John Calvert


On his book Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism

Cover Interview of September 26, 2010

A close-up

In 1954, Egypt’s new revolutionary regime arrested Sayyid Qutb and hundreds of other Egyptian Islamist following a Muslim Brother’s assassination attempt on President Nasser.  Qutb had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist movement, the previous year.  One of the most important sections of the book deals with how Qutb’s subsequent imprisonment and torture affected the evolution of his ideas.

During the last years of the monarchy, Qutb attempted to mobilize the Egyptian people in the direction of change within the legal framework of the state.  But now, languishing in Tura prison, he understood that advocacy politics were ineffective against a regime that was prepared to eradicate, without compunction, its Islamist and other critics.

As a result, Qutb shifted his emphasis from Islam’s equation with social justice to the fundamental issue of political legitimacy.  Accordingly, his demand for an “Islamic order” became emphatic with strong appeals to core doctrines and principles.

In Qutb’s refurbished view, however much Nasser claimed to represent the interests of Egyptians and other Muslim peoples, Nasser’s refusal to implement Islamic law (the Shari‘a) qualified him as usurper of God’s sovereignty, which all the peoples of the world ought to follow.

In fact, said Qutb, so great was the level of cultural, political and economic oppression in Egypt and elsewhere, that only a circle of adepts, a vanguard, could awaken the masses and mobilize them in the direction of change.

In coming to this tactic, Qutb had in mind the model of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslims who, from an initial position of weakness, had gradually built up their power so that they could confront head on the oppressors.

But the book also makes clear that Qutb was inspired, at least unconsciously, by modern currents of rebellion and political change. That is to say, Qutb imbibed and repackaged in Islamic form the Jacobin characteristics of the European revolutionary tradition.

Interestingly, Qutb underscored the purported illegitimacy of the Egyptian Republic, and by extension all other non-Islamic regimes and societies, by equating its moral universe with the condition of jahiliyya, “ignorance” of the divine mandate.  As in the pre-Islamic era, “ignorance” of God enveloped the contemporary world.  As a result, the strong oppressed the weak and materialism and individualism were rampant.

Qutb was especially concerned with decadent and immoral behavior, especially of the sexual variety. Muslims may believe in God and his prophet, pray, fast, perform the Hajj, and dispense charity.  But as long as their lives “are not based on submission to God alone,” they are steeped in jahiliyya and cannot be reckoned fully as Muslims—a controversial supposition that went against the grain of Islamic theology, which historically advocated inclusiveness and tolerance.

Qutb’s radical ideology confirms the contention that the totalistic quality of revolutionary movements owes much to the authoritarian nature of the regimes against which they operate.

Such had been the case, for example, in nineteenth-century Russia where nihilist and anarchist groups converged on the complete triumph of their idea against the tyranny of the czarist system.  It was also true of the savage insurgencies in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s, which pitted radicalized Islamists against the state.  In each case, repressive bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes encouraged the maximal intentions of various jihadi groups.

Seen in this light, Qutb’s gravitation to ideological totality anticipated, and in part inspired, the “friend-enemy” distinctions that drove the Islamist-state conflicts of the late twentieth century.