Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Noa Davidyan reviews Sayyid Qutb: An Intellectual Biography

Giedre Šabaseviciute. Sayyid Qutb: An Intellectual Biography. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2021. 274 pp.

10 July 2023

Review by Noa Davidyan

Sayyid Qutb: An Intellectual Biography is a welcome contribution to the study of Egypt’s intellectual history and to the study of political Islam. In this unique research, Giedre Šabaseviciute delves into the life and intellectual journey of Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), shedding new light on his overlooked literary background and redefining his transition from literature to Islamism during the 1950s. By challenging traditional narratives that reduce Qutb’s literary pursuits to mere failure and emphasizing his role in the Islamist movement, the author successfully reintegrates him into Egypt’s literary history and opens new avenues to exploring political Islam and Egypt’s intellectual history. Šabaseviciute reveals and convincingly confronts the political manipulation of Qutb’s image as a tool to discredit and demonize the Muslim Brotherhood in their decades-long confrontation with the Egyptian state (see p. 153). As such, the focus and methodology of this book is determined by Qutb’s historical absence in literary history, anthologies, or memoirs and his contemporary presence as a “ghost” of militant Islam (p. 177).

Qutb’s life has generated a wealth of academic interest.[1] However, despite the variety of approaches, researchers converge in reading Qutb’s biographical shifts primarily as instances of ideological conversion, from variously defined secularism to Islamism, where literature is considered a secular and modern trend that opposes Islamism as a symbol of tradition and conservatism. Thus, Šabaseviciute's primary aim is to reverse Qutb’s excommunication and reintegrate him into the archive of Egypt’s intellectual history. Rather than thinking of Qutb’s life as ruptured, this book finds biographical continuity within his literary and Islamist experiences.

Šabaseviciute exposes Qutb’s part in Egypt’s interwar intellectual history by brilliantly analyzing an unexplored corpus, including dedications, book reviews, prefaces, literary battles, memoirs, interviews with acquaintances, and other modes of intellectual exchange. Through meticulous research, the author traces the development of Qutb’s thought, showcasing how its evolution was influenced by his shifting networks of friendship and patronage. This emphasis on the social history of Egypt’s intellectuals provides a refreshing alternative to the conventional biographical approach. By giving equal weight to social history and to written material, Šabaseviciute offers a rich and multidimensional view of Qutb’s life and the complex discipleship and mentorship relations he had with his contemporaries and predecessors. For example, his relationship with his mentor, the poet ʿAbbas Mahmud al-ʿAqqad, is masterfully woven into the narrative, showing how it affected his original vision of literature and Islam (see p. 50).

Through the “sociability-based approach,” the author explores Egypt’s interwar intellectual life from the perspective of literary clubs (Nadwa culture) and social circles (p. 15). The author identifies three “worldly moments” in Qutb’s life: his association with romantic poets, his anticolonial activism, and his eventual membership in the Muslim Brotherhood (p. 13). This approach illuminates Qutb’s involvement in various literary and activist networks and challenges the simplistic binary reading of Egypt’s intellectual history as a conflict between modernity and tradition. The sociability approach breathes new life into Qutb’s early years, portraying him not as a failure but as a significant player in the interwar and postcolonial literary scenes, for example through his early intellectual relations with Tawfiq al-Hakim and Taha Hussein.

The book explores the prevailing thesis of Qutb’s literary failure and Islamist success, which paints his conversion to Islamism as a distinct and abrupt break from his literary past. However, Šabaseviciute adeptly refutes this perspective, arguing for a textual approach that focuses on the development of Qutb’s ideas through his writings. Drawing inspiration from Bernard Lahire’s concept of “‘existential problem,’” the author uncovers Qutb’s metaphysical anxiety, which is evident across his poetry, theory of aesthetics, psychoanalysis, and Islamist texts (p. 10). The exploration of al-ghayb (the unknown or metaphysical) becomes a central theme that reveals Qutb’s continuous quest for the unseen and his efforts to connect it with physical reality (see pp. 77, 85). This analysis uncovers how poetry initially provided Qutb with space to experience metaphysical concepts, but later, his engagement with Islam offered him a model for social change and justice.


[1] See ʿAli Shalash, al-Tamarrud ʿala al-Adab: Dirasa fi Tajribat Sayyid Qutb (Beirut, 1994); Sharif Yunis, Sayyid Qutb wa al-Usuliya al-Islamiyya (Cairo, 1995); and John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (New York, 2010).