Man, Society, and Knowledge in the Islamist discourse of Sayyid Qutb


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Virginia Tech


Sayyid Qutb's conceptions of man and society inform and are themselves informed by his theory of human and divine knowledge. Our aim in this dissertation is, first, to highlight the intricate relationships between Qutb's ontology and his epistemology, and, second, to point to the active context of Qutb's discourse: how did his theory of man, society, and knowledge relate to his language of political dissent and his strategy for change and revolution? Qutb remains an enduring influence on young Muslims and has left a deep mark on the discourse of politically activist Islamism. An underlying concern that runs through our analysis will be to address the question: why is Qutb still relevant? The answer we provide highlights the inseparability between Qutb's conception of human nature, his paradigm for the just and ideal society, his theories on mundane and revealed epistemology, and his strategy for social and political reform. We shall argue that the Qutbian discourse endures because Qutb offers his co-religionists a powerfully integrated conception of the "Islamic solution" that achieves a unique blending between the values of "authenticity" and those of "modernity". Qutb's writings articulate an unapologetic "life-conception" of Islam that insisted on standing on par with other "life-conceptions"; Muslims could take pride in knowing that Islam exhorted development, but with an eye towards maintaining a "balance" between the "material" and the "spiritual", unlike communism and capitalism, which neglected "spirituality" in favor of "animal materialism"; the "Islamic conception" outlined by Qutb provided the reader with a conceptual framework within which a sophisticated critique of colonialism could be carried out. Moreover, Qutb also provided the modern Islamist with a vocabulary that gives voice to the economic and social concerns of an emerging lower middle class aspiring to fulfill its mundane dreams in modern, mid-20th century Egypt. The language Qutb used in his works was not the language of the elite intellectuals, whether Westernized modernists or traditional 'ulema. Qutb consciously articulated his thoughts in a language easily accessible to a readership literate enough to read his works, but not necessarily trained to actively penetrate the arcane corpus of the 'ulema. Upon reading Qutb and contrasting his language with that of his predecessors, it becomes clear that Qutb, more than any other thinker in the Egypt of his days, articulated a conception of Islam that consciously attempted to lay the foundations for an Islamic epistemology on the basis of a putatively Islamic ontology, denied the authority of "foreign life conceptions", claimed for Islam universal validity, asserted the active character of the "truly Muslim", decried the economic injustices which the masses were enduring, and rejected the traditional conception of the state as intrinsically benevolent. In short, his was a powerful call to merge the values of authenticity - unapologetic anti-imperialism, anti-elitism, and the insistence on the centrality of Islam - with the values of modernity - the impulse for asserting a comprehensive world-view, the pretension to universal validity, and the positive valuation of action and change in the context of welfare liberalism beholden to the will of the people.



Egypt, reformism, science, political theory, Epistemology, Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, modernization, modernity