John Calvert, Professor of History at Creighton University, in his forthcoming biography of Sayyid Qutb, “rescues Qutb from misrepresentation, tracing the evolution of his thought within the context of his time.” He does not look to absolve Qutb of his virulent rhetoric, but pushes the reader to understand Qutb in his own setting and time, and to delve deeper into the writings of the influential Islamist thinker. Qutb, who was executed in Egypt in 1966, has been studied extensively, but Thomas Hegghammer of Harvard University says of Calvert’s work, “We are dealing with a rare book that is likely to become a classic in the field of political Islam.”
When asked in a 2005 interview about Qutb’s influence on the Sadat assassination and the al-Qaeda network, Calvert responded:
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.
His answer reflects the nuanced approach Calvert has taken to his study of the enigmatic figure. The Economist reviews his forthcoming book in last week’s issue:
PRE-EMINENTLY among the pioneers of 20th-century Islamism, Sayyid Qutb has come to be seen as the evil genius who inspired today’s global jihad. As John Calvert argues in a persuasive new biography, Qutb’s reputation is not entirely undeserved, but it does less than justice to a complex and enigmatic figure.
One of the challenges any biographer faces is to explain Qutb’s evolution from romantic nationalist to mainstream Islamist, and finally to ardent revolutionary. Mr Calvert’s answer is to place his subject firmly on Egyptian soil. Like countless others in the years that followed the first world war, Qutb was a child of rural Egypt who migrated to Cairo as a young man to join the swelling ranks of the effendiyya, the new urban educated class. An intense, proud, rather melancholy man, he worked as a civil servant. In his spare time he struggled to establish himself as a writer of poetry, fiction and literary criticism.[ . . . ]
Mr Calvert does not disguise the crudely Manichean character of Qutb’s worldview. He believed in an all-out global struggle between a noble vanguard of true Muslims and the massed ranks of jahiliyya. He depicted Islam’s external enemies as an insidious alliance of “Crusaders and Jews”—the same phrase that is used by al-Qaeda and the global jihadists of today.
But he was not, as has been suggested, an “Islamo-fascist” or an advocate of indiscriminate violence. Qutb opposed the killing of innocents and would have been appalled by what his followers, from the Egyptian radicals of the 1970s and 1980s to the current jihadist groups, have carried out in his name. This rich and carefully researched biography sets Qutb for the first time in his Egyptian context, rescuing him from caricature without whitewashing his radicalism. It is no small achievement.