Memories of Sayyid Qutb: An Interview With John Calvert
Nearly 40 years after he was hanged for treason, Sayyid Qutb remains as dangerous today as he was in Nasser’s Egypt. Qutb had pushed the limits of Muslim Brotherhood thought, practically declaring war on any ruler that does not govern by Islamic law. Such talk got him executed, but a new generation of jihadists has taken up his call.
Qutb’s impact was not just felt in his native Egypt. His works and disciples have spread far and wide. In fact, it can be argued that much of Osama bin Laden’s Islamic radicalism can be traced back to the mentoring he received from Sayyid Qutb’s brother and Abdullah Azzam, a Qutb family friend.
Contributing to the study of this influential Egyptian ideologue, John Calvert and William Shepard have recently translated Qutb’s autobiography A Child from the Village. The book tells of a child’s life in rural Upper Egypt, of local superstitions and Sufi holy men, of government medical missions and looming poverty — of an extremist before he became an extremist.
Worldpress.org speaks with John Calvert, assistant history professor at Omaha, Nebraska’s Creighton University.
Schechter: What was Sayyid Qutb’s ideological affiliation when he wrote A Child from the Village?
Calvert: At the time he wrote his autobiography, he was a secular Egyptian nationalist who believed that Egypt was part of a wider, Arabic-speaking world. Many of the Egyptian intelligentsia of the time had similar ideas.
Qutb strove for Egypt’s political and cultural independence from the West. Egypt had been occupied by the British in 1882 and Britain continued to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs well into the 1930’s and 1940’s.
What themes in the book were carried over into Qutb’s Muslim Brotherhood period?
In A Child from the Village, you have a strong social justice message. Qutb came from a middle-class family in the countryside, and he talks about the guilt he felt when he realized that there were people in his immediate environment who were very poor, living dreadful lives.
It’s interesting that in Qutb’s first major Islamist work, Social Justice and Islam, he plays up this theme of social justice. There, he says that social justice is a cardinal principle of Islam, that you are your brother’s keeper.
In 1949, Sayyid Qutb spent six months in Greeley, Colorado. What was his take on life in this conservative, ranching community?
Qutb spent some time at the Wilson Teachers College in Washington, D.C. From there, he went to Greeley, Colorado, which was a conservative place and represented, for Americans, the best the country had to offer. But Qutb wrote very disparaging letters about Greeley to Egyptian colleagues.
Ever since the mid-1940’s, if not before, Qutb was writing about the abject materialism of Western civilization, and at Greeley, he was face to face with that materialism — the source of the degeneracy which was spreading into the lands of Islam.
Qutb had nothing good to say about the United States. He was critical of the American concern with lawn care. He said he could not get a good haircut there. He was dismayed by what he regarded as the promiscuous relationships between men and women.
There’s a famous episode where Qutb attended a sock hop at a Greeley church, and the pastor played on the gramophone the famous Big Band song of the day, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” Qutb was scandalized as he watched young people dancing with each other.
But it’s impossible that Qutb had nothing but bad experiences in the nearly two years that he spent in the United States. I think his letters to colleagues were foils directed against the Western culture seeping into Egypt; he was already an Islamist before going to the United States.
Qutb was a life-long bachelor. What were his attitudes towards women?
I think he was a little bit afraid of women. He projected a lot of stuff on to women. He regarded women as a potential source of fitna, or social discord … Qutb was very afraid of the effects of sexuality as something that would compromise his identity as a God-fearing Muslim.
If you look at his book Thorns, at the episodes he says that he experienced in the United States, women are always there in the background as temptresses. I don’t think that this pathology is common to Islamic culture, but I think Qutb certainly had a troubled relationship with women.
In Social Justice and Islam, Qutb says that contemporary Muslim societies are not Islamic. What does he mean be that?
He says that contemporary Muslim societies have failed to fully implement the shariah, or the body of Islamic law. He wasn’t ready yet to condemn the Muslim world as a whole for disbelief, as he did in the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s, but he starts to veer in that direction.
He was very much influenced by Abul Ala Mawdudi, the prominent South Asian Islamist, whose thought was made known to Qutb and other Arabs through the translations of Abu Hasan Nadvi. Qutb first encountered the writings of Mawdudi in 1951.
Both Mawdudi and Nadvi say that much of the Muslim world is jahali, or unIslamic.
After Qutb’s imprisonment by [Egyptian dictator Gamel Abdel] Nasser [in 1954], he starts to emphasize that point to a degree unmatched in his earlier writings.
What is Qutb’s model of an ideal Islamic community?
He would point to Muhammad and the first Islamic community in Medina. This doesn’t mean that he wanted to return to the days of tents and date trees. Qutb wanted a modern Islamic state, one cleansed of selfish individualism and political corruption.
What the early Muslims did was practice the principles of the Quran, and Qutb thought that contemporary Muslims should do the same.
When did that ideal community end?
Qutb believes that the virtuous period ended with the eclipse of the al-Rashidun, the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who followed Muhammad. That period extended up until 650 C.E. or so. In other words, it was really the first generation of Muslims who knew Muhammad personally and were dedicated to perpetuating his ways.
For Qutb, how did Islam lose its way so quickly?
Certain caliphs started to rule as kings, rather than custodians of Islam. And certainly, for Qutb, one the major reasons for the Islamic decline is the impact of the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. Qutb talks about the history of imperialism, but for him, what made it so deleterious was its cultural effect, with the secularization of the Muslim world.
Qutb talks about there having been various individuals who have emerged in Muslim history to set things right. He follows the traditional Islamic notion of revivers, or mujaddids, who appear once every century to recapitulate the principles of that first, pristine community in Medina. I think that he regards himself as being part of that tradition of revival.
How does Sayyid Qutb’s view of re-Islamizing society differ from that of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna?
Qutb became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953 and was immediately elevated to head its Propagation of the Call department. Qutb was more of an intellectual than al-Banna, who was an organizer above all. For both, the Muslim Brotherhood was a grassroots movement; it was a bottom-up approach. They lobbied the government, held demonstrations, and printed pamphlets.
Then Qutb was thrown in jail by Nasser two years after the Free Officer coup in 1952.
The Brothers initially thought that the Free Officers would implement shariah law, while the Free Officers thought the Brothers would bring them the masses. But the relationship broke down when the Muslim Brothers saw that Nasser wasn’t interested in Islamic law. When one Brother tried to assassinate Nasser, the organization was proscribed and Qutb was caught up in the police dragnet.
Qutb was tortured and, in 1958, witnessed the massacre of dozens of Brothers in Tura Prison. All that radicalized him. He shifted his discourse from Islam’s relevance to socio-economic requirements to the fundamental issue of political legitimacy. He transforms Islam into an ideology of pure resistance. He’s no longer interested in winning the masses.
That’s the vanguard of true believers — an island of righteousness in a sea of iniquity. Qutb talks of a cadre of who hides itself away from the corrupting force of the jahaliya and bides it time in order to reestablish a true Islamic society. He’s vague about using violence, but if you read between the lines, you realize that he’s thinking about a surgical strike against the government.
In Milestones, Qutb refers to Western imperialism as a disguised crusade. But what were the Crusades according to Qutb?
Qutb’s discourse is ahistorical. For Qutb, the Crusades stand with modern imperialism as a generalized Western assault on the lands of Islam. The West has been imbued by a dominating spirit of conquest ever since the Middle Ages. And though the borders have fluctuated over the years, the West managed to overrun Islam in the 19th century, and that whole process has to be reversed.
Does that mean all territory once held by Islam must be regained? Would Spain need to be conquered?
Qutb is quite explicit that the whole world must inevitably submit to Islam. Islam is a religion about fair play, balance and humanity, so it’s only right that it be the dominant ideology in the world. He wants to begin by liberating the Muslim world from secular rulers …, then retake former Muslim land and then establish the universal Caliphate.
He emphasizes the offensive nature of the jihad. He’s quite unapologetic about that. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many Muslim writers, mostly modernists, tended to emphasize jihad as a spiritual struggle or defensive war, but for Qutb, jihad is about spreading Islam throughout the world, including the toppling of governments.
What impact has Qutb had on the thinking of Anwar Sadat’s assassins, the 1993 W.T.C. bombers, and the Al Qaeda leadership?
We have to understand Qutb in his own time and place and realize that a subsequent generation of Muslim writers read him and came to their own conclusions. It’s a little dangerous to trace a direct genealogical line from Osama bin Laden back to Qutb. Al Qaeda is fed by the Egyptian jihadist stream, influenced by Qutb, and elements of the Saudi Wahhabi stream that met up in Afghanistan.
That being said, I think that Qutb’s greatest contribution to this current jihad is the notion that the West and its regional proxies constitute a metaphysical entity. Jahaliya is not confined to the West but is a constituent component of many Muslim countries.
Certainly Muhammad al-Faraj, who wrote The Neglected Duty, was one of the first to have implemented Qutb’s notion that Muslim rulers who don’t rule by Islamic law must be removed. Of course, [Al Qaeda ideologue] Ayman al-Zawahiri was an avid reader of Qutb and put his ideas into practice.