Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985.)

Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharoah (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.) Translated from the French by Jon Rothschild.


The groups, movements, associations and trends that take or are given the name “Islamic” in the contemporary world are many and diverse. Current events and images of Western confrontation with irrational forces make it difficult to understand the different phenomena that get lumped together under the “fundamentalist” label. Using that term to characterize both the Iranian state and the takfir wa hijra sect of Egypt (a title they never used of themselves, incidentally) gets us nowhere. The bewildered reader needs authors who can situate their objects of inquiry not only in the “Islamic” field but in relation to broader studies of sects, utopias and millennial movements. The sociology of religion can make a contribution here, as can global discussions of the contradictions of “development.” Patterns within social movements may be similar whether or not they are all Islamic or Arab. Both theory and empirical research should go beyond the narrowly conceived confines of many writers.

Kepel and Sivan are aware of the range of groupings with which they deal and both are impatient with glib formulae about fundamentalism. They have read a great deal, and Sivan in particular is able to refer back to older theological texts for some sense of the references that members of these groups make to an idealized history, law and normative order. Kepel has access to important trial papers from Egypt which allow him to present aspects of the apologia of individual leaders confronted with the might of the state they sought to destroy. Careful reading of these two studies helps us to separate out the different, sometimes ferociously competing and mutually critical sects one from the other. Indications about the range of membership, though based on limited material, give intriguing hints about the tensions within particular strata of Arab societies, particularly Egypt and Syria. Discussions of key terms such as jihad, fitna, hakimiyya and others offer a guide to some of the codewords of radical Muslim discourse.

Both Sivan and Kepel deal with the Muslim Brothers, the writings of Sayed Qutb, and the opposition of the radical movements of the 1970s to the “barbarism and unbelief” of the modern world and more specifically of an Arab world ruled by unjust princes and insidious ideologies fed into people’s minds by the growing power of the media.

Kepel is more concerned with the politics of the Egyptian movements in their opposition, frequently implacable, to the Nasserist and later the Sadatist state. His book is organized chronologically, beginning with the first period of suppression of the Muslim Brothers up to the trial and execution of Qutb and others in 1966, moving through a discussion of some of Qutb’s main ideas from his later phase, and then on to the group of Shukri Mustafa, with its radical denunciations of the unbelief of those who called themselves Muslims. The succeeding chapters cover the group around the magazine Al-Da‘wa, the student movements, the sermons of the popular preacher Shaikh Kishk, those who organized the assassination of Sadat, and an afterword on the 1981-85 period.

In both studies the state is central, for the authors and for those whose hostility they are discussing. The problem is that the authors present no analysis of the state, nor do they treat this amorphous and vast category theoretically or empirically. Kepel frequently presents the Egyptian state as nothing but a series of ever more suffocatingly repressive apparatuses ruling by gun and gallows over a cowed civil society whose only representatives are the members of the Muslim radical groups. It is not easy to tell where their view stops and his starts. He fails to clarify the nature of the civil society beneath and gives the concept no real underpinning. Neither work begins to furnish us with even the broad outlines of a critical reflection on the discourses and practices of power and authority in Egypt or Syria. Without this the reader finds it difficult to know how to situate and contextualize the very different groupings.

The subject also requires in-depth treatment of nationalism in its various dimensions and how nationalist appeals, imagery and imaginings penetrated the Islamic groups. It is important that some denounced nationalism, but to record that does not take us very deeply into the phenomenon.

Not only nationalist ideologies were involved in the formation of the radicals. They grew up in a world of many influences, cultural and symbolic as well as political and economic. The focus on the specifically Islamic cuts out a wider consideration of these elements in their lives. In the case of Qutb himself, it would be central to consider his non-religious writings just as much as the now far more famous Signposts. He wrote part of an autobiography (A Child from the Village) and much critical work on literature and education that is potentially as significant for our understanding as any of his later work.

His almost obsessive concern with the corrupting power of the media needs to be interpreted too, not merely noted. The relationship of the media, popular culture and state apparatuses is hardly even raised. As a consequence Kepel, for example, cannot develop the profound limits on the analyses these groups have of the society in which they live. He records misreading, misinterpretation and the incapacity to produce the intellectual and organizational tools for really grasping what forces have been operating in Egyptian society, but he has not himself produced ways of understanding these incapacities. The same is true for the divisions, fissions and fierce mutual denunciation between the groups. These occur and recur, but we never learn why it is that such a pattern, if that is what it is, should be so characteristic. This is another point at which a more comparative perspective would have been vital.

How to cite this article:

Michael Gilsenan "Sivan, Radical Islam; Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

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