In This Review

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (Columbia/Hurst)
Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (Columbia/Hurst)
By John Calvert
Columbia University Press, 2010, 256 pp

The best biographies balance the person, the person's achievements, and the environment in which that person worked. This one of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), considered by both friends and foes to be a founding father of radical Sunni Islamic thought, does just that. Calvert presents a portrait of Qutb worthy of a psychobiography, without the excesses of the genre. He traces the evolution of Qutb's political thought from secular nationalism to religious fundamentalism and situates Qutb's Islamism within Islamic political thought, past and present. And he presents the Egyptian political scene -- from the interwar years, to the 1952 Egyptian Revolution and the Nasser era it ushered in, up through the 1966 trial and execution of Qutb on the charge of planning a coup. Calvert, who in 2004 co-edited and co-translated Qutb's bildungsroman, A Child From the Village, has immersed himself in his chosen subject for years, and it shows. Throughout the book, Calvert engages with other commentators on Qutb. His conclusion shows how present-day Islamists read Qutb differently: moderates (such as mainstream Muslim Brothers) downplay his revolutionary religio-political message, and radicals (such as al Qaeda members) exaggerate it.