February 23, 2004

Blogging in the shade of Qutb

I was going to continue the series on Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones tonight, perhaps exploring further with the theme of urbanization and sexuality discussed in the last entry. (I was going to make a comparison to a passage I believe I read in The Peasants of Languedoc. I'll write that post eventually, but I wanted to stand back for a moment, to consider why I've spent so much time writing about Qutb, to provide some sort of account of my intentions.

I've mentioned this before, but I'll do so again: A few months after Sept. 11, a few weeks before the Taliban were toppled, I heard a fairly prominent journalist deliver some remarks on the state of politics, the war, and so on. He castigated the American government for shallowness in its dealings with the Taliban, and said something to the effect that he didn't see U.S. officials reading the Qur'an, and if you wanted to understand the Taliban (or al Qaeda or bin Laden), you had to understand the Qur'an. I was repulsed by the statement; it seemed to me that the government had a far better grasp of what lay behind Sept. 11 than this reporter, who, I presume, would also suggest that if one wanted to understand Timothy McVeigh, who quoted Thomas Jefferson's line about the tree of liberty needing to be watered with blood, it was necessary to study the ideas of the sage of Monticello.

Beyond that, to understand the Qur'an is no easy thing. Given the wide range of beliefs and theologies that Muslims held and hold, it is fair to say that there is as diverse a range of opinion about the Qur'an as there is among Christians about the Bible. There are something like one billion Muslims in the world; if it were their religious duty to share the Taliban's murderous ideology or bin Laden's nihilism, the world would be in for considerably more bloodshed than we've seen to date. It strikes me as absurdly unnecessary to point out that this is not the case.

Sayyid Qutb has been described as the "brains of Osama," the creator of the basic narrative which bin Laden follows (Qutb's brother, Muhammad, tutored bin Laden). I started blogging on Social Justice in Islam on paleo ideofact (Zack of Procrastination has been kind enough to index the posts, as has Aziz at Unmedia), and have now launched into Milestones, which I think I'm about half way through. I've also tried to follow the excerpts that ArabNews.com publishes of In the Shade of the Qur'an, Qutb's epic work of Qur'anic exegisis, but the fragments published give little sense of how the whole work hangs together (see here and here for examples). All this is a roundabout way of saying my knowledge of Qutb is limited to what I've read by him and what I've read, in a handful of works, about him.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that A few ideas worth summing up from various posts: Qutb divides the world into Jahliyya, the state of ignorance that prevailed in pre-Islamic Arabia, and the Islamic state. It's interesting to note that Qutb labels as Jahliyya every state in existence at the time he wrote Milestones, as well as all the historical ones, save the Islamic realm under the Prophet and the first four rightly guided caliphs. Qutb thus rejects the fruits of Islamic civilization's golden age -- when Muslim polities stretched from Spain to India -- as inauthentic. For example, he considers Avicenna and Averroes to be primarily Greek philosophers, not Islamic philosophers with an interest in Greek authors, and argued in Social Justice in Islam that their works and legacy should be excluded from Muslim schools.

I could go on, but I've written much of this before. The problem with blogging, and particularly exchanges in comments on blogs, is that it's easy to lose one's thread, to confuse writing about Qutb with writing about Islam (particularly when some commenters assume the two are the same thing). It is not my intention to critique a faith, but rather to delve into the ideas of someone who argues that he speaks for that faith.

I've been reading the very uneven work Islam & Jihad: Prejudice Versus Reality by A. G. Noorani. He approvingly quotes Karen Armstrong, who contrasts Qutb's rhetoric of force with Islamic tradition and practice:

Qutb's vision of exclusion and separation goes against this accepting tolerance. The Koran categorically and with great emphasis insisted that "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith." Qutb qualified this; there could only be toleration after the political victory of Islam and the establishment of a true Muslim state.

She adds, "By making jihad central to the Muslim vision, Qutb had in fact distorted the Prophet's life."

I'm interested largely in those distortions, and their consequences.

Posted by Ideofact at February 23, 2004 11:55 PM