January 27, 2004

2 Qutb 5a

When I started skimming Milestones, written by Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist theorist who has been called the "brain of Osama," I had no intention to go all the way through it. And as I've read it, I've had little desire to offer line-by-line descontructions of the work; I've coasted on a lot of shorthand here, assuming my readers would be able to follow me on the basis of my previous posts (which I haven't bothered to offer an index to, something that Zack of Procrastination has been kind enough to do). And, much as I've wanted to, I haven't had much of an opportunity to comment on either this post, the most recent in the series, or this one. So, all this rigamorole is a bit of an apology for not being more engaged in the discussion; between work, family, and the renovations of stately Ideofact manor (which are going fine, but neither Rome nor remodelled kitchen, bathrooms or basement were built in a day), I haven't had as much time as I'd like for the blog. And, full disclosure, tonight is no exception -- these are impressions more than critique, about the fifth chapter of Milestones, in which he tells us that, according to his definition, "all the societies existing in the world today are jahili," that is, they are un-Islamic (perhaps un-Islamist is a better word).

I've written before about Qutb's notions regarding jahili society -- he argues that it's the duty of Muslims to abolish any government that's not Islamist, regardless of whether that country has any Muslims in their population. There's plenty of examples of that in chapter five -- I'll quote one passage:

All idolatrous societies are also among the jahili societies. Such societies are found in India, Japan, the Philippines and Africa. Their Jahili character consists first of the fact that they believe in other gods besides God, in addition to Him or without Him; second, they have constructed an elaborate system of devotional acts to propitiate these deities. Similarly, the laws and regulations which they follow are derived from sources other than God and His Law, whether these sources be priests or astrologers or magicians, the elders of the nation, or the secular institutions which formulate laws without regard to the Law of God, and which attain absolute authority in the name of the nation or a party or on some other basis, while absolute authority belongs to God alone, and this can be brought into action only in the way shown to us by the Prophets of God.

All Jewish and Christian societies today are also jahili societies. They have distorted the original beliefs and ascribe certain attributes of God to other beings. This association with God has taken many forms, such as the Sonship of God or the Trinity, sometimes it is expressed in a concept of God which is remote from the true reality of God.

Now, leave that aside for a moment -- although it does strike me as odd that a putative reformer puts so much stress on world domination (what would one think if Luther's 95 Theses or Thomas Paine's Common Sense spent several paragraphs on the need to convert the Japanese or to overthrow the Ottoman Empire). What interested me was the theological justification Qutb offers.

In his opening section, he writes,

...the declaration of faith provides the foundation for a complete system of life for the Muslim community in all its details. This way of life cannot come into being without securing this foundation first. Similarly, if the system of life is constructed on some other foundation, or if other sources are mixed with this foundation, then that community cannot be considered Islamic. God says: 

"The command belongs to God alone. He commands you not to worship anyone except Him. This is the right way of life." (12:40) 

"Whoever obeys the Prophet obeys God" ( 4:80 ) 

Later, in explaining why Christian and Jewish societies are jahili, he writes,

These societies are Jahili also because their forms of worship their customs and manners are derived from their false and distorted beliefs. They are also jahili societies because their institutions and their laws are not based on submission to God alone. They neither accept the rule of God nor do they consider God's commandments as the only valid basis of all laws; on the contrary, they have established assemblies of men which have absolute power to legislate laws, thus usurping the right which belongs to God alone. At the time of Revelation, the Qur'an classified them among those who associate others with God, as they had given their priests and rabbis the authority to devise laws in whatever way they pleased. 

'They have taken their rabbis and priests as lords other than God, and the Messiah, son of Mary; and they were commanded to worship none but One God. There is no god but He, glory be to Him above what they associate with Him!" (5:31)

The first Qur'anic quotations seems not much different than the Commandment saying that one shall take no gods before the One God (sorry, the King James Bible -- along with all the other translations I have -- is packed away, and my memory for quotes isn't especially good). Now, one can argue that some political figures have a small core of devotedly loyal, almost cult followings, but I find it hard to believe that most people worship Presidents (let alone members of Congress, let alone state legislators, let alone county freeholders or school board members). Or, to put it another way (and taking the last Qur'anic quotation into account), can you imagine someone running for, say, mayor on the slogan, "I'm bigger than Jesus"?

Posted by Ideofact at January 27, 2004 10:55 PM


The question is not whether people would necessarily admit or choose to phrase it as them worshipping their congressmen or president.

The phrase jahili literally means ignorant. It is not assumed the common person knows that what they are doing is wrong until the message comes to them.

To a great extent, even people who physically bow down before statutes or pictures of their idols (used here literally, but also fits figuratively for music and sports heroes in the west) often claim that they do not worship these things but they are just seeking intercession with God, or these things are a means of focusing their worship of God.

The simple fact is, whether you buy that or not, the Qur'aan and the Sunnah do not buy that argument. The Qur'aan clearly describes the trinity as a shirk of the worst kind.

God then says about the Christians and the Jews:

"They took their rabbis and their monks to be their lords beside Allaah, and the Messiah, the son of Mary." Surah at-Taubah Ayah 31.

One of the Prophet's companions Adiy raised a similar question to the Prophet (saw) that you are raising now, Bill. Adiyy had been a Christian before he accepted Islaam and he told the Prophet (saw) that "We didn't worship our monks or priests"

The Prophet (saw) told him Didn't they take things which had been haraam (unlawful, forbidden) and made them halaal (lawful)? Didn't they take things which had been halaal and make them haraam? Adiyy said Yes. The Prophet (saw) said that is how you worshipped them.

So if an individual or a society allows a single person or a group of people to make something legal for them that God has made illegal or to make something forbidden for them that God has made permissible then that person has taken those people as objects of worship.

Christians were at one time allowed to have more than one wife, but certain amongst them made it forbidden for them. Christians were not permitted to deal in interest but then they decided to make it ok. Christians were not allowed to eat pork but then they made it ok. God never said that there should be a class of priests that cannot marry, but Catholics made it so. There are similar examples among the Jews.

So, indeed when your congressmen making laws according to his own whims without reference to the laws that God has given us, indeed he is saying to you vote for me Cause I am bigger than God.

At least that's the way that anyone who believes the Qur'aan and the Prophet Muhammad (saw) sees it.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 28, 2004 10:14 AM

Alright -- here are the problems in one paragraph:

Christians were at one time allowed to have more than one wife, but certain amongst them made it forbidden for them.
Actually, it's the other way around. They were by Christ told to take only one wife. Divorce and remarriage are relatively recent in the West -- though in Byzantium they tended to do it more frequently. Imitating Islamic neighbors? Certainly no Christians ever practiced polygamy other than SERIALLY instead of SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Christians were not permitted to deal in interest but then they decided to make it ok.
Depends on definitions of 'interest', 'usury', and 'o.k.'. This is also quite complicated in Islamic society.

Christians were not allowed to eat pork but then they madeit ok.
Reread the New Testament, please. Jesus's words on diet and ritual cleanliness are ambiguous (rather like the need for Hadith, the Bible is not all adequate. Without Hadith Islam is reduced to unhelpful statements like "...the declaration of faith provides the foundation for a complete system of life for the Muslim community in all its details." If that were true why hasn't it been so?). The whole Peter/Pork thing is presented in Acts as the Word of God, not as the Word of Man. So, if you're going to treat the religion fairly you have to take that into consideration.

God never said that there should be a class of priests that cannot marry, but Catholics made it so.
Only ROMAN Catholic priests are prohibited from marriage -- the Roman Catholic Church makes it clear over and over again that this is a specific discipline of the Western Church and we don't hold it against the Orthodox and the Eastern Rites that they DO have a married clergy. Protestants, of course, don't apply here. Of course, the treatment of "Christians" as one body is narrow.

Oh, well. Better information is always useful. Thanks for the literal meaning (though it doesn't sound like it's the one Qutb is using) for "jahili."

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at January 29, 2004 10:14 PM

Thanks Bill for this fascinating guided tour of Sayyid Qutb's political and spiritual ideology. It's a very important subject.

Thanks also to Abu Noor for your thoughtful and eloquent defenses of Qutb and your reflections on Bill's comments.

Qutbism poses an old problem anew for a Liberal society. A committed Qutbist cannot help but be an enemy to the ideals of such a society, if not necessarily one who employs violent means.

How should our nation (the US, in my case) treat with Qutbists who want to come here to live? Who apply to become citizens? Given the potential risks, can we welcome them? Given our own commitment to freedom of religion and of conscience, can we say, "no"?

We struggled for an answer to such questions with Communists, and earlier with the Mormons. An important issue, I think.

Posted by: AMac at January 30, 2004 12:07 AM

Abu Noor --

As for the question of intercession, my recollection is that there are traditions that the Prophet himself told the faithful to pray at graves, to ask the departed for blessings, and so on. Isn't that a form of association as bad as the Trinity?

I think if I listen to a Beatles album, or have a poster of Ringo Starr on my wall (I don't, but for the sake of argument), it doesn't mean that I'm asking Ringo Starr or the Beatles to intercede for me with God. It might mean I appreciate Starr's drumming, that I find his musicianship worthy of emulation, that I've set myself the goal of being as good a drummer as he is, but that doesn't mean that I necessarily worship him.

So you would argue that in a country whose government outlaws slavery (which God has permitted explicitly in the Qur'an, implicitly in the New Testament, and explicitly in the Old Testament), then that country's citizens worship their government?

Dr. Tinkler --

Thanks, as always, for your erudition and eloquence.

A Mac --

I owe you an email.

Posted by: Bill at February 5, 2004 01:22 AM


The Prophet (saw) NEVER told people to pray at graves or to ask the departed for blessings. I do not know what you are talking about.

One can pray to God for people who are dead. One can ask other people who are alive to pray to God for them. One cannot pray to anyone else besides God. This is the most fundamental principle of Islaam.

Some sufis engage in practices which may look to you or me like they are praying to dead saints or worshipping at graves. Of course they have an explanation for why what they are doing is not what it looks like it is. I can understand why you would think what they are doing is similar to what Christians do and that is why many Muslims (whom of course you might think to be intolerant or even insult as Wahhabis) speak against what those Sufis do and do not believe it to be from Islam.

If you have a statement from the Prophet(saw) that you really think does what you are saying then bring it, but there are none that I am aware of.

Slavery is only permissible in Islaam under certain conditions. If those conditions are not present then not only can a government choose to outlaw slavery that is outside of the Islaamic boundaries but it MUST.

As for the Ringo Starr comment, I don't really follow what you are saying. I don't believe I ever said that if you listen to a Beatles album or have a Ringo Starr poster you are worshipping Ringo Starr. If God had legislated certain music to be forbidden to listen to or had said that men and women who are not married or not related should not dance with each other and you then you said, Forget that, Ringo Starr says its okay, then you are making Ringo Starr a partner with God in that way. Or if you spent most of your time thinking about Ringo Starr, more than you spent thinking about God, or it was more important to you that you were the kind of person Ringo Starr thought was cool than that you were the kind of person that was pleasing to God then those would also be real issues.

I don't have any doubt that you would have that kind of "idol" relationship with Ringo Starr. But, although I wasn't alive at the time, it seems that there were large numbers of teen girls in the United States who did about forty years ago have a relationship that could only be termed troubling in its intensity. (I realize for most of them it probably wasn't about Ringo :)

(I also realize that for most of them it was just a phase and they are all responsible adults now as well. That previous paragraph was my feeble attempt at injecting some humor into the dialogue, although I do think there is a serious kernel of truth in there as well.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 5, 2004 01:54 PM