June 28, 2004

2 Qutb 10c

Over the weekend, I read Tragedy of Korosko, an Arthur Conan Doyle thriller about a fictional raid on and kidnapping of a party of European and American tourists by Mahdi's army. The sole reader review of the work on the Amazon page notes,

This is a very significant book about the general opinons of Western people about middle eastern-arabs at the end of 19th century. The tale is about how tourists on a steamer have been taken hostage by a gang of arabs, and how "the heroic" british army saved them. What is behind the tale is what has been codified by kipling: "the burden of the white man". The superior civilized Anglo saxons and their mission toward uncivilised barabarians. The depiction of natives in mild racists words is what, unfortunately, has not changed so much in western opinions (even if hidden behind layers of politically correct). Very instructive for whoever is interested in the root of racisms, as described by E. Said in "orientalism". A very funny part of the book is the contrast between the arrogant french tourist who at the begining criticizes the wise brits, but by the end is grateful and convinced. Replace brits with americans, and the book could have been written in 2001.

I'm not sure this review is entirely accurate; Conan Doyle was writing a thriller, and interrupting his tale for a long disquisition on the distinctions that Europeans made among the various factions of Middle Eastern Arabs they encountered would tend to slow down the narration. As to the racism -- the stoutest advocate of British imperialism (which, it is true, is presented by some of the characters as a positive thing without the slightest qualifications) admonishes a fellow tourist on the efficiency and lethalness of the African soldiers in British ranks, and three of the tourists slated for execution by the raiders are saved by enterprising soldiers of the Mahdi's army who reject his fundamentalism. That said, the book is a product of its time, and there are a few passages that made me wince as I read them, particularly a conversation between an American and the advocate of British imperialism in which the latter asserts that one day soon the United States will have to rule from Mexico to the Cape, and another in which a character suggests that certain cultures are incapable of producing decent governments. (It's not clear to me, however, that this is exactly a racist attitude, although it's not a particularly enlightened one either).

Conan Doyle made no attempt to differentiate between branches of Islamic thought, which, as I've tried on occasion to note, are as broad and distinct as any you'd find in the West. Islam is by no means monolithic, something that forms a fairly important subtext to the tenth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones. It's important to recall that Qutb is writing to an Islamic readership, and that there were and are various rivals to his own program.

We need not rationalize Islam to them, need not appease their desires and distorted concepts. We will be extremely outspoken with them: "The ignorance in which you are living makes you impure, and God wants to purify you; the customs which you follow are defiling, and God wants to cleanse you; the life you are living is low, and God wants to uplift you; the condition which you are in is troublesome, depressing and base, and God wants to give you ease, mercy and goodness. Islam will change your concepts, your modes of living and your values; will raise you to another life so that you will look upon the life you are now living with disgust; will show you modes of living such that you will look upon all other modes, whether Eastern or Western, with contempt; and will introduce you to values such that you will look upon all current values in the world with disdain. And if, because of the sorry state you are in, you cannot see the true picture of the Islamic life, since your enemies-the enemies of this religion -are all united against the establishment of this way of life, against its taking a practical form, then let us show it to you; and, thank God, its picture is in our hearts, seen through the windows of our Qur'an, of our Shari'ah, of our history, of our concept of the future, whose coming we do not doubt!"

This is the way in which we ought to address people while presenting Islam. This is the truth, and this was the form in which Islam addressed people for the first time; this was the form, whether it was in the Arabian peninsula, in Persia or in the Roman provinces, or in whatever other places it went.

Islam looked at them from a height, as this is its true position, and addressed them with extreme love and kindness, as this is its true temperament, and explained everything to them with complete clarity, without any ambiguity, as this is its method. It never said to them that it would not touch their way of living, their modes, their concepts and their values except perhaps slightly; it did not propose similarities with their system or manners to please them, as some do today when they present Islam to the people under the names of 'Islamic Democracy' or 'Islamic Socialism', or sometimes by saying that the current economic or political or legal systems in the world need not be changed except a little to be acceptable Islamically. The purpose of all this rationalization is to appease people's desires!

As an aside, it's worth noting that appeasing people's desires -- and we are essentially speaking of the desire of Muslims -- is not particularly high on his list of priorities. Elsewhere in the chapter, he writes,

In the beginning, people may dislike this method of giving the message, may run away from it, and may be afraid of it. But the people disliked it, ran away from it, and were afraid of it when Islam was presented to them for the first time. They hated it and were hurt when Muhammad - peace be on him-criticized their concepts, derided their deities, rejected their ways of behavior, turned away from their habits and customs, and adopted for himself and for the few believers who were with him modes of behavior, values and customs other than the modes, values and customs of Jahiliyyah.

Once again, Qutb makes explicit his notion that his Islamicist vision is Islam, and that those Muslims who do not follow it follow Jahiliyyah, the paganism of pre-Islamic Arabia. He goes on to say that converts to Islam in the time of the Prophet were ardent believers -- of this there's little doubt. But he assumes that his proposed revolution, his radical, almost nihilistic destruction of the existing order, to be supplanted with -- well, what he's never quite clear on -- is the equivalent of and has all the moral authority of the Prophet's own mission. This of course begs the question -- what happens if Qutb is wrong, and the people don't fall into line?

Just as for Conan Doyle's fictional tourists of the Korosko, this is not a hypothetical question for us in the West. Qutb's ambitions go beyond reforming the Ummah. In attacking those who believe Islam is compatible with, and has something worthwhile to offer to modernity (a view I happen to share), Qutb returns to his sojourn in America:

A person who feels the need of defense, justification and apology is not capable of presenting Islam to people. Indeed, he is a person who lives the life of Jahiliyyah, hollow and full of contradictions, defects and evils, and intends to provide justification for the Jahiliyyah he is in. These are the offenders against Islam and they distract some sincere persons. They confuse Islam's true nature by their defense, as if Islam were something accused standing at trial, anxious for its own defense.

During my stay in the United States, there were some people of this kind who used to argue with us-with us few who were considered to be on the side of Islam. Some of them took the position of defense and justification. I, on the other hand, took the position of attacking the Western Jahiliyyah, its shaky religious beliefs, its social and economic modes, and its immoralities: "Look at these concepts of the Trinity, Original Sin, Sacrifice and Redemption, which are agreeable neither to reason nor to conscience. Look at this capitalism with its monopolies, its usury and whatever else is unjust in it; at this individual freedom, devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives except under the force of law; at this materialistic attitude which deadens the spirit; at this behavior, like animals, which you call 'Free mixing of the sexes; at this vulgarity which you call 'emancipation of women,' at these unfair and cumbersome laws of marriage and divorce, which are contrary to the demands of practical life; and at Islam, with its logic, beauty, humanity and happiness, which reaches the horizons to which man strives but does not reach. It is a practical way of life and its solutions are based on the foundation of the wholesome nature of man."

These were the realities of Western life which we encountered. These facts, when seen in the light of Islam, made the American people blush. Yet there are people-exponents of Islam-who are defeated before this filth in which Jahiliyyah is steeped, even to the extent that they search for resemblances to Islam among this rubbish heap of the West, and also among the evil and dirty materialism of the East. 

I don't know whether Qutb was actually so ill mannered in America, but if he were, I can well imagine his hosts blushing awkwardly over lack of civility. Be that as it may, Qutb's tirade is far more extreme than anything Conan Doyle puts into the mouths of the fanatics of the Mahdi army.

Posted by Ideofact at June 28, 2004 11:58 PM