Sayyid Qutb’s time in the United States, between 1948 and 1950, is one of the most interesting periods in the Egyptian thinker’s life. It was during this period that he attended Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) and transformed himself into one of the 20th century’s most influential Islamists. Chris LaRossa examines Qutb’s very first public written record from those years.
What on face value looked like a golden opportunity for Sayyid Qutb to study American methods of education was, in reality, an adroit means of removing a burgeoning political agitator from the midst of the Egyptian government and literary circles. It was a plot that would fail drastically.
In 1948, Sayyid Qutb was sent to the US by Egypt’s Prime Minister, Mahmoud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, whom he had befriended through their mutual participation in the Wafd and Sa’dist political parties. This connection proved useful as a buffer after a falling out with the Ministry of Education in Egypt in 1947 where Qutb worked in the Directorate of Culture in addition to his work as an accomplished author and literary critic. The rift between Qutb and the Ministry developed over the direction and tone of his writing which had become more religiously ideological and symbolic. Qutb was also becoming alarmed that Muslims, not only in Egypt, but throughout the global Ummah, were succumbing to the influences of Westernization as he saw them: materialism, colonialism, and secularism. Taqlid, or blind imitation, of the West was arguably Qutb’s chief concern. Hence, under the auspices of a scholarship to study the fundamentals of Western educational curricula, Qutb left Egypt for the Colorado State College of Education in November 1948.
By placing him in arguably the center of modern Western society, the Egyptian government hoped that Qutb would tone down his criticism of fellow Muslims in his dual capacitates as a writer and a government official. Given the backdrop of British influence in the country after World War II, it was further hoped that he would return to Egypt sympathetic, or at least more sympathetic, to Western values and mores. What actually happened could not have been more different: Qutb returned home to Egypt in August 1950 more of a radical than before he had left.
Most of what is known about Qutb’s time in the US comes from his writings upon his return to Egypt in a publication called ar-Risalah. But there is earlier evidence of the enormous anti-Western tone that Qutb was developing in the form of an article he wrote for Fulcrum, the literary magazine of the Colorado State College of Education. The article, entitled The World is an Undutiful Boy!, contains a story about Egypt, history, God, and the world and is unique in that it is written in more of a story form, reflecting Qutb’s profession as a literary critic.
“History, the wayward child, has forgotten the examples of mother Egypt,” his piece begins.  This first line, which serves as a sub-title of sorts, reveals Qutb’s pride of nationalism but also presents the first evidence of his deep concern that Egypt’s unique history and its Islamicity is in danger of being overrun by the West. He parlays this into prose where immediately two aspects are noticeable: Egypt and God. He begins by writing, “There was an ancient legend in Egypt. When the god [sic] of wisdom and knowledge created History, he gave him a great writing book and a big pen, and said to him: ‘Go walking on this earth, and write notes about everything you see and hear.’” Though the young History had questions, God answered all of them. Upon one of his journeys, History “saw a beautiful young woman who was a wise woman, too: she had a little boy whom she was teaching in a gentle manner.” History inquired of God who she was, and was given the reply “‘She is Egypt,’ his god [sic] answered. ‘She is Egypt and that little boy is the world who is studying’ – the god [sic] answered again.” In a dialogue with Egypt, History asks why it is that Egypt seems to have abundant knowledge. She replies to him that the Egyptians “were very advanced and possessed a great knowledge of civilization before any other country. Egypt was a civilized country when other peoples were living in forests. Egypt taught Greece, and Greece taught Europe.” When History inquires what happened to the little boy (the World) when he grew up, we find the heart of Qutb’s article, and the frustration that is apparent between Qutb and the West: “When he grew up, he had thrown out his nurse, his kind nurse! He struck her, trying to kill her. I am sorry. This is not a figure of speech. This is a fact. That is what actually happened.”
Clearly, Qutb is trying to illustrate that not only has the world fallen away from the teachings that historical Egypt has bestowed upon the world, but more importantly, that the world has fallen away from, and disobeyed, God. Qutb, shortly before coming to the US found a renewed interest in the Quran, one that had been lacking somewhat during his education in Cairo. As previously mentioned, this renewed interest found its way with vigor into his writings at that time. Perhaps his piece in Fulcrum is somewhat of a self-description on one hand while on the other it is also a commentary on the direction he believed the West in particular, and to a large degree Muslim youth, had gone and was currently headed, based upon his role in the Ministry’s Directorate of Culture and previous postings as a curriculum inspector of elementary education. In other words, it was not the direction that God had intended.
In the last paragraph of the article, Qutb takes a startling turn. Thus far only anecdotal, Qutb abandons this line, and turns to the subject of modern politics. “When we came here to appeal to England for our rights,” he states, “the world helped England against the justice. When we came here to appeal against the Jews, the world helped the Jews against the justice. During the war between Arab and Jews, the world helped the Jews too.”  The first sentence refers to Britain’s colonial influence and rule in Egypt. Justice appears to be referring to Egyptian freedom from that colonial rule, and the world, meaning the West, did little to help the Egyptians in their endeavor. The next sentence is meant to refer to the creation of the state of Israel by the West (Britain, and supported by the US). Whether Qutb is revealing anti-Jewish feelings or is just angry over the taking of Arab land by the West for the creation of the state of Israel, or perhaps both, is debatable. No matter which is the case, his anger towards the West is abundant and clear. It is a sentiment that is presented with force and conviction, and perhaps even a little exasperation. He reinforces this notion when he concludes the article with the phrase “Oh! What an undutiful world! What an undutiful boy!”
Though highly metaphorical and anecdotal, this is the first instance of Qutb’s writing during his American experience where he articulates his feelings of outrage toward the West. Clearly, the boy as the world is meant to represent the West, and Qutb rationalizes the West’s behavior as a consequence of falling away from God, or putting God as secondary to its own interests. As a result of this, Qutb portrays a sense of the concordance and harmony or brotherhood of humanity breaking down, certainly through his own eyes. This writing holds great value in tracing where and how his anti-Western rhetoric began to germinate. The World Is an Undutiful Boy! serves as a preface to what Qutb would later write about of his experiences in the US upon his return to Egypt in ar-Risala. The underlying anti-Western feelings, though nascent, were already present by the time he reached the US. They were simmering under the surface, waiting to be exploited and Qutb’s time in Colorado proved to be the catalyst for their boiling over — a first step on Qutb’s long road of anti-Westernism.