John Calvert


On his book Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism

Cover Interview of September 26, 2010


One cannot deny Qutb’s contribution to the contemporary tide of global jihad.

His practice of sharply distinguishing between those who uphold a true and authentic understanding of Islam and “iniquitous others,” no less than his view of jihad as the obligatory means to eliminate disobedience to God, anticipate aspects of al Qaeda’s discourse.

Yet, if the al-Qaeda threat enhanced Qutb’s public profile, it has also monopolized and distorted our understanding of his real contribution to contemporary Islamism.

In the search for al-Qaeda origins, even well intentioned observers tend to focus on points of similarity between Qutb’s thought and that of Al Qaeda.  But they ignore significant anomalies.

And if some students of the jihad are careful to situate Qutb correctly in relation to al-Qaeda, still they often consign him to the position of opening act.  Rarely do observers of the Islamist scene address Qutb’s singularity.

Herein lies a lesson.  In resorting to short cuts, we pass over a history that is as nuanced as any other.  We run the danger of succumbing to a “neo-Orientalist” style that subordinates particulars to an essential and enduring identity, and that ignores complexity in favor of simplicity.

It is this kind of essentialist thinking that has led some to posit a “clash of civilizations,” or to consider all Islamist movements as identical in terms of aims, strategies and tactics.  There is a great deal of ideological and organizational difference, for example, between the Muslim Brotherhood and the groups inspired by al-Qaeda.

Researchers need to study Islamist thinkers and movements on their own terms, with reference to their distinctive environment and concerns.  Only by regarding Islamist discourses as flexible and historically contingent will we, as outsiders to the phenomenon, comprehend the various challenges put forward by Islamists in the contemporary period.

For this reason, I chose in the book to situate Sayyid Qutb firmly in his Egyptian environment, examining the evolution of his ideas with reference to the tumultuous events of the time.

© 2010 John Calvert