July 09, 2004

Qutb & al-Husri

As a few of Armed Liberal's commenters have pointed out in comments to this post suggesting Western philosophical roots for the Islamist project, the quotes he's relying upon, from Bernard Lewis' new collection of essays, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, refer to the Pan-Arabist project, which has a different genesis from the Islamists. Armed Liberal, I should add, is interested, much as Paul Berman was in Terror and Liberalism, in the Western philosophical roots of Islamism. I think there are such roots, and I think they are related to those that A.L. hints at in his post.

But first, some background. Adeed Dawisha, in his excellent work Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair, considers some of the earliest Islamists -- like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), Muhamed 'Abdu (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (2865-1935) -- to be precursors to the Arab nationalists. They were all critical of the Ottoman Sultanate, for example. But Dawisha concedes that their central concerns were with the relative backwardness of the Ummah, for which they blamed the Turks primarily, and what the Turks had done to Islam. It's worth noting that al-Afghani and 'Abdu argued that

the arsenal of the West's undbouted contemporary superiority -- philosophy, reason, and science -- were not only compatible with Islam, they were imbedded in the very essence of the Muslim faith. To Afghani, "Islam was in harmony with the principles discovered by scientific reason, was indeed the religion demanded by reason."

It's worth noting that Afghani was Persian by birth, and 'Abdu's nationalism, according to Dawisha, was of a specifically Egyptian character. As for Rida, his contribution to Arab nationalism (it was not a particularly original idea) was the centrality of Arabic to the Islamic experience; yet Daiwisha tells us that Rida remained a loyal defender of the Ottoman Empire up to its collapse after World War I, and was particularly proud that the Arabs were among the last people to catch the nationalist bug.

I'd go into more detail about the likes of Negib (Najib) Azoury, the Christian Syrian Pan-Arabist mentioned by Lewis in one of the passages quoted by Armed Liberal, or Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1847-1906) or George Antonius, all Arab Christians who argued for a secular, democratic Arab state. Suffice it to say that the Islamists had a very different view of what a pan-Islamic state would look like; here's Sayyid Qutb from the seventh chapter of Milestones on the horrors of secular society:

In this society, people are permitted to go to mosques, churches and synagogues; yet it does not tolerate people's demanding that the Shari'ah of God be applied in their daily affairs. Thus, such a society denies or suspends God's sovereignty on earth...

Now, while I could end this discussion here, I think a closer look is worthwhile. Sayyid Qutb wasn't some backwater Imam, he had, as it were, one foot in the pan-Arabist camp and one in the Islamist side of the equation through much of the 1940s and early 1950s. He could have, had he so chosen, had a prominent position in the Nasser government -- the avatar of political pan-Arabism until the 1967 Six Days War (which, in addition to being a serious blow to Egypt's prestige, sent the pan-Arab notion into decline). As it was, Qutb worked for a time in the Egyptian education ministry, before he was imprisoned for his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

I bring this up because I suspect that Qutb must have, in his pedagogical career, have become acquainted with, either at first or second hand, the ideas of Sati' al-Husri -- the Syrian born in Yemen who learned Turkish and French at Constantinople before he could speak Arabic, who was educated in Europe, who was one of the prime twentieth century authors of the Arab nationalist project, whom I mentioned last night. While in Europe, Dawisha tells us, al-Husri imbibed the ideas of the German nationalist philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried von Herder. Like them, he believed that the nation was defined linguistically and historically (but significantly, not religiously), that the Arabs constituted a unique nation, that the individual should sublimate his own desires to serve the nation, and that nationality was immutable -- one couldn't choose not to be an Arab. He was contemptuous of the nationalism of the French polymath Ernest Renan, who defined the nation as a "daily plebiscite," dependent upon the free will and choice of individuals to sustain it. Al-Husri wasn't above advocating force to make Arabs with "false consciousness" -- that is, those who didn't accept his program with enough enthusiasm -- see the light, even if they were non-Arab peoples like Kurds or Berbers. Al-Husri, who was the top education official in Iraq in the 1920s, emphasized historical studies, but these followed a pattern also seen in Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. The point of history was to construct a narrative of national greatness, idealizing the past so that present generations would recapture its glory. It didn't particularly matter whether this history was accurate or not, the main purpose it served was to inculcate into Arab youth the notion of Arab greatness.

Al-Husri's political ideas, derived from these German Romantic philosophers, were decidedly illiberal and anti-individualistic. He sought to make the Arab nation great again, by first achieving Arab political unity (as the Germans had done, as the Italians had done, in the previous century). While you and I may never have heard of him before, Dawisha notes that he was the most influential of the Arab nationalist theorists, widely quoted, and intensively studied. Again, it seems almost impossible that Sayyid Qutb -- the theorist par excellence of modern Islamism -- was unacquainted with his writings.

Qutb, of course, rejected al-Husri's secularism, and made Islam, rather than Arab ethnicity, the central focus of his ideology (and he probably did so out of conviction rather than expediency). Yet, as far as I can tell from his writings, he didn't reject al-Husri's goals or methods. Like al-Husri, Qutb advocated, in Social Justice in Islam, that controlling the educational curriculum to stress past Islamic greatness was central to his project. He shared al-Husri's contempt for liberal ideas and consensual government. There are even moments in some of Qutb's writings when he sounds like an Arab nationalist, calling the Turks, who created a vibrant Islamic empire that rivaled that of the Abbasids, one of the calamaties that befell Islam.

I think that Qutb, in attempting to counter the pan-Arabists, co-opted a lot of their attitudes and ideas. In constructing his Islamist ideology, he accepted a number of their assumptions, and I think these can be demonstrated with reference to his works. I don't know if Qutb actually read Fichte or Herder, but his ideology is a variation on theirs, substituting religion for language and history.

In any case, I've gone on too long here -- I'll pick up this interesting question in a future post.

Posted by Ideofact at July 9, 2004 11:59 PM
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