Friday, September 26, 2008

Perspective - studying a scholarly militant - Saffir Qtub

Watching the political free-for-all, it is evident to anyone who determines to be even relatively impartial that all political judgments depend on where you stand. A very liberal relative said to me the other day "How can you vote for him [McCain]?" The same day a conservative friend said to me, "I don't know one person that likes him [Obama]". Actually, I get both a lot.

Having watched the debate last night, I say again that we have two very decent candidates this time. Even though I favor the one I see as more moderate, I don't deny that I have my biases as well. Mark Twain said something like - if you wan't to be honest, you have to start out by admitting you are a liar. In the same way, if you want to try and see things clearly, you better know where your biases lie.

Actually, in the big picture, most politicians in America don't stand so far apart anymore. The partisanship and competition for power makes it seem much worse than it is. For example, when the civil rights acts started passing in the 60s, a large number of Southern political figures, including congressmen and senators, got together to issue the Southern Manifesto, decrying the legislation, their loss of freedom and a perceived betrayal of states rights. I doubt you could get even one successful politician in America today to say the civil rights acts were a bad thing. They couldn't get re-elected. If there are exceptions, I'd like to know.

Of course, non-Americans, not raised here, and not thinking that this is the best country that ever was, have a different perspective. Sometimes that perspective shocks us, but it shouldn't.

One of the most influential thinkers in the last century is not a household name -- Sayyid Qutb (“pole of universe”), whose name usually rings no bells even with Americans who are well versed in international affairs and even when they have actually read about him in the occasional article in the past. You will see his name translated from the Arabic in various ways.

Besides his name being strange to our ears, he has been dead for over 40 years and his legacy is represented by much more ominous and frightening figures to us such as Osama bin Laden and members of the Muslim Brotherhood (or Society of Muslim Brothers; take your pick - the real name is in Arabic).

Qutb, whose brother was a bin Laden mentor, is one of the best known, if not the single best known, commentator on the Koran in the Sunni Arabic world, and, he is most appreciated by the mujahideen (“strugglers”) and other Islamic militants.

I’ve heard it argued that we don’t need to understand our enemy, just kill them, but, as even such military figures as General Petraeus believe we cannot win a military victory in Iraq without winning hearts and minds too, it is, in my humble opinion, essential that we understand where they are coming from, so that we can combat it.

A lttle biography first. Qutb was born in Egypt 1906 (so, he'd be likely dead in any event) and executed by his country in 1966. Much of his later life was spent in prison where he wrote his major work. He attended what we would call a madrassah and could recite the Koran by age 10, to the delight of his very religious parents. He was educated at a westernized university, Dar al-Ulum, graduating in 1933, after which he began teaching and working in the Ministry of Education. In order to learn the American education system, he came here and studied at two schools and received his master’s degree. He was already a published author back home.

Qutb was disgusted by what he believed was the materialistic and sensual nature of our culture, and this was over 50 years ago, way before the so-called sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. It was not that he found nothing admirable in our culture. According to him, our scientific and economic achievements were impressive, but our value system was “primitive”. He wrote about it in his “The America I Have Seen”.

When he returned to his Egypt he joined The Muslim Brotherhood which was founded by his former classmate, Hasan al-Banna. Al Banna had already been assassinated by Egypt when he returned. The Muslim Brotherhood was dedicated to an Islam dominated society under Shari’ah law and was, not surprisingly, very anti-Western. It was the first of the Islamisist groups and still rivals Al-Quaeda in importance. It operates in many countries, sometimes illegally. It is not a political organization and operates as by different names in different countries. For example, although illegal in Egypt (although it exists and is quite popular), the political party Hamas controls the Gaza strip in the Palestinian territories. The Brotherhood's philosophy fit well with Qutb’s vision, although as of about 40 years ago, the society supposedly foreswore the use of violence for change (I won't argue the question here).

Qutb began editing the Brotherhood's newspaper and became one of their leaders. They began working closely with Gamal Nassar's Free Officers Movement. Nassar opposed the Egyptian monarchy and made a successful coup in ’52. But he was not an Islamicist. A couple of years after he was in power Qutb and other leading Brotherhood members were arrested.

He was released, then arrested again, and spent the next ten years in prison. Although he claims he was tortured, and I imagine he was, he managed to write In the Shade of the Koran, his 8 volume commentary on the Koran. It is hard to see how he could do so without some cooperation from his keepers. He also published his most popular book, Milestones, which incorporated parts of The Shade along with letters from prison.

Freed again, he was re-arrested the next year and finally executed in 1966. It is difficult to say whether he was involved in any violence or actively plotted against the government himnself. His manner of Jihad seemed to be the pen, by which he hoped to persuade others of his vision of Islam. It was certainly more useful to them than if he had picked up a gun.

I summarize his philosophy for you, gleaned from a number of sources which review his works. I have to admit, I have not read Qutb firsthand, but I’ve read the Koran twice and have no problem understanding his interpretation given the premise that the Koran is actually the word of God. In fact, I would argue that interpretations of Islam which differ from his, and concentrate on the peaceful nature of Islam have deviated from its text. However, I must add that I find this true of other religions, and I am always grateful for their deviation to more peaceful, and less literal, interpretations. We could not follow the words of the Bible, even the New Testament , to the t and retain enlightenment principles in our modern society.

The Koran is not much like the Old Testament, which recalls the history of the Hebrew people, or the New Testament, which tells the life of Christ and his ministry, and that of his most immediate followers, although some figures from both of those older books, like Moses and Jesus, were included in a different sense. The Koran is a series of lectures aimed at persuading that belief in Allah and following his instructions leads to paradise and everything else leads to eternal damnation. Mohammad claimed it was dictated to him by the archangel Gabriel in installments, and is the word of God.

First, a very short summary of Qutb's interpretation: Allah is sovereign and is the sole authority. Man’s purpose is to be his servant on earth, to spread out and live according to Allah’s direction. There is no compromising on it (this can be easily gleaned from reading almost any section of the Koran). Man was superior to the angels, who were ordered to prostrate themselves before him. One angel, Iblis (our Satan), refused. This set in motion a lengthy battle between men under Islamic regimes and those living in Jahili societies or Jahiliyyah.

But Allah made it easy for mankind to defeat the enemy. All he need do is follow Allah’s directions as contained in the Koran. Of course, men can screw anything up, and when Adam ate the apple, he lost the first of many battles to Iblis and they were both cast from heaven to earth.

Allah did not destroy man for this failure. He forgave him, but directed him to follow his rules, and allowed him dominion over the earth. Not only that, but he made it easier by sending a number of prophets, the last of whom is Mohammad, to earth, in order to keep us on the right course. Some of the names of these prophets or guides are familiar to us from the Bible – Noah, Lot, Moses and Jesus. Others, Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, we must learn about from the Koran (or, feel free, Wikipedia).

As should be well known by now (although our most famous television commentators seemed totally ignorant of Islam even after 9/11) Islam means "submission". In order to submit one must confess to the faith with "La ilaha illa Allah," i.e., "There is no god except Allah". Other religions have similar pronouncements.

Islam is, Qutb tells us, a substantively comprehensive program and includes everything in society: religion, morals,laws, etc. However, it is not technically exclusive by choice. Activities which were not proscribed or prescribed by the Koran were left to men's choice. That being said, there is much Islam does prescribe and proscribe, and that must be followed to the letter.

Here’s where Qutb’s perspective becomes interesting to us, even if repugnant. We think of the United States as a beacon of freedom. Qutb believes we have substituted our allegiance to God by substituting men in his place and have thereby lost our freedom to submit only to God’s will. If we obey the man made laws of society, which are contrary to Islamic law, or Shar’iah, then we have created a jahili society.

Thus, to follow our revered constitution is to worship it and its institutions, like the president or our law courts, and is a sin, as it places false gods on a level with Allah. To you and I, nowhere else is a Muslim so free to practice his faith as in America. Yet, Qutb holds that since a Muslim cannot enforce Shari’ah or use public means to convert non-believers to Islam, he is not free at all. In fact, he is a slave and probably living a delusional life. Thus, to a Muslim who thinks as Qutb, our first amendment, freedom of expression, religion, etc., requires our slavery.

Yet, what we would consider slavery, Qutb sees as freedom according to our true nature. In fact, Qutb saw our society’s separation of church and state as a type of schizophrenia. Moreover, Jews and Christians, whom the Koran held originally to be people of the book, have created jahili societies and will be punished for them on judgment day.

Take, for example, the Jews and Christians. Originally, they were following a true religion but lost their way, misinterpreting Moses’ laws and screwing up their rituals. Jesus was sent to reform the religion, but not to create a new one with him as a central figure. He was killed by the Jews for his purposes. The fallout between the Jews and the Christians led to an underground Christianity which lost Christ’s true message and even his history became lost. The Christians substituted for it irrational rituals and beliefs, such as the eucharist and transubstantiation.

The divine Mosaic law was thus lost and Christianity became a spiritual movement only. That may intuitively seem like a good thing from our perspective, but it is not from Qutb’s view, as, for him, if the religion is not tied to the law, the society is still partially, at least, jahili. Worse still, St. Paul, a major force in Christianity, incorrectly coupled pagan Platonism to Christ's message. This, actually, was also a complaint of some of the so-called heretical Christian sects and others. To Qutb, Paul's mythological Christianity led to a complete loss of the divine law passed down through Moses and Christ.

As an example of how spirituality is not enough, he believed Christianity continued to fail because of its adoption of monasticism in the middle ages. Monasticism could not be a complete society because monks took themselves out of society and thus were no longer God’s regent on earth.

The separation of religion from social order occurred because the church adopted irrational beliefs and discredited science (I recognize in writing this that even in Qutb’s time, our Judeo-Christian society had created atomic energy, had electrified its society and was soon to fly to the moon, whereas Islamic societies were still relatively primitive by comparison. To argue the contrary is counter-intuitive, some might even, say, plain dumb. I am merely reporting Qutb’s perspective, not advocating it). The Protestants did no better as they brought into greater existence the separation between the church and the governing bodies.

Qutb was a believer in some of the same things you believe in, like private property, although his views did not square with Western views at all. To Qutb, private property is held in trust for Allah and must be used by its owner to benefit the true Muslim society at large. This may seem counter-intuitive to you. However, Islam emphasizes charity and it makes sense from his perspective. He was not a communist though. Frankly, he did not see much difference between communists and capitalists because they were both solely materialistic societies to him, lacking a spiritual side (just as early Christianity lacked a non-spiritual side). Given his acceptance of Qtubian influences, it is easy to see how bin Laden can readily donate his riches to what we call terrorist causes.

Although Qutb believed that rationality was important (and, remember, criticized
Christianity for its lack of rationality) the purpose of man’s intelligence was not an end all. It was so that he could believe in God. The message seems to be circular in some sense. It all comes back to belief in Allah and following the rules as set down in the Koran as everything. Again, this is perfectly consistent with the Koran.

Qutb took this same approach to many other of our beliefs, such as pragmatism (which
brings about moral relativism as a function of chasing the buck). What we see as tolerance (e.g., the acceptance of sexual deviance) he sees it as animalistic behavior which pre-existed the Mosaic law.

Not surprisingly, one of the central tenets of Qutb’s beliefs is that the degeneration of the family system is a microcosm of societal ills. Again, the purpose of family is subordinate to a belief in Allah. The family was designed in order to prepare children to believe in Allah and follow his rules. Men and women have different roles, which are familiar to you and needs no description. The supposed subordination of child rearing to sexuality (definitely not the mother’s I know) is, of course, at the root of it.

Here’s a description of the problem by Qtub from The America I Have Seen:

"The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she knows all this and does not hide it . . . Then she adds to all this the fetching laugh, the naked looks, and the bold moves, and she does not ignore this for one moment or forget it!"

Hard to see that as a bad thing, and impossible to know what someone who wrote so sensuously of it really felt, but he saw it as a bad thing. He felt much the same about American men and also homosexuality, but feminism seems to have an especially malevolent effect on him. Women’s sexuality and dedication to working at the expense of child rearing go against their nature and the word of Allah.

In his view, only Islamic law gives women freedom. They should have equal rights to the degree that they agree with their nature as Allah gave them. That is, motherhood and raising children is their ultimate purpose. It is not clear but seems possible that unmarried woman or those without children might vote in his utopia.

Unlike other Muslim school’s of thought which seek to find common ground with Western values, Qtub’s understanding of jihad – i.e., struggle, is not just an inward one, but is a military one dedicated to destroying jahili societies. Indeed, Qtub, reasonably, given his perspective of the ultimate goal -- a society dedicated to God, sees jihad as encompassing both perspectives.

The Koran orders its followers to fight non-believers until they submit to Allah. It is hard to take this as metaphysical command given the violent examples utilized by the Koran. Jihad is a broad concept to Qtub (and to many militants) and serves as a bridge between the jahili society and an Islamic one. The Muslim who gives his life for Allah in jihad will be amply rewarded in the afterlife.

Although one would think that the late Iranian ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, would have had a more militant view of jihad than a philosophical type such as Qutb, but he didn’t. Khomeini shared the belief that there was an internal and external form of Jihad, but he believed that the internal struggle needed to be made first. Sort of a clean your own house first theme. Qutb believed that the man’s nature is such that he needs the environment of Islam to prepare him internally to make the struggle. Thus, violent overthrow of jahilli societies comes first. Failing to wage jihad by a man is not just a personal failure. It fails the miscreant’s duty to his fellow man to provide them with an Islamic society.

Given this predilection for violent jihad, it is hard to see how Qtub would not believe in forceful conversion (which, I am sad to say, is proselytized by some Americans with respect to Muslims). While, for him, the institutions of jahili societies must be destroyed, and there may be killing involved, that will not be used to persuade those who do not believe to submit to Allah. Mohammad prohibited killing woman and children, looting, mutilation and torture, unless it was necessary to overthrow the enemy. Naturally, that is a tail that can easily wag any dog and is certainly not limited to militant Islam.

Those of other religions may continue to practice in accordance with their beliefs as long as it does not infringe upon Islamic rights. Qutb’s understanding would allow a non-Muslim to drink alcohol, but not in public. They could worship, but not disturb Islamic society by publicly display of their worship or symbols. Ironically for us, that would infringe upon Islamic freedom to dedicate themselves fully to God. This rule of law is actually carried out in some Shari’ah societies today.

Naturally, like most utopian thinkers, Qutb believed that Islam will triumph, that all mankind will again become one and that a society akin to the one existing under Muhammad will come again.

Until that time, no back steps must be taken away from jahilisocieties. Although Iran is a Sh’ia and not a Sunnah society (Qutb is Sunni), perhaps they best represent this non-compromising attitude in their dealings with the world.

No man can be completely sovereign in an Islamic society. The would tread on Allah's sovereignty. Thus, the leader was follow Allah completely. Putting this into practice is, of course, the great difficulty. I imagine, the one with the biggest sword may have a better idea of what Allah wants than others. However, in theoretical terms, what is not clearly established by the Koran or the traditions may be up to the community to determine or one’s own judgment. Still, it is not a license to violate Shari’ah law.

Indeed, Qutb argues that those who rule must be freely chosen by the people. This seems counter-productive according to his theory. What if the freely chosen leader establishes a jahilisociety? Then, of course, he must be overthrown.

How to get to this utopian society? Qtub at least understood that it was a tough battle. Fortunately for Qutbians, death in the service of Islam is a good thing. It is this dedication of the Islamic militant that most frightens Westerners. You klnow, the whole - we embrace death as you embrace life thing.

It is my humble opinion that if I believed in the ancient religions that still exist today I would have been ever so much the fanatic and possibly attracted to the religious purity of Qutb’s philosophy, or that of other militants. Certainly, it would have been very seductive. His basic world view is logical if you accept the premises stated in the Koran as the word of God, even if it leads to some self contradictions (as if our way of life doesn't).

In the West, and even in America, most people want other folks to believe in God and some religion – but not so much. That is, even in religious America, all but a fringe hope that people do not completely act upon their beliefs. We call it tolerance (to Qutb, it would be slavery). The fringe, however, usually small self isolating Christian groups in this country, have a quite similar set of beliefs to Qutb. For most, though, in America, Europe and most of the industrial world, persuasion or example is favored, even if imperfectly. For my part, I am quite grateful of that, because otherwise, I would have been strung up or set afire long ago.


  1. Rub-a-dub-dub, Qutb-in-a-tub.... ZZZzzzzznnnnxxxxx..... oh, what? Did I fall asleep?

  2. If not for the the brilliance of the Rub-a-dub-dub poem, I'd moida ya.

    Oh, and, I've reported you to the boys in Cairo. Get one of those machines that opens your mail for you.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .