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Sayed Kotb [Sayyid Qutb], 'The World is an Undutiful Boy!'

After World War II, the political, military, and economic power of the United States’ rising international empire—one working with and through other nation-states—was accompanied by “soft power,” to use a term coined later. Victorious in a global war, Americans embraced “nationalist globalism,” as John Fousek put it in To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War (2000). They wished the postwar world to follow their way of life rather than that of their Cold War Soviet rivals. Vice versa, people around the world paid more attention to them. Very few swallowed Americans’ self-view hook, line, and sinker. But a good number came, adopted what seemed of use—and often did (and could) openly oppose what they disliked, as Matthew Shannon discusses in Losing Hearts and Minds: American-Iranian Relations and International Education during the Cold War (2017).

An Egyptian visitor was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), a Cairene inspector of public schools. Egypt’s Ministry of Education chose him to analyze US education from November 1948 to August 1950. He studied at the Wilson Teacher’s College in Washington, DC, and the Colorado State College of Education, in Greeley. He visited New York, San Francisco, Palo Alto, and San Diego. Qutb wrote about this experience—for by the mid-1940s he had become a rising author and cultural critic in Egypt. There, as Giedre Sabaseviciute has shown in “Sayyid Qutb and the crisis of culture in late 1940s Egypt” (2018), Qutb, like others of his generation, accused the cultural establishment of selling out to Western imperialism culturally and hence politically; at the time, Britain still controlled the Suez Canal, and would withdraw its last troops only in June 1956. Some young nationalist critics were leftists; others, like Qutb, had a more religious bent. (In the early 1950s Qutb would officially join the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and later texts like Ma‘alim fi al-Tariq [Milestones (1964)] would make him the intellectual father of contemporary Islamic radicalism; Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime imprisoned him after an MB coup attempt in 1954, until 1964, and again from 1965 to 1966, when he was executed.)

As for Qutb’s texts on America, they were much more critical than texts by earlier Arabs who had visited and studied in Western imperial countries. Thus, Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi’s (1801-1873) or Taha Husayn’s (1889-1973) reflections on sojourns in France, while critical, also identified commonalities and affirmed that Egypt could use some European traits to catch up with Western imperial powers. Not so Qutb, as John Calvert’s “‘The World Is an Undutiful Boy!’: Sayyid Qutb’s American Experience” (2000) shows. In letters home and in a three-part Arabic article titled “The America That I Have Seen,” published after Qutb’s return, he described Americans as a shallow, soulless people driven by status and money: Egypt’s opposite. This was the external inter-civilizational front of a conflict whose domestic cultural front countered those who presumably served Western imperialism. Qutb’s thinking was complex, then. This was the case doubly as it embraced Islam, whose spirituality imbued Egypt’s, and as he called Egypt a civilization—nay the civilization, the world’s first. In the late 1940s, in sum, Qutb was an anti-imperialist civilizational nationalist with a religious bent, or, perhaps, an Eastern civilizationalist of Egyptian nationality and Muslim faith. This showed also in the text here: Qutb’s first one in English, printed in the Greeley College literary society magazine in 1949.


Taha Hussein, 'The Future of Culture in Egypt' (Excerpts)

The text printed here, an English translation, is constituted by two excerpts from the famous yet controversial Arabic book Mustaqbal al-thaqafa fi Misr (1938) [The Future of Culture in Egypt],by Taha Hussein (1889-1973).

Born in a village in Upper Egypt and blind from the age of three, Hussein was first educated in his village school. He went on to the famous Azhar Islamic university in Cairo, to the newly founded Egyptian (Cairo) University, where he received a doctorate in 1914, and to Montpellier and the Sorbonne, which in 1917 awarded him another doctorate. For one thing, Hussein was a powerful educational institution builder, as Hussam Ahmed’s The Last Nahdawi: Taha Hussein and Institution Building in Egypt (2021) shows. Thus, he became a Cairo University professor in 1919, teaching Islamic history and Arabic literature, and he was the university’s Dean of Arts (1928, 1930-32 and 1936-39), a member and then president of the Arabic  Language Academy (1940-73), and Egypt’s Minister of Culture (1950-52). For another thing, Hussein was a supremely influential intellectual and a specialist of premodern and modern Arabic literature. Thus, from 1926 to 1967 he published the three-volume autobiographical novel Al-Ayyam [The Days], and in 1926 wrote Fi al-shi‘r al-jahili [On Pre-Islamic Poetry (2016)], which he revised as Fi al-adab al-jahili [On Pre-Islamic Literature (1927)] after traditionalists (unsuccessfully) took him to court. And although helping to introduce thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre to Arabs as the 1945-1948 editor of the journal al-Katib al-Misri, he belonged to the Arab Renaissance (nahda) literati who were from the 1940s accused by many younger intellectuals for not supporting committed art; in turn, he defended the necessity of not delimiting what art should be or do.

His 1938 text The Future of Culture in Egypt, excerpted here in a 1975 English translation, was very detailed—it included dozens of suggestions about how to improve Egypt’s educational system—and quite complex. On the one side, Hussein confidently took Europe to task in the main body of the work, and emphasized the need to thoroughly know one’s own culture and history. But on the other side, he saw European empires as still very powerful; thus, a lagging Egypt should embrace European concepts—an approach internalizing (self-interested) European Orientalist views, as Stephen Sheehi has argued in The Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (2004). In a sense, both of these two sides were framed by his work’s immediate historical context: the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. Maximizing Egypt’s sovereignty and allowing it to become a League of Nations member in 1937, this treaty showed strength—but also continued weakness vis-à-vis Britain, whose troops remained in the Suez Canal zone. In the same vein, the introduction’s argument about Egypt’s geo-civilizational position accepted the discourse of a dominant Europe—only to make Egypt its geographical and historical pioneer by giving it great weight vis-à-vis Ancient Greece, which was conventionally seen as the cradle of European civilization.