Recently at lunch a friend mentioned ISIS and immediately shook his head to express his great shock at the unconscionable violence of these fanatics. He also said he was mystified by what makes them tick. At the time, I happened to be writing up the material about their core religious beliefs for these posts, and at the end of long conversation he and I had about those beliefs, he said: I didn’t know any of that, and it’s helpful to know that these guys don’t come out of thin air.
I hope that these posts equally help you to understand core religious reasons why ISIS is responsible for so much death and despair. These shockingly brutal hellhounds include religion among the justifications for their rampage across Iraq and Syria, their beheadings, apparently even of children, their persecution of Christians, and their stated goal of establishing a regional caliphate (Islamic state). Its leader, a terrorist called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known as the “Invisible Sheik,” recently changed the organization’s name from ISIS to IS, the Islamic State, and named himself as caliph (religious and political head of the state).
All of this has taken place even though ISIS probably numbers only about 25,000 (currently) and despite the fact that early this year “al Qaeda central” (so-called) finally disowned ISIS, which was a large branch of al Qaeda. For interested readers, Bobby Ghosh, previously Time magazine’s Baghdad bureau chief, has a short article on the history of ISIS.
Over the years, I have found the clearest, most concise, and most comprehensive framework for understanding al Qaeda and ISIS in the persuasively argued writings of the Egyptian intellectual turned political racial, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whose influence in the Middle East remains strong. So far in these posts, beginning here, AL QAEDA AND ISIS part 1 of 3 we have been looking at Qutb’s curious bio and the general religious-politic picture of Egypt during his adult life. Beginning with this post we are moving from those general topics to his specific religious beliefs, which helps in understanding what drives jihadist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda.
I want to cover Qutb’s religious views in some depth in these posts because few Americans know that the jihadis have a well-thought-out religious rationale, and fewer still know what that rationale is. Although I will be offering a reader’s digest version of it, I believe it is nevertheless a fair assessment that speaks for itself. Christians, in particular, I think, will want to turn a sharp ear to it because some of Qutb’s religious descriptions of what is at the heart the world’s problems may, surprisingly, remind them of ways in which their own preachers and teachers have identified these problems. And, personally, I found it interesting that Qutb brought a combined philosophical and theological intelligence to his criticisms of and prescriptions for whatever aspect of life was in his sights that was not unlike how some Christian philosophers and theologians I have read discuss root problems.
But I want to be clear about three things. One, Qutb’s religious views add up to being highly socially and politically activist, but the books of his that I have read, do not call for beheadings and similar other horrors, as far as I can determine. The syntax of at least one of his popular books, however, Milestones, which we will look at later, is very militant-sounding, and fanatics, of course, will bring and apply their gross spiritual disorder and misuse of the imagination to anything. (Barry Cooper’s excellent book, New Political Religions, discusses this disorder at length.)
Two, in my view some Muslim scholars, such as Muqtedar Khan (the University of Delaware and the Brookings Institution), who is a self-described liberal Muslim with whom I have had dialogue, seem “soft” on Qutb even when discussing Milestones. See, for instance, this article by Khan. Three, I am not suggesting that Qutb’s religious views hold the truth about life. My purpose here is simply to try to present his views accurately, for they are serious stuff with serious social and political ramification, whether they are acted on peacefully and incrementally or in a revolutionary manner by jihadist organizations.
Having closely read a number of Sayyid Qutb’s English-translated books, I agree with the comment of essayist and critic Paul Berman that “Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep” (New York Times Magazine). Greek philosophy, Judaism, Christian theology, church history, church councils, Constantinianism (the formal alliance of church and state first employed by the Roman emperor Constantine), the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the salient ideas of many Western thinkers, politicians, and Christian figures of his day – Qutb was conversant with and critical of them all. Although he appreciated the benefits of science and technology, he criticized as lamentable the intellectual climate and institutionalism of modern Western Europe, and he mounted significant criticisms of American life, liberal democracy, Communism, socialism, Marxism, fascism, Nazism, and capitalism.
Qutb’s knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an, of course, was extensive. After reading three English volumes of Qutb’s In the Shade of the Qur’an, Berman, in his book Terror and Liberalism, concluded that for Qutb, “a proper understanding of the Koran can be achieved only in an atmosphere of serious struggle, and only by someone who is engaged in a ferocious campaign for Islam, not by someone at ease in his chair. The Koran, he observes, does not merely offer a body of knowledge, to be plucked at will, as if from a tree. The Koran offers a way to live.” (The direct bearing of ideas upon actions, of theory on practice, was huge in Qutb’s worldview, as we will see in a future post when we look at his book Social Justice in Islam.)
Despite being an intellectual, Qutb wrote in a simple, straightforward style that appealed to Muslim youth. Gilles Kepel, a foremost Western scholar on Qutb, notes that Qutb’s style was very different from the complex rhetoric of the Islamic scholars. In his book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Kepel writes: “Qutb spoke directly to his readers, using the modern idiom to get simple points across.”
Qutb’s doctrine of “the sovereignty of God” over all of life and history is crucial to his worldview and seems to be the theological starting point for his analysis of the world’s root problem, of what I call Qutb’s view of history’s fatal flaw, and his solutions to it. Some knowledge of this will help us understand ISIS. A short account follows in the next post.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Patrick Dohney & Magdalena Roeseler respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)