June 17, 2004

2 Qutb 10a

I've read the tenth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones a few times now, and it's hard to pick the proper place to start -- perhaps it's best to begin at the beginning:

When we invite people to Islam, whether they are Believers or non-believers, we should keep in mind one fact, a fact which is a characteristic of Islam itself and which can be seen in its history. Islam is a comprehensive concept of life and the universe with its own unique characteristics. The concept of human life in all its aspects and relationships which are derived from it is also a complete system which has its particular characteristics. This concept is basically against all the new or old jahili concepts. Although there might be some details in which there are similarities between Islam and the jahili concepts, in relation to the principles from which these particulars are derived, the Islamic concept is different from all other theories with which man has been familiar.

What Qutb claims for Islam -- that it offers a "comprehensive concep of life and the universe with its own unique characteristics" -- is certainly true, but this is equally true of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Christianity or Judaism. Within the broad category of Islam, there are sects and sects of sects with their "own unique characteristics" as well, but I don't necessarily want to engage in semantics at this point. Qutb goes on to write,

It is not the function of Islam to compromise with the concepts of Jahiliyyah which are current in the world or to coexist in the same land together with a jahili system. This was not the case when it first appeared in the world, nor will it be today or in the future. Jahiliyyah, to whatever period it belongs, is Jahiliyyah; that is, deviation from the worship of One God and the way of life prescribed by God. It derives its system and laws and regulations and habits and standards and values from a source other than God. [emphasis added.]

Yet history shows precisely the opposite -- that Islam was a short-lived phenomenon that ended with the death of 'Ali and the rise to power of the Umayyad Caliphate. The great flowering of this jahili culture -- which produced the likes of al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina -- had nothing to do with Islam, which was strangled in its infancy and cast off by Mu'awiya and his successors; by the Abassids, the dynasty that displaced the Umayyad; by a wave of weak converts who overwhelmed Islam -- Seljuk Turks and Mongols. There was the catastrophe of Andalusia in the West and the Crusades in the center; the rise of the Ottoman Empire (which relied on the qanun -- a cognate for canon, a body of laws developed by the hated "Roman" Byzantines but which nevertheless functioned as a legal code for the Ottomans) concluding with the European conquest. The Islam of Qutb -- the comprehensive system -- has not existed anywhere in the world since the seventh century. Incapable of co-existing with the jahili, it ceased to exist more than thirteen centuries ago.

I don't agree at all with the preceding paragraph -- but I can cite some quotations from a writer of some interest who does:

The Umayyads were a family united by their desires and their ambitions, but divided by their cupidity and their greed; they were without a trace of morals, religion, or conscience.

It was a calamity that broke the back of Islam.

The territory of Islam was certainly increased during the period the ensued, but the spirit of the faith was undeniably lost; and what is the value of territory if the spirit is lost?


When the Abbasids grasped the succession, they did so as kings, so that the Muslim world was corrupted and the people lost touch with the duties of the faith, such a divorce and such a wide gulf had the Umayyads succeeded in placing between the people and their religion. The Abbasid kings were no better than the Umayyads, for one and all they represented a tyrannical monarchy.


It was this situation [the increasing wealth of the realms of Islam during the period of the four rightly guided Caliphs] that gave the Islamic community over to tyranny and hatred, in a holocaust that was not to be extinguished before it enveloped the whole spirit of Islam in its smoke. Through it the Muslim community was handed over to the power of a tyrannical monarchy that had no foundation in Islam.


As for the suggestion that the Islamic system does not provide by nature adequate safeguards against disruption, for one thing we must bear in mind that this system was assailed by disruption before it had properly struck roots; and for another thing we must remember that that in practice no system has any real such safegaurds.


We must now examine quickly the more important blows that befell Islam and mark their influence through the following centuries.

The first of these is to be found in the rise of the Abbasid state, with its reliance on elements newly converted to Islam. The attitude of these peoples to their new religion was never whole-hearted because of the national loyalties whose roots remained strong within them. As time went on, the Abbasid state deserted these elements on which it had been founded, and which were now beginning to acquire a tincture of Islam for others whose hearts were closed to Islam, Turks, Circassians, Dailamites and such like. So this dynasty continued to find its support in elements that were opposed to the spirit of Islam and to which it gave a favored position because it relied on them.


Then followed the destructive raids of the Mongols, bursting with savage ferocity on the Islamic world. Without delay Islam turned aside the force of the onslaught, swallowed it up, assimilated it. Yet this was not accomplished without causing in the spirit of Islam itself a profound upheaval in which the practices and traditions of the religion were forcibly modified.


The writer of these passages is none other than Sayyid Qutb. Of course, he does not regard Islam as a historical footnote (I took some liberties) although it's fairly clear that he views most of history -- including portions of the earliest period of Islamic history -- as being un-Islamic. Yet in the hearts of believers, despite all the jahili surrounding them, Islam thrived. I don't agree with Qutb's historical definitions of what was jahili and what was Islamic (for example, the Muslim philosophers strike me as Muslims interested in and contributing to the same intellectual tradition begun by Plato and Aristotle from a decidedly Islamic perspective), but if you accept Qutb's definitions, then you must admit that Islam has spent most of its existence compromising and coexisting with jahili systems, and not faring too badly.

Posted by Ideofact at June 17, 2004 11:51 PM