John Calvert


On his book Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism

Cover Interview of September 26, 2010

In a nutshell

My book is a biography of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the influential Egyptian ideologue of Islamic revolution.

No other Islamist thinker, with the possible exception of the South Asian Abu l-A‘la Mawdudi (1903-1979), exerted a comparable influence on Islamic activism, both in his own day and in the generations that followed.

My book traces the development of Qutb’s worldview from his village childhood up to his execution at the hands of Egypt’s ‘Abd al-Nasser regime.  I pay attention to the gamut of influences—cultural, political, social and economic—that shaped his thoughts on the proper role of Islam in the state and society, and in the end propelled him in the direction of radicalism.  The book attempts to understand the evolution of Qutb’s ideology in the myriad details of his life.  It is a study of an individual and of his times; of objective circumstance and subjective experience, and of how each influenced the other.

But the book also has a critical purpose.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many scholars and journalists looked to Sayyid Qutb as a progenitor of Bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s global jihad.  Such an equation is not entirely correct.

Although, like al-Qaeda, Qutb preached a total, uncompromising struggle of Islam against its conceptual opposite, Western secular civilization, he was not an advocate of indiscriminate violence.

Qutb would have condemned the violent actions perpetrated by the Egyptian jihadis of the 1970s and 1980s and by al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates today.  He would not have understood al-Qaeda’s desire to attack a Western power, such as the United States.  In Qutb’s mind, the jihad targeting “iniquitous” Muslim regimes was always paramount.

Ultimately, I want readers to understand objectively how and why this important Islamist thinker repackaged the rich resources of the Islamic heritage for purposes linked to social and political transformation.  I aim to provide readers with a highly contextualized study that will allow them better to comprehend contemporary Islamist movements.