The intellect behind Islamic radicalism
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- Date: Sat, 24 Mar 2007 08:02:39 +0800
The intellect behind Islamic radicalism
The Power of Sovereignty by Sayed Khatab
Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh
Egyptian intellectual and author Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) occupies an important
place among Islamic thinkers. He was one of the most quoted thinkers who
provided guidance for Islamic radicals. He is associated with the Egyptian
Muslim Brotherhood and is best known for his theoretical work on redefining the
Islamic fundamentalism in social and political change.
It is not surprising that books about Qutb proliferate. The Power of Sovereignty
is written for a scholarly audience, with not much attention to style or even to
the organization of the text. Still, it provides insight into Qutb's philosophy
and explains the reason it has become such a powerful force.
The key to this appeal is that Qutb's teaching discards the notion that Islam is
just a religion, reduced to a few rituals and obligations in daily life. In
Qutb's view, Islam permeates all aspects of human life; society should be
Islamic from top to bottom.
The ideal of the total Islamization of society is an important element of Qutb's
philosophy, but does not fully explain its appeal. It has a strong
internationalist underpinning and resolutely discards nationalism. In this
aspect it strongly resembles Marxism, even though Qutb himself - as author Sayed
Khatab states - emphasized that his teaching, based on the Koran and divine
revelation, had nothing to do with secular Marxism, which reduces everything to
socioeconomic issues. Still, as can be deduced from the text, Qutb's outlook is
very different from Marxism, at least in its eschatological form.
Indeed, Marxism as a doctrine had various implications and forms. In countries
where parties that professed Marxism took over, it was usually "staticized" as
an ideology of sociopolitical conformity and mobilization for the aggrandizement
of the state. It usually blended with nationalism and produced what some Russian
intellectuals called "National Bolshevism", found in Stalinist Russia, Mao
Zedong's China, and especially post-Mao China.
But Marxism had an early, non-state form that not only was soaked in
eschatological dreams of the end of "prehistory" - the era of exploitation,
misery, and general injustice - but also rejected any form of nationalism,
which, in Karl Marx's view, was just an ideology that separated workers of
different nations, ethnic groups and races from one another.
Nationalism was a bourgeois, anti-proletariat ideology that prevented workers of
all countries from surging to a final, worldwide revolution. These
eschatological and internationalist elements of Marxism could be found in Lenin
and Mao, especially at the beginning of their political careers when they were
revolutionary leaders, not powerful helmsmen of ossified totalitarian states.
The same ideological trend can be found in Qutb's early philosophy. He
proclaimed that nationalism was one of the greatest evils dividing Muslims. The
Arabic language is extremely important as the language of the Koran, but as an
ethnic category it provided no advantages to the individual.
Dedication to Islam and striving to create a truly Islamic society interpreted
as a society of universal justice for all Muslims, actually all people
regardless of ethnicity and race, were what counted. The appeal became
especially strong when, on one hand, centuries-old problems continued to pester
humanity, and, on the other, secular socialism declined in popularity after the
demise of the Soviet Union.
Thus Qutb's work explains the way radical Islamism has become a sort of
replacement for various forms of radical Marxism, such as Leninism, Stalinism
and Maoism, and plays such an important role in this century. And these points
make Khatab's book worth reading regardless of the rather heavy style and other
The Power of Sovereignty: The Political and Ideological Philosophy of Sayyid
Qutb by Sayed Khatab. Routledge, 2006. ISBN-10: 041537250X. Price US$105, 298
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal
Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against
West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles (2005).