Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism by John Calvert - review by Malise Ruthven

Malise Ruthven

Rebel with A Cause

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism

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In Naguib Mahfouz’s semi-autobiographical novel Mirrors, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature sketched a character named Abd al-Wahhab Ismail. It is generally regarded as a portrait of Sayyid Qutb. Ismail is a ‘polite conversationalist’, self-assured and even-tempered. He never speaks about religion. He adopts European habits in food and dress, and enjoys going to the cinema. But his apparent espousal of modernity is a façade. Beneath the exterior of a typical middle-class Egyptian effendi-cum-man about town, Mahfouz discerns something disturbing, even sinister:

I was never comfortable with his face or the look in his bulging, serious eyes … I was disturbed by his opportunistic side, doubting his integrity. A permanent revulsion, despite our friendship, settled in my heart.

On the cover of John Calvert’s book, those ‘bulging, serious eyes’ stare from behind prison bars. For radically minded Muslims, this image of Qutb the martyr – taken shortly before his execution in 1966 – has the iconic charge of Alberto Korda’s celebrated photograph of Che Guevara. The

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