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Blues for Sayyid Qutb

Qutb spent two years in the U.S. (1948-1950), and he did not like what he saw – or what he heard:

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. Meanwhile, the noise of the instruments and the voices mounts, and it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree. ... The agitation of the multitude increases, and the voices of approval mount, and their palms ring out in vehement, continuous applause that all but deafens the ears.”

Qutb’s racist critique sounds as if it were written by a delicate aesthete who preferred string quartets to ones featuring tenor saxophones, but the Muslim Brotherhood thinker was nothing if not consistent and, given Islam’s rejection of music, would have disdained John Dowland and Bach and Mozart as much as he did jazz.

Yet his critique betrays more than a hint of sour grapes. Qutb’s account of his sojourn in America many times gives a hint of frustrated longing, as when he writes contemptuously about American women in terms that indicate he has observed them very, very closely:

The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.