John Calvert


On his book Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism

Cover Interview of September 27, 2010

The wide angle

All too often scholars understand Islamism as a channel for material discontent, or else in terms of rational choice theory, which holds that most, if not all, forms of human activity are goal-oriented and organized around sets of hierarchically ordered preferences.

There is a great deal of merit in these functionalist approaches and my study draws upon some of them for explanatory effect.  Yet, I also contend that we cannot properly understand Qutb unless we look into his religious imagination and take seriously his ethical and moral concerns.

I make the point that Qutb’s primary contribution was his ability to harness this deeply felt spirituality for purposes of worldly transformation.  In this sense, he sought to restore a sense of religious meaning to an immoral and disenchanted colonial world.

But I also tap his emotional state, especially his simmering discontent, which often spilled over into anger.

Some of his irritation was a product of his personality—namely, his sense of intellectual superiority and inability to suffer fools gladly.  But objective factors also spurred his annoyance—economic injustice, political corruption, cultural degradation and domination by foreigners.

In paying heed to the affecting aspect of Qutb’s discourse, I recognize the contributions of social historians and anthropologists who have emphasized the importance of emotional perception as a factor in history.

I therefore adopt a degree of empathy toward Sayyid Qutb and his work.

To be sure, there is much in his thought that many people, including myself, find disagreeable.

Qutb spoke of cultures as monolithic and static—a hard “us” vs. “them” vision of the world that encouraged the worst kind of stereotyping.  Qutb had harsh things to say about Westerners, Judaism and Zionism (which he conflated), and especially Muslims who cooperated with Western powers and adopted the secular view.  Yet, opening up to Qutb’s universe of thought and emotion allows us to understand the textures, feelings and imaginings that contributed to the production of his Islamism.

My first “encounter” with Sayyid Qutb occurred, appropriately enough, in Egypt where I studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo in the late 1980s.

I had arrived in Cairo as an aspiring medievalist, intent on investigating the history and culture of the Mamluks.  Soon enough, however, the pulse of contemporary history took hold of me, nudging the medieval dynasties to the periphery of my academic interest.

In those days, seven years after the Jihad Group assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, militant Islamist organizations were again on the prowl, and Sayyid Qutb’s name was in the air.  I thought that here was somebody worth studying—a man who drew upon the hallowed corpus of the Islamic heritage in order to craft a vision of life and governance ostensibly different from that currently in place.  However, other commitments prevented me from approaching the topic of Qutb head on until years later.

I was also fascinated, and unnerved, by Qutb’s ideological certainty.  Qutb held a conviction that there is an objective truth in the universe, holding answers to all of life’s quandaries, which people are obliged to realize in the here and now, forcefully if necessary.

As someone possessed of a liberal and questioning attitude, at least on most matters, I was interested in discerning the circumstances and motivations that might lead a person, such as Qutb, to struggle and sacrifice at the altar of an abstract, encompassing idea.

Certainly, Qutb was not alone in espousing ideological certainty.  From the nineteenth century to our own time, numerous leaders and followers—adherents of Anarchism, Communism, Nationalism, and Imperialism—have laid claim to truth in attempts to realize utopian dreams or manifest destinies, usually with negative consequences.

In the 1950s, as the Cold War unfurled, Eric Hoffer famously referred to such people as “true believers”—individuals who “plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change.”

Qutb was not quite the fanatic that Hoffer had in mind.  His morality propelled, but also softened his ardor, to the extent that many Muslims who are in no way attracted to radical causes—in other words, the vast majority of Muslims in the world—will read aspects of his works for benefit.

Yet there is no denying the fact that Qutb, gripped by the divine design of the universe, was driven by the belief that he was defending God’s absolute truth against the apparent barbarism of the modern world.

I wanted to know how, why, and to what effect, Qutb transformed the faith that he had inherited from his father into a radical ideology.