January 22, 2004

Qutb critique

I've had a few commenters on my Qutb entries who have defended Qutb's ideas, and suggested that some of my criticisms are unwarranted -- particularly the notion that Qutb incorporated some aspects of European totalitarian philosophies into his ideas. Needless to say, I found this lengthy critique of Qutb from a Muslim commenter of great interest. To begin with, it suggests something that I've been trying to get at and haven't been able to state with enough precision: Qutb's call for a new Islamic leadership, to which his vanguard is supposed to rally and offer its absolute loyalty, will necessarily be arbitrary. By that I mean, Islam is not monolithic; there are many variations among believers about just what the true faith means. I recall reading in a rather learned treatise by Averroes that there are parts of the Qur'an which are to be understood literally, others metaphorically, and others the meaning of which have not been revealed. But there are even more fundamental differences than that, like the interpretations of various verses that should be simple enough to understand (and in a governmental setting, must be understood; otherwise, there would be chaos). For instance, our commentator on Qutb tells us,

This socialist writer thinks of himself as a scholar of tafsir and gives wrong meanings to many ayats....

After quoting the preceding ayat, he says, "Allahu ta'ala has distributed possessions and property to the society. The society is obliged to use these possessions well. The society originally owns all possessions. Heirs [trustees] have the right to use these possessions only with the permission of the society," thus slandering Islamic religion and attempting to reform it. He struggles to inoculate the youth with his socialistic ideas under the name of tafsir.

That's a fairly fundamental difference in interpretation -- does the believer have a right to property or not? If I agree with Qutb's interpretation, but my neighbor does not, can my property be confiscated while his cannot?

One notes that the theme I've expounded upon, the European influence on Qutb's ideas (I think it has more affinities to hard Communism than soft socialism), is present in this critic as well. Then there's this, about slavery:

12) Again in his tafsir book, he says, "No rule has been mentioned in the Qur'an about making the captives slaves. Islam has eradicated slavery." Realizing that this opinion of his is wrong, he changes his tone and says, "Islam eradicated slavery, except for the legitimate captives of war, for, in those days, it was not powerful enough to force the society to admit a rule which was against the common usage." Through this absurd logic, he tries to cover his error. He cannot deny the fact that, in the year 7 A.H., Rasulullah ('alaihi 's-salam) distributed the captives which he had captivated in the Ghaza of Khaibar to his companions as slaves and jariyas and this has been practiced for centuries in Islamic states. But, as if Islam had brought rules for societies of unbelievers -he supposes so- he puts forward a very horrible idea: "Islam was not powerful enough to have its rules admitted." He could not think that this lack of power would refer to Allahu ta'ala and would cause unbelief. Whereas, Islam has not brought any rules, that is, commands and prohibitions, to unbelievers. Islamic rules are for Mulims and Muslim societies. Islam demands one single thing from unbelievers: To have iman. The reason why the zimmis have to obey muamalat is because they are counted as Muslims legally.

Our commentator obviously has a low opinion of Qutb, of whom he writes, "it will be seen that he is just an orator who brings the readers into raptures by his zealous writings, which are the natural art of a journalist or a politician. Like a broker who puts a covered treasury up for sale, he only praises Islam and, instead of opening it and exhibiting the jewels in it, he tries to hush up Islamic scholars and their books from the youth and exhibits his own ideas as religious knowledge." Our commentator adds these wonderful lines:

"There is the famous saying: 'A half-religious man will ruin one's faith; a half doctor will ruin one's body.' Recently, many ignorant people using names such as shaikh, alim or murshid have been deceiving Muslims and leading them to heresy. May Allahu ta'ala protect Muslims from believing them!"

So the theoretician of the Islamist state is regarded by this believer as a half religious man who will lead Muslims into heresy. Somehow, I doubt he would have an opportunity to, say, debate the finer points of theology with Qutb's Islamists, or publish his criticisms in a newspaper, or challenge the ruling party in an election under Qutb's system.

Posted by Ideofact at January 22, 2004 11:57 PM

While you have excerpted some of the better critique from that book, there is some really strange stuff there. The full book (unknown author) is online here (PDF version).

The verbal (and sometimes otherwise) fights between the traditionalists, like the website you quote, and the Salafis can be pretty bad. The traditionalist beliefs are full of superstition etc. and are losing ground as education, urbanization and globalization spread.

Again, that does not mean that some of the traditionalist criticism of Qutb and others is not correct. And most of what you have quoted is on target. I do have some objection to the last excerpt but right now it is really late (or early) and I am too tired. I'll return later to complete my thoughts.

Posted by: Zack at January 23, 2004 04:56 AM

Bill and others,

Here is a 'modernist' Muslim commentator -- U.S. academic Muqtedar Khan who argues that Sayyid Qutb can be viewed as the John Locke of the Muslim world. I think it might be interesting for you. I have many disagreements with Dr. Khan, but I think he might be speaking your language a little more than me.

The article is called "Liberal Islam, Radical Islam, and American Foreign Policy" and is available at Dr. Khan's website www.ijtihad.org


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 23, 2004 10:19 AM


I think quoting someone whom you would disagree with about most issues just because he disagrees with Qutb is a tricky thing.

If your only point is that not all Muslims agree with Sayyid Qutb about everything than the point is taken and conceded.

I have not read this whole book you refer to and I can't seem to find the name of the author (that's a big red flag there for me so if you know who it is please let me know) but the book seems to be one of the genre of Qutb bashers who are really nitpickers who blow up minor issues and poorly worded sentences to say things that Qutb didn't believe which can be easily gathered from reading all of his works in totality.

Of course Muslims disagree about the application of Islamic law. Of course Sayyid Qutb made mistakes.

My question to you is: Why do you think it is so much worse for a government ruling based on its interpretation of Qur'aan and Sunnah enacting a policy I don't necessarily agree with than Saddam Hussein or King Hussein or even the Iraqi people in some imagined future democracy enacting a policy that I don't like and agree with and enforcing it on me. You seem to insinuate that no other governments force people to follow what they say is the law.

Look at France. Even in the U.S. courts and legislatures debate and rule about what extent people have private property rights and police with guns enforce the opinion that the ruling force arrives at against those who would disagree.

I realize that you think allowing a democratic process to arrive at the majority view is more legitimate to you than a minority view. But I would rather have a sincere person trying to figure out what God wants than everyone trying to figure out what is best for them and the majority prevailing. Of course if my sincere person or group of scholars is corrupt then there is trouble. I think corruption is an issue everywhere and do not feel that democracies are immune from it or even that in most cases democracies truly reflect the will of the people. Unless it is a will which is formed by news media corportations and public school systems and television advertising that tell people how to think and then present a choice between Republicans and Democrats.

Well, I got to go....hopefully I can give some more thoughts later.

Again, thanks for the discussion Bill. I hope my enthusiasm for my viewpoint does not come across as angry or condescending towards you or others in the discussion. Because I am sure it sometimes does, I ask all of you to forgive me.

And God almighty knows best.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 23, 2004 10:35 AM

Abu Noor, I don't think you ever come across as condescending, and thank you for all your effort in commenting here.

I want to write a longer post on the subject tonight, if possible (the big day for home renovations is tomorrow, and I'm home today clearing out the rooms that will be, well, pretty much demolished tomorrow), but my points were twofold. One is the obvious disagreement between the unknown author and Qutb, the second that Qutb interprets the Qur'an to bring it into line with his socialist ideas.

A third, more important point, is this one: How is one to determine what God's laws are? Qutb's system is totalitarian in nature, meaning that a self-appointed Muslim leadership would decide what is right and what is wrong. I believe Sulayman commented that the Iranian Constitution combines representative democracy with an Islamist government, and I objected. To give one example of how this doesn't work out, the Iranian leadership supports groups like Hizbollah which target Israeli women and children as a matter of policy. Many Muslims who think it perfectly legitimate to oppose Israel's existence nevertheless believe that suicide bombing, and the targetting of women of children in the process, goes against everything the Qur'an stands for. Average Iranians are powerless, however, to prevent their government from supporting groups that perpetrate these outrages and that, not coincidentally, render Iran a pariah state.

So what do you do if there's no peaceful means to change leaders who have gone off the rails?

Zack, I'm looking forward to your comments, and Abu Noor, I'll also check out the modernist Muslim's take on Qutb -- should be interesting.

Posted by: Bill at January 23, 2004 12:55 PM

Oh, and one other note -- yes, I should have noted somewhere that I didn't agree with or endorse the commenter's ideas, and was only quoting them to point out the variation. Sorry about that...

Posted by: Bill at January 23, 2004 12:57 PM


As to whether Qutb intreprets the Qur'aan to bring it into line with his socialist ideas.

1st, I don't think Qutb had socialist ideas. One could say that Qutb, either because of his environment and life experience, or because of his own personal inclination, emphasized certain aspects of Islaam.

He emphasized the egalitarian nature of the Qur'aanic worldview, the anti-tyranny message of the Qur'aan, and these led to his emphasizing the Qur'aan as prescribing a just political order where humans were free from submission to other humans or man made laws and equal to each other in their submission to God.

Now, other than the submission to God part one may see some similar concepts in Socialist/Communist thought but I don't think one can deny that they have always been part of Islaamic thought and are objectively present in the Qur'aan and the example of the Prophet (saw).

People have differed with Qutb. The main critiques from within Islaam have criticized the extent to which Qutb emphasized politics. They complain that he made one's government into a more important issue than one's theology and worship. As you know from reading Qutb, Bill, what he actually did was view them as being the same thing. He spent a lot of his writing trying to back up that claim. Obviously he succeeded to my satisfaction and that of many others.

In some ways, it could be seen by outsiders as a 'liberation theology' for Muslims. I don't know enough about liberation theology to comment on that, but I do think that this political aspect of Islaam has clearly always been present (going back at least to the Prophet Moses) so I would disagree with any claim that it was invented by Qutb.

The other criticism of Qutb gets to your point about the how one determines which Islamic law the State would enforce (that is, whose interpretation).

Qutb anticipates (or perhaps he heard it from others in Egypt during his lifetime) the critique of those who may suggest that they agree with him in principle but don't see how the system he is calling for would work in practice. Those who want details of how one would develop a traffic code or health safety regulations based on the Qur'aan (in addition to issues like the details of the political system -- how the ruler would be chosen, etc.) Qutb responds to it by laying out foundatiounal principles and intentionally avoiding detailed discussions. In fact, he argues that to do such would be against the Islaamic method. Perhaps I am getting a little ahead of myself into the future chapters of Milestones.

Let me say something about this issue of difference of opinion in intrepreting Islaamic law. As I tried to point out in my above post, I don't exactly see how the problems of differing intrepretations of Islamic law render that system impractical while at the same time there is no doubt that difference of intrepretation in the English common law or French Civil Code traditions are both well known.

There is an extremely highly developed science of intrepreting Islamic law called Usul al Fiqh. As in other legal traditions certain "schools of thought" with differences on lesser points of methodology developed in Islaamic history. These are known as madhabs in Arabic. Of course, even amongst those of the same school, there may be different opinions on a particular issue. In general Islaam acknowledges the importance of these different views and allows people to follow the opinion of their choice in personal matters.

If the issue is a public matter such as criminal law or commercial law or zakaat, etc. then obviously there is a need for one public policy for one law to be enacted. During the ideal period of Islaamic history, the Caliph chose one of the opinions which he thought most correct and that became the law of the land. Islamic legal scholars were free to personally disagree that that was the correct opinion but they were expected to follow the law unless it commanded them to do something like worship another God.

So, Islamic scholars could present their advice to the ruler (who ideally should be a scholar himself) about whether to support a group which may engage in killing of 'civilian' occupiers (I put quotes on civilian not necessarily to say they are not civilians but just to point out that that is the issue about which some differ and the question in many ways turns) and the ruler would end up making a decision about what he felt was the strongest opinion. Then, you're right the funds of the state would go towards what the ruler designated them to even if some disagreed with it.

From the perspective of a non-Muslim like yourself Bill, why do you find that so much more objectionable than U.S. taxpayer money going to support the government of Israel or to bombing Iraq despite the fact that many U.S. taxpayers such as myself may feel such policies are unwise, immoral and even criminal.

I know I didn't quite flesh out the points the way I had in my mind to when I started this, but I also realized that many of these issues are addressed more fully by Qutb in the coming chapters of Milestones. I don't know if you are intending at this time to blog all of them. Obviously I hope you do and I especially hope that you read all of them if you have not already.

I hope the home renovations go well, the mere thought of destroying rooms scares me since everytime I try to just re arrange my book collection I end up making a horrible mess from which my apartment never really recovers.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 23, 2004 06:03 PM

I just realize I didn't get to the final point directly about what to do if there's no peaceful means to change leaders who've gone off the rails.

I don't intend to discuss it now for lack of time but I do think it is a vitally important and interesting topic in Islamic political theory which is of course especially relevant to Sayyid Qutb and to the different intrepretations various groups in the Muslim world have had about his writings, almost always centering around this very issue.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 23, 2004 06:07 PM

Your comment on my weblog reminded me that I had promised you futher comment here. Unfortunately, I seem to have completely lost my train of thought.

Regarding Qutb, I do think you are correct that he borrowed from Western thought, including communist and totalitarian ideas. However, I am not sure that is such a big deal in itself. After all, Qutb was also following in the tradition of the neorevivalist thought in Islam that was becoming more important at the time and has a long history.

What is interesting is what kind of state he proposed and who he considered a good Muslim and who was assigned to "jahiliyya." It is there that Qutb falters big time. While in setting out his plans or ideas there, he does borrow from some of the nasty ideas from the West, he's not the first to do so.

About the criticism of Qutb from the unnamed authors of that book online, I am not impressed. It's a bad polemic and represents elements of the traditionalists who I have no prblem seeing going into oblivion with time.

As a final thought, it might not be reasonable to expect someone like Qutb to respect human rights, democracy and liberalism. There are other scholars, even somewhat conservative ones (that might not be the right word; may be neorevivalist is better), who have at least synthesized modern liberal thought with Islam.

May be I should try to comment here at reasonable hours, since I don't seem to be making much sense.

And I am looking forward to the rest of the series on Milestones.

Posted by: Zack at January 27, 2004 02:23 AM