Sayyid Qutb was born in Egypt
and sent to the gallows
there in 1966
. During his life he published 24 books, and revolutionized Islam
ic political and religious thought. His work is responsible for moving Islamic countries
away from pseudo-secular
capitalism -- which he argued came from West
ern influence -- and toward a life-style based completely on the Quran
. It can be safely said that there would be no modern Islamic fundamentalist movement without Qutb's writings.
Qutb received a BA in teaching Arabic language in 1939, and joined the Egyptian ministry of education. While there he had several articles published, and after six years decided to leave the ministry and do freelance writing. At that time he was publishing mostly secular work about the philosophy of education, but over the next few years his writing became more relative on Islamic thought. In late 1948 the ministry of education sponsored his trip to the US to get a master's degree in education, in return for work with the ministry when he came back
Earlier in 1948 he had published the book which became synonymous with his name in Muslim countries, Social Justice in Islam. In it he made clear his view that a country which claimed to be Islamic and enforce Islamic law, but still dealt with the West on all its own terms, couldn't really be called an Islamic country. Instead of trying to keep Islam by enforcing laws on essentially secular people, he argued, the Quran should be followed by everybody and correct laws would naturally follow. This approach was unpopular with the then-current Egyptian regime, since it wasn't very religious but did enjoy the money it had made dealing with the West. Fortunately for Qutb, by the time the book was on their radar, he was out of the country.
Visiting America crystallized Qutb's views of the West, and the USA in particular. He was dismayed by the lack of spirituality and sexual restraint of the late nineteen-forties (!), as well as the crass and materialistic culture. Qutb decided to return to Egypt after reading a New York Times article on the assassination of Imam Hasan al-Banna, which he considered a martyrdom. The sentence which read "Sheik Hasan el-Banna, 39-year-old head of the outlawed Moslem Brotherhood extremist Egyptian nationalist movement that was banned after authorities had declared it responsible for a series of bombing outrages and killings last year, was shot five times by a group of young men in a car and died tonight in hospital" alone contained enough false information and accusation to infuriate Qutb. He received his master's in 1950, and immediately returned to Egypt.
Qutb's writing was instrumental to the Free Officers group which was plotting to overthrow Egypt's king Farouk and put in place an Islamic state. Unfortunately, in 1954, after the coup was over and Gamal Abd al-Nasser had come into power, the political group Qutb belonged to was outlawed, and he was sent to prison. He would stay in prisons of one form or another almost all of the time before his execution in 1966, publishing books and articles all the while.
After his fifteen year sentence was up, he was released from prison and published Milestones (also translated as Sign Posts on the Road). In this book he decried the current Nassarite Egyptian regime, as well as other supposedly Muslim governments, as jahiliyya, the Arabic word for persons ignorant of Islam. Instead of thinking of jihad as a description of specific events, it should be a continuous activity taken up by all Muslims to ensure Allah's sovereignty on earth. Where other contemporary Islamic philosophers viewed political activity as the path to an Islamic state, Qutb wrote that it was only a tool, and secondary to following the rules of the Quran.
The ideas presented in Milestones were viewed as a threat by Nassar, and Sayyid Qutb was brought back into custody in 1965. Nassar gave him a chance to plead for his mercy by petition, but Qutb replied "If I have done something wrong in the eyes of Allah, I do not deserve mercy; but if I have not done anything wrong, I should be set free without having to plead for mercy from any mortal." After eight months in prison, and many appeals for his freedom from many Islamic states, he was hanged in 1966.