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A Post-Modern jahiliyya
John Calvert. Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islam. The American University in Cairo Press 2011. 256 pps. 120 LE. ISBN 978 977 416 1 0. Dar el Kutub No. 24548/10.
Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser hanged Sayyid Qutb for sedition in 1966. This was because of Qutb's activity in the Muslim Brotherhood, and his Islamist hard-line publications, in which Qutb identified the state as reprehensible in what Qutb viewed as a contemporary crisis in Islam. Qutb likened what he saw—a modern world of godlessness—to the time of ignorance, or jahiliyya, which existed before Islam was revealed. If this sounds familiar, it's because an entire school of thought, Qutbism, emerged in the years following Qutb's death, an ideology embraced and disseminated by radical global jihadists Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, among others—to advocate the violent over-throw of the modern state in favour of an Islamic caliphate. Author John Calvert tells us Qutb seemed to view everything through the narrow prism of Good and Evil. Specifically, a time of jahiliyya (ignorance) and hakimiyya (God's justice). Modern jahiliyya can seem abstract and vague, Qutb warned, a strange unstable world where nothing is true and everything is permitted. It reads like a dystopian novel by George Orwell or William Burroughs. But Sayyid Qutb did not start out a hard-line Islamist. Qutb grew up in the rural, dusty sun-baked Asyut province of Upper Egypt as a young man with tremendous literary and
intellectual promise. After the 1919 Revolution, the young Qutb was sent off to Cairo for study, at his family's expense, in order to join the new social class of effendis—the educated civil servants, given to wearing the tarbush (fez hats), neckties and three-piece suits. He took a place in the Ministry of Education, published widely as a literary critic and poet, alongside other abna el-balad (sons of the countryside), like Taha Hussein, who had risen out of the dust of the distant provinces to join Cairo's administration and café literati. He was friends with Naguib Mahfouz. Calvert translated one of Qutb's memoirs, which chronicles Qutb's youth in Asyut, A Child From the Village [1946, English translation 2005 AUC Press, reviewed in The Egyptian Gazette, October 21, 2010]. Qutb wrote it in third-person, referring to himself as 'our child'. And in Qutb’s charming memoir, the reader sees no indication of future radical Islamist leanings. Rather, we see Qutb as a precocious young boy willing to leave behind the superstitions of his fellow villagers, an inquisitive young man with an intense interest in religion and literature. Qutb saw the peasants from his rural childhood—captives of poverty and ignorance—as toiling in the fields ad infinitum, and as people who have no expectations that their lives would ever improve. Calvert studied at the American University in Cairo in the late 1980s before doing his PhD in Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. His current research, at Creighton University, in Nebraska, is on the Muslim Brotherhood and with a concentration in Qutbism. Calvert spent several years methodically researching this book, having gone to primary sources, offering etymologies where relevant, and providing analysis of Qutb's psychology, philosophy and environs—this, in order to help his reader understand this frequently misunderstood man. Calvert asserts there is ambiguity in Qutb's thought when it comes to advocating a violent over-throw of governments, and too, the ex-communication of Muslim apostates. He also feels
Qutb would've disagreed with bin Laden's tactics, as Qutb thought that it was important to address the jahiliyya that was at home before confronting the wider scope of an international jihad. But it's impossible to proffer a guess as to what Qutb would've thought today, as his views changed so much over time, and especially so, while languishing in Egypt's notorious Tora Prison. Were Qutb's ideas on hard-line Islamism situational—a product of his lengthy incarceration—or were they a philosophical inevitability? Qutb was far from robust. Tubercular, arthritic and prone to angina, Qutb, was said to have aged considerably, while enduring his decade in the Egyptian prison. Torture, poor diet, sensory deprivation and humiliation, were abrupt changes in lifestyle for this man of letters. It was while in Tora Prison that Qutb wrote Milestones [Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq], in which he saw himself as marking the path of righteousness for future members of the Islamist movement—not expecting to see jihad occur in his lifetime. But how did Qutb arrive at his conclusions? According to Calvert, Qutb led his reader to believe that everything in the hudud punishments of Islam's sharia law—amputations for thievery—are binding and non-negotiable, and there is an unequivocally basic explanation for this: theft = greed, and greed is that which comes from bad moral character. Any doubts on these matters involve intellect and reason, and intellect and reason fall short of the Divine. Islam is not a theory based on assumptions, he writes. A third-year undergraduate philosophy student would see the glaring paradox in all this. Before Nasser's revolution, and his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb was sent to America in 1948, as a member of the Egyptian monarchy's Ministry of Education, to study progressive methods in Western pedagogy. He was 42. Even though by this time Qutb had
been living in cosmopolitan Cairo for many years, beneath his coat, tie and tarbush remained a man grounded in the reality and ethics of rural Upper Egypt. Before he left Egypt, he thought of Western culture as based on science, industry and materialism—ideas and mechanisms which, operated without heart or conscience. When he returned to Egypt two years later, he was only further ensconced in his belief system that America was a godless land of reckless sexual abandon and of weak moral character. Qutb spent time in Colorado, at a university that welcomed him as a published scholar. Though the town, Greeley, was suburban middle-class, and with a ban on alcohol, Qutb found nothing short of revulsion in what he experienced. A church-sponsored dance he attended, with decadent jazz music, and unescorted women mingling freely among eligible bachelors in the dimly-lit basement offended him. This was 'American primitivism' to Qutb. America was then in a period of legislated race segregation, and he was mistaken for, and treated as, a Black American on more than one occasion. He noted this with revulsion. His time studying in Washington DC and California, was no less disturbing. Qutb’s move away from literary criticism and into radical Islamicism shocked those who had known him from the early Cairo literary circles. Naguib Mahfouz, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote about the transition he saw in Qutb, in a semiautobiographical collection of portraits, Mirrors . In the book, Mahfouz gives the name Abd al-Wahab Ismail to Qutb:” He launched such a tirade against science that I was shocked. “Even science?!” I asked. “Yes. It will not give us an edge. We’re behind there, and will stay behind no matter hard we try. We have no scientific message to offer the world, but
we have the message of Islam and the worship of God alone, not capitalism or dialectic materialism.” I listened, politely controlling myself. Rising to leave, I asked, “What about the future?” “Do you have a suggestion?” “Yes, but I’m afraid it might be pagan. Go back to literary criticism.” In 1952, shortly before the revolution that deposed the Egyptian monarchy, Gamal Abdel Nasser met with the Muslim Brotherhood in Qutb's Helwan home, south of Cairo. Qutb had been chosen as a sort of liaison between the Muslim Brothers and Nasser's Free Officers—perhaps Nasser misjudged Qutb has having had a malleable personality. After the success of the revolution, Qutb was briefly given a post in Nasser's government. But Qutb grew disillusioned with Nasser's secular, military dictatorship and officially joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953. By 1954, Nasser began jailing the Muslim Brothers, among them Qutb, because he saw them as a political group with aspirations in government beyond their religious organizational foundations. It was the beginning of the end for Qutb.
Willows is a contributing writer to The Egyptian Gazette and its weekly edition, The Egyptian Mail. He lives and works in Cairo. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org