Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism
by John Calvert
London: Hurst & Co., 2010. 377 pp. $29.50
Reviewed by Richard Phelps
Quilliam Foundation, London
Middle East Quarterly
Undoubtedly, the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) has been one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Islamism. It is therefore surprising that despite the frequency and volume of references made to him, this is the first comprehensive biography of him in English. Calvert, an associate professor of history at Creighton University, Nebraska, has produced a biography that is lively, sensitive, and methodical, and represents a landmark study of serious value to students, academics, and general readers alike.
Qutb lived through eventful times, and Calvert's study is as much a political history of modern Egypt through the prism of Sayyid Qutb as it is a biography of the man and a study of his thought. A rare intellectual within the movement, Qutb is a figure whose life narrative is every bit as important as his ideological output. "I preferred the clamour of the storm to the silence of tranquillity," he once maintained, but he said this when he was a prominent literary critic—long before he became an Islamist radical. Qutb's radical articulation of Islamist ideology during his final years usually receives the most attention, but Calvert places such thinking within the wider context of Qutb's life as a whole and details how it evolved to this final incarnation.Qutb laid the foundations for Islamism's most extreme manifestations following his execution. Still, Calvert is careful to observe that Qutb himself would have been horrified by the Islamist excommunication of self-proclaimed Muslims and the resulting wanton slaughter and indifference to noncombatant status witnessed today. True, Qutb popularized the condemnation of Muslims in the culture and civilization around him as living in a state of "ignorance" or "barbarism" comparable to the pre-Islamic era. However, he never characterized them as "infidels" as his successors did. Likewise, though he was clearly a dissenter who endorsed revolutionary violence, his radicalism was not stagnant but was a position he embraced gradually following years of systematic abuse.
Civil servant, literary critic, revolutionary icon, Qur'anic commentator, persecuted dissenter, feted martyr: Calvert's biography captures the many faces of Qutb. For his followers, Qutb's persecution by Nasser's regime is an ordeal comparable to the trials of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) or Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Yet Qutb was not a cleric, and the literalist heirs of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya have frequently denounced Qutb's figurative and spiritual readings of Islamic scripture as deviant. Examining the breadth of Qutb's prolific writings, Calvert concludes that it is the ambiguity of Qutb's thought that is the key to his dangerous legacy.
Related Topics: Radical Islam | Richard Phelps | Spring 2011 MEQ
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