January 10, 2005

5 Qutb II.

Note: I posted this last night over at paleo ideofact, because ideofact's host was apparently under attack much of the weekend.

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was an Egyptian author, literary critic, bureaucrat, and one time American student who went on to become the most prominent of the radical fundamentalist thinkers of the post-Colonial period; his political thinking has become the platform of some of the more radical terrorist groups; numerous articles note that both Osama bin Laden and Ayam al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's number one and two, have been influenced by Qutb. In a number of prior posts, ideofact has explored the writings of Qutb.

In the post immediately below, Sayyid Qutb showed us in his own words why he and his project are beyond the pale. In his essay Our Struggle with the Jews, Qutb casts Jews everywhere as being, as it were, sort of eternal Judases, the constant treacherous characters or collective, the malignant force behind every misfortune faced by Muslims. Whether it was the assassination of 'Uthman, the third of the rightly guided Caliphs, or the end of the Caliphate in 1924 (actually, the second end of the Caliphate, but to Islamists like Qutb such niceties are mere details), or the establishment of the state of Israel -- the same eternal Judas, the same evil Jews, were behind it. Qutb, whom a frequent commenter on ideofact insists is quite exceptional in his Qur'anic exegesis, opens his essay by telling us that, despite suffering "from the same Jewish machinations and double-dealing which discomfited the Early Muslims," today's Muslims do not "utilize those Qur'anic directives and this Divine Guidance" that allowed its ancestors to overcome "Jewish conspiracy and double dealing" -- "thus did the Religion [Islam] arise; and thus was the Muslim Community born." Near the end of the essay, he tells us that, as punishment for their evil, "Allah brought Hitler to rule over the Jews" and that, in response to the foundation of Israel, Allah would "bring down upon the Jews people who will mete out to them the worst kind of punishment," those people being true (Qutb) believing Muslims, of course.

Now, a few prefatory remarks are in order: I meant what I said about Qutb -- calling Hitler a gift of Allah, wishing that your co-religionists will be Allah's instrument for the worst punishment -- a punishment worse than that of Hilter -- is the sort of thing which language is inadequate to condemn. Just as the autobahn or the Volkswagen do not compensate us for the six million Hitler killed, there is nothing in all of Qutb's schemes or intentions -- whatever their dubious merits -- that can mitigate his advocacy of slaughtering Jews. Full stop. There is no need to write another word.

But I will go on, because there is something else of interest in all this about Qutb, something that is certainly of secondary importance as far as I'm concerned, but that poses an intellectual question worth pondering nonetheless, and that is asking what was the reasoning behind Qutb's insistence -- his blasphemy -- that the Qur'an is a manual for slaughtering Jews.

Regrettably, as Ronald Nettler points out in Past Trials and Present Tribulations: A Muslim Fundamentalist's View of the Jews, Qutb's notion of the Jew as the eternal, eschatological enemy of Islam was the gold standard of the theology of terror and has had a fair amount of influence:

In consonance with the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb in his radical commentary on the Qur'an, Fi Thilal Al-Qur'an, "In the Shade of the Qur'an" and in his political tract, Marakatuna ma'a Al-Yahud, "Our Struggle with the Jews," Hamas views the Muslim world as being in a state of severe crisis caused by the Westernization of the Middle East. Western influence, represented by Israel, is therefore the most formidable enemy facing the Muslim world today. Hamas also shares the view that a state of war has existed since the founding of Islam in the seventh century between Muslims on the one side and Christians and Jews on the other. Qutb, referring to the Christians and Jews as the "enemies" of the Muslim world, writes:

The war against Islam started 1400 years ago, when Muslims established their state in Madinah, and became distinguished by their character and firmly established the roots of their independence in faith, concept and political system. The enemies will never stop waging this war unless they achieve their goal of turning Muslims away from their faith, so that they become non-Muslims. [Emphasis added.]

In a departure from the view of mainstream Islam that accepts Jews as fellow believers in monotheism, Hamas espouses a theological anti-Semitism that regards Israel and Jews as an embodiment of evil in the world that will, in time, be destroyed as part of the Divine plan.

Now, by the best estimate, Qutb's essay was written in Egypt, some time after 1950 but before he was imprisoned in 1954. That period roughly corresponds with the peak moment of enthusiasm for a movement that promised to revitalize Arab states, to shake off the corruption and ill effects of colonialism, and to restore the honor lost in 1948. That movement -- totalitarian in its methods, fascist in its propaganda, utterly incompetent (more Mussolini than Hitler) in its results -- was Arab Nationalism:

Like so many other events in history, it was the unintended consequences of the [1948] war [of Israeli Independence] that contributed to the surge in Arabist sentiment less than a decade later. And it happened in Egypt, the least hospitable land to the ideas of Arab nationalism and organic Arab unity. Three years after the army's humiliation in Palestine, embittered young officers, blaming the Palestine debacle and the corruption in their own country on their government, executed a military coup that toppled the monarchical regime. The officers were led by a young and quiet, yet charismatic, colonel by the name of Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir. More than any other political figure or institution, Colonel, and later, President Nasir and his policies would be inexorably linked to the rise of Arab nationalism as the dominant ideology in the area.

Emphasis added to a passage from Adeed Dawisha's excellent Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. It is certainly not my intention here to rehash the history of the founding of Israel, the 1948 war, or the vicissitudes of Nasser's regime and the pan-Arabist movement (although I once fooled around with a series of posts dealing with the subject as one element in a broader theme, revolving around the notion that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 continues to have repercussions around the world, and we are now fighting some of the last battles of World War I). I only wanted to point out the date of Nasser's ascension (July 24, 1952), that Qutb at first enthusiastically embraced the Free Officers' coup (he wrote an ecstatic letter to General Mohammed Neguib, the coup's nominal leader, begging for a dictatorship that would reform the country), and only later turned against it. If Our Struggle with the Jews were written before Qutb was tossed into jail, it must have been 1953 or 1954, at the nadir of the appeal of fundamentalists relative to Arab nationalists.

Though this will sound counterintuitive in the extreme, I believe (contra the erudite Ronald L. Nettler) that the real enemy Qutb addressed in his essay was Nasser. To attack Nasser, Qutb needed to take what was already a robust anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the Arab world circa 1950, and, drawing in part on European anti-Semites and in part through his own twisted Qur'anic exegesis, inflame it further by casting Jews as an existential enemy whose evil was such that they would destroy Islam and Muslims, and faulting Nasser for not attacking such a dire threat immediately.

Further, although such a conclusion does not mitigate the horror of Sayyid Qutb one iota, I tend to think that while his Jew hatred was genuine, he was completely aware of his own lies in furthering his hatred.

Of which I will tell more, in the next post in this series...

Posted by Ideofact at January 10, 2005 10:20 AM

This is a perturbing question. Would Qutb knowingly lie if he knew it would increase his prestige and power, and advance a cause he thought was right?

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Muslim ethics do not condemn lying to non-Muslims, especially when the lie will advance the cause of Islam. Whether or not this is true in all cases, was Qutb operating under this principle? Would he be careful with his definition of "true Islam" to help him justify this?

Posted by: steve h at January 10, 2005 04:50 PM

steve h,

At least for Sunnis (I can't comment on the Shi'a), it is not at all true that it is acceptable to lie to non-Muslims.

It is acceptable to lie or deceive during a war -- that is to engage in spying, etc. but as a general matter it is not at all acceptable.

More centrally to your question, I don't think any of Qutb's writings were directed to non-Muslims, so I don't see how it is relevant to his writings.

Which is to say, perhaps Qutb would have felt justified in lying to his torturers about whether he knew any other members of the Muslim brotherhood, but I assume that's not what you were talking about.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 10, 2005 06:47 PM

The most troubling examples you cite to me are ones you do not quote. I do not say that you should quote them but I think you are talking about issues on which there is possible confusion between the belief of a pure monotheist and the belief of a genocidal maniac.

For example, a Muslim believes that Allaah is fully in control of everything. So for sure Allaah allowed the holocaust to happen for a reason just as Allaah allowed the Muslims to be slaughtered until the streets ran red during the Crusades or during the Mongol onslaught.

To say Hitler was a gift of Allaah is a stupid, offensive, ignorant, and morally reprehensible statement. To say that God allowed Hitler to do all that he did is a fact.

As I'm sure you can note, the same belief would follow that the despicable state of the Muslims in the world during Qutb's time and up to today is undoubtedly the decree of Allaah. It is the result of what the Muslims have wrought. God says explcitly in the Qur'an that he does not punish a people until they have first changed themselves. God says "Whoever finds good should thank God and whoever finds other than good should blame his own self". Now of course, the people who are killed by oppressors and tyrants like Hitler or like the Mongols may be martyrs who God wanted to bring to himself out of his extreme love and affection for them, but as a whole Islam undoubtedly says that in the long run people are responsible for their own condition and God is always just, and God is always in control.

These comments may be out of place, and I am not trying to defend Qutb. In truth they are more directed at the confusion amongst people I have observed in trying to understand the Muslim reaction to recent events like the tsunami. There seems to be a real problem with the secular mind grappling with the fact that Muslims really do believe such calamaties, whether they are caused by so called natural disasters, or by evil maniacs, are part of the signs and plan of God.

This is what the Qur'an says.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, this doesn't lessen Hitler's evil or Pharoah's evil or say they didn't have free will -- nor does it justify any slowness to fight against such oppression, in fact it mandates one to fight against it with everything they have.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 10, 2005 06:59 PM

Abu Noor,

First of all, I'll provide as many quotes as you want -- I'd type the whole ugly essay into ideofact if it weren't for my worrying that I'd violate the rights of the translator or publisher and my fear that no matter how stridently I condemned it some anti-Semites would read it as a confirmation of their beliefs.

There are several passages from which I could quote; how about this one for starters:

Whenever the Children of Israel reverted to evil-doing in the Land, punishment awaited them. The Sunnah is resolute here: "If you return, then We return."

And the Jews did indeed return to evil-doing, so Allah gave to the Muslims power over them. The Muslims then expelled them from the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. ... Then the Jews again returned to evil-doing and consequently Allah sent against them others of His servants, until the modern period. Then Allah brought Hitler to rule over them. And once again today the Jews have returned to evil-doing, in the form of "Israel" which made the Arabs, the owners of the Land, taste of sorrows and woe. So let Allah bring down upon the Jews people who will mete out to them the worst kind of punishment, as a confirmation of his unequivocal promise: "If you return, then We return"; and in keeping with His Sunna, which does not vary.

Would you prefer an uglier quote, or does this sufficiently make the point?

Regarding the Tsunami, I'm sorry, but I think you're misinterpreting the reaction of we secular Westerners to the crackpot Imams. I would have no problem with someone saying that terrible as this is, this was God's will and it is not for us to question God, etc. etc. It's when they pretend that the Qur'an is a ouiji board good for catching every little nuance of intent behind God's awesome power that we little satans can't help snickering, laughing, or thinking to ourselves in disgust, "Get over yourself."

Posted by: Bill at January 10, 2005 10:25 PM

Originally I decided that this discussion was not fruitful (I actually emailed you when the site was down earlier to ask you to delete my posts so they wouldn't be misunderstood).

Then when I read your recent post I began to think that you were really misunderstanding at least a part of what Qutb was saying in the quotes you provided so I composed a lengthy discourse going into this idea of what the "sunna" of God is with regard to different peoples and communities in the Qur'anic worldview.

I lost the post and I take this as a sign (at least for now) that I should just leave off the discussion). Maybe if we ever meet in person or if I get my own blog up and running I can try to explain what I think you and some of your readers are missing but it is probably not the best approach to try to do it in the comment format in the context of these writings by Qutb.

And God knows best.

Your brother,

Abu Noor

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 11, 2005 10:09 PM

Abu Noor,

I think I understand the definition of "Sunna" perfectly well, and I don't think it makes a dime's bit of difference.

But I'm happy to entertain any explanation you care to offer. If you want to define Sunna in such a way that can persuade me or my other readers that the above quoted passage is actually a wonderful affirmation of the creed (or whatever other label you'd care to give it) rather than a hateful bit of genocidal cheerleading, I'd be happy to read it.

Posted by: Bill at January 12, 2005 01:35 AM