Egypt’s Terror-Poet

From The Economist

Book Review: Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual by James Toth.

SAYYID Qutb, born 1906, was a rather obscure Egyptian poet, novelist, literary critic and commentator on the Koran, who was executed for his political activities in 1966. That at any rate was the sum total of the Qutb story as far as much of the world was concerned – until the events of September 11, 2001, when suddenly Qutb ceased to be obscure.

by Richard Walker

He was quickly identified as the pre-eminent ‘philosopher of Islamic terror’ (by Paul Berman in the New York Times), a lead which many other commentators followed. It emerged that Qutb had indeed been powerfully influential on many in the Islamist world, including the Egyptian Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, and on Osama bin Laden himself, who was probably taught in Saudi Arabia by Qutb’s brother Muhammed and by Qutb’s disciple Abdullah Azzam. Qutb became seen as the source of a new political interpretation of Islam, an Islam that in the words of Azzam would feature ‘no negotiation, no conferences, and no dialogues’. 

Much of this post 9/11 commentary was as partisan as Qutb himself. With his toothbrush moustache Qutb was compared to Hitler (as well as to Goebbels, Stalin, and Pol Pot). In this new book a distinguished anthropologist who has worked in Egypt for much of his career now attempts to dismantle the accepted characterisation of Sayyid Qutb, using biography or ‘psychohistory’ to reinstate him as a perceptive artist and revolutionary political thinker.

On those terms Toth’s book is a failure. There is much dutiful discussion of Qutb’s theology, but what should be key details of the life are left fatally vague, and the qualities of the poems, novels and literary criticism remain utterly mysterious.  The attempt to sterilize a philosophy based on cultural contempt is doomed from the outset. But there is much in the book that is of interest, to students both of Egypt and of malignant religiosity.

What is absolutely clear is that Qutb was a wounded individual, wounded both by personal background and by historical setting. He came from a once-prosperous rural family sliding rapidly down the economic scale. Once installed in Cairo he immediately plunged into intellectual life, which in the Egypt of the mid-20th century could only mean an agonised search for identity. The question was, how could you be authentic in a society dominated by foreign powers, foreign ideas, and foreign manners?

In his early years Sayyid Qutb pursued this quest from just about every intellectual position available. Modernism, Aestheticism, Easternism, Pharoanism, Arabism, Nationalism, all had their turn. The only entirely consistent feature of Qutb’s approach was his abiding love of grievances and feuds. And then he went to America.

The result of this trip was an outpouring of revulsion so steeped in sexual and racial paranoia that it reads like coarse parody.  Here is Qutb reporting breathlessly on a church social occasion in the god-fearing and alcohol-free small town of Greeley, Colorado: ‘Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion.’ This is jahiliyya, the antithesis of Islam, the ‘rubbish heap of the West’, where everything from American haircuts to football (‘brutal’) to jazz (‘primitive’) is a mortal offence.

This pattern of reaction may seem ludicrous, but it neither unique nor particularly religious. Its roots are surely psychological, relating to the deepest-seated of fears.

And what were those fears that turned the sickly, bookish, lonely village swot into the poet of intolerance who wrote In the Shade of the Koran, and the final condensed call to arms Signposts on the Road? Toth has no answer: the book of Qutb’s inner life remains closed.

First published here.