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I recently started reading the book, "Social Justice in Islam." This is a book by Sayyid Qutb, translated into English by John B. Hardie, commissioned by the Near Eastern Translation Program. There's not really any good references to any of these people online outside this book, nor is there any information about what the Near Eastern Translation Program was or what it did. Questions about who ran this program and why aside (though I'm very curious to know), they went to great lengths in their translation to highlight the controversiality of this book.

But they really didn't talk about what in it was controversial, who found it controversial, and why they classify it that way. The foreword to the book reads like someone defensively trying to justify translating this book, ending, for example, with:

It should, of course, be clearly understood that the views expressed in the works translated are the opinions of the writers and not of the American Council of Learned Societies or the Committee on Near Eastern Studies.

This seems like it goes beyond the standard disclaimer of authorial opinion. Especially in context, it's written in a much more personal tone, as if the writer really wants to emphasize this point. The translator's introduction goes on to highlight exactly the same thing:

"There will be many points which the specialist and the non-specialist alike will feel like challenging. So much the better, for this, from a Western point of view, is a provocative book. But the aim of the present work has been neither to comment nor to criticize, but simply to translate, as the author himself would have written it, had he written in English."

This also vaguely hints at some sort of controversy, predicted or past, surrounding this book. It's also the second time this is mentioned, and it occurs no more than one page after the prior quote.

And, to be clear, there's vague historical reason to believe that this book was, indeed, controversial, even in Muslim societies. A more modern book cover has this to say about the author:

"Social Justice in Islam" is perhaps the best known work of Sayyib Qutb, a leading figure in the Muslim Brethen of Egypt who was executed by the regime of 'Abd al-Nasr in 1966. Despite the years that have passed since Sayyid Qutb's death, the imprint of his thought on the contemporary Islamic movements of the Arab world remains profound. [emph. mine]

To me, all of these things seem like loose threads suggesting that some part of this book either was controversial, or was expected to be controversial - both to Muslim cultures and to Western ones. But nobody really seems to want to talk about why.

Was there some sort of controversy surrounding this book, either in Muslim countries, "Western" countries, or both? If so, who took issue with it, and what, exactly, were the issues taken?

Also, if I'm reading this correctly, why, then, do the translators go to such great lengths to highlight how controversial this book is, without explaining anything about what's controversial in it?

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    What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you read the book? Did you find anything in it that might be controversial? By the way, is there anything at all that one can write a book about that would not be literature and on topic for this site? If I don't understand something in my mathematics textbook, can I ask about it here? – user14111 May 13 '17 at 10:26
  • I think we've had a question about a "narrated" maths textbook here... Or maybe it was over at Mathematics -_- – Gallifreyan May 13 '17 at 10:28
  • @user14111 I'm currently reading the book, and I can't really think of anything other than "this was written by a Muslim and is discussing Islam," which I guess some people would find intrinsically controversial for whatever reason. However, I have no clue why it would be controversial in Muslim spheres. I'm not familiar enough to say. (As to your other question, that's better suited for meta.) – Aza May 13 '17 at 10:33
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    Meta-question: does a question about an academic work of non-fiction really fall under the umbrella of 'literature'? – Josh Friedlander May 14 '17 at 8:16
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    Thanks for that reference, OP. The top-rated answer there implies that the scope of this site includes "creative" or "literary" non-fiction. That certainly doesn't include scholarly works. In particular, your question is surely more suited to a forum on Sociology/Legal Philosophy/Islamic Studies or the like? – Josh Friedlander May 14 '17 at 9:18
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Much of the potential for controversy can be put down to the reputation of its author

It would seem that this is less about controversy surrounding the book itself, and more about its author, and about the potential for controversy.

Sayyid Qutb is a polarizing figure. To quote Wikipedia's brief description:

Even though most of his observations and criticism were leveled at the Muslim world, Qutb is also known for his intense disapproval of the society and culture of the United States, which he saw as obsessed with materialism, violence, and sexual pleasures. Views on Qutb vary widely. He has been described by followers as a great thinker and martyr for Islam, while many Western observers see him as a key originator of Islamist ideology. Others in the West believe Qutb is an inspiration for violent groups such as al-Qaeda. Today, his supporters are identified by their opponents as "Qutbists" or "Qutbi".

The most important aspect of this is that some (particularly US and European) scholars view him as an philosophical inspiration for political Islamists, or even for Al-Qaeda. He has been called by some "the father of modern terrorism," or "the father of Islamic fundamentalism," though such labels are heavily disputed and controversial.

According to Peter Bergen.

It is hard to underestimate the influence that the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb had on Islamists around the world.

The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda's Leader

The Economist best sums up Western thinking on Qutb:

Pre-eminently among the pioneers of 20th-century Islamism, Sayyid Qutb has come to be seen as the evil genius who inspired today's global jihad.

That alone would be enough to make him and his writings controversial in the West (or for that matter among many in the Middle East).

In addition, he was hostile not only to what he perceived as Western ideals, but also to many Muslim governments:

And both the countercultural movement in the West and the Islamic awakening had revolutionary features, because Qutb's writings not only explained that Islam was a whole way of being, they also contented that most Muslim governmental systems were mired in Jahiliya, a state of pre-Islamic ignorance and even barbarism. Qutb never named names in his writings. But what he wrote was clearly directed against authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes.

The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda's Leader

As one might imagine, a writer who criticized authoritarian regimes might not be terribly popular with modern-day authoritarian regimes, which still control some countries in the Middle East, or with their adherents (be they Muslim or any other religion). Recall that political Islam (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) is one of the primary threats to the dominance of secular regimes in the Middle East (particularly authoritarian ones). This could account for the controversial nature of his views in predominantly Muslim countries.

There's also the matter of racism in his writings, which, while it would undoubtedly most perturb the West, generally being written in a context of criticizing Western culture, could also rub a lot of other people the wrong way. Though he experienced (and was critical of) prejudice and discrimination during his time in the US, he was not above it himself:

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.

"Amrika allati Ra'aytu" (The America That I Have Seen), Sayyid Qutb

And as for his attitudes toward Jews, let's just say they weren't particularly favorable. One of his more famous works is Our Struggle Against the Jews, published in 1950, which is exactly what it says on the tin.

I would consider it highly likely, then, that the translators wrote these "disclaimers" merely because of Qutb's controversial reputation, particularly in the US. We see similar things when other books by controversial authors are published, regardless of whether those books stirred up contemporaneous controversy.

I couldn't find any evidence that this particular book induced controversy when it was translated to English. Undoubtedly it was controversial when first published, though, as many of Qutb's works were, due to their blunt opposition to the contemporary governments in the Middle East.

  • Wow, thanks. This totally changes the way I'm reading this book. – Aza May 14 '17 at 18:43
  • @Emrakul - I'm curious. Did you look up the author before asking this question? (Not that you should have, of course). – Obie 2.0 May 14 '17 at 18:44
  • I did, but it was mostly in the context of other searches, and I was primarily looking at factual resources that minimized a lot of the controversy. – Aza May 14 '17 at 18:49

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