In an attempt to uncover and republish Egyptian literary productions over 50 years old, the General Egyptian Book Organisation has republished the novel ‘Thorns’ by late Islamist thinker Sayed Kotb (1906-1966). The novel is one of the works to have been carefully hidden away by devotees of Kotb’s later thinking. The new edition includes an introduction by poet and critic Shabaan Youssef.
‘Thorns,’ which tells a story of failing love, was first published in 1947 by the Dar Saad publishing house. According to contemporaries, the book was heavily influenced by the novel ‘Sarah’ by Abaas El-Akkad, who was Kotb’s literary role model at the time.
In the republished book’s introduction, Youssef points to the risks of hiding particular works of certain writers and thinkers, referring to the legendary image that grew up around Kotb, especially after his assassination, as a hero who fought a heretical authority – an image that encouraged the adoption of his ideas among young Islamists. Youssef doesn’t deny the reality of this image, but stresses that this “aura” has effectively prevented critical readings of his work.
Upon Kotb’s return from America, a critical phase of his life, many historians agree that he made a clean break with his literary background, instead promoting a restrictive reading of Islam. According to Kotb’s letters to Andwar El-Maadawy, Kotb moved away from literature and towards social and religious reform at this point.
Other historians, however, believe Kotb left the field because he had failed to achieve either fame or success. Youssef, however, refutes this notion in his introduction, instead suggesting that Kotb’s followers attempted to hide his literary history, which they considered Jahiliya, or paganism.
Youssef supports his thesis by referring to some of the literary battles Kotb fought; at one point, Kotb even defended the talents of up-and-coming novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Later on, Mahfouz praised Kotb in an article published in the April 1946 edition of literary periodical Resala. Later on, Mahfouz devoted a chapter to a Kotb-like character in his novel “Mirrors,” although the depiction is hardly positive.
Youssef considers his introduction an attempt to “free” the thoughts of Kotb and allow readers to understand the changes in his thinking – a reading that suits Egypt’s post-revolution atmosphere of intellectual openness. The book forces us to review the full spectrum of Kotb’s thinking without reducing it to only one phase of his life, thus allowing the celebrated writer to finally return from the realms of myth to reality.