Small Wars Journal

Sayyid Qutb’s “Milestones” and Its Impact on the Arab Spring

Thu, 05/09/2013 - 3:30am

Author's Note:  Steven wishes to thank CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN for his edits and for encouraging him to publish this work.   

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not reflectthe official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Sayyid Qutb is considered the father of modern fundamentalism and is described by his (Arab) biographer as "the most famous personality of the Muslim world in the second half of the 20th century".[1]  Qutb is credited by Karen Armstrong, a scholar on religious affairs, as “the real founder of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sunni world”.[2]  She states “Every Sunni fundamentalist movement has been influenced by Qutb.”[3]  Qutb’s writings distort Islam and exhort “Muslims to separate themselves from mainstream society and engage in violent jihad.”[4]   His writings and legacy are admired by parts of the Muslim Brotherhood and found in Al Qaeda’s ideology in advocating violence against every current government and society because all are in a state of “Jahiliyyah” (Apostasy).   Qutb advocated Jihad to force society to submit to God alone.  His book “Milestones” has become a manifesto for Jihadists seeking to free Muslims from Jahiliyyah and to establish “Divine Law” (al-Shari’ah) to bring about man’s submission to God.  Of note, there are various interpretations of Shari’ah, so in essence Qutb advocates an interpretation in his image, wishing to impose this on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.[5]  This essay will review Qutb’s arguments to legitimize Jihad, discuss the problems posed by his arguments and then examine how “Milestones” has influenced the Arab Spring and its implications to National Security in interacting with the Muslim Brotherhood and defeating Al Qaeda.

Qutb’s Premise

Qutb introduces Milestones with “Mankind…is on the brink of a precipice…because humanity is devoid of those vital values necessary for healthy development” and “real progress.”[6]  He discounts western democracy as being infertile of life giving ideas and he discounts Marxism because it conflicts man’s nature and needs.[7]  Qutb asserts Islam is the only system harmonious with human values, positive, constructive and practicable.[8]  His vision is a revived Islam returned to its original form when Mohammad was in Mecca to exert a leadership role over mankind.   In order to attract mankind, Islam must satisfy human needs through faith and material benefits in a Muslim society.[9]  Qutb asserts only the Islamic way of life frees men from the servitude of other men and allows them to worship God deriving guidance from him alone.  To accomplish this, a vanguard of believers will march through the Jahiliyyah world to bring about its conversion through Jihad.  Qutb wrote Milestones to show the vanguard of believers the starting point, nature, responsibilities and purpose of the journey.[10]

The Starting Point

Qutb looks to the companions of Prophet Mohammad as the first generation steeped in pure Islam through their direct interaction with the Prophet.  Qutb asserts this first generation received the pure Quran; while later generations tainted by exposure to Greek, Persian, Jewish and Christian ideas, were never able to rise to the same level as the first generation.[11]  The first generation approached the Quran to learn what God prescribed for living a life, while subsequent generations looked to the Quran for knowledge, literature, discussion, learning, culture and information.  This first generation would immediately cut itself off from Jahiliyyah while subsequent generations would not.  Therefore, Qutb asserts the differences between Muslims today from past generations are due to the gradual introduction of non-Muslim ideas.  To Qutb, the first step to freedom is to cut oneself off from Jahili Society and re-assert a true from of Islamic expression.   

The Qur’anic Method

Qutb shifts to describing the nature of the Qur’anic method.  He chooses to focus Milestones only on the 13 years Mohammad spent in Mecca from 609 to 622 A.D.  Qutb asserts the Prophet Mohammad’s time in Mecca focused on the question of man’s existence and the relationship of man with God and the universe.  Qutb asserts those seeking to establish the Muslim way of life should ponder that God expounded the faith and did not describe a faith system or laws of Muslim society during this time.  Arab society was driven by greed, envy and the sword.  To proclaim a social movement would have further fractured Arab society.    This period resulted in “There is no deity except God” which penetrates the heart and the obedience abolishes the habits of the “Days of Ignorance”.[12]  Faith grows through the slow progress of society understanding the Divine System.  Jahiliyyah society rejects the Divine System and distorts the method in which Islamic belief matures.  Muslims must therefore reject anything Jahiliyyah and adopt Islamic method of submitting only to God.

Qutb asserts that people understood the religion taught by the prophets, but Shirk (ascribing attributes, power and authority of God to others) resulted in Jahiliyyah reasserting its control over the world.  He advocated a new system in the form of an active, organized and distinct group emerging on the battlefield to abolish the Jahali system like Mohammad did in Mecca.[13]  These groups of peoples will reassert Islam civilization as taught by the Prophet Mohammad.  In summary, Qutb asserts only Islam is the divine way of life bringing out noble human characteristics needed to construct society. 

Jihad in the Cause of God

Qutb begins his discussion of Jihad in Milestones by quoting from Ibn Qayyim’s book Zad al-Mi’ad on the treatment of unbelievers and hypocrites.[14]   According to Ibn Qayyim, the Prophet Mohammad initially called the people to reform through preaching.  Later God granted the Prophet Mohammad permission to migrate, and finally God commanded the Prophet Mohammad to fight those who made war on him and to fight the polytheists.  After God gave the command for Jihad, nonbelievers were divided into three classes; those at peace, those at war, and finally the Dhimmies (those who have submitted to the authority of Muslim rule).[15]  In Zad al-Mi’ad , the chapter Bara’ah describes the treatment of the non-believers and exhorts that war should be declared on the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) until they pay Jiziyah (tax) or accept Islam.[16]  Qutb regarded Ibn Qayyim’s description of the stages of Jihad as an excellent method for treating non-believers because it treats people as they are.  It uses preaching and persuasion to change beliefs and violence of Jihad to destroy Jahili organizations and authorities.  It progresses stage to stage to destroy Jahili political systems and calls for the submission to One God without compromise.  Finally, it provides a legal basis for Islam’s legal relationship with other groups.  Every individual is free to accept and those who reject Islam are fought until they submit or die.  The rationale for Jihad includes establishing God’s authority on earth, arranging human affairs according to God’s true guidance, abolishing satanic forces and ending the lordship of one man over others.[17]  Therefore, the Islamic community has the God given right to take political control to establish Shari’ah – the Divine system on earth.[18]

Qutb’s Islamic Way of Life

Qutb further describes the Islamic way of life in Milestones.  The Muslim society is based on the worship of God alone. A Jahili society is one which does not dedicate itself to submission of God alone in beliefs, worship and legal regulations.  Qutb claims all existing societies are jahili.  Communism is jahili because it deprives man of spiritual needs.  The idolatrous societies found in Asia are jahili because they believe in other gods.  Jews and Christians are jahili through distortion of original beliefs and Shirk for making Jesus equal to God.  Therefore, they are un-Islamic and illegal.

Qutb then declares God has prescribed Shari’ah as law for man’s voluntary actions as part of the universal law governing the universe.  Obedience to Shari’ah is necessary to achieve harmony and peace for mankind.  Shari’ah according to Qutb means “…everything legislated by God for ordering man’s life to include the principles of belief, principles of administration and justice, principles of morality and human relationships, and principles of knowledge.”[19]  The only home of Islam (Dar-ul-Islam) is where the Islamic state exists and Shari’ah is the authority, God’s limits are observed, and the state is managed by mutual consultation.[20]  Any place where Shari’ah is not enforced and Islam is not dominant is the abode of war (Dar-ul-Harb).  The believer is superior through conscience, understanding, morals and manners preventing him from wavering during hardship and martyrdom.

Qutb concludes Milestones by discussing persecution and the story of the makers of the pit (Surah 85: Al Buruj: 4-8).  According to Qutb, the makers of the pit burned early believers alive for their faith.  But the faith of the believers raised them above persecution and freed them from the worship of this life.  Qutb emphasizes true believers can triumph over fear, pain and persecution through faith.  In effect, Qutb is exhorting believers to martyrdom in the Jihad against the Jahili.   He calls for victory of the spirit and dominance in the world, which he argues happened to the first generation of Muslims.

Problems with Qutb’s Arguments

Qutb’s arguments in Milestones have many shortfalls and issues associated with them.  Qutb asserts Islam is the only value system without testing his hypothesis.  He discounts Christianity and Judaism without serious discussion and declares them Jahili because of the charge they changed their books and use priests and rabbis instead of appealing directly to God.  A Christian apologist would challenge this charge by stating their faith and the bible are protected from apostasy through the magisterium of the church, but they would not be able to get past the next charge they are liars guilty of Jahili and are not to be believed.  The routes of debate are cutoff before they begin!  Qutb focuses only on the 13 years Mohammad was in Mecca.  He weaves the scenario of Mohammad being commanded by God first to meditate, then preach to his neighbors, slowly expand his preaching before finally being commanded to fight non-believers.  He ignores the complexity of the Prophet Mohammad’s history and biography to included being an arbitrator, that he only began fighting when he was attacked and migrated to Medina after the Meccan Genocide of Muslims became intolerable.[21]  “Mohammad achieved victory by an ingenious policy of non-violence; the Quran adamantly opposed force and coercion in religious matters, and its vision…was tolerant and inclusive.”[22]  Qutb mythologizes the first generation of Muslims as the most pure cutting themselves off from the Jahili.  This is counter to the role of Muslims to live as social beings within the world.[23]  He declares Shari'ah as divine law to be followed, but does not specify from the many versions of Shari'ah which is to be followed.  Finally he only focuses on Jihad in terms of violence against unbelievers and ignores the other aspects of Jihad such as internal struggle and proselytizing.  Mohammad espoused conversion or paying tax while Qutb follows Ibn Qayyim’s extreme view of Jihad until submission or death.  Notable is that Ibn Qayyim is a disciple of Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1327) whose opinions are of an Islamic polity and the demonization of non-Muslims and Muslims who do not share his view are part of the important works for Militant Islamists.[24]  Qutb ignores the larger aspects of these issues while over simplifying trends and legacies of Prophet Mohammed.  As a result, he only focuses on views supporting his assertion Jihad is the only way to force Jahilis to submit to God and the Quran.

Qutb's Impact on the Arab Spring

The event triggering the Arab Spring can be traced to 17 December 2010 when a police woman confiscated the vegetable cart of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia.[25]  In despair, Bouazizi immolated himself in front of a local government building.  His act set off protests demanding political, economic and social freedom in Tunisia and then spread across the Middle East.    This should have created an environment rich for Qutb’s ideology to flourish, but this has not occurred.  Instead it has pitted a moderated Muslim Brotherhood against Al Qaeda associated movements.

The Muslim Brotherhood leader Umar Tilmisini renounced violent jihad as a domestic strategy in the 1970s in order to play a part in Egyptian society when President Anwar Sadat allowed the Brotherhood to join the political process, albeit illegally.[26]  The Muslim Brotherhood considers Egyptian society as corrupt, but not under a foreign occupation requiring a violent overthrow.  They have shifted from violent Jihad to politics while still retaining Qutb as an ideologue.  According to Professor Nathan Brown, the Brotherhood rationalizes this disparity.

“First, they claim critics should take note of the broad array of Qutb's writings and not focus on a few revolutionary pages. Second, they … explain away those revolutionary ideas by claiming they were produced after Qutb had been arrested and tortured; they are the product of dire conditions ...  Third, Qutb's defenders claim Qutb stated, "I never declared anybody an apostate"; he was denouncing social and political practices and not targeting individuals. The book Preachers Not Judges, attributed to Gen. Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi, is … trying to correct some of the erroneous conclusions that a few zealots had drawn from Qutb's writings after the latter's execution.”[27]

The Muslim Brotherhood has shifted its emphasis from building a vanguard of Jihadists to building a vanguard of political workers and politicians.  The Muslim Brotherhood entered Egyptian politics to change the system; and politics has instead changed the Muslim Brotherhood.  The need for internal change started in the early 1990s when members began pushing for change in the party’s position on ideology, women rights, party pluralism, transparency, accountability and even the “old guard’s” monopoly on power.[28]  The Muslim Brotherhood no longer is trying to establish a minority vanguard, but to move all of Egyptian Society into an Islamic Society. [29] Therefore, Qutb’s call for a Muslim Society and Shari'ah as Divine Law has become a political slogan rather than forced submission through violent means.  “It should be noted that the current Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi is caught between secularists and Salafis, and attempts to impose an Islamic vision has backfired on the streets as it presumes the favoring of an Islamic interpretation over others.  In addition, there have been odd alliances made to oppose Morsi, and includes the on and off alliances between the secularists and Salafis in what would be called the National Salvation front.” [30]

The Brotherhood’s participation in the electoral process is in conflict with the aspirations of Al Qaeda.    Al Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are both believed to have been taught Qutb’s writings by his brother Mohammad Qutb while enrolled in King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  Al Qaeda uses Qutb’s argument that violence is the only way to force change.  Ayman al Zawahiri long demanded Egyptian youth to take up arms against the Mubarak regime.[31]  Instead, the youth took their iPods, and cellphones, organized peacefully over social media, and brought down the Mubarak government without firing a shot.  Another danger to Al Qaeda is democracy which it regards as blasphemous.[32]  This charge of blasphemy is based on the concept in Milestones that institution and law not based on submission to God alone are Jahili.[33]  Democracy is a threat to Al Qaeda because less repressive leaders deprive Al Qaeda of its message that violence is required to stop repression.  Osama Rushdi, former spokesman for al Gama’a al-Islamiyya, once Egypt’s most important jihadist group, explained this best when he said “If you have freedom, Al Qaeda will go away.”[34]

As proof of the threat of democracy to Al Qaeda, the youth are leading transformational change in both the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood.  It was the youth through social media who organized the protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  It was the youth in the Muslim Brotherhood who dragged their “old guard” leadership into the Tahrir Square protests and are pushing reform within the organization and challenging the “old guard's” monopoly on power.  The youth are a potential threat to the Al Qaeda recruiting base as Arab youth are afire with very different ideas of freedom and non-violent action.[35]

Implications for National Security

The Arab Spring represents opportunities and risks for U.S. National Security.  First, political participation has shown it can be an opportunity to de-radicalize jihadi groups if they want a larger voice in Muslim society.  This indicates U. S. policy should encourage engagement in the political society when jihadist organizations are willing to participate as a means to begin their de-radicalization.  Second, U.S. policy needs to capitalize on the potential clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and freedom-oriented populations by ensuring the differences are publicly aired and acknowledged within the affected country.  Positive outcomes, such as the youth successfully overthrowing a repressive government through peaceful demonstrations, should be advertised to discredit jihadist ideology.  The United States needs to encourage self-determination and freedom in the Middle East to help eliminate repression which Al Qaeda depends on to sustain its recruitment.

There is risk in using these policies to integrate Islamists and jihadists into the mainstream political process.  The U.S. must ensure Al Qaeda and jihadists cannot exploit the political process for their own ends.  The U.S. should use aid, recognition and other agreements to shape the local environment the best it can. [36] The U.S. must emphasize and broadcast the support it gets from the local Muslims and Arab States. [37]  The U.S. should seek to gain the trust of the new regime to foster engagement leading to collaboration against Al Qaeda.  Finally, the U.S. should train the intelligence and security forces of new regimes as they form to become counter weights to Al Qaeda.[38]


This analysis draws a very different picture from some in the mass media depicting the Muslim Brotherhood as helping reinstitute the Caliphate to threaten the West.  While it is not democracy in the American image, the Arab Spring has the potential to change the dynamics in the Middle East and bring Islamists into conflict with jihadists.  It illustrates the effect political action has in moderating the Islamist message while potentially drowning out the jihadist message.  Qutb started the jihadist movement, but there are now political and powerful forces changing his radical call from Jihad into a discussion of what constitutes an Islamic Society based on freedom, self-determination and the rule of law.  Instead of a monolithic radical Islam resurrecting the Caliphate to subjugate the West as some purport in the media,  the world is facing an Islam struggling internally to define what it means to be a 21st Century Muslim in  terms of freedom and self-determination.

[1]  Robert Irwin. 2001. After September 11: Is this the man who inspired bin laden?: Robert Irwin on Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern islamist fundamentalism. The Guardian 2001.

[2] Karen Armstrong.  2002.  Islam:  A Short History.  The Modern Library. Random House Books.

pg 169

[3]  Ibid., pg 170

[4] Ibid., pg 169

[5] CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN.  Feb 2012.  Interview notes

[6] Quṭb, Sayyid, 1903 – 1966. 1981. Milestones. Cedar Rapids, IA: Mother Mosque Foundation. pg 7

[7]  Ibid., pg 8

[8]  Ibid., pg 8

[9]  Ibid., pg 10

[10]  Ibid., pg 12

[11]  Ibid., pg 17

[12]  Ibid., pgs 32-33

[13]  Ibid., pgs 48-49

[14] Ibid., pg 31

[15] Ibid.,pg 31

[16] Ibid., pg 31

[17]  Ibid., pg 70

[18]  Ibid., pg 74

[19]  Ibid., pg 107

[20]  Ibid., pg 118

[21] CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN.  Feb 2012.  Interview notes

[22] Karen Armstrong.  2002.  Islam:  A Short History.  The Modern Library. Random House Books. pg 169

[23] CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, Nov 2012.  Class discussion: “Islam, Islamist Political Theory and Militant Islamist Ideology:  Understanding Nuance”, Eisenhower School, NDU

[24] CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN.  Feb 2012.  Interview notes

[25] Gideon Rose, 2012, Introduction, The Arab Revolt, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations

[26] Carrie Wickham, 2011, The Muslim Brotherhood after Mubarak, Foreign Affairs,  Council on Foreign Relations

[27] Nathan Brown, 2010, The Muslim Brotherhood’s (and Egypt’s) Qutb Conundrum, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations

[28] Carrie Wickham, 2011, The Muslim Brotherhood after Mubarak, Foreign Affairs,  Council on Foreign Relations

[29] Nathan Brown, 2010, The Muslim Brotherhood’s (and Egypt’s) Qutb Conundrum, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations

[30]  CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN. Feb 2012.  Interview notes

[31] Daniel Byman, 2011, Terrorism After the Revolutions, How Secular Uprisings Could Help (or Hurt) Jihadists, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations,

[32]  Ibid.,

[33] Quṭb, Sayyid, 1903-1966. 1981. Milestones. Cedar Rapids, IA: Mother Mosque Foundation. Pg 82

[34]. Daniel Byman, 2011, Terrorism After the Revolutions, How Secular Uprisings Could Help (or Hurt) Jihadists, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations,

[35]  Ibid., pg 373

[36]  Ibid., pg 379

[37]  Ibid., pg 379

[38]  Ibid., pg 379


About the Author(s)

Steven G. Zenishek is a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) employee and a student of the Eisenhower School for National Strategy and Resource Management, National Defense University.   He is an Air Force veteran who served in both the Missile Combat Crew and Acquisition career fields, deployed to Saudi Arabia during Persian Gulf War and developed C2ISR systems in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He has served in a variety of operations, headquarters staff and program management positions.