Continued from the previous post.

justice statueOn one level in his writings Sayyid Qutb is reacting to what he sees as the West’s moral decadence. No doubt many Christians, and others as well, who see the West as morally decadent would sympathize both with that assessment and with a political program that seeks to redress it. A Christian way of redress, however, would not square with Qutb’s program in his book Social Justice in Islam.

We can’t take time here to go into a Christian program for social justice, but to those who are interested I highly recommend the decades-long work in public policy of the Center for Public Justice, which, like Qutb, opposes the idea of a sacred/secular dichotomy that would confine religions to a private sphere, but, unlike Qutb, opposes the public establishment of any religion.

Further, although Qutb would agree with CPJ that “Religions are ways of life and not merely ways of worship,” he would contest a central CPJ tenet, that we can “do justice to diverse religions and points of view while keeping the public square open to people of all faiths and points of view. This is the challenge that the Center believes can best be met from a Christian-democratic starting point.” See this article on the CPJ site. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a visiting research fellow with CPJ.) And for a Christian idea of social justice, see this piece of wisdom from James Skillen, about what he calls symphonic justice.

Qutb’s theory of social justice, discussed here, creates a religious-political soil for propagating radical Islamist programs, such the Taliban’s in Afghanistan (1996-2001) and the one that ISIS (the Islamic state) is implementing in parts of Iraq and Syria. And Qutb is not the only go-to Sunni Islamist ideologue. Hasan al-Banna, discussed here, is another.

Other prominent figures include the Palestinian Qutbist Abdullah Azzam, an influential representative of the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s and 1970s, who later became Osama bin Laden’s ideological mentor. In his book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel writes that bin Laden was one of Azzam’s university students in Saudi Arabia and the two later became partnership leaders in Afghanistan as they fought the Soviets.

Another key figure is the Pakistani intellectual Mawlana Mawdudi (sometimes “Maududi”). Kepel writes that “Mawdudi and Qutb thought along similar lines and exercised influence among Sunni Muslims.” Further, when bin Laden lived and traveled in Pakistan among the jihadi-salafists around Peshawar in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he would have been with followers of Mawdudi, whose extremist writings, in which “religion was turned into an ideology of political struggle,” were well established throughout the region.

It should also be noted that many fighters have apparently joined groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS not so much for ideological reasons but because of deep resentments they hold toward America and European nations. As well, many devout Muslims around the world are opposed to Qutb’s views and regard them as a distortion of Islam.

What I have been focusing on in this series of posts, however, is the extremist religious roots of Qutb’s worldview and the direct or indirect debt that militant Sunni groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda owe to Qutb’s religious-political writings. I don’t mean that you would find his books calling for suicide bombings, beheadings, and similar other horrors. But it’s clear that “the religion Islam vs. the world” is an organizing principle of his worldview, that its overall ideology lends itself to the starting of military jihads, and that jihadist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda can be understood withing Qutb’s worldview.

The most troubling aspect of all of this, it seems to me, is that Qutb’s religious-political ideology supports a view of jihad as inevitable war. This will be the topic of the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Vvillamon (permission via Creative Commons)

4 thoughts on “ISIS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN ISLAM part 2 of 2

  1. Excellent instalment Charles. I am passing all these along via my Facebook page:

    In the past Christianity has certainly failed to live up to the teachings of Christ and it has had its own brands of religious totalitarianism, denial of free speech and persecuting of non-Christian faiths and seeking to impose by law one (Protestant or Catholic) version of Christianity over all the rest. See Milton’s famous AREOPAGITICA – A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.

    What is interesting is that Milton was arguing for freedom of speech (or rather, freedom to write and publish books) for everyone (including ‘heretics and atheists’) EXCEPT ROMAN CATHOLICS. Why? Because at the time Rome was officially and openly seeking the overthrow of the British Protestant State. So free speech has its limits.

    In the West many of these issues came to a head with the Protestant Reformation and the endless slaughter across all of Europe of the 30 Years War (the so called War of Religions 1618–1648) which has been described as one of the most destructive conflicts in all European history.

    The establishment of social justice through force of arms in the name of Christianity, Islam, or any other religion is clearly not the way ahead and in fact, as is happening in Syria and Iraq leads to the murder of tens of thousands of people, a scorched earth policy, destruction of whole cites and towns, the depopulation of the area, the rape of woman, forced conversions, and to acts of unimaginable cruelty and barbarism (torture, crucifixion, starvation, beheadings, etc.).

    I agree with you that the Christian and Biblical vision is the need to do justice to diverse religions and points of view within the boarders of one state, while keeping the public square open to people of all faiths and points of view.

    This, of course, is anathema to Islamic Jihadists such as Islamic State who seek to take over every ‘public square’ and where possible, to control, persecute, harass and ultimately destroy all non-Islamic faiths or points of view that do not accord with the literal teachings of the Koran.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Bill. I didn’t know that about Milton. And thank you for making some noise on FB about these posts. I have been hearing from many people that the posts have been helping them understand why militants such as al Qaeda and ISIS think and act they way they do. There is of course much more to their narratives, but understanding the role of religion, as you know, is key.


  2. Hello Charles,
    I expect when you send your posts into the ether you sometimes wonder if anyone reads them! Well I don’t read all of them BUT the latest on IS have been very, very interesting and enlightening. Thank you so much for sharing your hard won knowledge. Can you send me some English phonemes to help me pronounce Qutb?! I hesitate to talk about what I have learnt from you because I haven’t a clue how to pronounce his name!

    As I was reading your posts I was struck by the similarities between his aversion to the sacred/secular split and the things that John Peck and Steve Shaw and others have been talking about in the Christian world. So whilst one might start off with agreeing on the ‘hideous schizophrenia’ of Qutb, the ongoing thinking leads to very different outcomes. I might be misreading your posts but it seems to me there is little love, forgiveness, or compassion, or grace in this brand of fundamentalist Islam – and certainly none apparent in practice.

    Tony and I have just finished watching Downfall, a film about Hitler’s last days, and watching that and reading about Qutb I was struck quite forcefully by the danger of false ideas and visions. When those ideas and visions are held with such absolute conviction as to their ‘rightness’ it leads to appalling actions all in the name of the ‘god’. The black is white and white is black argument that you explained so well is scary.

    On our own spiritual journey Tony and I have realised that much of what as evangelical Christians we believed has been tempered over the years. I could go on at length but suffice it to say I remember having a conversation with some very fundamentalist Christians who were complaining about Anglican priests wearing robes (!) and thinking, “I don’t want to become like them.” ! There were, of course many other factors involved in our move away from our ‘fundamentalist’ views and right now we are a bit in the wilderness in terms of how we regard Scripture, but so much of what I believed to be black and white is apparently grey and many shades of grey. I would like everything to be black or white – it’s so much easier, you don’t have to think!

    I better stop this ramble but a huge thank you,

    Blessings on your mind as you grapple with these difficult things,

    Love Sue (Hutt)


    • Hi Sue,

      Thank you for taking time to write such a thoughtful and encouraging note. Heart on sleeve, just yesterday I was venting to someone about the very rough day I had spending hours trying to hammer out yet another post on this stuff that I wish I did not have to write about! I mean, I could do what some are doing — merely parrot what they hear from their favorite news source as if it were original with them. That’s easy! The other easy option is only to curse the darkness, and there’s way too much of that going on as well. But, you know, I’ve now been working in the field of U.S. – Middle East relations for more than ten years, engaging with all sorts of folk and many points of view as we try to light a few candles. But “you know it don’t come easy.” So it’s a real boost to hear that the posts are educative.

      RE “Qutb,” I’ve been taught to pronounce it “KUH-tahb.” If anyone reading this can enlighten us differently, please do.

      Yes, secular/sacred. Still remains a huge problem in the world. The book the Peck and I co-authored, Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World (SPCK), sought to be a Christian corrective to the sacred/secular way of seeing life and living in it. And you’re right, although we could agree with Qutb about “the hideous schizophrenia,” we would strongly disagree with his prescriptions. Further, al Qaeda, ISIS, and like-minded other groups have militarized Qutb’s prescriptions, which I find tragically ironic given the opening line of the Qur’an.

      I have given a lot of though over the years to the “black or white” dilemma you pose. This may sound odd, but I think it’s a kind of innocent mistake by most Christians, who naively transfer the absolute good and evil distinction between God and the devil to human life, much of which is aptly summed up by the word ambiguous, e.g., human beings and human society, across all of its aspects, is a combo of good and evil, black and white. Although we are sinners, we were not created sinners. We were created in the image of a good God. We did not completely lose that image east of Eden. Three is a kind of rest that comes from learning to live with that ambiguity as we participate in Christ’s redemptive work in us make new the image. But you know all this. ‘Nuff said!

      Thx again for taking time to write. And “Hi” to Tony.



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