Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism
by John Calvert
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) 377 pp.

Reviewed by: Ian Oxnevad, PhD

In Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, John Calvert provides a critical intellectual biography of Sunni Islamism’s most prominent 20th century proponent. Well documented and with detailed analysis of Qutb’s life, Calvert retrieves a figure too often reduced to glossed over or simply known as an intellectual inspiration for modern jihadist groups. Calvert traces the course of Qutb’s life, and discusses the changes and evolution in his religious and political thinking. For intellectual historians, scholars of Islamism, and scholars of Middle East politics, Calvert’s intellectual biography provides a ready source for material.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of Calvert’s work is his tracing the changes in Qutb’s ideas and thinking of social and political issues over the course of his life. Perhaps few readers who are otherwise scholars of Islamism and terrorism would know of Qutb’s literary career in which he wrote numerous works prior to his radicalization. In tracing the radicalization of one of the most influential Islamists in history, Calvert’s coverage of Qutb’s literary work in the 1940s offers rare glimpses into his pre-Islamist thinking. Particularly striking is Calvert’s discussion of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and his creation of a character based on Qutb (115). To a degree, in reading the book as an intellectual biography the reader can gather an image of the radicalization of the arch-radical.

While the book offers one of the few in-depth discussions of Qutb’s life and his intellectual progression, a number of lingering questions of the book’s subject remain unexplored. For example, the connections between Qutb’s thought and previous prominent Islamists such as Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyyah, remain under-explored in the book aside from a brief mention in the introduction (6). This is telling, particularly as the thinkers as a cluster all derive from the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. What were Qutb’s thoughts on violence against civilians? In tracing the trajectory of his life and thought, one lingering question permeates throughout the book; namely, what of Qutb’s ideas are his, and what did he derive from previous Islamist thinkers?

In the context of a post-Islamic State Iraq and Syria, one cannot help but wonder if the book is not sufficiently critical of Qutb. In his introduction, Calvert stresses that it would be “unwise to assume a direct link between Sayyid Qutb and Usama bin Laden” (8). Calvert’s brief attempt to redeem Qutb as a thinker comes across all the more awkward as he describes Qutb’s ideas as “a hard ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ vision that encouraged the worst kind of stereotyping” (10). The anti-Semitism, misogyny, hatred of the West, and atrocities committed against Muslims deemed insufficiently devout committed by groups such as the Islamic State at least raise the normative question as to whether there is indeed a direct link between Qutb and contemporary jihadists.

On the whole, Calvert’s book provides an in-depth analysis of Sayyid Qutb’s life and work. Political theorists, historians, and political scientists will find many potential avenues for further research into the intellectual foundations for contemporary Islamism.