Magazine article Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Said Qutb on the Arts in America

Magazine article Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Said Qutb on the Arts in America

Article excerpt

Translator's note: The Egyptian Said Qutb was one of the leading intellectual lights of 20th Century Islamic radicalism when he was executed in 1966 for his involvement with the illegal Muslim Brotherhood. He is perhaps best known for his lengthy Quranic commentary In the Shade of the Qur'an and his book Milestones, in which he makes the case that allegedly Muslim regimes like that of Egypt should be understood as jahiliy (pagan) and therefore the proper target of military jihad.

Years before writing these radical works, Qutb spent two years studying in America (1948-1950). Upon his return to Egypt, he published the three-part article "The America That I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values" in the Egyptian journal AlRisala (Vol. 19 [1951]; no. 957,959, 961; pp. 1245-7,1301-6,1357-1360). A translation of this article appears in the anthology America in an Arab Mirror (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), but that translation is missing a considerable block of text for no reason that I can see. Here I have translated the section of the article's third part that contains that missing block. All but the first three and the last three paragraphs below are therefore appearing in English for the first time.

The article as a whole contains Qutb's observations on American life and chiefly on how American citizens rank in the "scale of human values." He judges Americans on a range of social and moral characteristics-including their sexual mores, their political history, and their attitudes towards religion, sports, art, and death-and generally finds them wanting. Most striking about the article is Qutb's adherence to a standard of "human values" rather than specifically "Islamic values." Qutb never elaborates this standard explicitly, but in general his theme seems to be that human beings should strive to attain high-minded, civilized, and spiritual values rather than bestial, primitive, and sensual ones. American society, in Qutb's view, tends toward the latter. Wherever possible, I have translated a single Arabic word with a single English word. Words in [square brackets] are my additions or clarifications. I have used Qutb's punctuation as a guideline but have not been able to reproduce it fully in English; in particular, I have used parentheses, long dashes, sentence breaks, and other means to translate the versatile Arabic particle wa. I have however retained the author's strange use of quotation marks and ellipses.

THE AMERICAN IS PRIMITIVE IN HIS ARTISTIC TASTE, BOTH IN WHAT HE enjoys as art and in his own artistic works. "Jazz" music is his music of choice, this is that music that the negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other. The American's intoxication in "jazz" music does not reach its full completion until the music is accompanied by singing that is just as coarse and obnoxious as the music itself. Meanwhile, the noise of the instruments and the voices mounts, and it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree... The agitation of the multitude2 increases, and the voices of approval mount, and their palms ring out in vehement, continuous applause that all but deafens the ears.

But despite this, the American multitude attends the opera, listens to symphonies, crowds together for the "ballet," and watches "classic" plays-so much so that you will hardly find an empty seat. It will happen sometimes that you do not find a place unless you reserve your seat days beforehand, and that at the high price of the fares for these performances.

This phenomenon misled me at first; I even rejoiced at it, down to the depths of my soul. For I had been feeling constantly "begrudging" at the fact that this people, which produces marvels in the world of industry and of science and of research, should have no store of the other human values. I had also been terribly afraid on behalf of humanity that its leadership will pass into the hands of this people that is altogether poor in those values. …

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