July 18, 2004

2 Qutb 11a

The eleventh chapter of Sayyid Qutb's Islamist handbook Milestones begins with an exegesis from this line from the Qur'an:

"Do not be dejected nor grieve. You shall be the uppermost if you are Believers." (3: 139)

In his first three paragraphs commenting on it, Qutb writes,

The first thought which comes to mind on reading this verse is that it relates to the form of Jihaad which is actual fighting; but the spirit of this message and its application, with its manifold implications, is greater and wider than this particular aspect. Indeed, it describes that eternal state of mind which ought to inspire the Believer's consciousness, his thoughts, his estimates of things, events, values and persons.

It describes a triumphant state which should remain fixed in the Believer's heart in the face of every thing, every condition, every standard and every person; the superiority of the Faith and its value above all values which are derived from a source other than the source of the Faith.

It means to be above all the powers of the earth which have deviated from the way of the Faith, above all the values of the earth not derived from the source of the Faith, above all the customs of the earth not colored with the coloring of the Faith, above all the laws of the laws of the earth not sanctioned by the Faith, and above all traditions not originating in the Faith.

One can well imagine the emotional appeal of this, just as it must have been a source of pride for Germans to be told that racial science proved they were a master race, just as Soviet thugs were convinced that they were the vanguard of the proletariat. This way leads only to madness.

Qutb is not unique in this. One of my long-time readers (for whose many thoughtful emails I offer a thanks) wrote in recently to note,

Reading your post of 12 July, Western Roots of Islamism (more), I was struck by the idea that the link between Eric Hobsbawm, Qutb, McVeigh, and many others is they all agree "that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified." They disagree only in what the "radiant tomorrow" should be. This all reminds me of the Millenarianist movements in Europe in the 13th and 14th C -- their goal was to build the "New Jerusalem," and any suffering by the revolutionaries, their opponents, and innocent bystanders (of course, Millenarianist thinking does not usually acknowledge innocent bystanders) is justified by the "radiant tomorrow." The end, being supremely good, always justifies the means.

The thing is, the futures usually *are* radient -- if the Soviets had built the Worker's Paradise, wouldn't that have been, well paradise? If a perfectly moral state could be constructed by following strict Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist law, wouldn't that be great? The temptation to believe that radiance worth the sacrifice is understandable and tragic.

One piece of this, which the Christian Millenarianists, Hobsbawm and his ilk, and Qutb all share, is the license given to followers. Because the end is so transcendent, any means are justified -- the believer is above the conventional morality of his peers, and need not follow the laws made by the Jahiliyyah, the rulers who follow the antichrist or the tools of the capitalists oppressing the masses.

Posted by Ideofact at July 18, 2004 11:55 PM


I'm a bit unclear if the objections here are to the statement of God in the Qur'an or to Qutb's commentary only.

God's statment cannot be wrong and is not in need of my defense. Qutb's statements can be right or wrong and I may try to defend them if I agree with them.

If your objection is to the fact that Muslims believe in gardens of paradise to which those whom are successful in this life will go and the greatness of which would make any struggle or physical sacrifice in this life worthwhile than I can't really help you there. This is to Muslims, an undeniable and indisputable fact.

Of course, any concept that therefore the ends justifies the means is not from Islam, and not from Qutb as far as I know. In fact, whether we achieve that success will be judged ENTIRELY on the means we use as the end results are completely within the control of the All-Powerful, All Knowing Creator.

Of course I'm talking abou the Hereafter as the "utopian goal" of Muslims. It may seem at times that Islamists look at the society they seek to achieve on earth as 'utopian' because they describe what they perceive to be its clear superiority and benefits over current societies but as Bill has noted many times before Qutb actually has little concern for the specifics of this earthly society and is specific in many places that the goal is towards the HereAfter. All Muslims recognize that this world, by definition, is an imperfect realm and will always be characterized as a realm of testing, tribulation, and temptation.

And God knows Best.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 19, 2004 02:49 PM

I think my objection is to the fairly explicit license Qutb grants to his followers to consider themselves above and beyond the laws and customs of any society in which they find themselves. Was that not clear in my post?

Milestones is not a work of speculative theology, but rather is written for the vanguard of the Islamist society Qutb is advocating. Here he is suggesting that they need not be restrained by any law they do not see as being consistent with the struggle against the Jahiliyyah.

It's a license for zealots to commit acts of violence and revel in them.

Posted by: Bill at July 19, 2004 06:29 PM


I can see why you or anyone else would be concerned about that.

You are right that Qutb believes it is correct that one should not obey man made laws which are in contradiction to the laws of God.

This is not just Qutb's belief but it is the statement of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) that "there is no obedience to a created thing in disobedience to the Creator."

I believe this same principle is described by Martin Luther King in his writings as he discusses the duty to obey just laws and the duty to disobey unjust laws.

Of course, Dr. King was a pacifist and Qutb wasn't.

As I tried to indicate in my first post, the checks on a Muslim behavior (at least from the Muslim perspective) should come not from obeying unjust or manmade laws which contradict Islamic laws but from obeying Islamic laws completely.

As I stated before, there is no 'ends justifies the means' principle in Islam. Violence against civilians is illegal Islamically. Forcing anyone to convert to Islam is illegal Islamically.

I do not understand Qutb to be giving anyone license to violate those basic Islamic principles. If others do, I believe they have misread Qutb and the fault is theirs (as will be the punishment in the HereAfter). If they have read Qutb correctly and I happen to have misunderstood him, then Qutb was wrong.

I hope that helps.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 20, 2004 10:41 AM

My reading of Qutb Milestones in as simple form as possible is as follows
1 Muslims have to change society into an Islamic society that obeys Islamic laws.
2 Anything goes to achieve this.
3 If you are a civilian and oppose this then you are fair game as you are opposing Allah's wish for an Islamic society to praize him.
4 If you are a civilian and not oppose it then you will not be killed.
5 Once there is an Islamic society you (even if you are not a muslim) have to follow Islamic law.
6 You will not be forced to become a muslim but neither will you be able to oppose the Islamic Society.

Slam Dunk!! Muhammad 1 rest of society 0

Posted by: Dave at July 25, 2004 10:53 AM


I find it hard to believe that you have actually read Qutb.

He spends a large amount of time explaining why certain methods of trying to make a society Islamic are not correct and why one must follow the method laid down by the Prophet Muhammad (saw) -- of course as Qutb understands that method. Point #2 is just absolutely false.

No where in Qutb does he talk of killing civilians -- this is just your imagination. Point #3 is absolutely false.

Point #5 is correct for some issues, incorrect for others. If a non-American visits America, does he have to follow American law? If I as a person living in America oppose certain laws or even believe the whole system is wrong, still have to follow the laws? The same would be true in Qutb's Islamic society. People would have to follow the laws, whether they agreed with each one or even if they objected to the system. It is wrong to think that following Islamic law is at all analogous to forcing one to become Muslim however, if one really looked at the nature of Islamic law and the public/private distinctions made in that law, one would realize this.

Finally, one should never lose sight of the fact that Qutb was primarily writing about societies in which the majority of the people were Muslim. Did he believe his principles were universal and that eventually they would extend throughout the globe? Yes. But one misunderstands Qutb tremendously if one ignores the relevance of his message to the actual societies he was addressing and focuses only on applying his theories to societies he was generally not addressing. I am not saying it is not worth any thought or discussion, but it certainly distorts the message by taking it out of its context.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 28, 2004 11:12 AM

Abu Noor,

With all due respect, by arguing that his followers are above any man made law, and that his opponents are part of the jahiliyyah, that his revolution is to be accomplished not by preaching, by belonging to a paramilitary organization that had employed violence and assassination against its opponents, it's fairly clear that Qutb wasn't Gandhi.

One other point to consider: Under Western law, all are treated equally -- under Shari'ah law, if you're not a Muslim, you are tolerated as a minority but denied equal rights. A Muslim in the U.S. can vote, own a newspaper, pray however he chooses, etc. etc. There is a crucial distinction.

Posted by: Bill at July 29, 2004 12:07 AM


I understand this is just comments on a blog and you don't have all day to parse your post but I'm not sure what you mean by "western law."

Certainly the laws of the United States, the country with which I'm most familiar of those which would undoubtedly be considered 'western' have by no means always embraced the principles you mention. So it is nothing inherent to Western Law which says that all people have to be treated equally.

The law of the United States does provide for equal protection of the laws but there is a similar concept in Islamic law.

In terms of voting rights you are correct that the voting rights of non-Muslims would probably in Qutb's view be limited in his Islamic state. One should note that other Islamist thinkers have different ways of addressing this issue. Many "western" countries similarly limit citizenship.

So, while the United States has extended voting rights to all citizens (although it did not do so at the time Qutb lived and wrote) there are other "western" countries where native inhabitants do not have automatic citizenship and the rights that come along with it. And even in the US there are many people that live work and pay taxes here and be subject to all the laws of the land that are not permitted to vote because they are not citizens.

The non-Muslim in an Islamic state could pray however he chooses in his home or in the sanctuaries of his own faith. There would very likely be limitations on proselytizing.

I don't know exactly why you think a non-Muslim could not own a newspaper in the Islamic state Qutb envisions but I'll assume you are referring to the fact that such a State would probably not have a first amendment written or understood as the U.S. first amendment is. This is true.

So, I don't say to you or Dave that there is no difference or distinction between how the US treats Islamists and how an Islamist government might treat non-Muslims. I do say that if one thinks carefully and precisely about it, the differences are in some ways not as drastic or of the type that you may think initially. In some ways they may be that different. Its good to think about if we do it carefully. You obviously did a better job of that than Dave, who imagines all non-Muslims being killed everywhere.

For example, why can't Muslims practice polygny here in the U.S.? Are you forcing us to be Christians? This is just the most attention grabbing example of the fact that laws of general application are enforced upon all people in the US even if sometimes they violate a person's right to practice their relgion as they choose.
This is true even with a first amendment in place.
Of course this issue is debated amongst constitutional experts.

The issue of non-Muslims in an Islamic state is similar in that respect. Laws of the state which are laws of general application will of course apply to everyone. You can't really have a state without that. But the Islamic State leaves much more room for special accomodations to different religious traditions to govern themselves in certain matters by their own tradition. (People of the Book). While this may go against a secular understanding of equal protection it is actually more sensitive to the needs of religious peoples.

Anyway, just throwing out some food for thought.


Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 29, 2004 04:06 PM