Global Jihad
A Brief History
Glenn E. Robinson




FOR A WORD THAT GENERATES A GREAT DEAL OF POPULAR MEDIA attention and usually terrifies the imaginations of the ill-informed, the word jihad is remarkably poorly understood in the West. The word comes from the common Arabic root j-h-d (most Arabic and Hebrew words have a three-letter root from which related words are constructed), with the verb form meaning “to make an effort” or “to struggle.” It is not exclusively or even mostly a religious word. Indeed, forms of the word are used commonly in nonreligious phrasing, typically around the notion of trying really hard to do something.

In religious terms, jihad has two meanings popularly accepted today, both of which have generally positive connotations to Muslims. First, it can mean “jihad of the sword” (jihad al-sayf), religiously sanctioned armed violence carried out in defense of Islam, Muslim territory, or Muslim lives—all of which are seen to be beneficial attributes. Religious jihad has a second popular meaning: to struggle against forbidden temptations. It is a personal struggle to lead a more upright, pious life (jihad al-nafs). This latter definition is often referred to by Muslims as the “greater jihad” (jihad akbar) in reference to a (contested) hadith, or saying, of the prophet Muhammad. In this book the word jihad is used overwhelmingly in the context of jihad al-sayf, jihad of the sword, where ideologues call for armed violence to advance a political agenda under the banner of Islam. Such violence is rarely sanctioned by proper religious authority. Thus, according to Islamic jurisprudence, the calls for violence described in this book are almost always illicit.

Global jihad is a new phenomenon, dating back only to the 1980s, although its intellectual origins can be traced to a century ago. The early part of the twentieth century was a time when the Muslim world was riven by conflict and competing intellectual currents. The rise of European industrial and military power in the nineteenth century had by this point in history overwhelmed the Muslim world, establishing colonies, protectorates, mandates, spheres of influence, and other forms of imperial domination from Morocco to Indonesia. Western dominion throughout Asia and Africa in many ways was like every other conquering army over the course of history, where sheer power and force of arms were sufficient to conquer and mostly pacify vast stretches of land and peoples. And, like in previous cases of conquest, there were many examples of local populations both fighting European conquerors as well as working with them. The difference in this case was that the British, French, and other European powers brought with them in conquest not just raw military strength but institutions of government, education, law, and society that produced extraordinary wealth, efficiency, and opportunity that appealed to many in the subject populations.

Exporting the seeds of Western modernity around the globe was no humanitarian mission or “white man’s burden.” It was, first and foremost, a means to make colonial domination sustainable. Educating a class of indigenous civil servants in modern, scientific methods could provide the kind of rational bureaucracy that would make a colony run efficiently for generations to come. Building a railroad infrastructure was typically about getting local raw materials to European markets for processing into finished goods for resale. Having a functioning legal system protected private property and the underpinnings of this new system. European domination was less about the rule of law than it was about rule through law. Liberal governmental structures at home in Europe were rarely for purposeful export to colonies. Still, those democratic institutions and their philosophical foundations could not help but seep into local systems and consciousness in a beguiling way.

In other words, European domination of the Muslim world was a complicated affair, marked by brutality and supremacy but also containing within it the seeds of powerful and appealing new forms of society and economy. European modernity, exported through the barrel of a gun, was both ruthless and enticing at the same time. Not surprisingly, there was a vast spectrum of response by Muslims (and other subject populations) to this new form of domination. While some Muslims saw the promise of European modernity and sought to embrace it fully, many more sought instead some hybrid form of synergy between a revered religious heritage and culture as well as the appeal of selective European legal and economic institutions and practices. Still others saw no good coming from such new and foreign practices, and sought to reject them root and branch. It was an intellectually turbulent time.

One of these many and varied responses by Muslims in this stormy period was to construct a new discourse and social movement that today we call Islamism. Islamism arose from the educated urban middle classes and sought to construct a form of modernity that was strongly anticolonial, that rejected much of European sensibilities, and that promoted the ascendancy of Islam in the public square. Islamist arguments centered mostly on the nature of the state, of what a modern nation-state should look like that was focused on Islam (or at least their interpretation of Islam). It is important to remember that Islamist debates on the proper nature of political power in the modern era did not represent traditional, time-honored deliberations in Islam. The very idea of nation-states and the institutions of the modern state—not of empires, which had dominated the Muslim world—were mostly new concepts throughout the Muslim world, brought via European colonialism. Indeed, those ideas were relatively new to Europe as well, where they had grown organically out of European realities and battles in the previous two centuries. Marrying new concepts of a modern state to a belief that Islam must dominate the public square in any proper Muslim country was an intellectual challenge for Islamists in the twentieth century that had not been germane to previous generations of Muslims.

The premier organizational response coming out of Islamist circles from these debates was the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928 (on which more below).1 While Islamism represented the first intellectual precursor for the later emergence of global jihad, with its strident politicization of the religion of Islam, it failed to fundamentally change the nature of politics in the Middle East during the four decades following the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Most Muslims in most parts of the Muslim world simply did not accept the kind of arguments about politics and religion that Islamists were putting forward, least of all the political elites who mostly followed a type of secular politics. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations were somewhat influential but were hardly momentous and consequential groups throughout much of the twentieth century.

Frustration by some Islamists at the failure of political Islamism to foundationally change the nature of politics in the Muslim world and to push forward an agenda of creating Islamic states led to the emergence in the 1960s of a second intellectual precursor to global jihad: arguments for the use of violence under the banner of jihad to overthrow local regimes, capture states by force, and implement some version of an Islamic state (there is no consensus over what such a state should look like). But that effort largely failed as well, despite the occasionally dramatic event, such as the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981. The group that pulled off the assassination was crushed, its leaders executed, and its lesser members imprisoned. It would take years to rebuild. The inability of local jihadism to capture state power anywhere in the Sunni Muslim world represented a starting point for much of the intellectual effort concerning the idea of global jihad in the waning years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century. They asked themselves: What is preventing local jihadis from capturing power and advancing their various political causes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world? Global jihadis believed that there was a systemic problem at the global level that had to be addressed, through violence under the banner of Islam, before their success could be assured. Neither the political work of Islamists nor the violent actions of local jihadis represented sufficient leverage to change the system and achieve their broader aspirations.

Of course, broader debates about the relationship between religion and politics go back to the beginning of Islam. Muslims have debated how best to form and manage a proper political community ever since. As with similar debates within Christendom, opinions have ranged far and wide as to the proper relationship between faith and polity, and to the nature of the polity itself. While secularism has many supporters in the contemporary Muslim world, there is a broad tradition within Islam that rejects a wall separating mosque and state. The idea of secularism in the Muslim world has walked a tightrope for centuries between its pragmatic partial adoption by various rulers and the “dogmatic no” of orthodoxy.2 The point here is that debates over the proper relationship between religion and political power—between din wa dawla—has a long history in Islam, as it does in other religious traditions.

But Islamism was a new phenomenon in multiple ways, including in the kinds of demands it made on the political system and on society as well as in the sociological community from which it arose: an urban, educated middle class, which itself was a new phenomenon with shallow historical roots. Islamists, like everyone else, were trying to make sense of the organizational and institutional political arrangements embodied in the modern state, while at the same time trying to rid their lands of foreign occupiers (a much more old-fashioned kind of goal) and preserve their own cultural and ideological traditions. The Islamist movement, born a century ago, has proved to be exceptionally durable as it captures the political sentiments of several hundred million Muslims around the world. Put another way, gauging by various elections and public opinion surveys, there are about as many adult Islamists in the world as there are people living in the United States.

Since the term Islamism is often thrown around without much precision, let us define exactly what we mean by the word. The term encompasses a broad array of people and groups over the past century, so generalizations have many historical exceptions. That said, Islamism may be defined as a sociopolitical movement seeking to create a modern version of an Islamic state, typically through political (nonviolent) means. There is a lot to unpack in that definition, so allow me to focus on the four principal components of the definition. First, Islamism is a sociopolitical movement, particularly in recent decades. In its first years of existence, Islamism was confined to a relatively small segment of society, but since the 1970s, it has typically represented around 25 percent of the adult population of Muslim-majority countries and has been well institutionalized.3 Often, Islamism has been the single largest sociopolitical movement in Muslim-majority countries.4 Second, Islamists seek to create a modern state and society. This is how Islamists are different from traditional Salafis, the “ultra-orthodox” within Islam. Salafis seek to recreate an imagined Islamic polity from the seventh century. Indeed, historically, the ultra-fundamentalist Salafi Muslims are apolitical, wishing to focus on piety, not politics.5 Islamists, by contrast, seek to merge political modernity with Islam, to create an ideal state that reflects a modern interpretation of Islam. Third, that state is to be Islamic in some essential sense, although frankly there is no consensus on what a modern Islamic state is supposed to look like precisely.

Finally, Islamists have focused on using political, nonviolent means to achieve their goals. This is the fundamental difference that sets Islamists apart from jihadis: Islamists believe in grassroots, bottom-up, political work, while jihadis—both local and global—believe in the necessity of violence, of top-down direct action against the state. I do not mean to imply that Islamists have never resorted to violence; they have. But Islamists do not view violence as a central, necessary component to achieve their political ends, while jihadis do. Jihadis believe that political means have been blocked, typically by a corrupt and apostate system, while Islamists are typically willing to “get their hands dirty” working nonviolently within the political system if allowed to do so. The centrality of violence to their program is what sets all types of jihadis apart from Islamists.

The quintessential organizational expression of Islamism has been the Muslim Brotherhood. But even after its founding in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism more broadly remained relatively marginal to the broader strokes of Muslim history. I do not mean to suggest that the Brotherhood was wholly unimportant during its first four decades of existence, but rather that there were more important intellectual and political currents. For example, nationalism was far more important and consequential in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world than Islamism was during much of the twentieth century, especially before the 1970s. This was a time and a political culture when it was possible to mock the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, as, for example, Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser in Egypt would do, without fear of serious political consequences.6 It was only in the 1970s that Islamism truly found its voice and became a major political force in the Muslim world.

The overall failure of Islamism to either seize political power or fundamentally change society gave rise to the ideology of jihadism, for radicals to argue that Islamism’s emphasis on political work had failed and would never lead to the construction of an Islamic state in Egypt or anywhere else.7 Indeed, the argument about the failure of political work to advance an Islamic state, and thus the need for armed action under the banner of Islam, began to arise at the same time in the 1960s in both the Sunni world (especially Egypt) and the Shia world (especially Iran). In both places, the intellectual foundations to justify armed jihad against the state were being built by ideologues who would later become synonymous with modern jihadism. For example, contemporary Sunni jihadism was founded in 1964 when an Egyptian by the name of Sayyid Qutb published a slim volume that radically reinterpreted an old Muslim concept that referred to the moral darkness in Arabia immediately prior to the coming of Islam. For Qutb, that old depraved period of jahiliyya was being recreated by current Muslim regimes and broader societies. Only a generational struggle based primarily on armed jihad could save Islam and Muslim society from steep moral decay. While Shia ideologues, including Ayatullah Khomeini, did not rely on the concept of jahiliyya, they too constructed ideologies calling for the use of radical action to overthrow the monarchy in Iran and advance Shia interests elsewhere.8

The rise of violent jihadi movements in the 1970s to implement the visions of Qutb, Khomeini, and others focused overwhelmingly on removing what were seen to be corrupt, repressive, and apostate secular regimes throughout the Muslim world. Jihadi groups to this day remain mostly focused on these local issues. But these local jihadi groups also largely failed to bring substantial changes to the political order. They would assassinate a president or prime minister from time to time, slaughter some hapless tourists perhaps, but their violence did not meaningfully change the apostate nature of local regimes or cure other evils in the eyes of radical jihadis. Out of this failure was born global jihad—that is, ideologues and groups dedicated to using violence to address global, systemic causes of the major problems facing the entire Muslim world, at least in the eyes of this new generation of jihadis.

Thus, just as local jihadism was born from the perceived failures of Islamism, so too was global jihad primarily born from the perceived failures of local jihadism to address the perceived systemic causes of the woes facing Muslims around the world. And just as there has been little consensus among Islamists or among jihadis about a range of issues, global jihad had distinct variations and viewpoints. In fact, beginning in the 1980s, global jihad saw four distinct iterations, or waves, each emerging from a particular crisis and each with its own ideology and program for achieving a global end. Those goals varied considerably: the first sought to create a Jihadi International to liberate occupied Muslim lands; the second focused on driving the Americans out of the Muslim world; the third wave aspired to recreate a new and radical caliphate to defeat apostasy throughout all of the lands once ruled by Muslims; while the fourth aimed at mounting a global, leaderless jihad to keep alive hope during a desperate time. This book tells the story of those four waves of global jihad: their origins, their evolution, and their quite distinct ideologies.

This brief overview of the intellectual precursors of global jihad should make clear that global jihadism did not simply emerge from whole cloth in the 1980s; it had an intellectual history that dates back a century. With this brief outline in place, I now explore in greater detail the intellectual and political evolution that would lay the foundation for the later development of global jihad, and provide an introduction to the phenomenon of global jihad as it began in the 1980s in Afghanistan.


Modern Islamism began in organizational form in 1928, when a twenty-two-year-old Egyptian schoolteacher named Hasan al-Banna founded the Society of Muslim Brothers, more commonly known as the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin).9 In its early years, the Brotherhood was more of a youth group and social club than a political organization, although it did promote an all-encompassing view of the role of Islam in society. Like most Islamists to follow, Banna was not a cleric. Rather, he was a teacher who received his training in Cairo at the secular Dar al-‘Ulum academy before accepting a teaching position in Ismailia, in the Suez Canal Zone. It was in Ismailia where Banna founded the Brotherhood shortly after arriving. Ismailia, and the whole of the Suez Canal Zone in 1928, were still very much under British control. Britain had long dominated Egypt, first indirectly throughout much of the nineteenth century, then directly with its invasion and occupation of Egypt in 1882. Britain’s “protectorate” over Egypt lasted until formal independence was granted in 1922, but Britain remained a hegemonic force inside Egypt until the 1950s. Britain’s domination of Egypt was particularly strong in the Suez Canal Zone, which London viewed as its strategic lifeline to India and all of its colonial interests “east of Suez.”

Like so much in Egypt during this time frame, the Muslim Brotherhood was impacted by European intellectual currents—from the serious, including the prominence of fascism (with which the Brotherhood shared a focus on tradition, conservatism, and discipline), to the superficial, as the Brotherhood’s motto of “Be Prepared” (“prepare yourselves”: ‘addu) was lifted straight from the Boy Scouts.10 But although they were influenced in various ways by European thinking, Banna and his followers were strongly opposed to British imperialism in Egypt and believed that a vigorous and strong interpretation of Islam was necessary to rid the country of foreign control as well as corrupt cultural influences. Banna’s nationalism was a key feature of his ideology, beginning with his participation in the 1919 “revolution” against British control.11

By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Brotherhood had become more overtly political and militant. It formed its own armed militia, the “Special Apparatus” (al-jihaz al-khas), which was answerable directly to the leader of the Brotherhood, Banna himself. Indeed, as the Brotherhood grew and became more politically involved, it also became more secretive and almost cultish in orientation. That cult-like secrecy and allegiance to the leader were key features of the group that allowed it to maintain organizational integrity and coherence; however, those features also generated plenty of critics who grew to distrust the Brotherhood’s intentions. That organizational duality of the Brotherhood is as true today as it was in the 1940s.

The late 1940s and early 1950s proved decisive for the Brotherhood in Egypt, particularly as Egyptian nationalism against British imperialism grew. The Brotherhood’s small armed force participated in the war in Palestine in 1948, arguably faring better than the Egyptian military, which performed disastrously. The Brotherhood’s intense criticism of the regime for its poor showing in Palestine got it banned by the Egyptian prime minister, Nuqrashi Pasha, who was almost immediately assassinated by a member of the Brotherhood. Regime security forces took revenge by assassinating Hasan al-Banna in February 1949. In an atmosphere of intense anti-British sentiment and popular support for groups opposed to British control, the government in Cairo lifted the Brotherhood’s political ban in 1950. The organization quickly became active in anti-British demonstrations and made common cause with military officers, who overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and established a republic in 1952. That alliance soured quickly because the Brotherhood opposed the secular policies implemented by the new military regime in Cairo.

A key issue for the Muslim Brotherhood under Hasan al-Banna (and after) is its relationship with violence. Does the Muslim Brotherhood endorse political violence as an important and necessary instrument to achieve its political ends? Or, rather, has the Muslim Brotherhood mostly eschewed the use of violence to achieve its political ends? Certainly during its first quarter-century in existence, the Muslim Brotherhood had a complicated relationship with violence. Banna and his cohorts were not pacifists, either in reality or ideologically. They created their armed wing (the Special Apparatus) for a reason and periodically engaged in violence, mostly against the British or those Egyptians whom they viewed as doing the bidding of the British. They were stridently anticolonial in outlook and viewed violence directed at British control as legitimate. In addition, on ideological grounds, the Brotherhood adopted the word jihad as a central animating feature of its program, without ever really defining what type of jihad it had in mind. It is fair to conclude that Banna was no pacifist, as he accepted that violence may sometimes be necessary for the good of the cause or community. Licit violence against the enemies of Islam (as Banna viewed it) was acceptable.

On balance, though, it is also fair to say that Banna was no revolutionary either; he viewed the work of the Brotherhood as essentially a force for evolutionary change, not revolutionary upheaval. For Banna, the slow Islamization of society was consistent with an Islamic reformist or revivalist world view, and the Brotherhood could play a vanguard role in the slow deepening of belief and religious life in Egypt. As Banna himself said, “The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in revolution, and does not rely on it in achieving its goals and if it happened, we will not adopt it. . . . Our task is to create a new generation of believers who can reformulate the Islamic umma [community of believers] in all aspects of life.”12

The point of my argument is this: Although Islamists in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular have engaged in violence in Egypt and elsewhere throughout the past century, violence per se is not foundational to their project; it was not so in the group’s founding and it is not so today. As Banna suggested, if the Brotherhood is successful, it will mean that it changed society at the grassroots level through reformist means, that it convinced Muslims to reembrace Islam as a solution to all of their problems, and that it did not engage in revolutionary violence. As noted earlier, the question of violence is the primary difference that separates Islamists from jihadis: the centrality of violence to their political programs. For Islamists, violence is not essential, even if it occurs from time to time for specific reasons. For jihadis, violence is absolutely essential; it is the only means to achieve their desired ends.13 The famous jihadi ideologue ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam (see chapter 1) captured the centrality of violence for jihadis with a saying he was fond of repeating: “jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues.”

Despite the efforts of both Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was no closer to establishing an Islamic state in the 1960s than it was in 1928 when the Muslim Brotherhood was formed. The durability of anti-Islamic regimes (in the eyes of radical jihadis) mandated a change of course, a rejection of political and social work that most Islamists favored and an embrace of violent jihad to advance the cause of Islamic rule. Not unlike political elements in the United States, France, and elsewhere, the 1960s proved a particularly fertile decade for building the intellectual architecture for armed jihad to advance political agendas under the banner of Islam. It is in the 1960s and early 1970s that Islamists and jihadis fundamentally split from each other, even while both grew more powerful with the tectonic postindependence political changes sweeping the Muslim world. Islamists more firmly embraced a nonviolent path, particularly beginning in the early 1970s, while jihadis split from the Muslim Brotherhood to advocate for the necessity of violence as the only means to confront regimes seen as intrinsically hostile to Islam. The most important intellectual architect laying the foundation for the centrality of armed violence in politics also emerged, like Hasan al-Banna, from the Egyptian countryside: Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern Sunni jihadism.


Sayyid Qutb was born in 1906 to a relatively prosperous family in the Asyut province of Upper Egypt. His family was pious but not overly so, and their politics more nationalist than Islamist. While Qutb is said to have memorized the Qur’an as a boy—a difficult but common challenge, especially during earlier eras in the Muslim world—his education was secular. A good student, Qutb moved to Cairo to finish his education as Hasan al-Banna had done: at the Dar al-‘Ulum academy, the premier teacher training college in Egypt. Again doing well in his studies, Qutb was offered a job by the Ministry of Education upon completion of his education, first as a schoolteacher and then as an administrator within the ministry. Ministry jobs in particular were highly sought after, so it was a mark of Qutb’s growing prestige that he was invited to work there. He worked for the Ministry of Education for a quarter century, until his radicalism made continued employment by the state untenable.

During Qutb’s first four decades of life, he betrayed no signs of radical Islamism. He was a well-educated man familiar with the West, quite a fan of European literature and classical music. Although he was pious, his politics were much more in line with the Arab nationalism of the day. He wrote extensively on a broad range of subjects, from poetry to literary criticism to Qur’anic commentary. Throughout his adult life, Qutb wrote prolifically, and much of his work was not particularly political. His work for the Ministry of Education was valuable enough that he was selected to study in the United States for nearly two years, from 1948 to 1950, to examine the American educational system. He spent much of his time living in Greeley, Colorado, a planned Christian utopian community aligned with the Temperance movement, built astride the Denver Pacific railroad tracks. Greeley was a “dry” municipality when Qutb was there.14 He also spent time in Washington, DC, in New York City, and at Stanford University in California.

Qutb’s time in the United States represented a clear step on his slow path toward radicalism. He had already established an interest in the relationship between Islam and the good society when he published Social Justice in Islam just prior to his journey to America; after his sojourn to the United States, Qutb revised the book to make it more militant in its arguments.15 Despite his comfort with European culture, Qutb was shocked by what he found in America. For Qutb, US culture was degraded by sex and debauchery, materialistic in the extreme, and beset by racism. Whatever was good in America was overwhelmed by the superficial and the artificial. Qutb was a small and dark man, so was likely the subject of overt racism himself while in the United States; he was also an Arab in the United States during the founding of the state of Israel, which he viewed as an obvious injustice but which the US government and many Americans supported. Ever the prolific writer, Qutb published his observations of America, which can be read as ludicrously superficial. His descriptions of young American women read as Freudian-repressed sexuality.16

Soon after returning to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood as editor-in-chief of its weekly newspaper. As his political critiques grew sharper, he left the Ministry of Education. These were heady political days in Egypt, with its growing nationalism against continuing British control over the country, and with rising political sentiment against the monarchy and political establishment in Cairo. Qutb, like most of the Muslim Brothers, supported the 1952 military coup that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and brought Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and the other Free Officers to power.17 The new regime in Egypt did not immediately have a strong sense of ideological direction, outside of being nationalists opposed to British domination. But over the first several years in power, two trends began to solidify: that secular Arab nationalism would be the dominant ideology of the regime, and that Nasser would be the primary leader of the new republic. The regime’s decision to take a decidedly secular and Arab nationalist direction instead of an Islamic one caused Qutb to quickly lose his enthusiasm for the 1952 change.18 Relations between the new regime and the Muslim Brotherhood deteriorated rapidly, and an assassination attempt in 1954 on Nasser by a member of the Brotherhood landed Qutb and the rest of the Brotherhood leadership in prison, where he spent the next decade of his life.

These turbulent years in the first half of the 1950s, especially the “betrayal” of Islamist goals by the new Nasserist regime, marked a second step in the radicalization of Sayyid Qutb. His writing became more militant, as was seen in his reworking of the books In the Shade of the Qur’an (fi zilal al-qur’an) and Social Justice in Islam.19 Qutb’s most radical phase occurred during the last few years of his life and was represented by his publication in 1964 of the small volume Milestones (Ma’alim f’il-tariq, literally “signposts along the road”).20 Milestones drew in part from Qutb’s previous work, especially Social Justice in Islam, which itself became noticeably more strident in editions published after the repression of a revolt by imprisoned Muslim Brothers in 1957. Qutb published the book in 1964, the same year that he was released from prison, which had occurred at the personal intervention of Iraq’s new president, ‘Abd al-Salam ‘Arif. A member of the ruling secular Arab nationalist Ba’th party, ‘Arif was an odd choice to champion Qutb’s cause to Nasser, his fellow pan-Arabist.

Qutb’s most potent surge in radicalism can be largely explained by his experiences in prison in Egypt, where the torture of Muslim Brotherhood members and nearly everyone else was an everyday occurrence. In Qutb’s view, the regular torture, degradation, and humiliation that he witnessed violated the very core tenets of Islam. He saw Islam as a religion of egalitarian justice, of brotherhood, where God’s rules applied to all men equally. The fact that prison officials engaged in the regular humiliation of their fellow Muslims, lording their position of power over others based on no legitimate grounds, underscored for Qutb just how broken Egypt’s system was. It needed to be eliminated, root and branch, in order for Islam’s highest purpose—“the liberation of humans from servitude to other humans”—to be realized.21 It was the publication of Milestones, and its call for the radical removal of the anti-Islam Nasser regime—by armed jihad if necessary—that got Qutb rearrested, tried, and hanged in 1966.22

Milestones was for jihadis as Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? was for Communist agitators: a justification and guidebook for revolutionary change. In particular, Qutb made two momentous ideological innovations in Milestones, both of which greatly influenced the jihadi movement for decades to come. First, and most famously, Qutb radically reworked the concept of jahiliyya into a justification for the armed overthrow of Muslim regimes.23 Jahiliyya (a noun) is a concept that every Muslim schoolchild learns growing up. Historically it has meant that period of moral darkness and decay on the Arabian Peninsula immediately before the coming of the light of Islam. Jahiliyya has typically been translated as “ignorance” or even “barbarism” but it should be understood in the context of the orthodox Islamic dichotomy of good versus evil, of light versus darkness, of knowledge versus ignorance. That is, in the period before the prophet Muhammad and his revelations, the world was an ignorant place, beset by polytheists praying to a multitude of gods, or none at all, and of having no civilization worth the word. Like a pharaoh, man could rule arbitrarily and capriciously over other men, making up the rules as he desired. Moses, a man of God who lived by God’s rules, not his own, had been forgotten. Jahili (the adjective form) society was an ignorant, venal, unjust place that had turned its back on God. In Qutb’s view, modern Egypt had transformed into just such a place.

The coming of Islam, in this Manichean, black-and-white duality, changed darkness into light, ignorance into knowledge, and man’s arbitrary and capricious rules into God’s laws. Jahiliyya represents the opposite of Islam. But it also represented a period of time, an era, an epoch even, before the coming of Islam. It did not represent a characteristic of modern society or regimes. Building on the work of the Pakistani ideologue Abul A’la Mawdudi (in fact, going even further in his reinterpretation of Islam), Qutb reinterpreted jahiliyya to mean not just a period of time but a characteristic of whole societies and regimes that have turned their backs on Islam, even though Islam is knowable to them. For Qutb, the purposeful ignorance of contemporary jahiliyya is even worse than historical jahiliyya, as modern Muslim societies well know of the Qur’an and God’s law (shari’a) and yet still choose to knowingly cast off Islam. Qutb’s many years in prison exemplified contemporary jahiliyya, where prison guards who would call themselves Muslims acted in barbaric ways, ignoring God’s word and implementing the policies of their leaders, who themselves purposely chose to ignore the laws and sensibilities of Islam. This was the arbitrary and capricious rule of the Pharaoh, not the Moses-like implementation of God’s law in Qutb’s view.

Qutb’s was a systemwide critique, not an accusation against a single person. Jahiliyya applied to whole societies and whole regimes. Regimes that knowingly chose to live in jahiliyya, and thus reject Islam, must be removed. Since they are corrupted, jahili societies are in no position to remove authoritarian and equally corrupted regimes—that is, regime change could only come through armed jihad led by a vanguard (tali’a or jama’a) of righteous Muslims. Qutb was not subtle in his conclusion that Nasser’s regime in Cairo—not just the man but the entire regime system—had rejected God and Islam, and thus must be removed through radical action to start the process of creating a pure Islamic state and society. Qutb seemed to realize that this was a generational struggle and not one that would see victory in a year or two. His concept of jahiliyya is sometimes wrongly confused with takfir, the process of excommunicating a Muslim.24 Takfir has become a favorite tactic of many jihadis, as it allows them to justify armed violence against a ruler whom they have declared an apostate through takfir. This is not what Qutb was talking about, however. Takfir is an old process, much like excommunication in the Catholic Church, which was sparingly used historically and based on a system of trial and evidence of a person having left Islam. It is a personal system of adjudicating an individual’s potential apostasy, not a means to declare whole categories of abstractions (societies, regimes) to be apostates. Qutb’s notion of jahiliyya, by contrast, only applied to these large abstractions (societies, regimes) and was not a means to evaluate the level of legitimate piety of an individual Muslim.25

With his radical reinterpretation of jahiliyya, Qutb constructed for fellow jihadis a conceptual framework that could justify armed violence in pursuit of radical regime—and societal—change. His vision was not essentially global but rather a radical call for change within Egypt and the Muslim world through revolutionary violence. Qutb was also clear on the ultimate source of corruption: Muslims turning their collective backs on Islam to adopt the alluring, corrupting ways of Europe and America. Jahiliyya was a Muslim problem for Muslims to solve, but the source of that cultural contamination was the West, especially America. Unlike later ideologues, Qutb’s solution to this problem did not involve attacking the source of corruption itself—the West—but rather focused on those Muslim regimes and societies that needed to be cleansed of non-Islamic influences, to abandon jahiliyya and return to Islam.

Qutb’s second ideological innovation was to understand jihad in a radically new way: not as episodic event but as permanent revolution, much in the same way that Leon Trotsky saw revolution in his world. In orthodox Islam, each legitimate armed jihad has a beginning when it is called for by an appropriate authority, and it has an end—win, lose, or draw. No armed jihad is supposed to last forever. Clearly drawing on Trotsky but without accreditation, Qutb redefined armed jihad as a kind of permanent revolution—not as an event but as a way of life, of perpetual preparation and action. As long as jahiliyya was present in the Muslim world, jihad-as-struggle was a permanent necessity to rectify it, including armed jihad when appropriate.

Indeed, Qutb saw the fight against Nasser’s jahili regime as taking many decades to defeat. But even then, the jihad-as-permanent-revolution would not be over. Nor was jihad-as-permanent-revolution an issue of defensive or offensive jihad, as both of those forms were also episodic by nature. Historically, a defensive jihad ended when the battle was won, and an offensive jihad ended when the subject population had been subdued and converted to Islam. However, jahiliyya was so extensive that all elements of jihad must be put to use, strategically implementing the right form of struggle for the circumstances, perhaps even lasting until the End Times. Qutb’s jihad-as-permanent-revolution was not focused on any restoration of the Caliphate, a notion that did not concern Qutb. He never wrote about a restored Caliphate in his voluminous writing career over several decades. Armed jihad was to be a potentially permanent mode of action, a sort of state-of-nature.

Jihad-as-permanent-revolution could not, by definition, emerge out of jahili segments of society, which, according to Qutb, impacted most people. Rather, it had to come from a vanguard of strong and pious Muslims who understood the extent of the problem and the actions necessary for prosecuting this multigenerational struggle. The notion of a pious vanguard leading a permanent revolution had no real precedent in Islamic discourse. Again, Qutb appears to have drawn on Marxist thought—this time Vladimir Lenin—to come up with his vanguard strategy.26 Qutb’s notion of jihad-as-permanent-revolution was not fully thought out, and Qutb himself did not use that phrase. While he generally avoided the word revolution (thawra), he did speak of the permanent (da’ima) conditions that made such struggle necessary. The idea was less half-baked than cut short, as his execution in 1966 at the age of fifty-nine prevented him from developing it further. Qutb was not generally thought to subscribe to the theological practices of Salafi Islam, but it was a Salafi conceptualization of tawhid (the oneness of God) in the hands of ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam that provided a fuller theoretical rationale for why armed jihad must be viewed as a permanent revolution. ‘Azzam built on and completed Qutb’s argument as to why armed jihad was a necessary and enduring requirement for Muslims (see chapter 1).

Although global jihad has been specifically a Sunni phenomenon in recent decades, jihadism itself cuts across the sectarian divide in Islam. At nearly the exact same time that Sayyid Qutb was constructing an ideology and rationale for armed jihad to overthrow regimes in the Sunni Muslim world, the Shia world was witnessing a similar ideological phenomenon and indeed would be far more successful in implementing regime change under the banner of Islam.


1. Jama’at-i Islami, founded in 1941 in British India by Abu A’la Mawdudi, was similarly influential in South Asia and espoused an ideology comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood.

2. See the distinction the late Sadik Jalal al-Azm often made between the lived religion of Islam, which often practiced a type of secularism, and the “dogmatic no” with regard to the written texts of Islam. See, for example, Sadik J. al-Azm, Is Islam Secularizable? Challenging Political and Religious Taboos (Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2014).

3. Support for Islamism has varied from country to country, and within the same country over time, so that 25 percent figure must be weighed accordingly. But if one examines support for Islamist parties in Muslim-majority countries, particularly since the 1990s when good polling data became widely available, about one in four adults supported Islamist parties. That number could rise considerably under certain circumstances, particularly when marginal potential supporters joined with core supporters to form a majority—as happened in Egypt in 2012, narrowly allowing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi to win the presidency. Alternatively, it could narrow to just the true believers under other circumstances, a figure closer to 15 percent in most Muslim-majority countries.

4. For a good, early discussion of Islamist social movements in the Middle East, see Quintan Wiktorowicz, ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003). The beginning section of my chapter “Hamas as Social Movement” in that volume contains a concise introduction to social movement theory.

5. The merger of Salafi ideas to political radicalism and violence is historically new, as Salafism tended to be the most nonpolitical of all Islamic tendencies. Most Salafis today still practice apolitical piety, but a subset has adopted an activist and violent bent, described later in this book. This new ideological innovation is known as Salafi-jihadism, a term coined by Abu Musab al-Suri (see chapter 4).

6. See, for example, Nasser’s speech mocking the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood for demanding that Nasser make veiling mandatory for all Egyptian women while he was not even able to get his own daughter to veil. A subtitled clip from this speech can be found on YouTube at (last accessed April 30, 2020). A more complete video of this same critical commentary on the Muslim Brotherhood, but without English subtitles, can be found at (accessed April 30, 2020).

7. For an early and brilliant assessment of the failure of Islamism, see Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

8. For an excellent discussion of political discourses within modern Shi’ism, see Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).

9. The earliest extensive study of the Muslim Brotherhood was Richard P. Mitchell’s classic book The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). For excellent recent histories of the Muslim Brotherhood, see Carrie Rosefsky Wickam, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), and Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). A good analysis of the early years of the Brotherhood can be found in Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928–1942 (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1999).

10. Perhaps embarrassed by this particular cultural appropriation, later Muslim Brothers claimed that the “Be Prepared” slogan came instead from the Qur’an (chapter 8, verse 60): “And prepare against them what force you can and horses tied at the frontier.”

11. Khalil al-Anani, “The Power of the Jama’a: The Role of Hasan al-Banna in Constructing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Collective Identity,” Sociology of Islam 1, nos. 1–2 (2013): 43 and passim. An updated version of this essay can be found in al-Anani’s book, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood.

12. Al-Anani, “Power of the Jama’a,” 58.

13. The issue of violence also informs policy debates over the Muslim Brotherhood in many Western capitals to this day. Should the Muslim Brotherhood be banned because it encourages violence (the argument made by the Sisi regime in Cairo), or should it be accepted as a legitimate political group? The question can be situated as: Is the Muslim Brotherhood a “gateway drug” or stepping-stone to further radicalization and violence, or is it a “satisficing” organization that captures and organizes Islamist sentiment in a way that discourages further radicalization and encourages working within the system? That is, is the Muslim Brotherhood a firewall of sorts that diminishes further extremism and violence? While there is no simple answer that explains all of the data on this question, it is fair to say that most evidence supports the “satisficing” argument. Certainly, the most extreme jihadis routinely condemn the Muslim Brotherhood for being sellouts who end up legitimizing apostate regimes. Al-Qa’ida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote an entire book, al-Hisad al-Murr (Bitter Harvest), blasting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for renouncing violence in the 1970s and vowing to work within the political and social systems for incremental change. Zawahiri wanted the Brotherhood to join in armed jihad against the Mubarak regime instead. Unfortunately the 2013 military coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, and the subsequent outlawing of the Brotherhood, means that there is no more Islamist firewall against greater extremism. This suggests greater violence in Egypt (and likely beyond) in the future from radicalized Islamists who must choose between submission or violence. There is already evidence that this transition has begun to occur. The middle way of nonviolent Islamist political activity has been outlawed by the Sisi regime in Cairo.

14. Greeley prohibited alcohol sales until 1972.

15. Social Justice in Islam was translated into English by John B. Hardie in 1953 and was revised with an introduction by Hamid Algar in 2000. Sayyid Qutb, Social Justice in Islam, revised edition (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2000).

16. A translation of The America I Have Seen by Qutb, written in 1951, can be found at: (accessed April 30, 2020). For an academic treatment of Qutb’s stay in the United States that emphasizes his dichotomy between the “spiritual East” and the “material West,” see John Calvert, “‘The World is an Undutiful Boy!’: Sayyid Qutb’s American Experience,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 11, no. 1 (2000): 87–103. See as well Calvert’s Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), which is the best book-length treatment of Sayyid Qutb. I have yet to come across a true Freudian analysis of the overtly sexual writing that Qutb employs (as do some other jihadi ideologues), nor of two life experiences that Qutb apparently had: unrequited love from a wealthier, Westernized Egyptian young woman, and a topless passenger on his ship to America who drunkenly appeared at his stateroom door late one night, much to his horror . . . and delight? This is an article best left for an aspiring psychoanalyst to write!

17. Nasser emerged as the clear political leader of the Free Officers by 1954.

18. For a fascinating treatment of the long and complicated relationship between Qutb and Nasser, see Fawaz A. Gerges, Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

19. For an excellent and nuanced analysis of how Qutb revised Social Justice in Islam to reflect his growing radicalism, see William E. Shepard, “The Development of Thought of Sayyid Qutb as Reflected in Earlier and Later Editions of ‘Social Justice in Islam,’Die Welt des Islams 32, no. 2 (1992): 196–236. Much of In the Shade of the Qur’an was also written from prison and has been translated into English as well. All eighteen volumes can be found online in both Arabic and English, including the translation and publication by The Islamic Foundation (2009).

20. Milestones is widely available online in both Arabic and English and can be found in paperback at Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (New Delhi, India: Islamic Book Service, 2006).

21. William E. Shepard, “Sayyid Qutb and Modern Islamist Violence,” Seasons (Summer 2007): 26.

22. The charge was technically Qutb’s relationship to the “1965 Organization” and its plot to overthrow Nasser, but it was Qutb’s publication of Milestones (still an illegal book in Egypt today) that landed him at the gallows. Indeed, Barbara Zollner has argued that Milestones was designed as a “guidebook” for this violently antiregime organization. See Zollner, “Prison Talk: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Internal Struggle during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Persecution, 1954 to 1971,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 39, no. 3 (August 2007): 411–33.

23. The best concise treatment of Qutb’s theory of jahiliyya is found in William E. Shepard, “Sayyid Qutb’s Doctrine of Jahiliyya,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35, no. 4 (2003): 521–45. For an interesting treatment of Qutb from a sociological perspective, including short translations of some of his many writings, see Albert J. Bergesen, ed., The Sayyid Qutb Reader (New York: Routledge, 2007).

24. Takfir has a much graver consequence, at least in theory, than excommunication in the Catholic Church. The latter is an act of censure that leads to the denial of rights, such as sacraments. The former means one is guilty of apostasy, of voluntarily leaving Islam, which in the hudud is a capital crime.

25. Dr. Shepard’s work makes this point, although not as baldly as I put it here. My thanks to him for allowing me to pester him in his retirement to discuss Qutb’s views on jahiliyya and takfir.

26. Qutb did not cite Lenin as his inspiration for this concept and instead suggested his view of armed jihad was consistent with the Prophetic tradition, whereby cycles of small provocations, repression, and exile could become stronger over time, leading to the ultimate victory of the vanguard, much like Muhammad’s ultimate conquest of Mecca. My own sense is that this reading of Prophetic tradition was likely reading Lenin back into Islamic history, as it comports with Lenin’s theory much more than it comports with actual Prophetic history.