The other week I was walking in London and stopped into a second-hand bookshop. As is tradition, I went first to the history section, then to the politics stand and then (since nothing was found to buy from the first two) on to the religion and spirituality section. As I scanned across the Bibles and prayer books, imagine my surprise to find three books by Sayyid Qutb. These were volumes from his ‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’ – a massive, sprawling series of books analysing every aspect of Islam’s central text. I know how influential Qutb is, and how dodgy and rare it is to find one of his books for sale, and so I picked one, paid for it and left.
On the tube back to my place, I felt like I’d purchased some horrific pornography. I was petrified lest it fall out of the brown paper bag I carried it in, land on the carriage floor face-up and a Mossad snatch squad emerge from nowhere and fly me to a ‘black spot’ to extract information.
To those unfamiliar with Qutb – he was an Egyptian Islamist philosopher whose works (in particular his tract – ‘Milestones’) provided the theological basis for the creation of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was noted as a long-time fan of Qutb’s books, devouring them in his youth. Anwar al-Awlaki, the articulate American cleric, also praised Qutb as a formative influence on his life and religious views. The leftist Paul Berman writes about him substantially in ‘Terror and Liberalism’, calling him the “Philosopher of Islamic Terror.”
When I got home and started to read the book, I was struck first by the quality and lucidity of the writing. Qutb was certainly no fool. His writing is of a high standard, and his points – however barbaric – are deftly, sometimes even humorously made. After flicking briefly through the work, I noted references to Nietzsche, Sartre and Marx. This is certainly not what I expected. I expected an inarticulate drawl of religious devotion, crude hatred of modernity and infidels, anti-Semitism and Hitler-worship. But Qutb makes the parts of Islam he discusses incredibly clear, almost reasonable specifically (and this is a point to remember) to a Western reader. Most of the references are drawn from Western history, or illustrated through concepts easily translated to Western ones.
I can well imagine a young, impressionable Muslim in the West finding the words of Qutb quite electrifying.
The book I purchased is book 7 in a series of great length (varying in number of volumes depending on the edition). The series examines each and every chapter (Surah) of the Qur’an. Each book covers one Surah. Some Surah’s of the Qur’an are less than two paperback pages in length, but even these are exhaustively analysed. Qutb begins each chapter with a line from the Surah under consideration. The lines on their own seem devoid of complexity, until he unravels them into lengthy and sometimes impressive philosophical points, drawing in World War 2, atomic weapons, Shakespeare, Zionism and economics.
I won’t deny I quite enjoyed reading the book. The volume I selected dealt mainly with Jihad (before you snigger, most of the books in the series deal with other things like marriage, death, the nature of belief and prayer etc..), and the necessity of it against the perennially ‘aggressive’ (ha!) Christian (crusader) world. It’s always enjoyable and rewarding to see things through the eyes of the opposition. But nevertheless, it is correct that such books are not distributed widely (or legally) in Britain. Those Islamic bookshops which do stock Qutb are often exposed by the media and forced to shut down. The books can be ordered via Amazon of course, and most Jihadists are able to operate a credit card (even other peoples), so there is no danger of Qutb ceasing to be an influence.
Still, for those non-Muslims looking to understand the Islamist phenomenon more concretely they are also recommended reading.