Comments: 2 Qutb 1

Bill --

In reading your blog for a while now, I have come to respect your breadth of knowledge and most of all your intellectual curiousity.

Your writings about Qutb reflect one major pitfall of these two characteristics which is highly aggravated perhaps by the blog format. That is the lack of intellectual humility to make sure that when one comments on a subject they do so accurately and they try not to make statements about things that are deeply important to people that are just completely false or which completely miss the point.

I believe your commentary on Qutb has one major flaw and one aspect which is a flaw to me but may not be to you.

Most of the problems flow from the fact that it is unclear to me whom you are addressing in your commentary/argument. If you are just trying to convince non-Muslims that Sayyid Qutb's view of the world and prescription for solving its problems does not jive with that of the framers of the U.S. constitution or of George W. Bush or Howard Dean, than that does not really require explication. It is readily admitted by all parties.

If, on the other hand, one is attempting to prove to Muslims that Sayyid Qutb's views do not jive with what the Qur'aan actually says or with the Islaamic tradition, than that is an argument which requires justification. It requires justification based on knowledge of the Islaamic tradition at least if not acceptance of its basic foundations.

For example, the idea that the companions of the Prophet (saw) are the greatest generation is an element of Islaamic belief which is alluded to in the Qur'aan and stated explicitly in the ahadeeth of the Prophet (saw). It is something any Muslim reader (who believes in the tradition) would take as a given.

The fact that you try to argue with the ideas of a man who was a scholar of literary Arabic who dedicated his whole life to the Qur'aan about what the Qur'aan says is a challenging thing to do. You fall flat on your face in rising up to this challenge by making a COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY FALSE statement that the Qur'aan "commands believers to go as far as China to seek out knowledge."

This appears nowhere in the Qur'aan. It is often quoted by some Muslims as a hadith, or saying of the Prophet(saw) but it is agreed by all scholars of hadith that it is not a sound hadith, meaning we do not have conclusive evidence that the Prophet (saw) actually said it.

I think also you should stop and think about Sayyid Qutb's life and reality when you make your comments. This is not to say that his writing doesn't stand up outside of his context, becasue I firmly believe it does. I do believe, however, that even a cursory understanding of his life and reality would make you realize how silly some of your conclusions are.

For example in the first part you state that Sayyid Qutb was simply interested in setting up a fascist totalitarian state with 'lip service to Islam.' This becomes utterly ridiculous when one realizes that He lived in exactly such a society and could have had a position of high power and influence in Nasser's government if he had been willing to accept it as legitimate. Instead, he rejected that society completely and utterly and underwent years of imprisonment, torture and eventual execution rather than say it was acceptable or even mute his criticism which he could have done to save his own life and comfort if he had wished.

I could say much more about your specific points about Qutb, but in the hope that you are actually open to rethinking your point of view, I present these considerations to you.

I don't say that you will agree to Qutb's view -- for I don't see how any person who is not a Muslim could agree to his view. I do think, however, that if someone is willing to take the beliefs of Islaam seriously and really investigates the Qur'aan one will see how Qutb's views flow naturally and in some ways necessarily from the perspective of those who have adopted the Qur'aan as the word of God -- in other words, for the Muslims.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 17, 2003 03:41 PM

My dear sir,

Perhaps the blog format is in part to blame; let me respond to the criticisms you raise.

To begin with, I am a terrible writer, and I pay very little attention to tone or style on ideofact. I rarely revise posts; my work load in my day job (my actual work, the kind I get paid for) is such that most of my posts are composed relatively late at night in between working on other things where I do have to pay attention to style, tone and substance. While I think I am probably capable of expressing intellectual humility, and while I try to be fairly clear that I'm a non-specialist reading books and articles and commenting, it might not always come off.

I read Qutb and I comment on what I've read. I am not persuaded, however, that one cannot criticize Qutb without justifying it according to "knowledge of the Islaamic tradition at least if not acceptance of its basic foundations." I think my quotations from Qutb's own work demonstrate that he pointedly rejected the bulk of that tradition. It is Qutb, after all, who labels the bulk of Islamic thought, philosophy and culture Jahiliyyah. In my (albeit pathetic, non-specialist) understanding, if one accepts that there is no God but Allah, that Mohammad was his last messenger; if one adheres the five pillars of the Islamic faith, then one is a Muslim. If a Muslim happens to be stimulated intellectually by the Poetics of Aristotle or the politics the West, this does not render him something other than Muslim.

Regarding Qutb's argument regarding the Companions, you will surely understand that from my perspective, it is a question open to debate, even on internal grounds. Of the four rightly guided Caliphs, three were assassinated; it appears to me that this greatest generation did not figure out how to develop institutions that could contain the rivalries and jealousies of that first generation. Perhaps it's acceptable to you to solve political problems with the blade of a knife or the barrel of a gun; for most of human history, this was certainly the preferred method.

I agree that in citing the Founders, I was mixing apples and oranges -- in the context of a discussion of Islam, it was certainly inappropriate and might give offense, for which I apologize. As I said, I am a terrible writer, and not a particularly sharp thinker. I raise them simply because they largely solved the problem that neither the Companions, nor Plato or Aristotle, nor the Christian fathers were able to solve: a mechanism for popular sovereignty ensuring maximal freedom. You can be a good Muslim in America, I can pursue my own heterodox musings, my parents can be devout Presbyterians, we can vote candidate X into office over incumbent Y, and not risk losing our heads over any of it. I think this is a seminal achievement in the history of mankind. Jefferson wrote something to the affect that, because of the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, Muslims (I believe he called them Mahometans, which was the style in those days), Jews, Christians, Hindus and infidels of all descriptions would be free to worship according to their conscience in America. I fervently hope that this basic right will be extended, one day, in the Islamic world as well.

I noted in my post that Qutb seeks to recreate that generation of Companions as a solution to the problems of the Islamic world. I haven't mentioned it, but as of this writing there's a poll on the site I've been linking for my commentaries on Milestones, which asks, "What do you think is the main problem of the Muslim World?" The choices are, 1) Lack of Islamic Knowledge; 2) Technological backwardness; 3) Poverty; 4) Nationalism; 5) Sectarian violence. The correct answer, bad government (ranging from tyrannical monarchy to tyrannical dictatorship) is not offered.

You suggest that I don't know enough about Qutb's background. I am well aware that he served in Nasser's education department, and, as you say, had he toed the party line, he could have been a useful, high ranking functionary in a repressive regime. I also know that he spent a fair amount of time in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and came to the conclusion that our society was corrupt, licentious, and worthy of destruction (indeed, that it would end by losing the Cold War to the Soviets and embracing Communsim, because Soviet Communism was the better system). This alone is enough to persuade me that Qutb has little understanding of or consideration for humanity. If one were to grossly generalize, the United States won the Cold War because the morale of those fighting -- our citizens vs. the citizens of the Soviet Union -- was much higher. That's the power of freedom, and it's something Qutb was incapable of understanding.

You also criticize me for suggesting that Qutb follows in the footstops of European totalitarians by writing "This becomes utterly ridiculous when one realizes that He lived in exactly such a society and could have had a position of high power and influence in Nasser's government if he had been willing to accept it as legitimate. Instead, he rejected that society completely and utterly and underwent years of imprisonment, torture and eventual execution rather than say it was acceptable or even mute his criticism which he could have done to save his own life and comfort if he had wished."

I don't know what one has to do with the other. There were plenty of Stalinists executed in Nazi Germany; presumably, they could have had comfortable lives as Nazis. I would also add that, on a qualitative level, the totalitarianism of Qutb is several degrees more virulent than that of Nasser.

You conclude by writing, "if someone is willing to take the beliefs of Islaam seriously and really investigates the Qur'aan one will see how Qutb's views flow naturally and in some ways necessarily from the perspective of those who have adopted the Qur'aan as the word of God -- in other words, for the Muslims."

I will not attempt to respond to this, because I am not a Muslim. But I have a fair number of Muslim readers, and I invite them to respond. Is Qutb correct that Beethoven, Benny Goodman, the Beatles, baseball and Bugs Bunny represent a mortal threat to Islam? That Muslims must remove themselves from the influence of Aristotle, astrophysics, algebra, Louis Armstrong and America?

Posted by Bill at December 18, 2003 12:15 AM

Bill --

Thanks for the seriousness with which you took my comments. I am a little disappointed no one else has waded in so I could perhaps get a little more perspective on how my comments were received by others.

In any event, looking back I think my first comments were a bit harsh. I must say that I was and remain deeply offended by the idea that Qutb was some kind of fascist who simply wished to oppress others. While you are simply not the first to say that about Qutb, nor are you the first to label "Islamists" generally with that brush -- I was hoping that you had more of an understanding of Islam and Muslim people than the typical neocon or paleocon blowhard.

As someone who took Islaam seriously, Sayyid Qutb was devoted to submission to God. In the political sphere, a sphere to which he devoted much attention, he was mainly concerned with removing oppression and tyranny of one human or a group of humans over others. In Islaam he found as had many before and many after him, that these two spheres were necessarily linked and seemed to come together perfectly in the idea that in true submission to God one would put God in His proper position over all creation and also put all creation in its proper subservient role. He wanted to solve the problem of human tyranny by making all men submit to God.

There are many possible criticisms of this from the perspective of the disbeliever -- some of which you hint at -- or even from the perspective of a believer -- some of which you also hint at. My emotional response resulted from the fact that while hinting at these critiques you seemed to emphasize a more direct critique suggesting that Qutb personally was out for power to run other people's lives. It is that charge, often levelled at Islamists, that I find silly upon reflection. However wrong headed you may find Qutb to be, or however much you may think that what he calls for would be disastrous, I don't see the grounds either in his writing or his life story for doubting his sincerity.

I also think your presentation of the issue regarding Qutb's emphasis on making the Qur'aan the pure source of guidance for one's life misconstrues the issue involved.

Muslims believe that the beauty of God's language in the Qur'aan and the power of the arguments God makes based on his deep knowledge of the human being as its Creator will always be infinitely stronger than any false human contentions about the world. In fact, it is on this basis that God is just in judging those who have received the message of Islaam yet turn away from it and deny it and in punishing those people. This does not imply that no one will be effected by those other influences and those other falsehoods.

While I believe white racial superiority is a silly way to look at the world and does not hold up to comparison with the idea of human brotherhood, I do not believe that this means no one upon hearing the two presented will be influenced by racist ideas. Now, if I was to write of the importance of raising our children based not on the ideas of racism and white superiority, but solely based on ideas which come out of the idea of the brotherhood of humanity -- would that mean that I somehow distrust the power of the brotherhood argument to win out??

So, undoubtedly Muslims will be influenced by ideas of secular humanism, materialism, Christianity, Judaism, atheism, nihilism, communism, etc. etc. Qutb saw this clearly in his own time and place where the ruling parties which claimed to be Muslims in some sense, based their ruling on ideas of nationalism, communism, and other imported ideologies resulting in governments which surely did not reflect Islam. So he looked to the example of the Companions and saw them as being people who were only influenced by Islam. They were exposed to other things, they even had a whole culture they were coming out of that they had been born and raised in, but they let Islam be their criterion for judging everything, including their own culture. If God told them to stop drinking, they stopped without thinking about how much drinking was a part of their culture because they had been taught to judge their culture by Islam, not the other way around. When God told them it was a great blessing to have daughters and to raise them well, they turned away from their past practice of infanticide of girls and social shame attached to girls. When God told them that all the Muslims were brothers, they gave their possessions and opened their homes to people from other tribes who migrated to Madinah. When God told them that no white person was superior to black person (on the basis of race) they esteemed Bilaal as one of their leaders and the Caller to prayer, though he had been a slave before Islam.

When Muslims began again to mix in cultural ideas of their own or other cultures, they began to fall away from these high Islamic standards. They began to manifest racism and tribalism and later nationalism. They turned to communism or other fashionable western ideologies.

Some of the harshest criticisms you probably have of the Taliban, result from the fact that some of their policies may result more from tribal culture than any true understanding of Islam. This is EXACTLY what Qutb is warning against in this chapter when he talks about the Jahilliya being so deep that what we now engage in practices of ignorance and label them as Islaam.

Again, the fact that you don't believe in the Qur'aan becomes paramount. Benny Goodman, the Beatles and Baseball obviously pose no threat to Islaam. Do they pose a threat to some Muslim's faith? Of course so. On the mundane level someone could begin to think that listening to the Beatles was more important than listening to the Qur'aan or praying. Now, obviously this would most likely be a person with a weak faith but there are many of us like that. Of course you seem to be consciously trying to stick to cultural influences you hope will be seen as a benign, although no doubt in each there are ideas and worldviews contrary to what Islaam teaches.

Many people are led away faith in God, by drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc. Does this mean that Islam or Christianity or Judaism is to weak to withstand those influences. Not if one has a strong faith in God.

I know this is a popular argument of people who think Islam is too harsh. Are Muslim men so weak that they can't stand to see women's arms without lusting after them? Or to have women's ankles exposed without turning away. The Muslim looks on a the idea that one should make all types of vices freely available from women to alcohol to drugs to gambling to whatever and let the strong ones turn away and let the weak ones suffer as positively strange. What person in their right mind wouldn't want to make it easier for people to be good???

But, therein lies the rub. You don't really think there's anything wrong with a little gambling. Or a little drinking. Or a little drugs, for those who want it of course. Or a little fornication. Or a lot of abortion. Or a lot of adultery (all men cheat, right?). Or a little insulting of Prophet Jesus. Or Moses. Or Muhammad. I know you don't -- but the Muslim does. The Muslim sees these things as evils we should all struggle against. This is because God tells us these things are evil. God tells to avoid them, to avoid going near them, to try to remove them from society.

Can one listen to the Beatles and not believe drugs and fornication is okay? Sure, but it would be difficult to try and argue that the Beatles are not presenting a view of the world that argues that those things are okay. IF it is, then it only makes sense that one who wants to create a different type of world would argue that one should not take their ideas and thoughts and emotions from people who never read the Qur'an but instead take it from the Qur'an from God directly.

Anyway, I hope at least you read this Bill. I hope it made you understand where I'm coming from and the problem I see with your argument. Obviously it was a kind of rambling stream of thoughts and it was meant to convey a feeling so it might not stand up to sentence by sentence scrutiny. I don't really want to go back and read it or edit although I probably should.

My first part should make more sense. Please consider as you continue to read Qutb.

Thankyou for making me re read Qutb and making me think about these things.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 22, 2003 07:23 PM

Sorry no one else commented -- that's what you get for investing so much effort in such an obscure corner of the blogosphere!

Regarding the points you raise -- first, let's begin with the idea of consensual government established in a Muslim country, with the rule of law, elections, democracy and republicanism combined much as it is the United States or Europe. I'd hardly expect (or desire) that the first pressing issue for that government would be deciding between civil unions or marriage rights for homosexuals. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, the majority of whom happened to be Muslim, would no doubt look a little different than either America or Europe (for what it's worth, some Europeans view us Americans as being little more sophisticated than those tribal Taliban).

But there's a difference between that and what Qutb has argued for. I've noted before that he approvingly quoted 'Uthman: "Allah restrains man more by the means of the ruler than by the means of the Qur'an." (It's on page 94 of my edition of Social Justice in Islam.) It seems to me that this runs entirely counter to the ideas you are suggesting, and this frankly is the really fuzzy part of Islamism. And remember that I do not mean to insult the Companions or the Prophet; nor do I mean to diminish the power of the Qur'an, its language or its message. I am certainly a non-believer, but a respectful one. But Qutb seems to deal in a bit of bait and switch. On the one hand, he writes of the Companions -- in the second chapter of Milestones, movingly so -- and the transformation of the community on hearing the Qur'an, particularly in the Meccan period. I think he goes on at some length about how laws and police were unnecessary, because people's hearts had been so changed.

How does one go about recreating that? Well, Qutb's answer seems to be the ruler. But what if the ruler ends up being a Saddam, building temples to his vanity while his people starve (or are shot in the back of the head)? Does Qutb offer any mechanism to counter that?

You seem to have assumed a fairly great deal about my personal beliefs. I don't think I've ever said, one way or another, what I think of abortion (although I did criticize a journalist once for being seemingly unable to distinguish between a fanatic who murdered an abortion doctor and his supporters, who threatened to murder those duly elected members of government who tried, convicted and executed him), let alone drinking (I don't mind the occasional drink, but I'm generally quite moderate in my consumption), gambling (never personally cared for it -- I blow more than enough money on books), drugs, fornication, or adultery. (I happen to take my wedding vows quite seriously.)

Regarding insulting religious figures, I don't think I do too much of that. I don't write terribly much about Jesus, for example, but rather translators of the Bible or theologians, whose ideas are certainly open to critique. Which leads me to another question: Whose Jesus (or Moses, for that matter) are we talking about here? The Jesus of the Gospels or the Qur'an?

Which ultimately ties into your question, "What person in their right mind wouldn't want to make it easier for people to be good?" Well, maybe if I were a Medieval crusader, I'd think it would be easier for people to be good if every copy of the Qur'an were burnt on a pyre. If I were a Calvinist, I might think it would be easier for people to be good if I burnt those who deny the trinity at the stake. If I were a Catholic, I might think it would be easier for people to be good if the Jews books were burnt, or if heterodox thinkers like Giardano Bruno was burnt at the stake.

You seem to be a sincere believer; please understand that I am just as sincere in my doubts, and others are just as sincere in believing things that you don't. Or, to put it another way, you might think it's good to make it easier for me to be good, but I tend to think I can sing "Yellow Submarine" in the car with the five year old on the way to school and not jeapordize my (or more importantly his) immortal soul.

Posted by Bill at December 23, 2003 03:19 AM

Thanks for the great response Bill.

I think you have come upon a real good issue for thought in terms of the relationship between the idea of government coercion and free choice.

I think Islamism generally and Qutb as one example has both strands involved: we wish to transform human beings through a variety of means, preaching, social services, prayer, fasting, charity, kindnesss, etc. etc. to want to live their lives as Muslims. We realize that a government forcing people to pretend to be Muslims who don't really believe or who don't agree on our understanding of Islamic practice is counter productive to our true concern which is people's hereafter.

At the same time, however, we do not see why it is considered somehow morally wrong or inappropriate for government to work for moral causes (to enjoin what is good and forbid what is wrong) and for government to promote religious practice and act against sin and blasphemy carried out in the open. We see these, in fact, as responsibilities of any government.

I think Qutb has both these strands in his thought. This is why he is so widely influential amongst serious Muslims today. His tafseer (explanation of the Qur'aan) is definitely one of the most popular and widely read today in many different languages, including English. What gets me sometimes emotional is that he is painted in the mainstream media as the 'brains of Bin Laden' somehow implying that he was a terrorist mastermind or that his ideas necessarily lead one to terrorism. I think this is far from true.

In fact, I think if you look at the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) during his time you will see they were interested in peacefully educating the public to their point of view and only trying to really change government when they had most of the society with them. (Read Zaninab al-Ghazali's "Return of the Pharoah" for a first person account of the time available in English).

Obviously, the brutal torture and complete supression used by the Egyptian and other Arab governments resulted in many turning to violence where no other outlet was given for their thought.

The unfortunate thing is that the lesson does not seemed to have been learned by anybody that that type of government repression is counterproductive and in itself immoral. There is no doubt that the vicious actions of the U.S. government, many of the Arab governments (esp. Saudi, Egypt, Syria) and the Central Asian republics of the former USSR (where dictatorship and torture of political Islamists is the rule) will lead necessarily to more violence not less. While one can understand and support the desire to jail or otherwise neutralize terrorists who wish to harm innocent people, the fact that in every case most of the people killed, imprisoned and otherwise hurt are either peaceful Islamists or completely innocent civilians can only lead to a certain percentage of those people turning to violence.

So, while I think most of us Islamists have serious issues with democracy as a theory if it implies sovereinty of the people, 99 % of us are willing to agree that all dictators, kings, tyrants, and stooges of foreign corporations and governments should be removed, and as long as free preaching of Islam, including political Islam is allowed, we would be willing to work for the consent of the people before implementing our ideas.

I apologize for the way I worded part of my last post. As I said it was just stream of consciousness and although it seemed personally directed at you, was not really meant to be. I did not necessarily assume any position on your part on the issues I mentioned other than that although you may be personally opposed to some, I think you value 'freedom' enough that you wish such things to be allowed in society. I do equate that, from the perspective of a believing Muslim, to treating them as not a big deal, although I realize you believe in allowing people choice for more noble reasons. I apologize if I offended you or if my characterization was more of a caricature. You have maintained a higher standard of discussion and didn't deserve that. As I said, though, I did want to get across to you a feeling which I freely admitted might not really stand up to sentence by sentence analysis but I think has a truth to it in terms of feeling.

So I definitely think we're a little closer together than I thought orginally. I hope you agree. My main wish really is for you to recognize the sincerity of Qutb and those like him, and see that many of their motives were noble even in your sight, and while you may completely disagree, I hope you don't paint them as monsters who have feelings and ideas 'normal people' can't understand.

I'll agree with you that 'Yellow submarine' is probably pretty harmless, although obviously you've deliberately chosen a pretty meaningless song. (or maybe I just never knew what the song was really about) I would say that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Imagine, or almost any song in today's Billboard Hot 100 if one accepted the ideas and values presented in those songs, would surely be a threat to one's mortal soul. Now can one listen to a song without accepting its values -- sure, but again the point Qutb is making is where does one take one's values from.
Anyway, I don't want to go off on another tangent.

Thanks for the discussion Bill. I actually believe I've come to understand at least my own position more clearly.


Abu Noor al-Irlandee

Posted by Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 23, 2003 01:41 PM

Obviously the above should have read 'would be a threat to one's IMMORTAL soul.

Posted by Abu Noor al-Irlandee at December 23, 2003 01:46 PM