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.

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