The East, what in a more direct and confident time we called the Orient, has always held a deep fascination for a certain subset of Westerners. This fascination frequently centers around a whole or partial perceived superiority of the East to the West. For example, not so long ago, there was a vogue for Westerners, from TE Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, to wander the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where they found spiritual fulfillment, or at least something they thought they could not find in the West. Peter Frankopan, a Byzantine expert and the author of “The Silk Roads,” is a modern, stay-at-home version of those men. And while his book is interesting and not without merit, it is marred by his sharing with those earlier Westerners a credulous and unsupported belief in the superiority of the Orient.
This is an awful book. It (the fifth edition, from 2012) contains a tiny bit of apparently useful information, which may or may not be true or generally applicable, combined with heaps of mendacious propaganda and annoying hectoring, padded out with material yanked from the likes of Wikipedia. If you’re relying on it to help you, say, understand Arabs, I doubt very much if it will do that. If you are looking for accurate historical information or informed commentary on Islam, a major focus of the book, you should run away as fast as you can.
Milestones claims to be a revivalist primer, to return Islam to its roots, but it is really a hybrid of traditional Islam with modern ideological organizing systems, primarily Leninism. This hybrid has proven to be a powerful combination, perhaps unsurprisingly given the power of both Leninism and modern Islamism in the 20th Century. Qutb’s contribution was to meld the two, promising the fusion will create harmonious societies with unparalleled virtues equivalent to those of the first Islamic societies. This is the core of modern, late 20th-century Islamism, of which Qutb was its primary theoretician.