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The Central Concept of Struggle: Sayyid Qutb, Leo Strauss, Modernity and the PastBy Olga Maltseva

Nominated by Nelly Lahoud

From the Author:All of us--whether we are students or professors, young or old, political or apathetic--are children of the liberal philosophy that "progress" is the inevitable path towards the "good." Think about our speech: if "things are progressing," they are moving toward some desired goal. Yet, the positive connotation of the word "progress" belies one very crucial fact: we do not know what the future holds. Should we assume it will be positive? What if, in truth, progress was a downward spiral-and the best state our society can achieve has already happened, long ago, in a far-off virtuous past? The influential thinkers Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) challenged the common assumption that progress is to be celebrated. Perplexed by the disturbing events of the twentieth century, they sought the 'ideal' not through modern progress but in the origins of their respective religious traditions, Judaism and Islam.

From the Faculty Nominator: Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb are two towering figures of the twentieth century whose ideas have inspired generations of leading thinkers and political players. Strauss’s following consisted initially of students in the classrooms of American universities, more recently, some neo-conservative thinkers have claimed that their inspirations came from Strauss. Strauss’s passion was the classics, roaming between the philosophies that sprang from Athens and Jerusalem. He argued against the path of modernity with its liberal progressive ideals, particularly dangerous he believed was making knowledge accessible to the masses. Instead, as the ancients practiced, knowledge was the prerogative of the elites.

Sayyid Qutb’s influence began in an Egyptian prison, he managed to captivate generations of Muslims, who were persecuted by their regimes and disillusioned by the Western regimes which supported them. And before long, many Islamists began to embrace his writings as their textbooks. Like Strauss, Qutb was disenchanted with modernity, it looked to him like jahiliyya, what Muslims refer to as a state of primordial ignorance of God. He thus looked to the past as a model. He extolled Muslims to follow the model of the Prophet Muhammad and the community of believers around him whose faith not only enabled them to surmount great difficulties but also they were able to form a community, from which a great civilization was soon to arise.

As Olga Maltseva’s paper shows, the relationship of the present to the past is a complex one, and both Strauss and Qutb’s ideas were not embraced by all. But even when their ideas were rejected, they were sure to seduce their audiences.

Read:  The Central Concept of Struggle: Sayyid Qutb, Leo Strauss, Modernity and the Past

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