorist organizations. Qutb can be regarded as the first and chief ideologue of modern Islamic terror.

At the same time, his theological discourse causes a somewhat unpleasant problem. Three days after the start of the Iraq war, Paul Breman published an article on the life and ideas of Qutb and described him a “deep” philosopher who discussed extremely serious and philosophical life issues. The only reply the West could come up with was empty talk “of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion”. “This is no answer to terrorists,” writes Breman. “The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things.”[xiii] One can only agree with Berman that this task falls to philosophers and religious leaders. But they seem to be lacking the necessary mettle, which could not be said of warmongers. In this respect, Qutb might have been right. West has indeed fallen under the seductive spell of its own technological capabilities, moral daring and seemingly inexhaustible prosperity, while philosophy in general and social philosophy in particular appears to have run out of ideas at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century.[2]


[1] This is a reference to a rather controversial question that is open to interpretation and regards the relationships between the church, society and worldly authorities. At the centre of this argument is a phrase from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. (Matthew 22:21) In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

[2] A vivid example of this is the widely praised book Philosophy in a Time of Terror by Giovanna Borradori which was dedicated to evaluating the September 11 attacks. The book consists of an interview with the two most distinguished philosophers of their time — Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, but the replies contain nothing more than an iteration of their respective philosophical theories. Habermas keeps on talking about “communicative rationality”, describes terrorism as “communicative pathology” and looks for a solution in rebuilding a fundamental link of trust. As for Derrida, he considers terrorism to be “autoimmune disorder that threatens the life of participatory democracy”. While the philosophical ideas of the two gentlemen are undeniably outstanding, neither of them is qualified to comment the ideas, objectives and purpose behind Islamic terrorist organizations. See: Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida.


[i] For more on Nasser, Nasserism and Arab nationalism, see: Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. New Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016; Mansfield, Peter. “Nasser and Nasserism.” International Journal 28, no. 4 (December 1973): 670–88. doi:10.1177/002070207302800405.

[ii] Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam — p. 24.

[iii] For more about the life and ideas of Sayyid Qutb, see.: Calvert, John. Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009; Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Vintage Books, 2007 — pp. 9–37; Cook, David. “The Jihadists’ Mentor.” In The Theory and Practice of Islamic Terrorism: An Anthology, edited by Marvin Perry and Howard E. Negrin, 23–27. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

[iv] Qutb, Sayyid. “The America I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values.” In America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature, 1668 to 9/11 and Beyond, edited by Kamal Abdel-Malek and Mouna El Kahla, translated by Tarek Masoud and Ammar Fakeeh, 9–27. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 — p. 20.

[v] Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam — p. 32.

[vi] Qutb, Sayyid. In the Shade of the Qur’an. Translated by Adil Salhi and Ashur Shamis. Vols. I–XVIII. n.d.; Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Edited by A. B. al- Mehri. Birmingham: Maktabah Booksellers and publishers, 2006.

[vii] For more on the theology of hakimiyyah and jahiliyyah concepts, see: Khatab, Sayed. “Hakimiyyah and Jahiliyyah in the Thought of Sayyid Qutb.” Middle Eastern Studies  38, 3 (2002): 145-170.

[viii] For more on Maudidi’s ideas and activism, see.: Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam — pp. 32-36.

[ix] Maududi, Abul A’la. Jihād in Islām. Beirut: The Holy Koran Publishing House, 1980 — p. 5.

[x] Ibid. — p. 6.

[xi] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones – p. 128

[xii] Al-Musnad, Muhammad Abdul Aziz. Two Witnesses to Sayyid Qutb’s Hanging. Translated by Dr. Muhammad Amin Tawfiq. Islam Future. n.d. https://islamfuture.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/two-witnesses-to-sayyid-qutb-s-hanging.pdf

[xiii] Breman, Paul. “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror.” The New York Times. March 23, 2003. https://nyti.ms/2liKzFp