REBEL WITH A CAUSE
Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism
By John Calvert (Hurst & Co 377pp £25)
In Naguib Mahfouz's semi-autobiographical novel Mirrors, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature sketched a character named Abd al-Wahhab Ismail. It is generally regarded as a portrait of Sayyid Qutb. Ismail is a 'polite conversationalist', self-assured and even-tempered. He never speaks about religion. He adopts European habits in food and dress, and enjoys going to the cinema. But his apparent espousal of modernity is a façade. Beneath the exterior of a typical middle-class Egyptian effendi-cum-man about town, Mahfouz discerns something disturbing, even sinister:
I was never comfortable with his face or the look in his bulging, serious eyes ... I was disturbed by his opportunistic side, doubting his integrity. A permanent revulsion, despite our friendship, settled in my heart.
On the cover of John Calvert's book, those 'bulging, serious eyes' stare from behind prison bars. For radically minded Muslims, this image of Qutb the martyr - taken shortly before his execution in 1966 - has the iconic charge of Alberto Korda's celebrated photograph of Che Guevara. The Islamic Republic has even used it on postage stamps - demonstrable proof of the esteem in which Iran's revolutionary ayatollahs hold the Muslim Brotherhood's most famous and influential intellectual.
Were Mahfouz's instincts sound? Was he justified in doubting Qutb's integrity? Calvert's biography - the product of both painstaking research into the Arabic sources and an impressive grasp of modern history and culture - presents a rounded picture of a man who, more than any other figure, both epitomised and articulated the cause of political Islam. Qutb's pamphlet - variously translated as Milestones or Signposts, and excerpted from the multivolume Quranic commentary he wrote during the better part of a decade that he spent in Nasser's prisons - deserves to be recognised as one of the most influential revolutionary tracts produced in the twentieth century. As Calvert comments, 'its diagnostic élan and call to action bear comparison with Lenin's What is to be Done?' Muhammad Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the murderous airborne attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11, assuredly had read it. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy and widely considered the 'brains' behind al-Qaeda, has explicitly acknowledged that Qutb's message (which he regards as identical to that of Islam itself) 'fanned the fire of Islamic revolution against the enemies of Islam at home and abroad'. Not that this means that Qutb would have approved of 9/11. More rooted in Islamic piety than Atta or al-Zawahiri, he would not, as Calvert argues,
have sanctioned the methods of extreme violence that Atta and his terrorist colleagues employed; as Qutb had pointed out in his writings the killing of innocents finds no justification in the Quran. Nor would Qutb have understood al-Qaeda's desire to attack a Western power in such a fashion. In his mind the jihad against taghut (idolatrous tyranny) at home was always paramount. However, he would have had little trouble understanding the logic of their purpose. For in the September 11 attacks the hijackers underscored the same point that he made in his prison writings: that the World, as it stands, constitutes a conceptual realm of irreligion and vice that ought to be resisted in the name of God.
The great strength of this book lies in the plausible, non-judgemental way that Calvert charts Qutb's trajectory from his rural roots in Upper Egypt, by way of his membership of Cairo's literary elite in the 1930s and 1940s and his brief involvement with the Free Officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1952, through to his membership of the Muslim Brotherhood and execution for his participation in a planned armed insurgency in 1966.
Before the revolution he had a respectable job as an inspector in the ministry of education. Many commentators, myself included, have focused on his visit to America in 1949-50 on a generous Egyptian government grant to study the country's educational methods. Contrary to the intentions of his superiors, the visit consolidated Qutb's disdain for all things American - in particular the materialism of its culture and the free mixing of the sexes. The climax in his now famous account occurs when he attends a dance at a Colorado church hall: 'The dancing intensified ... The hall swarmed with legs ... Arms circled arms, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of love.' Much to Qutb's dismay, the evening was hosted by the pastor, who dimmed the lights to create a 'romantic dreamy effect' while the gramophone played a popular tune, 'Baby, It's Cold Outside'.
But can we trust this version? After 9/11 - thanks largely to Calvert's previously published research - Qutb's account formed the core of several media documentaries that featured, inevitably, the 1949 big band version of that tune. Calvert suggests, however, that Qutb 'may have "cherry picked", exaggerated and even invented some of his accounts of American life'. With undue scholarly reticence he confines the most telling source of his scepticism to an endnote citing a description of nightclubs and dance halls in Cairo that Qutb penned in 1945, several years before his American trip: 'We all know people who frequent such halls, and we all know what goes on inside of them. We know they spend their time drinking wine in order to release their animal instincts, which are then directed at the cheap flesh found in these places.'
Reading this passage, one cannot avoid concluding that Mahfouz's instinct was right: as a writer, Qutb lacked integrity. His capacity for clear-eyed observation was blinkered by his faith. Unlike his contemporaries, such as Louis Awad and Taha Hussein, who made strenuous personal efforts to inform themselves about Western culture, Qutb approached America with a closed mind, determined to see only its most negative aspects. Although he had been influenced in his earlier years in Cairo by his mentor Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, who admired the English Romantics, nothing in his writing suggests that Qutb - who knew some English - had read Thoreau, Emerson or Whitman. His rage against the West - and particularly against America's spiritual emptiness - reveals the same blinkered religiosity, and obsession with lustful women and sexual pollution, that is found in the 'will' left by his presumed disciple, Muhammad Atta. Unlike Atta, however, he did not inflict his own desire for martyrdom on thousands of innocent people. Qutb, for all his fanaticism, was a humane and decent man: despite failing health, his conduct in prison was exemplary, showing concern for his fellow inmates under the harshest conditions. The Islamist movement whose ideas he honed so effectively had yet to become fully brutalised by the tortures inflicted by the corrupt authoritarian regimes that may now, at last, be having to answer for their crimes.
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Malise Ruthven is the author of Fundamentalism: The Search For Meaning and A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America, among other books. A book of his essays, Encounters with Islam, will be published next year.