Friday, July 23, 2010

Sayyid Qutb liked "Gone with the Wind"?

Here is a plug for a new Sayyid Qutb biography by John Calvert: Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. I had a chance to meet John when I visited Creighton University couple of years ago. While I was there, he gave a talk about Qutb's days in Greeley, Colorado in the 1940's. First of all, the topic was fascinating. But what stuck out for me was the way John gave the talk: It was like a story-telling session as he created for us, in great detail, the Greeley that Qutb must have seen and his (Qutb's) reaction to it. If that talk is any indication, this book will be a fascinating read. By the way, one of John's earlier works provided the inspiration for a musical performed in Denver - and I think the title was "Qutb in Jahiliyya" (I have to confirm the title).

In any case, here is a review for the book from this week's Economist:

Pre-eminently among the pioneers of 20th-century Islamism, Sayyid Qutb has come to be seen as the evil genius who inspired today’s global jihad. As John Calvert argues in a persuasive new biography, Qutb’s reputation is not entirely undeserved, but it does less than justice to a complex and enigmatic figure.
One of the challenges any biographer faces is to explain Qutb’s evolution from romantic nationalist to mainstream Islamist, and finally to ardent revolutionary. Mr Calvert’s answer is to place his subject firmly on Egyptian soil. Like countless others in the years that followed the first world war, Qutb was a child of rural Egypt who migrated to Cairo as a young man to join the swelling ranks of the effendiyya, the new urban educated class. An intense, proud, rather melancholy man, he worked as a civil servant. In his spare time he struggled to establish himself as a writer of poetry, fiction and literary criticism.
In this early phase Qutb, a Muslim who had come under the spell of Sufism, subscribed to the essentially secular nationalism of the day, the focus of which was opposition to British rule in Egypt and to Zionist colonisation in Palestine. But by the late 1940s, disillusioned with the failings of the nationalist parties, he had become an Islamist and—as exemplified in his first important book, “Social Justice in Islam”—an Islamist of originality and power.
And here is the bit about Qutb's experience in America:
Shortly after finishing the manuscript, Qutb set off for the United States on a visit that was to last almost two years. The trip affected him deeply. Although he was impressed by America’s material accomplishments (and confessed to liking “Gone with the Wind”), he felt an abiding contempt for the materialism, racism and sexual promiscuity of what he saw as a debased Western culture. Was the encounter with America, as some have argued, the turning-point in Qutb’s radicalisation? Did the sight of scantily-clad women on the dance floors of Greeley, Colorado, turn the sexually repressed Egyptian into an Islamist zealot? Mr Calvert doubts it; the visit, he believes, confirmed the radical turn in Qutb’s thinking, rather than inspiring it.
Qutb returned to Egypt and was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually hanged by Nasser. But it is in the prison that he wrote his influential book:

 Imprisonment and torture turned him into an impassioned and embittered revolutionary. His book “Milestones”, written in prison to chart a future course for his crushed and demoralised movement, became an internationally influential manifesto of the Islamic revolution—not least because in 1966, two years after it was published, Qutb was hanged for treason, becoming a martyr for the cause.
Part of the originality of “Milestones” was Qutb’s use of the term jahiliyya to depict the abject condition of the Muslim world. Literally meaning ignorance, the term was originally used to describe the benighted condition of Arabia prior to the advent of Islam. But Qutb used it to condemn Muslim governments and societies which, in his eyes, had been corrupted by Western culture and secularism to the point where they had abandoned Islam. 
But Qutb's character is more complex and it seems that John has been able to bring this out in his book:

 Mr Calvert does not disguise the crudely Manichean character of Qutb’s worldview. He believed in an all-out global struggle between a noble vanguard of true Muslims and the massed ranks of jahiliyya. He depicted Islam’s external enemies as an insidious alliance of “Crusaders and Jews”—the same phrase that is used by al-Qaeda and the global jihadists of today.
But he was not, as has been suggested, an “Islamo-fascist” or an advocate of indiscriminate violence. Qutb opposed the killing of innocents and would have been appalled by what his followers, from the Egyptian radicals of the 1970s and 1980s to the current jihadist groups, have carried out in his name. This rich and carefully researched biography sets Qutb for the first time in his Egyptian context, rescuing him from caricature without whitewashing his radicalism. It is no small achievement.
Looks great. Read the full review here.


Kubra said...

I am actually very interested in reading the book - from the quoted article and your own words it seems a nice, new focus we all needed. To be honest, for a person as influential and as interesting as Qutb, it is a shame that there aren't any biographies that are worth reading... General public knows so little of him and those who has heard the name think of him as a carbon-copy ancestor of Bin Laden... the truth is, you have a man who was more of a thinker and activist, than a terrorist. The truth is, while he was influenced by certain similar sources, his ideology is a lot different than of simplistic Wahhabism of the likes of al-Qaeda. He is far more of a modernist, for instance, even though he criticises modernism fiercely. You see him bashing Marxism but his answer to oppression is a revolutionary reaction influenced greatly by revolutionary socialism. The whole concept of "jahaliyyah" as he puts forward is actually very subtle contrary to what most people who talk about him and this idea of him makes one believe... and finally his interpretation of Qur'an (Fi Zilalil Qur'an) is an insightful work on how tradition of Qur'anic inspiration has evolved and how modernist Qur'anic interpretations manage to go beyond literalism and bring the context of the Qur'an to contemporary times (even though one may not agree with all of his not-so-traditional interpretations)...

Though Ali Shariati is probably my favourite Islamist theorist and I find Qutb rather more superficial and way too much of dichotomy-lover, Qutb is a very interesting and significant figure that deserves not ignorant love or hate, but thorough research and study.

Salman Hameed said...

I think you have nailed it in the head: By ignoring Qutb's life and his motivations, we end up propping up a caricature that fits with the 21st century terrorism problem. Convenient, but a wee bit inaccurate.

By the way, the book will be available in the US in mid-August, but it is on sale on Amazon-UK.

Adonis said...

First of all, we must adopt the scientific methods for analyzing the matters, so as to reach to the peak of reality, which the writer of the essay failed to get, unluckily. You must uproot the hatred originated in the deepest your heart, before criticizing the Qutbian character. Then, do not depend on the western perspective, do not suck there false informative balloons, do not represent the western character. To the greatest extent, the western character has never been objective in his study of Islam. Never have been. Never will been. Be civilized one, not stuck to the others to the core. BE BRAVE IN UTILIZING YOUR REASON.

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