January 08, 2004

2 Qutb 3

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. -- Exodus, 20-3.

In the third chapter of Milestones, Sayyid Qutb, who some have described as the brains of Osama bin Laden, begins to describe how the vanguard that will bring about his Islamist vision must operate. But first, he points out where societies have gone wrong. Qutb begins with this passage, which I tried my best to paraphrase but decided I wouldn't do it justice:

The message of Islam brought by the Messenger of God, Muhammad - peace be on him -was the last link in the long chain of invitations toward God by the noble Prophets. Throughout history, this message has remained the same: that human beings should recognise that their true Sustainer and Lord is One God, that they should submit to Him Alone, and that the lordship of man be eliminated. Except for a few people here and there in history, mankind as a whole has never denied the existence of God and His sovereignty over the universe; it has rather erred in comprehending the real attributes of God, or in taking other gods besides God as His associates. This association with God has been either in belief and worship, or in accepting the sovereignty of others besidesGod. Both of these aspects are Shirk [Shirk is an Arabic word which refers to ascribing the attributes, power or authority of God to others besides Him and/or worshipping others besides Him.] in the sense that they take human beings away from the religion of God, which was brought by the Prophets. After each Prophet, there was a period during which people understood this religion, but then gradually later generations forgot it and returned to Jahiliyyah. They started again on the way of Shirk, sometimes in their belief and worship and sometimes in their submission to the authority of others, and sometimes in both.

Throughout the chapter, Qutb sets up a distinction between Islam -- which is the submission to God, the following of his laws -- with Jahiliyyah, which are the manmade systems which, Qutb argues, lead inevitably to the submission of one man to another. He sets up this historical contrast:

In this great Islamic society Arabs, Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Turks, Chinese, Indians, Romans, Greeks, Indonesians, Africans were gathered together- in short, peoples of all nations and all races. Their various characteristics were united, and with mutual cooperation, harmony and unity they took part in the construction of the Islamic community and Islamic culture. This marvellous civilization was not an 'Arabic civilization', even for a single day; it was purely an 'Islamic civilization'. It was never a 'nationality' but always a community of belief'.

Thus they all came together on an equal footing in the relationship of love, with their minds set upon a single goal; thus they used their best abilities, developed the qualities of their race to the fullest, and brought the essence of their personal, national and historical experiences for the development of this one community, to which they all belonged on an equal footing and in which their common bond was through their relationship to their Sustainer. In this community their 'humanity' developed without any hindrance. These are characteristics which were never achieved by any other group of people in the entire history of mankind!

The most distinguished and best known society in ancient history is considered to be the Roman Empire. Peoples of various races, languages and temperaments came together in this society, but all this was not based on 'human relation- ship' nor was any sublime faith the uniting factor among them; rather their society was ordered on a class system, the class of 'nobles' and the class of 'slaves', throughout the Empire. Moreover, the Roman race - in general - had the leadership and the other races were considered its subjects. Hence this society could not achieve that height which was achieved by the Islamic society and did not bring those blessings which were brought by the Islamic society.

Various societies have also appeared in modern times. For example, consider the British Empire. It is like the Roman society to which it is an heir. It is based on national greed, in which the British nation has the leadership and exploits those colonies annexed by the Empire.

I find this odd, because Islam tolerates slavery, whereas the British Empire went to great lengths in the 19th Century to stamp it out, but let's leave aside Qutb's historical view and note instead the manner by which he intends to bring back that Islamic paradise:

It is therefore necessary that Islam's theoretical foundation-belief-materialize in the form of an organized and active group from the very beginning. It is necessary that this group separate itself from the jahili society, becoming independent and distinct from the active and organized jahili society whose aim is to block Islam. The center of this new group should be a new leadership, the leadership which first came in the person of the Prophet-peace be on him- himself, and after him was delegated to those who strove for bringing people back to God's sovereignty, His authority and His laws. A person who bears witness that there is no deity except God and that Muhammad is God's Messenger should cut off his relationship of loyalty from the jahili society, which he has forsaken, and from jahili leadership, whether it be in the guise of priests, magicians or astrologers, or in the form of political, social or economic leadership, as was the case of the Quraish in the time of the Prophet-peace be on him. He will have to give his complete loyalty to the new Islamic movement and to the Muslim leadership.

There are any number of reasons to find this demand for "complete loyalty" objectionable. In the course of my lifetime, my "leadership" has included quite a few people I haven't respected; no American, in fact, is required to give his complete loyalty to our political leaders -- rather, as citizens, we are perfectly within our rights to be part of a loyal opposition -- loyal to our Constitutional system, but opposed to those who have been elected and exercise power (indeed, the system depends on opposition). I am perfectly free, if I so choose, to allow my religious beliefs dictate my political philosophy -- to vote according to a particular creed. If my candidate tells me tomorrow that to realize his program, I have to do things I find unethical or immoral, I can choose not to.

Beyond that, Qutb is proposing a "true Muslim" leadership which must be followed -- to which the follower must follow -- one man submitting to another. Isn't this something of a contradiction?

Posted by Ideofact at January 8, 2004 10:39 PM

It actually would make sense if viewed from a Shi'a perspective. The Imam is understood to be part of a direct hierarchy of authority, tracing back to the Prophet SAW and upwards to God. From a Sunni perspective, there isnt any such lineage, so the Imam-equivalent would have to be chosen by concensus (which is how the first three Caliphs took the leadership after Muhammad SAW). Alternatively, you could argue that any man suffiuciently motivated and pious to achieve and attain the Caliphate was divinely meant to have done so, I believe but may be wrong that this is analogous to the Pope's claim to divine authority in interpreting the religion.

In any sense, I can see that the submitting to the "true Muslim" leadership would be symbolicly submitting to Allah (and the very submission of which Islam itself as a word means). So the argument sounds contradictory but is actually consistent. Keep in mind that "Jahilliya" is the word used to describe the pagans in Arabia prior to Islam, the word means "ignorant" - so Christians and Jews don't qualify as jahil, they have been made aware of God's message. I suspect that Qutb classifies secular states as jahil because they explicitly reject the command of God (in his view).

Posted by: Aziz at January 9, 2004 02:02 PM

I should really slow down when I'm writing these things.

I might be misreading it, but Qutb seems to extend Jahilliya to, well, to any society that does not conform to his vision of an Islamic society (i.e. -- all of them). Otherwise, why would he advise the follower of the new leadership to disassociate himself from the jahili society? Qutb isn't addressing Muslims living in the West, but rather (and particularly) Muslims living in the various Arab socialist and monarchical states in the 1950s.

I see your point about Shi'a Islam (Qutb had a fairly ambiguous view of Shi'ism -- a great deal of praise for Ali, little sympathy for the Umayyads who usurped him, but as far as I can tell, not much sympathy for Shi'ite practice or theology), and the Caliphs as well.

I think what I'm trying to get at here will become clear in future posts, but then again, maybe not -- I'll give it a shot...

Posted by: Bill at January 9, 2004 05:25 PM

Alternatively, you could argue that any man suffiuciently motivated and pious to achieve and attain the Caliphate was divinely meant to have done so, I believe but may be wrong that this is analogous to the Pope's claim to divine authority in interpreting the religion.

Not exactly, there have certainly been any number of bad popes in history. Catholic belief is basically that while an individual pope may be immoral or evil at times that God will protect the Church from doctrinal error - the belief in the indefectibility of the papacy that stems from (among other things) Jesus's promise to St. Peter that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church in Matthew. The Sunni Islamic requirements for the Imam-equivalent, at least as I understand them, are somewhat different.

Posted by: Dan Darling at January 10, 2004 12:48 PM

Hi Bill, Dan, Aziz, Abu, et al:

I am fascinated by the recent dialogue between Bill and Abu Noor al-Irlandee. What struck me is that it is precisely the kind of civil discussion of deep matters that would be rendered illegitimate within Qutbism, except possibly as a tactic to expose an unbeliever to the legal ramifications of Islamic Law (as Qutb sees it). But I don't, for a moment, doubt Qutb's sincerity, or even his good intentions. I don't think he set out to give birth to Totalitarianism 3.x. Far from it.

A couple of quick points though, just to introduce myself. One involves that huge consequences of minor angular deflections, and the other involves the concept of federalism as it applies to monastic life:

1. Marx was not far wrong. At point of origin in the mid-nineteenth century, when Capitalism was virtually synonymous with mercantilism and child labor rampant, his diagnosis of the problem (the "primitive" or false accumulation of capital) did have a certain analytical appeal. But a small angle of error at the source becomes a larger and a larger amplitude of error the farther we move from the origin.

The same could be said of religions, even though the assertion of the believer would be that no error occurred, or was even possible, at the origin. The problem is not with the convictions and understanding of the Companions, or the Apostles, or whoever. The problem is that the interpretation of their testimony or acts is fraught with problems, problems that can really only be overcome with humility regarding the assumptions of "right interpretation" by subsequent leaders in the faith.

Thus, we arrive at a situation where the primary qualification for leaders (a Caliph, for instance) is not his correctness in terms of doctrine, because mistakes are inevitable, but his ability to see through his own vanities and limitations. And, at least according to the Christian view, it is this qualification that outweighs all others in determining leadership. But as a practical matter, we have few resources at our disposal to aid us it making judgments about such qualifications for charismatic leaders.

We have a few, however, but I'll leave that to a later discussion.

2. The severe requirements of submission to God's will often, or usually, create conflict with the requirements of whatever social system the believer happens to be under. In most Christian communities these severe requirements can be met by a retreat to a monastic life. The Shakers represent such a severe, and nonetheless very successful, community within the Christian West (notwithstanding their inability under the strictures to reproduce).

And this represents a kind of federalism of the faith in which individuals can retreat from the larger society to join like-minded people of faith, and by doing so to live a life of submission that conforms as closely as possible to God's will. The ultimate resolution regarding the rectitude of this sacrifice or judgment is deferred to the afterlife, or to a day of judgment. Thus the primary plea to the believer is to make a voluntary submission to God, and the whole "federalist" structure is oriented toward the individual's sovereign choice. A coerced choice has comparatively little value. One might as well be a robot.

But it appears that Islam has no such resolution, at least in the Qutbist version. What the Umma or Allah requires is writ-large submission of the entire human community, no exceptions (although the time frame may allow some latitude). And the imperative allows, or even encourages, coercion (appropriately justified by interpretations of scripture).

What I'd like to know, from anyone with requisite knowledge, is whether there are any provisions within either traditional Islam, or Qutbism, for such a federalist solution to the problem of individual sovereignty? If not, I don't see how Islam can be compatible with liberalism, or for that matter with voluntary, uncoerced submission.

Posted by: Scott at January 11, 2004 04:14 PM

Scott, you make interesting points. Too bad you're trying to apply ideas and problems of Christianity to Islam. Try telling this to a Muslim scholar, he will nicely explain to you how those ideas fall flat on their face in Islam, we just don't have the same kinds of problems.

Muslims have a concept of Ijtehad, where we reanalyze and reapply Islamic doctrine in light of modern thought. Muslims examine how to deal with modern times, and have been doing so since the time of the Caliphs. You'll find that muslims aren't as monolithic as you think, there are many different opinions on a topic, and a Muslim is individually free to adhere to any of the rulings, whether conservative or liberal.

If you want to see an interesting application of Islam in government, go check out the Constitution of Iran. Both Islamic and representative democratic.

Posted by: Sulayman at January 19, 2004 04:59 AM

I would hardly call the Constitution of Iran, which allows an unelected, unaccountable and corrupt group of Mullahs to thwart the will of the people, to be representative or democratic.

Posted by: Bill at January 20, 2004 10:15 PM

While my fundamental disagreements with Shi'ism prevent me from endorsing the Iranian constitution, I do think it is, as Sulayman suggests interesting to consider.

Of course the obvious retort to Bill's question is Does he consider the United States to be representative or democratic?

In the U.S. system, some people's votes count more than others, the people are not trusted to directly elect the President and sometimes a candidate with less votes beats a candidate with more votes and most obviously

Federal Court judges, including supreme court judges which are unelected and specifically asked to be unaccountable, (I won't go into the 'corrupt' question), can and do routinely thwart the will of the people.

IF the people of a country declare the Qur'aan and Sunnah to be the Constitution of the country and declare any law passed contrary to those sources to be unconstitutional exactly why is that not democratic or representative, if the U.S. model of constitutional republicanism is?

Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Sorry for the grammar and formatting of the above, I thought it more important to get the comment out than to take the time to word it correctly.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 21, 2004 06:44 PM