February 02, 2004

2 Qutb 7a

Reading Qutb is a dreary business. Over the weekend, while my wife shopped for furniture, I got to entertain the five year old. One stop was our favorite bookstore; he picked a few books on his favorite subjects, which include ghosts, pirates and mummies. I bought George Bernard Shaw's Caesar & Cleopatra. I already had a copy of it -- the one my father bought when he was in college, complete with his doodles on the back cover -- but it's falling apart and packed away during the ongoing renovations here at stately ideofact manor, and I'd been thinking a lot about Shaw lately.

I won't try to say anything profound about Shaw here; I will say that both his Caesar and his Cleopatra seem as real to me as people I know; Shaw evokes both middle age and the first bloom of maturity with equal panache.

I thought of Shaw in part because Qutb quotes him approvingly in Social Justice in Islam; Shaw, a committed socialist, wrote approvingly of the duty Islam imposes on the faithful to care for the poor and the elderly of society. I somehow doubt Shaw would have cared for much of the Shariah. I can offer a few quotes to back this up, although regrettably, not until the home renovations are completed and I can unpack my books.

I thought of Shaw when reading the first two paragraphs of the seventh chapter of Qutb's Milestones. (Be forewarned -- in the seventh chapter, we get the first mention of America, a plea for the institution of Shariah to prevent the twin scourges of flirting and stewardesses, and much else. I'm absolutely not promising anything, but we may go from a to d, just on the seventh chapter...)

Qutb, who quotes Shaw so approvingly -- the very same Shaw who no doubt saw in Islam as a useful tool for the advocacy of his pet political program -- begins this chapter (well, actually it's the second paragraph) by writing,

The Islamic society is not one in which people call themselves 'Muslims' but in which the Islamic law has no status, even though prayer, fasting and Hajj are regularly observed; and the Islamic society is not one in which people invent their own version of Islam, other than what God and His Messenger-peace be on him-have prescribed and explained, and call it, for example, 'progressive Islam'.

Shaw was certainly not espousing progressive Islam, or Islam proper for that matter. Odd that Qutb nevertheless cites him in Social Justice. Shaw was, however, interested in progress, something which Qutb eschews altogether.

Posted by Ideofact at February 2, 2004 11:55 PM

Hi Bill,

I'm not very good at formulating my thoughts, so please forgive my incoherence:

It seems that the predominant metaphor in Islam is the master slave relationship, between Allah and mankind, between men and women, between leaders and masses, and literally masters and slaves (also tribes and tribe members, parents and children though I don't know how much is due to Islam and how much is due to culture). Perhaps that is why Qutb has so little regard for human creativity, that anything we humans can think of has to be cleared by Allah first and is suspect in any case. He is convinced that Islam has all the answers to everything, and I think it is due to being too entrenched in that metaphor. Otherwise, he could have hypothesized that Allah only specified issues that humans could not figure out for themselves but everything else is left to discretion of humans. That would have opened the doors of modernity to Muslims a lot sooner, but somehow this master slave metaphor doesn't permit this kind of thinking because slaves aren't allowed creativity or discretion. His fallacy, imo, is assuming anything not in Islam is forbidden by Allah as "innovation"--innovation having negative connotation in Arabic.

BTW, can you recommend some good children's stories for my little one. All the books I see are commercial tie-ins or super-sanitized to the point that they don't make sense. Any good books for adults that are not over my head would be appreciated too.

Posted by: Mahsheed at February 3, 2004 02:15 PM

Mahsheed --

Important things first -- how old is your little one? Feel free to email me about this. I'm not an expert on children's literature by any means, but my sister is an expert in early education and a great fan of kids' books; I'd be happy to ask her for recommendations. The same goes for recommendations for you, but be forewarned, my tastes are eclectic and often obscure.

Regarding innovation in Islam, that actually sounds closer to Wahhab than to Qutb. My main objections to Qutb are that he prefers rule by the few. I'm not sure that that's supported by either Islamic history or theology; the Prophet did not specify a kind of government that should follow him, and the rightly guided Caliphs were chosen by acclamation of the faithful -- that is, a sort of election. I think classical Islam offers the same elements of a more liberal society that medieval England did -- an independent judiciary, an executive, and a legislative body (the Shoura). I also think Islam, with its stress on the dignity of individual believers and the equality of all soul's before God -- even the man in the most abject poverty is worthy in God's eyes if he is moral -- requires the same sort of political equality that we see in the West. Again, Qutb isn't so much rejecting Western democracy as he is saying that average Muslims -- his fellow Egyptians, or Jordanians or Persians or Indonesians -- are incapable of ruling themselves because they would do harm to Islam. And I think that's -- well, I'm restrained by my insistence on keeping this a G-rated blog, so let's say I think that's a bunch of hooey...

Posted by: Bill at February 5, 2004 01:08 AM


I don't think the question is how the ruler is chosen. I agree that there may not be a problem with elections of leadership and of course consent of the governed to their leadership is a fundamental principle of Islaam.

However, the bigger issue than who will be the President or Prime Minister or Khaleefah and how he is chosen is what the state will rule by. It has to be Islaamic law (which of course leaves room for people to do what they think is best in many areas of life, but also reserves some very important realms and issues in which God has already decided and has not left room for our desires, even if we can form a majority.

I am not sure why you assume Qutb wanted rule by the few -- as you mentioned the mechanics of government is something he was not at all specific about, it was the fundamental principle that mattered to him.

So this is why I think many times Islam and Democracy discussions talk past each other. I think democracy could be understood either as meaning the people have a right to choose their leaders, which is part of Islaam, and/or it can be used to mean that the people should be absolutely sovereign and therefore able to make any law that they wish through their representatives. This is what conflicts with the Islamic principle which clearly states that God is the lawgiver and to give unbridled authority in that area to humans would be to set up partners with God, the worst of sins in the Islaamic worldview.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 5, 2004 01:33 PM

Thanks for helping me out. I sent you an email.
Interestingly enough, I am reading a book about psychopaths called "Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us". It says in this book that psychopaths are attracted to positions of power where they can use their authority to dominate others. Religious organizations are of particular interest to them because they can exploit others under the guise of religious moral authority. I think that the Islamic system that Qutb sets up would be an even more ideal environment for psychopaths to rise to the top. How can the people get rid of such a leader, when their needs can be discounted as mere human whims counter to God's will; they can be chastised for not being true believers and being unwilling to sacrifice for God's cause. I see your point.

Abu Noor, I think Qutb is specifically against democracy because the will of the people (collective majority) is counter to God's will. The Iranian government put that to practice and there is a supreme leader and guardian council that vetoes democratic decisions that are deemed unislamic. The supreme leader is not elected by the people, the leadership is passed on by the previous leader.

Posted by: Mahsheed at February 5, 2004 06:51 PM


Although some of the problems you mentioned would exist under any Islaamic government, some are the result of the peculiarities of Shi'i Islam and its concept of clergy.

There is no clergy in Sunni Islaam, and I, not being a Shi'i don't really understand how their clergy system works.

In a Sunni Islaamic State, the role of the Guardian council would likely be played by some sort of supreme court which could veto decisions taken by the "people" or the government which were un-Islamic. This is undemocratic, true, but the U.S. courts also have the ability to veto actions of the legislature or executive which it determines to be unconstitutional.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 6, 2004 12:22 PM

Yes, but the U.S. Supreme Court is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Supreme Court Justices can be impeached. And Supreme Court rulings can be overturned by amending the Constitution.

There are mechanisms, in other words, that hold the court accountable.

Posted by: Bill at February 6, 2004 03:09 PM


Are you suggesting that the Supreme Court is supposed to be politically accountable? Of course I know that it is in practice, but I thought the whole point of life tenure for federal court judges was that they were not supposed to answer to the other branches. And isn't that why FDR's courtpacking scheme was a "constitutional crisis." And impeachment is not supposed to be for disagreements about decisions or even plainly "wrong" decisions but is for personal wrongdoing.

So, in theory I don't agree that the Supreme Court is supposed to be politically accountable. OF course it is necessary and inevitable that it is practically accountable but so would a court in an Islaamic state. Those Judges would also have to be appointed by someone and would also realize there would be no point in issuing orders which no one would follow, so they would have to maintain their credibility.

You're right -- in theory the big difference is that there is no amendment of the Qur'aan and Sunnah.

So if the criticism of Islaamic government comes down to that in an Islaamic government there is no right to change the Qur'aan or override it with a 2/3 vote, then I come down on the side of Islaamic government and so do most Muslims, as far as I can tell.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 9, 2004 10:05 AM

Abu Noor,

Did I write that the Supreme Court should be held politically accountable? I'm sure you'd agree that there are other ways in which one can be held to account.

In the context of Mahsheed's comments and your response, I was only pointing out that the Supreme Court is not the ultimate authority; any Supreme Court decision can be overturned by means of amending the Constitution.

As for whether a two-thirds majority could throw out portions of the Qur'an -- please advise me where I can find the Shariah in the Qur'an.

Posted by: Bill at February 9, 2004 02:02 PM