Sayyid Qutb The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual By James Toth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 382 pages.)

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Stephen Cory

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Abstract

Sayyid Qutb’s influence upon radical Islamic movements during the second
half of the twentieth century is undeniable and has long been recognized. Recent
interest in the rise of radical Islam has led to a number of publications on
him, including a biography by James Calvert and several pieces that analyze
certain aspects of his ideology and writings. James Toth’s new text, which
presents a general biography of Qutb, seeks to combine these functions by
emphasizing the trajectory of his literary career along with offering a topical
analysis of the major themes found within his writings. At the same time, Toth
provides a fresh and comprehensive evaluation of the career and impact of
this famous Islamist ideologue.
The book is divided into two main sections, the first of which describes
Qutb’s life story from his childhood in Upper Egypt through his secular writing
career, increasing radicalization, involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood,
prison years, and eventual execution by the Egyptian government in
1966. The second section, which provides a detailed analysis of his ideology,
draws heavily from his writings and is arranged thematically. In it, Toth
touches on such important topics as Qutb’s interpretation of Islam, his view
of it as a revitalization movement, his vision for an Islamic society and economic
system, and his understanding of the Islamic state and history. The book
also includes a lengthy appendix, with special sections that provide short biographiess
on prior Islamic writers who influenced Qutb’s thinking as well
as summaries of his views on women/family, dhimmīs (non-Muslims living
in a Muslim society), and apologetics. It concludes with a detailed collection
of notes as well as a comprehensive bibliography and index.
Rather than presenting Qutb’s move toward radicalism as a sharp departure
from his prior values and beliefs, Toth seeks to ground his convictions
within the context of his childhood in a small Upper Egyptian village and to
identify consistent themes that reoccurred throughout his career. During his
approximately fifteen years as a literary critic, Qutb focused on poetry and
associated himself with the Diwan school of literary criticism led by his mentor
Abbas al-‘Aqqad. This school emphasized modernity, individualism, and
secularism, three principles that he would reject later on during the radical
phase of his career. Yet he was always a person of strong convictions, one
who had an abiding religious orientation, an interest in pedagogy, and a some ...

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