Yaseen Noorani is an Associate Professor of Arabic and Persian Literature in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. He earned his PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago and previously taught at the University of Edinburgh. He is the co-editor of Counterhegemony in the Colony and Postcolony and the author of Culture and Hegemony in the Colonial Middle East. His interests lie in the nexus of normative moral and political ideals and literary representation in the modern Middle East. His current book project focuses on the role of aesthetic theory in Islamic political thought in the early to mid-twentieth century, and is entitled “Aesthetic Citizens, Islamic States”.
Adab al-Wijdan and the Islamic Vision of Reality in the Thought of Sayyid Qutb
Sayyid Qutb, in his book on the principles and methods of literary criticism, published in 1948, insisted upon the higher truth contained in the extraordinary heroes of stories and myths. He asserted that this kind of heroic figure manifests the “dream of humanity living in the human conscience, that humanity hopes for in its imagination and senses in its world” and “embodies the truth of the ideal that lives in our imagination.” The next book that he published, Social Justice in Islam (1949), is considered Sayyid Qutb’s first Islamist work. Here Islam is described as “the eternal dream of humanity, embodied in a reality lived out on earth.” These formulations, which may appear to instantiate nothing more than a recurring habit of expression, in fact point to a much deeper concordance in Sayyid Qutb’s thought – the concordance between the secular humanist and Islamist phases of his intellectual career. Sayyid Qutb provides a major illustration of the link between aestheticism and Islamism because we can see clearly in his thought how the conceptual framework of romantic aesthetics, or adab al-wijdan, that he practised and theorized in the first part of his career formed the basis of the Islamist system that he espoused and expounded in the second part of his career. The model of the relationship between the inner sensibility (wijdan) of human beings and the universe that Qutb deploys to theorize greatness in literary works becomes the model first for Qutb’s analysis of the artistic genius of the Quran and then transformed into what he called “the Islamic vision” (al-tasawwur al-Islami) of reality. Romantic conceptions of adab took on liberal and socialist political implications in the work of Qutb’s literary mentors and peers, but in his thought became the foundation for an Islamist political ideology.