Romantic Aesthetics and the General Will in the Islamism of Sayyid Qutb

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Recent research has pointed to the modern nature of the state that Islamists posit in contrast to medieval Islamic notions of political authority. This paper argues that a conceptual framework derived from romantic aesthetics underpinned the Islamist thought of Sayyid Qutb, who was for many years a secular literary writer. The aesthetic framework made possible the notion of human freedom and progress as the enactment of the general or collective will, which is the source of the state. Classical formulations of the general will in Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel are closely related to contemporaneous aesthetic notions of freedom as creative expression of interiority. Qutb participated in this line of thinking. The vitalist metaphysics and expressivist aesthetic theory of his literary period led him to later formulate an account of the general will that is embodied in Islamic law, the sharīʿa, which he identified with the state. He presented the Islamic state on this basis as resolving the fundamental contradiction of western modernity that romantic aesthetics had identified in the context of establishing the redemptive value of art. This contradiction, the disunity of the spiritual and the material, was equated by Qutb with the separation of church and state. Islamic law as the state is thus justified on aesthetic grounds as the reconciliation of humanity and nature now divided by Western materialism. Qutb’s thought in the context of its aesthetic genesis provides valuable insight into the nature of modern notions of individual and collective will.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)874-896
Number of pages23
JournalPolitical Theory
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Islamic state
  • Islamism
  • aesthetic politics
  • disenchantment
  • divine sovereignty
  • general will

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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