Epistemological Shifts in Sayyid Qutb's Discourse of the Early 1940s

By Soffar, Mohamed | Hemispheres, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Epistemological Shifts in Sayyid Qutb's Discourse of the Early 1940s


Soffar, Mohamed, Hemispheres


The major objective of discourse analysis, with its anti-humanistic tendencies that kicked the authorial figure incarnating the ahistorical subject and monopolizing the truth off the stage, is to jellify the solid thought structures and blur the boundaries between thought zones previously seen as irrelevant to each other. Units of analysis that are contagious with harmonizing, unifying, and totalizing plagues are completely purged and as such, the need for fixed posts to observe change is completely done away with. By virtue of this, discontinuity and change are decreed to us as values dominating the analysis.* 1 However, the value of discourse analysis lies in its Achilles heel; its complete devotion to change and its attempt to dissolve hegemonic units the analysis. Nowhere would that be more valid than in dealing with the thought of Sayyid Qutb. The twists and turns of his discourse as well as the radical changes it went through can never be accounted for through a mode of analysis that seeks to dissect the phenomenon at hand in a postmortem fashion (the young liberal Qutb vs. the late radical Qutb).2 Nevertheless, fixed sponsored positions should never be ignored, for the simple fact that without stability there can never be any awareness of motion.

Pursuing transition schematically (reconstruction and deconstruction) in the Qutbian intellectual project is set as the sole assignment of this part. To anchor the analysis, one has also to focus on the restless search for an identity, which fuels the Qutbian project and provides it with its locomotive power. The will to identity pervading the comers and alleys of the Qutbian discourse is considered to be a decisive response to the pains of existential horror and temporal dislocation afflicted on the era in which Qutb lived. This same will to identity, which is in fact the form assumed by the will to knowledge in this specific discursive setting, simultaneously plays both destructive and constmctive roles along the Qutbian intellectual path. The titles of his articles written in Magalat al-shuoon al-igtimaiah in the early 1940s, such as 'Are We Civilized?', 'Are We a Nation?!', 'Deceitful Cairo', 'The Cry of a Dentist', and 'A Lost Generation', reveal in the words of Abu-Rabi, "the deep soul of a man in search of cultural identity and intellectual certainty".3

Image and reality

In an article written in 1944 entitled 'Egypt and Publicity', Qutb briefly narrates the story of a friend whose sarcastic and humorous nature was only matched by the ugliness of his face. One day, the ugly friend appeared with a newly taken photo, which he had paid a certain photographer to fake in order to hide his unpleasant features. He tried to convince Qutb and his other friends of his handsomeness and beauty by exhibiting his picture, which he held proudly and triumphantly. The contrast between the photo and the face was so great that they could not help but break into laughter. Yet the humorous friend went on his way not believing, "how we failed to recognize his beauty, though his picture attests to what he said!". Qutb invests the same contrast between the fabricated image and the deformed reality on the level of publicity and the touristic picturesqueness of Egypt, comprising a large proportion of public expenditure which could instead be dedicated to relieve the ugly face of Egyptian reality with of its social and economic plagues deforming it.4

The problem of self-identification which stirs Qutb's critical practice is nowhere better reflected than in the contrast between a falsified image and a deformed reality. The ugly friend, escaping the reality of his unpleasant features, identified himself with an image that he fabricated; this was exactly what the Egyptian authorities were doing by allocating financial resources to building a touristic facade. The persistent confusion between the artificial and the original, as much as blurring the lines between image and reality, reverse the order of things (what refers to what? …

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