Muslim Intellectuals Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʿla Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb

Christopher Hurtado —  January 20, 2009
Muslim Intellectuals Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʿla Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb | Christopher Hurtado


This essay will compare and contrast the ideologies and vision of political Islam of Muslim intellectuals Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʿla Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb. Though Mawdudi’s ideologies and vision influenced Qutb’s, accounting for similarities in thought between them, the differences are significant. This essay will examine these similarities and differences in turn. It will demonstrate why Mawdudi was successful at changing India’s government and at spreading that change abroad while Qutb ultimately failed to change Egypt’s. Nevertheless, this essay will also show the far-reaching influence of Qutb’s thought.

Historical Background

Qutb was born in a small village in Upper Egypt and immigrated to Cairo to complete his education. There, he was educated in a Western style and rose in prominence as a writer and literary critic while working as a teacher and an inspector for the ministry of education. His primary concern and topic of writing at the time was the morality of the individual. This he held up to the standard of Islam as he understood it and sought to understand the reason for the lack of it around him. A two-year stint in the United States to earn a master’s degree while at the same time studying the U.S. educational system caused him to see the threat to Islamic morality in a new light.

Before his trip to the U.S., Qutb saw the threat to Islamic morality in Egypt in terms of British rule. After his trip to the U.S., he came to see it more generally as a result of Western individualism, capitalism and materialism. At the time of his return to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization he felt embodied Islam in action, as he perceived it should be, and was put in charge of their missionary call and publishing. At this time his writings turned more political and from individual morality to Islamic collectivism. Eventually, he was charged with sedition and sentenced to prison. There he was tortured. Not surprisingly, his views became even more radical.

Eventually, Qutb was released from prison. Following his release, Qutb published Milestones, perhaps his most radical treatise, based on prison writings, including his thirty-volume Qur’anic commentary. Shortly thereafter, when the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser, Qutb was jailed, convicted of sedition and sentenced to death with Milestones used as evidence against him.. His death by hanging made him a martyr. As a result, his writings have been more widely read and his influence has spread. Today, many regard him as the ideologue of Islamic terror. He has been cited by the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Like Qutb, Mawdudi was born in a less cosmopolitan area and moved to a more cosmopolitan place to complete his education. Like Qutb, Mawdudi gained prominence as a writer and was called upon by an Islamic organization for this reason. Like Qutb, Mawdudi wrestled with the decline of Muslims in his country and rejected non-Islamic influences he saw as its cause. Like Qutb, Mawdudi wrote his own Qur’anic commentary. Also like Qutb, Mawdudi wrote on jihad, basing his interpretation of it on his Qur’anic exegesis. Both Qutb and Mawdudi joined an activist Islamic organization. Unlike Qutb, Mawdudi went on to found a political party and work within the system towards change.

Critical Analysis

Both Qutb and Mawdudi saw Islam as holistic ideology to challenge Western ideologies. Specifically, both sought to supplant socialism and capitalism, which they viewed as responsible for decline of Islam with Islam, which they viewed as a viable socio-political system. Ironically, both expounded their views within the constraints of Western discourse. Both read Islam in terms of radical exegesis, seeing a clash between Islam and the West. Both saw this struggle ending in a revolution resulting in a utopian Islamic state. Mawdudi’s revolution would be one social reform leading to the Islamization of society before the implementation of an Islamic state, whereas Qutb’s would impose an Islamic state in order to achieve his utopian vision.

Both Mawdudi and Qutb called for an Islamic state founded on sharia. Both believed Muslims would opt for this order once they became aware of its viability and superiority over Western models. Thus, both issued a da’wah, or missionary call with this goal in mind. However, when the people failed to respond, Mawdudi used the political process to spur change, whereas Qutb, giving up on the da’wa after Nasser came to power, called for violent jihad to overthrow jahili (un-Islamic) governments and institutions. In contrast, Mawdudi continued to borrow from Western models in shaping his Islamic government.

Because Mawdudi sought to Islamize society before implementing an Islamic state, his emphasis was on education. Furthermore, he saw the process of Islamization as a gradual one. Mawdudi’s saw the Islamization of the state before the Islamization of society as a recipe for failure since the people would not willingly submit to the state. Mawdudi’s vision of an Islamic state was democratic in the sense that it would not include divisive socio-political issues, but not in the sense that it would accommodate a diversity of social interests. In other words, if the will of the people were sharia, implementing it would legitimate an Islamic state.

Because Qutb had concluded that Egypt’s ruler and his people were jahilli, he no longer saw the option of working from within Egypt’s government to change it in order to realize his vision of a utopian Islamic state. His radical interpretation of jahilliyah (pre-Islamic ignorance) and takfir (apostasy), though not altogether different from Mawdudi’s, led him, in his circumstances, unlike Mawdudi, to the conclusion that he must call upon a vanguard of true Muslims to revolt against the jahilli government in order to establish an Islamic one that would in turn impose sharia on the people, bringing them back to Islam. Thus, his was a bottom up approach as compared to Mawdudi’s top down approach.


Mawdudi and Qutb had much in common. Indeed, Mawdudi influenced Qutb. Nevertheless, while their ideologies may have meshed, Qutb’s circumstances led him to posit a radically different vision in terms of implementation. While Mawdudi worked largely within India’s secular government to change it from within and was largely successful in effecting the desired moderate change he sought and in spreading it abroad, Qutb fought against Egypt’s government from without to bring about the radical change he desired and ultimately failed to effect that change. Nevertheless, his influence was far-reaching and remains in effect today.


Works Cited

Rahnema, Ali. Pioneers of Islamic Revival. New York: Zed Books, 2008.

Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.

One response to Muslim Intellectuals Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʿla Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb

  1. I appreciated your straightforward comparison of these two very important figures in Islamic ideology. I understand that your goal here was to be objective and not to pass judgment on these figures.
    I have to question the characterization of Qutb as an “intellectual” – his chapter on riba in his “In the shade of the Koran” reads like a personal rant and diatribe without any analytic content whatsoever. Riba, which he defines as interest, is said to be responsible for all the evils of western society, particularly sex, drugs, and rock n roll. As for Maududi, it is a tragedy for Pakistan that the moderate and innovative scholar Fazlur Rahman was run out of the country by Maududi’s mobs.