February 11, 2004

2 Qutb 7c

I begin to wonder whether the translation of Sayyid Qutb's Milestones is authentic, or whether it's been revised to bring it up to date. In the seventh chapter of the work, after establishing that those Muslim countries which have secular religions are in fact jahila -- in a state of ignorance -- and hence, uncivilized -- he turns to an exposition of why the ideal Islamic state -- which does not exist -- is civilized. And that reason, oddly enough, is the family.

I wish I knew Arabic -- I don't, so these remarks are provisional at best. The Latin etymology of the word "civilization" refers to living in cities; when I was an undergraduate, and took a fair number of anthropology and archaeology courses, I recall that human cultures were divided into various categories, ranging from nomadic hunters & collectors to sedentary agriculturists to complex urban (or "civilized") societies with divisions of labor, a literate clerical class, and so on. I think social structures overlay some of these divisions -- bands for the hunters & collectors, tribes and chieftans for the agriculturalists (who enjoyed some specialization) and kings for the city dwellers. It's worth noting that there was an impetus to urbanization among the first generations of Muslims; to some extent, the nomadic practices of the Arabic tribes were linked to Jahiliyyah.

But Qutb doesn't write about cities; he writes about families.

Again, my lack of Arabic may be the cause of my confusion -- perhaps the word translated as "civilization" would better be translated as culture or morality.

In any case, Qutb's critique of the West gave me pause, and led to my questioning whether the work has been revised to take into account new information. Milestones was originally published in 1964 (I believe Qutb was in prison at that point); it may well have been written some years before that. But I found it odd that he wrote,

In all modern jahili societies, the meaning of 'morality' is limited to such an extent that all those aspects which distinguish man from animal are considered beyond its sphere. In these Societies, illegitimate sexual relationships, even homosexuality, are not considered immoral. ...

Among jahili societies, writers, journalists and editors advise both married and unmarried people that free sexual relationships are not immoral. However, it is immoral if a boy uses his partner, or a girl uses her partner, for sex, while feeling no love in his or her heart. It is bad if a wife continues to guard her chastity while her love for her husband has vanished; it is admirable if she finds another lover. Dozens of stories are written about this theme; many newspaper editorials, articles, cartoons, serious and light columns all invite to this way of life.

Leave aside Iran's temporary marriage arrangements, and consider that this is 1964, at the latest, we're talking about. What society, anywhere on the earth, tolerated homosexuality? Where were the columns suggesting boys and girls having sex is okay as long as they love one another? Speaking from my American circumstances, I can recall that the sitcom Three's Company, which premiered some time in the late 1970s, was considered risque because a man shared an apartment with two women and pretended to be gay. Despite the characters' platonic relationship, the show was shocking. I vaguely recall a controversy over an Ann Landers or Dear Abby column approving of premarital sex, but that was in the early or mid-1990s.

In any case, Qutb raises the West only after he has defined the proper type of family:

If the family is the basis of the society, and the basis of the family is the division of labor between husband and wife, and the upbringing of children is the most important function of the family, then such a society is indeed civilized. In the Islamic system of life, this kind of a family provides the environment under which human values and morals develop and grow in the new generation; these values and morals cannot exist apart from the family unit. If, on the other hand, 97 free sexual relationships and illegitimate children become the basis of a society, and if the relationship between man and woman is based on lust, passion and impulse, and the division of work is not based on family responsibility and natural gifts; if woman's role is merely to be attractive, sexy and flirtatious, and if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children; and if, on her own or under social demand, she prefers to become a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company, thus spending her ability for material productivity rather than in the training of human beings, because material production is considered to be more important, more valuable and more honorable than the development of human character, then such a civilization is 'backward' from the human point of view, or 'jahili' in the Islamic terminology.

The family system and the relationship between the sexes determine the whole character of a society and whether it is backward or civilized, jahili or Islamic. Those societies which give ascendance to physical desires and animalistic morals cannot be considered civilized, no matter how much progress they may make in industry or science. This is the only measure which does not err in gauging true human progress.

These comments remind me of an unjust line from Flaubert's philosophical dictionary (at least I think it was Flaubert -- my books remain inaccessible as the home renovations continue). He defined "Koran" as a Muslim book about women.

Yesterday, I quoted Nawal's impassioned response to the controversy over women smoking shisha; she wrote, "I have my whole life in front of me. I have always been taught not to limit my potential." Qutb is telling her to limit her potential. An odd thought: for him, perhaps it all comes down to sex, a subject I'll explore in the next post in this series.

Posted by Ideofact at February 11, 2004 10:54 PM

It's possible that Qutb was confusing countercultural mores for general societal mores. There was a great deal of pro-libertine and pro-homosexual attitudes in the beatnik circles, throughout the postwar period. I think he spent some time in American university circles in the late 40s or early 50s?

Posted by: Mitch H. at February 12, 2004 09:07 AM


Not sure I'd agree, although for a while I assumed this to be the case. But check out what Qutb had to say about that center of the counterculture, the church social. (Warning: it's a blogger post, so it might not actually be there, although it's working now).

Posted by: Bill at February 13, 2004 12:33 AM

Ooh, ouch. Yeah, that's nuts. Unless somebody took Qutb to some sort of deranged Beatnik Baptist church I've never heard of... Any idea where Lewis got the passage he was paraphrasing?

Posted by: Mitch H. at February 13, 2004 08:32 AM

I'll try to check. It's not in any of the Qutb stuff I've read, but I've only read a tiny fraction, and the guy was prolific. Unfortunately, all my books are packed away while we renovate parts of our house. I'll swing by a Borders and see if Lewis provides a reference.

Posted by: Bill at February 13, 2004 10:41 AM


While you or I may disagree with particular views of Qutb regarding woman's role in family, what Qutb is basically arguing is that it is more important and more beneficial for a woman to spend her time raising a family than in some low level commercial activity.

This should be obvious to anyone, and I really wonder about those who would really think that it is more important to serve strangers drinks on a plane than to raise one's own child.

The idea of temporary marriage which exists among the Shi'a is yet another anomaly of this sect's misguidance. 90% of Muslims realize that this is nothing but adultery and do not permit or sanction it in any way. This is not meant as a prejudiced or bigoted insult of Shi'a but just a factual statement regarding how the Sunni Muslims of the world view this issue.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 13, 2004 10:49 AM

Abu Noor,

I believe Qutb has objected to the idea of any woman working anywhere, independent of the question of her having children. In Social Justice in Islam, he also objected to women being reporters, which is not exactly a low level menial position (I also think stewardesses, who require some special training and do a good deal more than serve drinks, are not exactly earning minimum wage).

Not every woman wants to have children, and some women are infertile. What option does Qutb leave open to them?

Regarding the Iran example I cited, you are no doubt right that it's a Shi'a phenomenon. The Sunni Islamists have a much more humane solution to the problems of sex. Sa'id Hawwa, a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, suggested that if marriage is impossible for a young man, it is permissible for him to have sex with his female slave. I suspect that's not an option in Syria today, but in the Qutbtopia, well, it's all covered by the Sharia...

Posted by: Bill at February 13, 2004 12:29 PM