June 07, 2004

2 Qutb 8e

It's been awhile since I last wrote about Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones (the whole series can be found here). I've enjoyed the respite, and I was thinking of giving up Qutb altogether, but the brain of Osama, as he was once called, remains a popular search term in the referrer logs, the Cranky Professor has honored me (I think) with the label "difficult blog" for the effort, and frankly, there's a bit of a fascination reading Qutb that I can't quite explain. So let's return to the eighth chapter of Milestones, in which Qutb explains that whenever he hears the words "non-Islamic culture," he thinks of the "tricks of world Jewry".

Qutb is faced with something of a dilemma. The fruits of technology, of the scientific revolution, and of manufacturing have disproportionately been developed by and have benefited those of us living in the Jahiliyyah (the term had traditionally been used to distinguish the pre-Islamic, pagan Arabic time from the period of the revelation of the Qur'an; Qutb's major innovation was to apply the term to all non-Muslim societies and to all Muslim societies that weren't governed according to his liking -- that is, all of them from the death of the last of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs in the 7th century AD). Qutb explains the phenomenon thusly:

One ought to remember the fact that the experimental method, which is the dynamic spirit of modern Europe's industrial culture, did not originate in Europe but originated in the Islamic universities of Andalusia and of the East. The principle of the experimental method was an offshoot of the Islamic concept and its explanations of the physical world, its phenomena, its forces and its secrets. Later, by adopting the experimental method, Europe entered into the period of scientific revival, which led it step by step to great scientific heights. Meanwhile, the Muslim world gradually drifted away from Islam, as a consequence of which the scientific movement first became inert and later ended completely. Some of the causes which led to this state of inertia were internal to the Muslim society and some were external, such as the invasions of the Muslim world by the Christians and Zionists. Europe removed the foundation of Islamic belief from the methodology of the empirical sciences, and finally, when Europe rebelled against the Church, which in the name of God oppressed the common people, it deprived the empirical sciences of their Islamic method of relating them to God's guidance.

Thus the entire basis of European thought became jahili and completely estranged from the Islamic concept, and even became contradictory and conflicting with it. It is necessary for a Muslim, therefore, to return to the guidance of God in order to learn the Islamic concept of life- on his own, if possible, or otherwise to seek knowledge from a God-fearing Muslim whose piety and faith are reliable.

This is, to say the least, an interesting reading of history -- its brevity is such that we should dismiss it out of hand as serious analysis (I don't know what Europe rebelling "against the Church" means -- the Protestant Reformation? -- hardly an irreligious movement -- the Enlightenment? -- with its emphasis on freedom of religious conscience -- Darwin?). What interests me are the two things Qutb blames for the decline of Islamic science (which was formidable in the theoretical realm, but never as dynamic as Europe when it came to technological innovation): 1. Turning away from Islam. 2. Christians and Jews.

I've noted before a quote from the late Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia, in which he wrote,

Around the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D., Islamic theology split to assume two aspects: (1) as the dogmatic and formally rational theology of kalam and (2) as a speculative theology of sufism. Later on, theology will monopolize the entire area of metaphysics and even of cosmogony, denying the right to free research of the cosmos and nature. This way of thinking condemned Islam to scientific and political stagnation.

Neither Qutb or Izetbegovic offers an entirely satisfactory explanation for the decline, but it's worth comparing them. For Izetbegovic, metaphysics and the natural sciences are areas that should not be forced to conform to the theological preconceptions -- why bother to ask questions if you already know the answers. For Qutb, the opposite holds -- metaphysics is off limits, and the natural sciences must be carefully circumscribed -- one can study them "as long as these last- mentioned sciences limit themselves to practical experiments and their results, and do not go beyond their scope into speculative philosophy." Qutb cites Darwin as an example of what must be avoided:

Darwinist biology goes beyond the scope of its observations, without any rhyme or reason and only for the sake of expressing an opinion, in making the assumption that to explain the beginning of life and its evolution there is no need to assume a power outside the physical world.

Obviously, Western science has proceeded with that assumption in many realms beyond evolution. But a more interesting question to me is how Qutb knows about Darwin. He offers a hint:

The person who is writing these lines has spent forty years of his life in reading books and in research in almost all aspects of human knowledge. He specialized in some branches of knowledge and he studied others due to personal interest. Then he turned to the fountainhead of his faith. He came to feel that whatever he had read so far was as nothing in comparison to what he found here. He does not regret spending forty years of his life in the pursuit of these sciences, because he came to know the nature of Jahiliyyah, its deviations, its errors and its ignorance, as well as its pomp and noise, its arrogant and boastful claims. Finally, he was convinced that a Muslim cannot combine these two sources-the source of Divine guidance and the source of Jahiliyyah - for his education .

Sayyid Qutb was hardly the first to dabble in foreign books and conclude that his own faith provided far more sustenance. But there's a bit of "Do as I say, not as I do," in his argument that no other Muslim should attempt what he has.

Posted by Ideofact at June 7, 2004 11:49 PM


You're right on the last point, which I actually have been meaning to write to you about for a long time, that Qutb himself was well read in non-Islamic and even Western writings before he turned his focus completely to the Qur'an in the last stage of his life.

In fact, it has always been interesting to me that while Muslim and non-Muslim critics of Wahhabism or Islamism often like to blame the fact that most prominent Islamist are trained in the hard sciences for their "extremism" and their lack of "humanist values" as the critics see them.
What is interesting is that the man who they claim pioneered this doctrine intellectually (Qutb) was someone whose academic background was in literature and education, and not the hard sciences.

As for Europe turning away from the church, Qutb is referring to the Englightenment primarily, as far as I can tell. The fact that the Enlightenment may have supported freedom of religious conscience has nothing to do with the point that Qutb is making, that is that European thinkers no longer felt constrained to see their thinking, from philosophy to scientific experiments, in the context of the assumed and strongly felt beliefs in the Creator and revelation, but whatever their 'personal' beliefs about the Creator may have been decided that their intellectual endeavors should proceed based on material evidence without regard to whether it conflicted with beliefs about God.

Of course, from the perspective of say, today's Europe or a completely materialist scientist of today, these thinkers were still profoundly religious/spiritual, but from the perspective of where Europe had been and from the perspective of the Islamic belief, they were already well on their way to materialism.

It is interesting to note on this issue, as Qutb points out parenthetically, that Muslim thinkers are often conflicted about how to respond to this movement since we are sympathetic to their rejection of the Catholic Church and their view of the Christian Bible as it exists now as not being reliably revelation. So, we are sympathetic to their need to rebel against the corruptions of their own faith, of course to us the answer would have been for them to turn to Islam.

Getting back to the original point about Qutb's "Do as I say, not as I do" I've always read Qutb to be saying not necessarily don't read anything other than Islamic texts, but emphasizing the fact that these texts (revelation) produce the highest form of knowledge and truth, and the only kind that is completely reliable. Therefore, any other truths or philosophies or understandings one might obtain from other sources need to be checked against revelation and can only be accepted if they are consistent with it.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at June 8, 2004 11:11 AM


I also think there is actually a deeper point here which I find more resonance with at my current age at which I am still "young" but I'm old enough to already look back and things I believed when I was younger and see them as being misguided.

Almost all of us in our life, especially if we have been serious students or have been involved in movements to change society, have had profoundly and deeply held beliefs and have had ways of expressing those beliefs and trying to apply them to society.

For some of us, our deeply held beliefs themselves have changed gradually over a long period of time or dramatically due to a certain trauma. For almost all of us, our ways of expressing those beliefs have been almost constantly evolving, often in ways that are not always clear to us at the time but only in retrospect. Like when we find something we wrote from ten years ago and look upon ourselves with some kind of contempt or at least bemused sympathy for how superficial we were.

Often we look back on our experience and when we try to advise people we might say, Look I've been through what you're going through I did that and that and read that and that and in the end I think you're going to find that this position (where I am at now) is much more sophisticated, most more beneficial, and is where you should be at.

At the same time, the more mature person may not regret what they went through because they feel they learned a lot and it got them to where they are today.

So the question becomes for the youngster taking advice, should I just accept what my elder is telling me or do I have to go through the same experiences myself and learn what I have to learn personally. Maybe I'll agree with him or her ten years from now and maybe not, but I have to go through it myself.

I am resisting the temptation here to give examples because this post is already so long, but I can give some if you don't understand the phenomenon I'm talking about.

I am not sure what the answer to that question is, although I'm sure its probably somewhat in the middle as always, but I believe it is relevant to this discussion.

I also believe its relevant to the assumptionst that you might make about Qutb and how his thoughts would have been applied if he had not been executed by Nasser or if his Movement had succeeded in taking power. Qutb in fact stressed the fact that he was not laying out a detailed practical blueprint for how the Islamic society would function because that could only be determined in response to a real practical situation and the questions that practical situation posed as it unfolded.

What resonates to this day about Qutb is his clarity on this point and his emphasis of the big picture, not any details which he may have spelled out.

Perhaps this is why Qutb can be so popular across different times and places, and also perhaps why Qutb can have different people or groups who read his writings and come up with vastly different practical implications for our time and place.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at June 8, 2004 11:29 AM

Due to sloppy editing, the end of the post reads a little misleadingly. Where I refer to Qutb's "clarity on this point" I refer not to the point in the previous paragraph, but rather to his point that a society of believing Muslims should be run in facets according to the sources of revelation (the Qur'an and Sunnah) and not according to any other imported or man made doctrines or ideologies.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at June 8, 2004 11:34 AM

It's all well and good for Qutb to have his faith, and I should add I'm rarely bothered by people drawing on their religious faith to inform their political views. But the contrast between Qutb and Izetbegovic is striking, don't you think, when it comes to metaphysical speculations, as well as research into nature and the cosmos.

Qutb would place the same strictures on these sciences, thus, as Izetbegovic aptly puts it, further condemning Islam to scientific and political stagnation.

Take Darwin, for example. Darwin may well have been wrong, but rejecting Darwin on religious, rather than scientific grounds, forecloses any further research on the subject. A good deal of biological research -- our understanding of genetics, microbiology and the human genome -- was spurred by trying to understand whether Darwin was right or wrong. While none of these endeavors have necessarily proven Darwin right (or wrong, for that matter) they have advanced human knowledge considerably, and perhaps even hold out hope for curing terrible hereditary diseases, and the like.

If you shut off Darwin, you also have to shut off research into genetics, because a researcher may well find evidence that tends to support Darwin, which, a priori, you've concluded cannot be.

Science often proceeds by first going down dead ends. A paradox I never tire of is that one of the great spurs to the Renaissance astronomers was the translation into Latin of a spurious Greek text -- the Corpus Hermetica.

Absent the freedom to inquire, there can be no progress, which is the point Izetbegovic understands and Qutb does not.

Regarding Qutb's readings of Western literature, obviously I don't know what he read. I can at least trace a good deal of what Izetbegovic read, because he quotes authors or offers his impressions of them (which seem reasonably well informed to me). Qutb never bothers to engage with any of the ideas of the West, which strikes me as a serious flaw in his work. The only times I've seen him quote Westerners (Bernard Shaw is one he cites) is when they say things favorable to Islam, suggesting that even Qutb requires the approbation of Western thinkers to validate his own opinions.

Finally, as I'm sure you're aware, it was hardly likely that enlightenment thinkers who strove to separate Church and State, who valued intellectual and political freedom and the rule of law, would find that there was much in the contemporary Islamic world that they found compelling.

Posted by: Bill at June 8, 2004 11:37 PM