Taking People As They Are: Islam As a “Realistic Utopia” in the Political Theory of Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb is known in the West primarily as the intellectual father of radical Islamic terrorism. But, as Andrew March shows in the February 2010 issue of the American Political Science Review, Qutb offered a comprehensive political theory deserving of analysis alongside other modern philosophers. “Taking People As They Are: Islam As a ‘Realistic Utopia’ in the Political Theory of Sayyid Qutb” concerns Qutb’s belief that Islamic law (shari’a) and human nature (fitra) are in perfect harmony. It is therefore both natural and rational for humans to obey God’s law. In this way, divine Law asks nothing more of the human adherent than to relate to his or her own innate needs, desires and proclivities. One of the essay’s main contributions is to extract Qutb from the limited realm of “philosopher of Islamic terror,” and to compare his thought alongside that of other important philosophers. Doing so “provides a crucial entry into a more sophisticated understanding of the various ways in which post-colonial Islamist thinkers have conceived of the nature of politics.” March centers his analysis on Rawls’ notion of a “realistic utopia”: “a vision of a society that is the best we can or ought to wish for and that, by virtue of its proper implementation, would remove the main perennial human obstacles to justice, morality, and good,” and compares Qutb’s vision with core ideas from Rousseau and other philosophers in the social contract tradition. The author also explores Qutb’s use of the salaf period in his writings (for Qutb, a period ending after the death of the second Caliph ‘Umar), arguing that it provides Qutb with a “historical model of the feasibility and realism of his politico-psychological theory.” March effectively shows that Qutb’s writings are a sustained attempt to develop a comprehensive theory of “social justice, political order, and human moral motivation.” In placing Qutb’s political thought in comparative perspective, Andrew March’s piece successfully enriches our understanding of modern political Islam.

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