Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

In search of an attribution
WhatOs in a painting? The potential for disaster, for one thing. Nigel Ryan reviews Headlong, a tale of vanity and ambition saved only by a thoroughly modern moral equivocation

Sayyid Qutb: Othe right to revoltO
Sayyid Qutb wa Thawrat Yulyou (Sayyid Qutb and the July Revolution), Helmi el-Namnam, Cairo: Meret for Publication and Information, 1999. pp150

Interpretation and beyond
Fate of A Prisoner and Other Stories, Denys Johnson-Davies, London: Quartet Books, 1999. pp222

Questioning the body, questioning the mind
Nawal al-Saadawi, TaOam Al-Solta wal Jins(The Twins of Power and Sex), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi, Cairo 1999 , pp258

A political scientist among the historians
The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period, Fred H Lawson, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999 (first published Columbia University Press, 1992). pp215

Ancient Egyptian windfall
* Egypt, Ancient and Modern by Isabella Brega, trans. C.T.M. Milan. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp135
* Egyptian Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Pharaonic Times. Lise Manniche with photographs by Werner Forman. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp160
* Ancient Egypt. David P. Silverman ed., The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp255

Intersection points
Al Jadid, vol. 5, no. 28, 1999, Los Angeles, Al Jadid

Sharing the self
Dikka Khashabiya Tasa Ithnayn Bilkad (A wooden bench barely wide enough for two), Shehata el-Iryan, Cairo: Aswat Adabiya (Literary Voices) General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp206
To the editor

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, issue no. 12, December 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 493, December 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 11, December 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Mirrors, Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen, illustrated by Seif Wanli, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp186
* Ibdaa (Creativity), monthly magazine, issue no. 10, November 1999, Cairo: GEBO
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 36, November 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamia (OWorld CultureO), Kuwait: The National Council for Culture and Arts
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 171, November 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
* Qadaya Fikriya (Intellectual Issues), occasional book, issues no. 19 and 20, October 1999
* Al-OOsour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 2, 1999, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Nizwa, quarterly magazine, issue no. 20, October 1999, Oman: Omani Corporation for Press, Publishing and Advertising

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Sayyid Qutb wa Thawrat Yulyou (Sayyid Qutb and the July Revolution), Helmi el-Namnam, Cairo: Meret for Publication and Information, 1999. pp150

Sayyid Qutb: 'the right to revolt'

Perhaps no writer has occupied so central a place within the universe of Political Islam in the second half of the 20th century as has Egypt's Sayyid Qutb. There seems to be a consensus in the literature on Qutb that his most important legacy has been to regenerate an Islamic ethos that has had a sometimes confrontational relationship with the state -- such a legacy providing a kind of ideological justification for the dissenting political groups of the 1980s and 90s in their self-proclaimed "right to revolt" against authority. While in the Sunni world, such a revolt has been traditionally virtually unthinkable, Qutb, on the other hand, according to many of the writings on him, presents exactly such a revolt as a legitimate human struggle.

Helmi el-Namnam's book is the last in a long line of publications to have attempted much the same undertaking, namely to try to understand a complicated moment of Egyptian history by analysing the different strands that both went into making it and forming its conceivable outcomes. Much contemporary writing on Qutb that aims to assess the man and his ideas tends to deal with him in an "either/or" fashion; either it praises the man for his willingness to put his life on the line for his beliefs and his possession of intellectual acuity and courage, or it sees in Qutb an extremist who decided to vent his anger on society at large, declaring both society and its mode of governance to be Jahili (ignorant or unenlightened) and Kafir (infidel), and, therefore, deserving that Jihad (struggle) be waged against it. El-Namnam's book belongs to the latter category, very definitely portraying Qutb as an extremist.

Sayyid Qutb

While the book's title would seem to indicate that el-Namnam intended to lay bare the circumstances that led to the union, and later the deep rift, between the Free Officers whose actions led to the 1952 Revolution and the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and Qutb, he dwells at length, instead, on Qutb's literary talents, the motives behind Qutb's trip to the United States in the 1950s and a lengthy biographical account of the writer's life. As a result, the book's theme only becomes explicit in the fourth chapter, which traces the circumstances under which Qutb's relationship with the Free Officers took shape.

Before this, however, at the outset of his book, el-Namnam provides a personal account of how his involvement with Qutb began. He had read a certain phrase that attracted him, and, thinking it one of Qutb's, immediately began a sympathetic identification with the man's writings. But this brief period of admiration came to a halt when el-Namnam discovered that the phrase was not in fact Qutb's at all, but was rather that of a certain French philosopher. Apparently as a result, el-Namnam became hell-bent on exposing Qutb as the man behind the political protest movements and the militant violence carried out in Egypt in the name of Islam.

El-Namnam's account, therefore, seems oddly and heavily coloured with personal disappointment, and this makes the book more of an engaging personal experience than an objective analysis of a complicated moment in the history of Egypt. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it should be remembered when judging el-Namnam's interpretation of Qutb's thought, which explicitly accuses the Egyptian author of being a "ghostly presence" behind the acts of violence that have hit Egypt hard over the last two decades. The militant groups responsible for this violence, el-Namnam writes, have both embraced Qutb's doctrines and followed in his footsteps. "Those who targeted civilians with their guns, and killed children in Cairo, Luxor, Assiut and Menya, were under the influence of Qutb's ideas and his thought. Those who killed Farag Foda and made attempts on the life of Naguib Mahfouz came under the influence of his ideas... even if they were illiterate and had not read a word of his books," el-Namnam writes.

However, this particular point -- of how much Qutb's legacy has influenced the militant groups -- has, of course, been extensively debated in many recent publications on the writer. In a recent discussion of Qutb's views, for example, the French specialist Olivier Carré, while accepting that Qutb's writings acted as an important source for dissenting political groups, refuses to compare those "who only protest under the banners of takfir [expiating sin] and jihad" with Qutb, saying that their "deplorable lack of knowledge of Islam" cannot be compared with Qutb's quite different worth as a genuine Islamic thinker. Maintaining the same line of reasoning, other scholars have also expressed their reservations regarding the view that Qutb has been the chief ideologue of political violence, suggesting instead that the influence of particular writers on the development of the political thought of the various Islamic protest groups is relatively slight, and has in any case been distorted by the many acts of re-interpretation to which these writings have been subjected.

This point of view can be further supported by the fact that most of these groups have their own in-house ideologues (Abdel-Salam Farag of Islamic Jihad for example, or Mustapha Shukry of Al-Takfir wa Al-Hijra), and thus have no need of Qutb. El-Namnam claims that "Qutb is the pioneer and the founder of the ideas of takfir and jahiliyia in Egypt," and says that "Egypt throughout its history was free from such calls [for violence] until Qutb came along up," but he does not substantiate these claims through historical references.

When the Free Officers took power in 1952, Qutb, according to el-Namnam, defended them fiercely. "He supported them all along, defending them against any criticism," he writes. "Qutb was among the first writers to describe what had happened as a 'revolution'. The truth is that a kind of harmony existed between the writer and the Officers; in fact it seems to me that the articles that praised the Revolution were written as part of an arrangement between the two parties, since Qutb was in daily contact with the Officers". The question arises, however, of why then did relations between the Officers and Qutb falter after only a brief honeymoon, in which, if el-Namnam is to be believed, Qutb was the Revolution's greatest advocate and almost its official ideologue? A dispute over a cabinet post that had been offered to Qutb, but which he saw as demeaning, answers el-Namnam: "Qutb seems to have prepared himself to work with the new rulers; therefore, leaving his job and expecting them to treat him favorably, he looked forward to being appointed minister of education, a post which he had been yearning for. But to his dismay the revolutionaries turned him down and offered to make him deputy minister of education instead."

In his last two chapters, el-Namnam goes on to discuss Qutb's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, writing that "Qutb's writings during the period from the Revolution's outbreak on 23rd of July until the split in 1954 sketched out the model of governance which both Qutb and the Brotherhood perceived to be the righteous model". "Qutb," el-Namnam writes, "considered what had happened on 23rd of July to be his own revolution, the Brothers seeing it as 'a blessed movement', and giving it their full support because they hoped it would be their vehicle for reaching power".

El-Namnam moves quickly here to say that "the definite conclusion is that if the Brotherhood were to take over, these [ Qutb's model of governance] would be their rules and principles, and Qutb's followers would walk in his footsteps". However, this offers two contradictory lines of argument, for el-Namnam apparently deliberately ignores what many have seen as a split between Qutb and the Brothers on precisely this question of a suitable plan of action. In his "The Fundamentalists are Coming," 1995, Hisham Mubarak has shown how the older generation of the Brotherhood were irritated at Qutb's attempts to find a younger following for the Brothers, and he concludes his discussion by saying that Qutb's writings did not in any way mirror those of Hassan el-Banna, the Brotherhood's leader, or the Brotherhood itself at the time. And el-Namnam, in any case, undermines his own theory in his 11th chapter by saying that "when Qutb opted for a younger following, this provoked the wrath of the older generation who refuted the ideas which he sent to them from prison and which were later included in his book "Signposts"." In fact, Hassan el-Hodeibi, the then supreme guide of the Brotherhood, wrote a refutation of this book under the title "Callers not Judges".

El-Namnam's narrative seems too heavily coloured by his own personal disappointment with Qutb for this book to be considered a reliable account, his discussion is not original, and the book is not free from an excess of detail concerning the different aspects of Qutb's life, especially his literary work. However, this was supposed to be a book less about Qutb's literary talents and the story of his life and more an account of a specific moment in Egyptian history. It seems unfortunate that el-Namnam, preoccupied with covering as many incidents in the life of Qutb as possible to prove his point against him, has failed to do justice to the historical moment that the book was originally designed to cover.

Reviewed by Omayma Abdel-Latif

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