February 08, 2005

4 Qutb 1:2

Note: 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, and returns now to its look at The Islamic Concept and Its Characteristics; for prior posts in this series, see here.

Ahmed Ali, in his translation of the Qur'an, renders the 75th ayah of the third Surah, the Family of Imran, thusly:

There are some among the people of the Book
who return a whole treasure entrusted to them;
yet some there are who do not give back a dinar
until you demand and insist,
because they say: "It is not a sin for us
to (usurp) the rights of the Arabs."
Yet they lie against God, and they know it.

The passage comes after several ayat that discuss, in turn, Christians, Jews or both groups (the mysterious Sabeans are absent from the discussion); its meaning seems fairly clear: that some Christians and some Jews will return a treasure; others will cheat you, but doing so violates the tenets of their own religion (which it surely does -- "Thou shalt not steal" does not have fine print suggesting that the commandment is void where prohibited, results may vary, some sold separately, and does not apply to Arabs).

I would not presume to go further -- Qur'anic exegesis is something beyond the poor powers of my altogether limited cultural knowledge. Nonetheless, I think I can fairly say that Sayyid Qutb's reading of the same ayah should make us, at the very least, scratch our heads.

In the first chapter of The Islamic Concept and Its Characteristics, the title of which is translated as "The Wilderness and the Intellectual Rubbish," Qutb tries to explain the barbarism of the world into which Islam was introduced. Interestingly, he spends most of his time denouncing not the pagan Arab polytheists (who were, after all, the chief adversaries of the Prophet*), but rather Christians and Jews. It is the latter group, the Jews, that leads Qutb (an enthusiastic Jew hater) to cite the aforementioned ayah:

Their ethnic mania was such that they believed that God was their tribal deity! This god of theirs does not call them to account concerning their moral behavior except when they deal with each other. As far as strangers, that is, non-Jews, are concerned, he does not hold them accountable for their shameful behavior toward them.

There follows the 3:75, the above quoted ayah, to "confirm" Qutb's characterization of Jews. That some of these Jews will return a treasure, that all of them should know that their religion demands they deal ethically with strangers, that the verse seems to apply equally to Christians and Jews, is of little concern to Qutb. I have often heard that Qutb was a first-rate interpreter of the Qur'an -- I didn't realize that creativity played so large a measure in his reputation.

*--boneheaded homonym confusion corrected (thanks Aziz!)

Posted by Ideofact at February 8, 2005 01:02 AM

Would the Jews and Christians have been considered Arabs?

Posted by: praktike at February 8, 2005 04:26 PM

I'm not sure -- I suppose that the Christians might have been Arabs (one would presume that, ethnically, the Jews weren't).

This is a translation, though, and other versions I've seen don't use the word "Arab."

Posted by: Bill at February 8, 2005 05:54 PM

"Arab" in the Qur'an refers exclusively to the nomadic peoples. The Arabic, however, does not say "Arab," but rather "sabil." Hans Wehr doesn't give an appropriate definition, so it's probably an obscure term we just don't fully understand. "Ibn as-Sabil" means "vagabond, traveller." A. Yusuf Ali, considered by Muslims I know to be the best English-language edition, has "They say, 'There is no call/ On us (to keep faith)/ With these igorant (Pagans)'"

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at February 8, 2005 09:29 PM


Good try, but you also missed it.

The Arabic says: dhalika bi-annahum qaaloo laysa 'alayna fil-'umiyyeena sabeelun....

That is so because they say there does not lie on us, regarding the unscripted, any guilt.

Sabeelun here does not refer to the people, its meaning is 'guilt.' (Although the most common meaning as you alluded to is 'way, path or road.')
The people are referred to as 'umiyyeena' which means literally illiterate but is used often Qur'anically as here to refer to people who had not been given a scripture from God, here the Arabs.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 8, 2005 11:41 PM

That makes sense. I didn't read the whole thing carefully, and thought I saw "Amin," as the word translated as "faith," which upon reflection would be rather odd. Quranic Arabic is hard...

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at February 8, 2005 11:53 PM

"chief adversaries of the Profit"

grin. It actually makes sense, for what is Islam but a means to profit, in spiritual terms?

who knew that the MT spellchecker had such Sufic leanings?

Posted by: Aziz at February 9, 2005 01:55 PM

Bill, I think it is a case of Qutb citing to an ayah to demonstrate support for his contention although clearly the ayah may not fully back up what he is saying upon examination, depending on the context of his original point.

Interestingly enough, here is exactly what Qutb says regarding this verse in "In The Shade of the Qur'an"

"The nature of some Jews and Christians is then further examined, together with their ethical standards and their commitment to agreements and covenants. There is no doubting the honesty and integrity of many of them, but some are not to be trusted or relied on to honor an agreement or respect a pledge. These find religious justification for their greed and deceit, but their religions are not to be blamed for such behavior."

I was going to emphasize certain points, but then I just realized the whole thing would be emphasized, since all of it seems consonant with exactly what you said, Bill, and I don't think you can disagree with any of it.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 9, 2005 09:37 PM

In glancing at "The Islamic Concept..., it seems to me that Qutb is citing the verse in support of the contention that among the Jewish people there had developed a notion that since they were a 'chosen people' they were not accountable for certain wrongdoings towards others outside of their group.

To deny that this was an attitude of at least some classical Jewish torah and legal scholars with regard to certain issues in Jewish law is simply to deny reality and history that is clear for all to see.

Incidentally the same attitude would later surface amongst many Muslims as well. In fact, the most interesting point to note here is that the Children of Israel before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) are in fact Muslims and they were the Muslim community before the sending of Muhammad (saw) as the final Prophet.

It is in that context that one must see the Qur'anic commentary regarding the Children of Israel. To the extent that Qutb sometimes loses sight of that, I think he is missing the major point. Although in reading his works, at least to the Muslim reader, this concept is often clear. I have to re-read to really see about this.

Also, your commentary gives the impression that Qutb is somehow seizing only on Jewish people and ignoring the other 'People of the Book,' the Christians. Instead, (and this may not endear Qutb any more to your readers) Qutb says two pages after the quote you bring, "Christianity was no better than Judaism, and, in fact, was even worse and more bitter.

The main criticisms made of both are their theological beliefs and attitudes towards God. I know you may not want to focus on those because that is not your interest, but by picking on these side issues, although you may make some valid criticisms, you are completely and totally missing the argument that Qutb is actually making. (Which, I suspect, will not strike you as too great of a loss.)

And God knows best.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 9, 2005 09:56 PM

Abu Noor,

You're really being silly in your defense of Qutb here.

First, he cites the Qur'anic verse in question in order to support the statement I quoted -- there's no other way to read that passage. In my copy, Qutb's critique of Jews continues for another two full pages before he gets to the transitional "the Christians are even worse" passage. It's simply ridiculous to imply that Qutb was invoking 3:75 to criticize both Christians and Jews.

As to the contention that Qutb was referring to certain Jewish legal traditions, then why, pray tell, did he not say so? Presumably he wasn't so stupid as to be unable to express such a simple concept. He quotes the Old Testament in several places, and he begins his discussion of Judaism with this bit of nonsense: "Judaism, the religion of the Children of Israel, was full of pagan concepts ..." Qutb does not refer to any legal traditions -- and if you have the book in front of you, you can see that for yourself.

Posted by: Bill at February 9, 2005 11:30 PM

Aziz --

Oops. Thanks for pointing out the mistake (not exactly a typo, but I'm going to pretend that's what it was -- you'd think I could keep my homonyms strait buy now...

Posted by: Bill at February 9, 2005 11:33 PM


If he is not referring to Jewish legal traditions, then what do you think he is referring to?

The point I was making is that he makes a series of claims about Jewish attitudes the last one being that they thought it was okay to commit certain injustices against non-Jews, then he quotes the verse. So my point was it seems to me that the verse is primarily designed to back up this last point. Of course, I could be wrong.

I may be reading a little too much into Qutb to make it more palatable, but I'm just trying to make it consistent with other writings of this, like the explanation of the verse I quoted to you from "In the Shade of the Qur'an." To me, this is more beneficial than just simply attributing his statements to nonsensical anti-Jewish rantings, but as I said, God knows best the truth of the matter.

As to whether Judaism was full of pagan concepts, that of course depends on what one means by Judaism. Obviously neither I nor Qutb believe that the religion brought by Moses contained any pagan concepts.

I would ask you, however, what exactly you find nonsensical about the statement that the religion of the Children of Israel was full of pagan concepts. In the short article I found at the Jewish Virtual Library, a project of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise entitled "The Birth and Evolution of Judaism: National Monolatry and Monotheism" I found the following clearly pagan concepts attributed to the Children of Israel in this time period. First, that they had many gods besides Yahweh, but Yahweh was just the primary god. Second, that they after the flight from Egypt, adopted Yahweh as their "national god." (exactly what Qutb is talking about). Thirdly, that they attributed to God many anthropomorphic qualities. Fourthly, they claim that this religion did not believe in an afterlife. I don't know what Pagan means to you, but to a Muslim (and any believer in Moses, I would submit) it's difficult to imagine classifying such beliefs anything other than pagan.

Again, I don't attribute any of this to Moses (as) or to those who actually followed his message, but as we know from the Bible and the Qur'an Moses had an enormous and constant difficulty in trying to get his ummah (community) to follow the message that he brought.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 10, 2005 10:45 AM

In regards to the comments about Christians, my point was NOT that he was using this verse to refer to Christians, but just to show that he was critiquing all of the other traditions present and not just 'picking on' the Jews.

By the way, all the commentaries I have read about this verse, if they go into any detail, discuss it in reference to Jews rather than Christians. My suspicion is this is for two reasons,

1. First, because it does allude to religious legal tradition, of which the Jewish (like the Islamic) is much more developed than the Christian)

2. Second, because during the life of the Prophet (saw) the Muslims did not really have much conflict with Christians. They had conclift with pagan Arabs and (at the end of his life) with Jews. Of course, soon after the Prophet's death, the primary conflict for many hundreds of years would be with Christians, but this simply was not the case on the Arabian Peninsula itself.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at February 10, 2005 10:50 AM

I suggest you reread what Qutb wrote, and the passage used to support it. One does not track the other.

I believe, incidentally, that traditional Jewish interpretations of the Torah hold that God revealed himself to the Jews gradually; first that he was their God, and they his chosen people, and later that he was the sole, universal God. Qutb's quarrel is really then with God, and not the Jews. And, in any event, at the time the verse we are discussing was written, the time of the introduction of Islam, Jews did not believe they were worshipping one tribal deity among many. Nor does the verse suggest anything of the kind.

And that is the Judaism to which Qutb is referring: "We shall confine ourselves therefore to giving a few examples from the religious concepts of Judaism and Christianity in the form in which they had reached the Arabian penninsula..."

In any event, how is it a that a verse -- which appears to me to be saying that some People of the Book are honest, and some are not, and these latter sometimes say their religions justify dishonesty, but this is false -- is used by Qutb to justify the statement he makes?

Qutb looks for as much hatred and vitriol wherever he can find it.

Posted by: Bill at February 10, 2005 11:54 AM