- Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual by James Toth
Over the past decade a number of books have appeared that examine the life and thought of the Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), the influential Islamist ideologue. The most recent and one of the best of these is James Toth’s intellectual biography. Rather than simply examine Qutb as the progenitor of contemporary jihadi violence as some have done, Toth aims to examine Qutb on his own terms with reference to his distinctive environment and concerns. According to Toth, Qutb had interesting and even worthwhile things to say about the role of Islam in the state and society. He deserves to be taken seriously. If he veered in the direction of radicalism, it was because state repression helped to turn the political contest between the Egyptian Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood, of which he was a member, into a zero-sum game.
Toth treats his Islamist vision as constitutive of a social movement — one that springs from, and responds to, tensions in the social, economic, and political environments; organizes and mobilizes supporters; is flexible in adapting to changing circumstances; and frames its activities in culturally appropriate ways. Such an approach allows Toth to avoid the pitfalls of essentialism that so often mar studies on Islamist movements. In so doing, he steers clear of sterile functionalism and pays close attention to the content and genealogy of his subject’s ideas. It is here, in Toth’s unraveling of Qutb’s conceptual universe that the real strength of the book is to be found.
Toth opens his book with a concise exploration of Qutb’s biography, expertly situating him within the social, political, and intellectual contexts of early to mid-20th century Egypt. He portrays Qutb as a man who over his life was deeply influenced by the traditional rural culture of southern Egypt, where he was born and raised. According to Toth, Qutb’s rustic origins explain the rigorous moralism that dominated his writing, both as an Egyptian nationalist and as an Islamist. Qutb rubbed shoulders with the sophisticated literati of Old Regime Egypt, yet at heart he was a populist who decried the cosmopolitan trends that were gaining ground in Egypt. According to Toth, Qutb’s 1946 autobiographical treatment of his village boyhood was in fact a subtle riposte to Taha Husayn, his superior at the ministry of education whose Westernizing proclivities, expressed for example in his own autobiography, al-Ayyam [The Days], were distasteful to Qutb. Toth also makes a point [End Page 658] of highlighting Qutb’s aesthetic outlook, which from early in his career colored not only his appreciation of art and literature, but also his understanding of ethics and religion. Although Qutb the Islamist looked to the pious example of the Prophet and the first generations of Muslims, he was less interested in the formal stipulations of shari‘a than he was in the virtuous sentiment that bound Muslims together and spurred them to action. In the manner of a poet, Qutb was concerned with the effect of the Qur’an’s words and images on individual consciousness. Toth effectively describes how Qutb’s spiritual and populist inclinations were gradually transformed into Islamism within the context of ancien régime Egypt’s fractious politics and social injustice.
Thankfully, Toth does not claim Qutb’s extended visit to the US in 1948–50 as an important factor in his eventual radicalization. He is correct to suppose that Qutb exaggerated at least some of his accounts of life in the US for dramatic effect. Instead Toth explains how Qutb’s moderate Islamism was radicalized as a consequence of the Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser regime’s proscription of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. The bulk of the book is taken up with an exposition of Qutb’s thought as it mutated within the dark confines of prison. In clear and concise prose, Toth provides detailed expositions of Qutb’s thinking as regards the Islamic state...