The Romantic Islamist Aesthetics of Muhammad Qutb

By Yaseen Noorani
Submitted to Session P3366 (In a Glass Darkly?: Re-Framing Islamic Inspiration in Modern Arabic Literature, 2013 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
The modern genres of Arabic literature in Egypt – fiction, post-Romantic poetry, and drama – have been for the most part thoroughly secular in tone and orientation. Many prominent authors have explicitly espoused the value of artistic freedom from religious, ideological and social constraints. This value has generally been recognized as a central feature post-Romantic aesthetic theories since their emergence in early nineteenth century Europe. It is indeed a value that is often regarded as intrinsic to modern literary expression. Nevertheless, there have been frequent attempts to modify the fundamental notions of post-Romantic aesthetics so as to contain them within a social and political ideological framework. This is seen, for example, in a number of varieties of Marxist aesthetics. Surprisingly, such attempts to fashion an Islamic aesthetic theory are relatively rare among Muslim intellectuals who call for an Islamic social order. This is surpising because such intellectuals have taken post-Romantic aesthetic concepts as the basis of their critiques of European modernity and their visions of an Islamic order. A case in point is the prominent Egyptian Islamist, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who was a widely-published literary writer in the 1930’s and 1940’s and avowed disciple of the major Egyptian literary figure Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad. Sayyid Qutb fashioned his aesthetic notions into a radical Islamist political and social vision, but did not elaborate any worked-out Islamic aesthetics. He left this task to his brother, Muhammad Qutb (b. 1919), a key disciple of Sayyid Qutb and a prominent Islamist figure in his own right. Muhammad Qutb’s work Manhaj al-Fann al-Islami (The Method of Islamic Art), and his later literary critical writings, represent one of the few comprehensive attempts to elaborate an Islamic aesthetics. This paper examines Qutb’s aesthetic theory and the manner in which it seeks to fashion a purported Islamic world-view that comprehends and at the same time delimits Romantic aestheticism. The paper will argue that Qutb’s Islamic aesthetic theory is a modification of mainstream secular aesthetic theories and thus attempts to gain legitimacy through its common basis with these theories.