Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė, Sayyid Qutb: An Intellectual Biography (Syracuse University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė (GS): When I arrived in Cairo to research this book, I was struck by the centrality of the reference to Sayyid Qutb in contemporary intellectual battles. It was the beginning of 2011, and the January 25 revolution opened some space for the renegotiation of the historical status of key national figures. On the one hand, there was a renewed interest in Qutb’s Islamist heritage, which surreptitiously aimed to remind the public of his alleged terrorist past and to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood in power. The famous novelist ‘Ala al-Aswani discussed Qutb in his intellectual salon; the journalist Ibrahim Issa constantly returned to Qutb in his talk show; and the press republished cartoons and poems produced in the midst of the anti-Qutb campaign in the 1960s. But on the other hand, there was also an interest to “liberate” Qutb from the Islamist archive; in 2011, the state-run publishing house, General Egyptian Book Organization, republished for the first time Qutb’s 1946 novel Thorns (Ashwak), and Ahram Publishing House issued, in 2014, complete works of Qutb’s poetry. The backlash with which such initiatives were received suggested a particular status of Qutb in Egyptian history as an excommunicated intellectual who continually haunts the Egyptian present. I became interested in understanding why the evocation of Qutb’s name elicits such strong reactions in Egypt, and why there has been such a stubborn refusal to recognize his literary past.

The writing of this book was therefore motivated by two principal goals. Firstly, I wanted to reintegrate Qutb into Egypt’s intellectual history and to understand the conditions in which he was stripped of his intellectual status and erased from Egypt’s literary history. And secondly, I wished to revise the common division of Egypt’s intellectual history into its secularist and Islamist versions, by showing that these divisions were not so clear-cut in colonial and early postcolonial periods.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

GS: The book weaves together three main interrelated stories. First of all, it features a story of Qutb’s transition from literary criticism to Islamist activism, which revises the common trope that it constituted a primarily ideological conversion from secularism to Islamism. Instead of viewing this shift as an ideological rupture, the book demonstrates a continuity between Qutb’s aesthetic and political projects. Both his literary production and his Islamist political project were animated by the metaphysical quest to sublimate the humankind spiritually, either through poetry or religious activism. The book therefore addresses a wide range of Qutb’s literary production, such as poems, prose, and literary criticism, which is often overlooked in scholarship dedicated to him. To be sure, Qutb’s transition was a rupture, but rather than between literature and Islamism as it is often assumed, it was between colonial and postcolonial regimes in Egypt.

This is the second story that the book follows. It argues that in order to understand Qutb’s life we need to look closely at the years stretching from World War II to the consolidation of Nasser’s rule. The period between roughly 1946 and 1954 produced radical subjectivities, new ways of doing politics and arts, and unprecedented ways to relate the selfhood to the state. The legitimist conception of politics established during the interwar period, which relied on elections, diplomacy, and party politics collapsed and gave rise to radical politics. At the same time, Romantic models of literature were replaced by the requirement of literary commitment, and the rise of powerful Arab states deeply transformed political subjectivities. The revolutionary turmoil in which Egyptians found themselves following World War II allows us to understand Qutb’s Islamist commitment not as an individual fate due to his personal frustrations or the unexpected surge of his repressed conservatism—as the common story has it—but as a collective destiny that largely shaped the politics and arts of the following decade. For this to be seen, we need to adopt an inclusive view to the postwar period that goes beyond its division in leftist, Islamist, and literary histories.

Finally, the book was also an attempt to write a worldly history of literature of the first half of the twentieth century. It follows Qutb together with the shifting intellectual circles to which he belonged, such as the group of Romantic poets of Dar al-‘Ulum, Apollo Poet Society, the Misr Publishing House, the journal The New Thought, the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on. In the book, readers will discover Qutb as a sociable and active intellectual who frequented the most vibrant places in Egypt’s cultural life.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

GS: My book on Sayyid Qutb is my first research project, which started as a master’s thesis and then evolved into a PhD dissertation. Both were pursued in École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

GS: The book will appeal to anyone interested in Egypt’s intellectual history of the interwar and early postcolonial periods. Its focus is interdisciplinary; it stands at the crossroads of biography and sociohistory and connects different strands of intellectual history, such as literary history and left-wing and Islamist activism. I hope this book will shed light on the interconnectedness of objects of research that have traditionally been explored in a separate fashion, and will encourage the scholars of literature, left-wing activism, and Islamism to sit down and talk. I also wish that this book will allow us to diversify the studies of literature by expanding the focus beyond analysis of texts and into the social practices that accompany their production.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

GS: My current research project investigates literary practices and imagination in connection with gender and social class in contemporary Cairo. It follows my previous work on Sayyid Qutb in its understanding of literature as an “elsewhere,” a space of parallel forms of existence that is experienced as a relief from ordinary life, defined by routine, limitations, and rigid social roles. My current work departs from my research on Qutb in terms of methodology; instead of doing archival work, I now work with ethnographic methods.

J: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?

GS: The biggest challenge was to work on such a “hot” topic, which is moreover classified as the object of Islamist studies. I started my research on Qutb at a time when the popularity of Islamist studies was at its peak, but the ten years that it took to research and write this book constituted a long journey away from the field of Islamist studies. Although this topic is, at least in France, highly appreciated, it is heavily invested with political passions, identity discourses, and authoritative personalities. In many regards, my decision to explore Qutb’s literary life provided a kind of a shelter from the passions surrounding the topic of Islamism, and allowed me to approach it from a rather unexpected perspective of literature.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3 “Bringing the Social Back In,” pp. 118-123) 

Social Justice in Islam

There is little doubt that Qutb’s commitment to Islamist activism represented a sea change in his intellectual career. Not only did he start to advocate for Islam as a political and social solution to Egypt’s and the world’s maladies, but he also threw himself into oppositional politics and reinvented himself as a revolutionary intellectual. But how did this commitment affect his previous stances on politics, the arts, and religion? What type of conversion did the transition signify? Was it religious conversion or political? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at Qutb’s first and major work on Islam and social justice: al-‘Adala al-Ijtima‘iyya fi-l-Islam.

Published by the Misr Publishing House in 1949 as part of the Publishing Committee for University Graduates series, al-‘Adala was the most successful of Qutb’s books during his lifetime. Between its publication in 1949 and his death in 1966, it went through six editions, some of which were diligently revised by the author. Examining the book from the perspective of Qutb’s earlier writings on social reform, notably published in the official publication of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Majallat al- Shu’un al-Ijtima‘iyya, Alain Roussillon suggested that the new element in al-‘Adala, when comparing its arguments to Qutb’s former positions on social change, is the means by which Qutb suggests that this change can be achieved. Instead of prioritizing science as the instrument to end entrenched underdevelopment and the British occupation, as he did in his earlier texts, with al-‘Adala Qutb begins to advocate a spiritual conversion as a prerequisite of any successful reform. According to Roussillon, the core change that al-‘Adala entails is Qutb’s transition from science to spirit as the means of modernizing society.

It is possible, however, to suggest another reading of the type of transformation that Qutb underwent with his commitment to Islamic activism. It emerges when we consider his Islamist writings not solely from the perspective of his expertise on social reform, but also from that of his literary works. As we have seen in chapter 2, a spirit broadly defined as the realm of the irrational and identified with emotion had always been, for Qutb, the means to access knowledge and elevate the human condition. Endowed with extraordinary capacities of feeling, a poet or a writer had a mission to maintain humankind’s connection to the realm of the eternal. The sharp distinction between reason and emotion on which Qutb based his understanding of existence allowed a certain compartmentalization of functions assigned to these faculties: reason was charged with the task of managing the affairs of daily life, while the emotional connection to the afterworld guaranteed spiritual well-being. As seen earlier, this compartmentalization allowed Qutb to use distinct epistemologies in different spheres of intellectual activity; he relied on positivism in his reformist writings and referred to Romantic metaphysics in his literary works. But it is precisely this compartmentalization that can prevent us from seeing that the importance of the spiritual did not suddenly appear with Qutb’s Islamist commitment, but had been the core element of his aesthetic project all along.

Rather than Qutb’s transition from scientific to spiritual tools for achieving a social change, I see it as following from his disenchantment with institutional politics and his subsequent commitment to oppositional activism. Like other efendis, Qutb had always been concerned with social reform and change; otherwise he would not have becom einvolved in party politics on the side of the Wafd. But in the period preceding World War II he had delegated this issue to institutional politics and its associated means of action—elections, negotiations, diplomacy, and top-down administration of reform. His handing over of the business of reform to institutional politics explains why Qutb wrote so little on politics prior to World War II: politics was done through elections, and not the effort to shape public opinion through incendiary public writing. The delegation of reform to legal politics allowed Qutb to develop his artistic project in isolation from the sufferings of the sensate world and in line with a broader Romantic contempt for the material dimension of human existence. Put simply, while the role of institutional politics was to take care of the population’s social needs, the mission of poetry was to cater to its spiritual growth.

Postwar developments shook this division of labor to the core. Not only had institutional politics proved itself incapable of solving the multiple crises of the sensate world, but socially detached literature appeared to have been involved in deepening them. This situation created a fertile ground for the circulation of various versions of intellectual commitment, which Qutb passionately seized, reinventing himself in the process. In fact, Qutb himself had been asocially detached (or even an ivory-tower) poet, during the interwar period. It had been a natural position for someone with such a strongly expressed distrust of human reason and disdain for the empirical world. Following the postwar shift from the priority of knowledge to that of action, Qutb surrounded himself with restive youth, took a stand against parliamentary politics, and abandoned his inward-looking poetic creation in favor of revolutionary politics.

This emerging intellectual order, defined by the urgency to act, was also a source of tension for Qutb. He did not feel entirely at ease with the intellectual trends that accompanied his rebellion and provided its main theoretical basis: the Left, committed literature, social realism, and other trends that Qutb considered to have emerged from the epistemological background of materialism (al-māddīyya). This tension is visible in Qutb’s hesitant and somewhat contradictory appreciation of leftist trends. In some writings, Qutb seems to appreciate in communist movements their potential to direct popular energies against capitalism, colonial dependence, and social injustice. Yet in others he criticized them for their limited ambitions in relation to the satisfaction of basic human needs such as those for food, shelter, and clothing.

Qutb’s review of Kamil’s Milim, which opened this chapter, offers perhaps the best illustration of Qutb’s ambivalent position on the Left. While Qutb praises the novel for its capacity to arouse indignation at injustice, which he believed was conducive to concrete action against the established order, he is also unsure about the novel’s artistic value. In appreciating it, Qutb is loyal to his earlier understanding of art, which he had viewed as something that transcends the spatial and temporal limits of the sensate world and its temporary struggles. Qutb’s later Islamist works, published before his imprisonment, are replete with similar—but more self-assured—intellectual engagements with the Left, with which he felt himself to be in the same camp politically, but from which he was worlds apart from a broader epistemological perspective. As a result, Qutb faced a dilemma: how could he pursue the literary vocation of humankind’s spiritual sublimation at a time when this type of literature had become a synonym for social and political conservatism? And how, at the same time, was he to harness literature to the purpose of national and social advancement without compromising its higher aims of transcendence?

Islamism provided the solution to this dilemma. As a set of symbols open to interpretation, Islam offered elements from which Qutb was able to elaborate a specific ontology, sociopolitical order, and mode of political action. Postwar developments allowed Qutb to realize that it was impossible to sublimate humans spiritually without diminishing the suffering of their physical bodies. “Empty stomachs do not know high meanings,” he explained in al-‘Adala. It draws people into mental slavery and drives them right into the communist fold, he warned in al-Ma‘araka. Qutb came to the conclusion that a complete system was needed to take care of both levels of existence, spiritual and material, by implementing social justice on earth while at the same time maintaining the spiritual bond to the afterworld. Such a reformulation came at the price of a major revision to his previous theory of human perception, predicated on the distinction between reason and emotion. The revision of the emotion/reason connection that had formed the core doctrine of his aesthetic project is visible in his fiery opposition to the understanding of Islam as located exclusively in the emotional realm (fī ma‘zil wijdānī wa ‘ālam al-ḍamīr) and therefore reduced to ritualized practices of worship (‘ibadāt). But Qutb also firmly positioned himself against the opposite extreme: the placing of Islam in the exclusive realm of rational thinking and its transformation into a science or a philosophy. What Qutb suggested instead was to fuse these two levels of perception by means of his theory of the Islamic state and to make their reciprocal action the main condition of its success.