Monday, September 24, 2007

Book Reviews: New Books on/by Sayyid Qutb

The Power of Sovereignty: The Political and Ideological Philosophy of Sayyid Qutb. By Sayed Khatab. New York: Routledge 2006. Pp. 298. ISBN 041537250 (HB).

Basic Principles of the Islamic Worldview. By Sayyid Qutb. Translated by Rami David. North Haledon, NJ: Islamic Publications International 2006. Pp. 230.
ISBN 1889999342 (PB).

Egyptian Muslim intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) has had a profound impact on the development of a myriad of different Islamic movements which represent a wide array of ideological views. His argument for a political and social revival of Islam in order to reform a corrupt society has influenced the ideological platforms of groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood, which in Egypt came to eschew violence, to militant jihadī groups. Qutb was imprisoned numerous times and finally executed in 1966 because he was deemed to be a significant threat to the government of pan-Arabist champion Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, the head of the revolutionary Free Officers movement which overthrew Egypt’s King Faruq in 1952. Although his life was cut short prematurely Qutb left behind reams of writings which continue to play an influential role throughout the Muslim world.

Sayed Khatab, a researcher in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, has produced a substantial analysis of Qutb’s theory of hakimiyyah (sovereignty) suitable for graduate students and how it interacted with other aspects of his religious and political thought. At its heart, the concept of hakimiyyah in Qutb’s thought revolves around the ultimate sovereignty of God which Qutb believed should be implemented through a constitutional government that would implement Shari‘ah. It is the duty of all humankind to submit (‘ubudiyyah) to God’s sovereignty. According to Qutb, Islam is both a religious and political system. The religion is also comprehensive in scope and is not limited to a specific historical period, region, or society.

Qutb believed that a true Islamic governmental system is the only such system which would be free from the influences of “human desires, weaknesses, and self-interests” (p. 171.). In an Islamic system, God would be the ultimate sovereign and lawgiver through the revelations in the Qur’an. An Islamic government would derive its legitimacy from the implementation of Shari‘ah, God’s law. Qutb believed that the inherent problem with democracy was that unlike an Islamic system it was manmade and thusly inferior.

In recent years Qutb has become a favorite and frequent target for policy wonk think-tank analysts and even some academics, such as Natana J. Delong-Bas in her book Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (Oxford University Press, 2004) seeking to discover the “roots” of modern Islamic militancy. The reduction of the rise of Muslim revivalist movements, including some which are militant, is overly simplistic and Khatab provides incisive critiques of such approaches. Both Qutb and Egypt’s Islamist movements agree upon hakimiyyah, the necessity of the implementation of Shari‘ah, and the importance of religious education. However, their religious outlooks were drawn from the writings of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, and al-Shawkanī rather than Qutb’s.

Many of Qutb’s most influential publications have been translated into English including his Qur’anic exegesis In the Shade of the Qur’an, Milestones, and Social Justice in Islam. University of California, Berkeley professor of Persian and Islamic studies Hamid Algar, who substantially edited a translation of the latter, has also supervised latest translation of Qutb’s work, Basic Principles of the Islamic Worldview, which is a welcome addition to the translated corpus. His introduction to the text frames Qutb’s religious worldview and briefly addresses the targeting of him by journalists and scholars alike as the “godfather” of terrorism.

Basic Principles, which is based on the ninth official Arabic edition of Qutb’s Khasa’is al-Tasawwur al-Islamī wa Muqawwimatuhu, provides a useful and comprehensive overview of Qutb’s religious thought. Framing the essentials of Islam as he saw them, such as the comprehensive, stabilizing authority of the one undivided God and the problems inherent with other religious traditions such as Christianity and Judaism Basic Principles provides readers with an essential primer of Qutb’s theological arguments. This in turn illuminates concepts and themes which appear frequently in Qutb’s better-known publications including Milestones and Social Justice in Islam and is thus a useful companion to these works.

[Originally published in The Muslim World Book Review, Volume 27, Issue 4; Summer 2007]

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