The Literary Aesthetic Foundations of Islamism in Sayyid Qutb

By Yaseen Noorani
Submitted to Session P4967 (Islamist Thought and Practice, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East; Arab States; Egypt;
Islamic Thought;
LCD Projector without Audio;
It is well-known that the famed theorist of Islamism Sayyid Qutb enjoyed a substantial career as a poet and humanist literary critic before devoting himself to an Islamist political ideology. Existing scholarship posits few continuities between the two halves of Qutb’s, career, and regards them as opposed and different in nature. Scrutiny of the development of Islamic political thought in the twentieth century, however, shows the decisive role that humanist aesthetic concepts played in its development. This is clear in the Indian Islamic thinker and poet Muhammad Iqbal, as well as in secular literary thinkers in Egypt like Qutb’s mentor Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, who took aestheticist concepts in political as well as Islamic directions. In the Egyptian intellectual milieu of Qutb’s lifetime it can be seen that humanist aesthetic notions are pervasive in political ideologies from liberalism to socialism. Analysis of Qutb’s own literary theory reveals the same kind of relationship with his later work. Sayyid Qutb provides a major illustration of the link between aestheticism and Islamism because we can see clearly in his thought how the conceptual framework of romantic aesthetics, or adab al-wijdan, that he practiced and theorized in the first part of his career formed the basis of the Islamist system that he espoused and expounded in the second part of his career. The model of the relationship between the inner sensibility (wijdan) of human beings and the universe that Qutb deployed in his work The Method of Literary Criticism to theorize greatness in literary works served as the model first for Qutb’s analysis of the artistic genius of the Quran, still during his secular period, and finally became the basis of what he called “the Islamic vision” (al-tasawwur al-Islami) of reality. Whereas much of the actual political content of Qutb’s ideology was adopted by him from other thinkers, such as the notion of divine sovereignty (hakimiyya), the distinctive framework in which Qutb fleshed out this content was made up of concepts from his own humanist aesthetic thought. This paper focuses on Qutb’s romantic aesthetic doctrine of the formal concordance between the inner sensibility of human beings and the universe as a total form. The paper shows that this doctrine was central to Qutb’s theory of literary inspiration and composition, and later (Khasa’is al-Tasawwur al-Islami, Muqawwimat al-Tasawwur al-Islami) became central to his argument for the formal comprehensiveness and affective appeal of the Islamic vision of reality.