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Said Qutb on the Arts in America

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 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 Al-Risala (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.—Daniel Burns

For a complete copy of this translation, please click the “View PDF” button, below.

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