December 01, 2004

Qutb, Sayyid 1)

Perhaps before I begin blogging Sayyid Qutb's The Islamic Concept and its Characteristics, I should attempt to answer a question of rather fundamental importance, one raised by frequent commenter Abu Noor al-Irlandee in replies to this previous post, to wit, who was Sayyid Qutb?

This is not an altogether idle question. To Abu Noor (it is enough that he speaks for himself, although I am sure others share his view), Qutb opposed the injustice and oppression of the corrupt and tyrannical Egyptian government, calling for a return to a pure form of Islamic society. I, of course, have taken a somewhat different view. I have referred to him as the brain of bin Laden (a phrase I borrowed more or less from Dinesh D'Souza), the ideological inspiration for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and so on. The members of the 9/11 Commission, in their report, bolster this argument; I'm not entirely in accord with their summation of his thought, but I shall let that pass:

Three basic themes emerge from Qutb's writings. First, he claimed that the world was beste with barbarism, licentiousness, and unbelief (a condition he called jahiliyya, the religious term for the period of ignorance prior to the revelations given tot he Prophet Mohammed). Qutb argued that humans can choose only between Islam and jahiliyya. Second, he warned that more people, including Muslims, were attracted to jahiliyya and its material comforts than to his view of Islam; jahiliyya could therefore triumph over Islam. Third, no middle ground exists in what Qutb conceived as a struggle between God and Satan. All Muslims--as he defined them--therefore must take up arms in this fight. Any Muslim who rejects his ideas is just one more nonbeliever worthy of destruction.

Bin Ladin shares Qutb's stark view, permitting him and his followers to rationalize even unprovoked mass murder as righteous defense of an embattled faith.

Yet Muqtedar Khan, a self-described liberal Muslim and the sort of fellow who's invited to talk at the prestigious Brookings Institution, compares Qutb to John Locke, finding points of affinity between their thought:

Both Locke and Qutb imagined freedom in the same absolutist terms. The human individual was, by virtue of his divine creation, subordinate to God—and God alone—and therefore was a free agent.

This is a less than apt comparison. For Locke, the individual was sovereign, and only with the consent of the citizens could a government be legitimate. Qutb wants a theocracy, one that requires adherence to a single interpretation of Islam (his own) by all believers. Compare that attitude with, say, John Locke's attitude toward tolerance; he is rather adamant about the importance of individual choice in these matters ("everyone is orthodox to himself").

In the aforementioned comments of Abu Noor, he quotes an essay by Adil Salahi:

Yet today, the war against Islam waged by the Zionist and the Neo-Imperialists tries to describe Sayyid Qutb as the philosopher of Islamic terror. This is by no means surprising. Their predecessors of old described the Prophet as a sorcerer and a madman. These were the most sohisticated labels they could attach to him at the time. In our modern era, it is terrorism that the hostile camp tried to attach to Islam and its advocates. Futile will their efforts be, for, by the nature of things and by God's design, the truth will triumph.

The entire essay is offered to further Abu Noor's view (I hope I'm summarizing it accurately) that Qutb is a writer whose ideas appeal to a wide range of Islamists (that is, Muslims who would like to reform their governments according to the religious principles of Islam), and that the most extreme of these (including bin Laden and his followers, presumably) stand in relation to Qutb's thought in the same way that, say, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, stood to Thomas Jefferson (McVeigh quoted a line of Jefferson's).

Considering how poorly the Locke comparison fares, I'm not sure Jefferson is the best of examples to invoke. In my university days, I had more than my fair share of professors -- cultured and civilized men and women -- who were convinced of the absolute correctness and morality of Karl Marx. I don't think a single one of these people were capable of firing a gun, let alone firing a gun into the back of the head of a naked 12 year old girl deemed an enemy of the people, yet they had no problem at all espousing the philosophy of the man -- and supporting the political of movements of his followers -- who made such things a precondition of his revolutionary success. To be sure, there is no passage in Marx in which he advocates shooting naked 12 year girls in the back of the head (the image is from a particularly disturbing, nearly unwatchable and thus must-be-watched film, The Chekist, about the tactics of the Soviet secret police in the early days of the Bolshevik Putsch), but there's an awful lot of talk about revolution, smashing the bourgeoisie, attacks on the ruling classes, the historical invevitibility and scientific necessity of their revolution, and so on. Though Marx's writings didn't call for shooting little girls, the kind of society he imagined all but demanded it; it wasn't too many decades after his death (three and a half, to be precise) before orthodox Marxists were coolly estimating that something like 10 percent of the population would have to be slaughtered to effectively smash the bourgeoisie -- to complete the revolution Marx envisaged.

I'd argue, from my limited readings of translations of Qutb's works, that Marx is far more analogous to Qutb than Jefferson, but that the explication of that will come in more detail in the forthcoming 4 Qutb series.

Posted by Ideofact at December 1, 2004 11:33 PM


I won't try to go line for line and nitpick nor will I try to anticipate what may be coming, instead I'll just make a few very important points that just jump out at me upon reading this.

First, the idea that the 9/11 Commission report bolsters the contention that bin Laden basically adopted the ideas of Qutb. You are right that it states this directly, however I found it striking that it does not provide any example of bin Laden quoting Qutb -- I stil have yet to be provided with any. It doesn't even provide any source at all for this major claim, yet no doubt it could have found some, perhaps many articles claiming this, almost all written by people who are not specialists in Islam.

As you note that you don't entirely agree with their description of Qutb's thought, it must be stated directly that whoever wrote that paragraph or was the source of those ideas didn't understand Qutb in the least and it is hard to imagine had actually read Qutb. In no way did Qutb believe that "jahiliya could therefore triumph over Islam." The inevitability of the triumph of Islam is an article of faith for Islamists across the spectrum including Qutb. You may see this as another comparison to Marx, but this is the result of many direct statements in the Qur'an and Sunnah to this effect.

The idea that there is no middle ground in this struggle between God and Satan and all true believers must therefore take up arms in this fight sounds as much like George Bush as it does Qutb. In fact, as I've quoted to you previously Qutb neither took up arms himself and in fact directly counselled others not to take up arms.

I think the Khan argument does capture an element of Qutb's thought that was missing from your analysis, but I also agree it must be said in sincerity that there are huge differences between Qutb and Locke and in fact although Muqtedar Khan attempts to harness the name of Qutb to make an interesting intellectual point, in reality someone like Muqtedar Khan and someone like Sayyid Qutb if they lived at the same time and place would probably agree on almost nothing in terms of how to live the faith that they share in the public sphere. In fact, it is safe to say that Sayyid Qutb would see someone like Muqtedar Khan as a direct example of the danger to Muslims of adopting western ideologies over Islam.

One of the interesting things about people who believe in ideologies is the way they approach the practical events that occur in the world. Just as a true believer Marxist would claim that the atrocities of the Soviet Union were based on its own perversion of Marx and not Marx's teachings themselves, you and others who are firm believers in liberal democracy would claim that all of the atrocities of European/American civilization in terms of slavery, colonialism, racism, neo-colonialism, etc. are all exceptions which somehow result from the failure to live up to the ideals of Western civilization rather than being representative of the effects of that ideology. Similarly, you will probably see my attitude towards Islam. Now, I don't claim that all of these are morally equivalent. I have absolutely no interest in whether what Stalin did or what the Belgians did in the Congo is worse. All I'm saying is while to a certain extent it seems tantalizingly important to hold thinkers to task for the results of their thought, not just their intentions, it will never be fair or just unless one shows exactly how that thought must lead to those results and allows the person holding those thoughts (or someone on his/her behalf if he/she is dead) to argue that such was not what he/she was arguing for and attempt to prove it. This is what I have consistently attempted to do.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 2, 2004 01:01 PM