In the field of Islamist political philosophy, Sayyid Qutb is one of the twentieth century's most important figures. Yet, if he is known at all in the West, it is superficially, often dismissed as "the godfather of al-Qaeda" or something similar. This portrayal, akin to a pantomime bad guy, is not helped by the most commonly employed photographic images of the man, behind bars in an Egyptian court. Instead, James Toth's Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual is a serious portrait of Qutb the man, the dramatic evolution of his religious and political opinions from secularist to radical Islamist, and the legacy of his work and writings.
In order to derive insight into the minds of those who foster and promote radical Islamist ideologies today, one would be well served to understand the social and political climate in which they grew up. The same is true of Qutb. Born in 1906 in a village near Asyut, Upper Egypt, he was a teenager when he moved from the security of the countryside to the maelstrom that was Cairo in 1919, and the country's first nationalist revolution. Disappointment at the failure of the revolution to deliver full independence for Egypt forced many to reassess their approach to politics. Looking beyond Wafd and other secular nationalist parties, many Egyptians re-examined the place and role of religion in their lives.
One manifestation of this was the founding, in 1928, of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Qutb would eventually join in 1953, after it had been banned — not for the first or last time — by Egypt's military government. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many of the group's leadership found sanctuary in Saudi Arabia; Qutb stayed in Egypt, spending 10 years in prison. A religious organization that preaches pan-Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood may see Islam as universal and timeless, but the group's start in life was unquestionably the result of particular earthly social and political circumstances.
Released from prison on health grounds in 1964, Qutb was rearrested in 1965 on charges of trying to overthrow the state. He underwent what amounted to a show trial, during which much of his literary output, notably his writing on Islam, was used as evidence against him. Qutb was found guilty of being part of a conspiracy to assassinate President Nasser and was executed by hanging in August 1966.
Everyone is or, in the case of Qutb, was a complex product of background, upbringing, external influences and internal mental effort to try to make sense of a mass of often contradictory data. Toth is a highly successful biographer who has placed the complexity of one man's journey through life at the center of his book, or at least the first part.
The author has split his material into two parts: the life and the legacy. This is the only viable approach if one wants a single volume that has two equally important tasks: to produce a biography of Qutb, a leading exponent of Islamist political theory, and how he got to that point; and to elucidate the adoption, development and, in some cases, misinterpretation of his thinking by subsequent generations of Islamist radicals. Although enthusiastically taken up by both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, there is much in Qutb's writings to lead one to conclude he would have been horrified with the 9/11 attacks, whatever claims al-Qaeda makes to the contrary.
Had he not been hijacked by the nihilists of al-Qaeda, Qutb would probably be remembered, at least in Egypt, as an important intellectual whose prodigious output included poetry, short stories, novels, memoir, literary criticism and editorials for more than one literary journal. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate, said that Qutb was one of two literary critics who rescued him from obscurity. In the 1990s, Mahfouz went further: "Had it not been for his tendency to extremism, [Qutb] would have become the most important critic in Egypt."
Among his works on Islam, two of the most important are In the Shadow of the Quran (Fi Zilal al-Quran, written between 1954 and 1964) and Signposts Along the Way, also known in English as Milestones (Maalim fi al-Tariq, 1964). More than any other of his religious books that are read today, Milestones popularized his principal idea: within Islam one could find everything required for an orderly society and healthy moral norms; and Islam is the answer, regardless of the question. While it is assumed that most readers will prefer to tackle the 150 or so pages of Milestones, rather than the 30 volumes of Quranic exegesis that is In the Shadow of the Quran, the interested lay reader should also consider reading Qutb's short and very accessible autobiography: A Child from the Village (1946).
Toth successfully examines the life and legacy of one of the most important names in the history of radical Islamism. Readers of this journal are aware that widespread ignorance of Islam is all too common but, if read as widely as it ought to be, this book offers a useful corrective. After more than a decade of war in two Muslim-majority countries, one would like to see discussions of Islam move beyond bias and cliché-driven explications. One significant problem is the use of the word Islam in a reductionist fashion, necessarily ignoring the varieties of the faith and its adherents. It would help if one instead spoke of Islams. This would go some way forward conveying the differences that exist among confessional groupings, just as discussions of Christianity involve an understanding of the varieties in that faith, from Quakers and Catholics to Seventh-Day Adventists and snake-handling preachers.
After 9/11, tens of thousands of copies of the Quran were sold, meeting the sudden demand for answers. Alas, it transpired that many autodidacts wanted to read the Quran to get an explanation for why the attacks took place. This search for answers was understandable, but the answers are not to be found in the pages of the Quran. Studying a 1,400-year-old text that more than a billion people believe is divine revelation, in an attempt to explain why a terrorist gang committed mass murder, is about as useful as reading the Old Testament in order to untangle the processes by which the Catholic Church came to define the dogma of Papal Infallibility in 1870.