Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is not monolithic. As there different kinds of faithful Jews and Christians, there are Muslims, and many are opposed to what ISIS is doing and regard it as un-Islamic. Many of these are Muslim reformers who see Islam as a flexible, nondogmatic religion adaptable to the modern world. They might call themselves moderates, liberals, or progressives, or even secularists. They would consider themselves devout Muslims even though they typically hold to nonfundamentalist approaches to the Qur’an and sharia. I have talked with some and read others. (See: Change Agents.)
But in this series of posts, begun here, the focus has been on key religious beliefs of the militant Sunni groups of al Qaeda and ISIS (the self-styled Islamic state), and they consider the reformers as enemies of true Islam. To understand what drives their extremist religious-political ideology we have been considering the writings of the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb, whose views spread widely in the Middle East after his death in 1966. We have also looked at the various roles of jihad in Islam in contrast to Qutb’s unorthodox view of jihad. Here I want to finish this series on the Sunni militants by considering Qutb’s stunning view of war, or military jihad.
In his militant-sounding book Milestones, Qutb does not see preaching as particularly effective in changing people’s behavior to conform to Islamic law. It may. But if not, force will have to be sanctioned whenever preaching fails:
“The establishing of the dominion of God on earth … and the bringing about of the enforcement of the Divine Law (Shari‘ah) and the abolition of man-made laws cannot be achieved only through preaching. Those who are oppressing God’s creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching.”
Here is his rationale for that, worth quoting at length from his book Social Justice in Islam:
“Islam reckons itself to be a worldwide religion and a universal religion; therefore it could not confine itself to the limits of Arabia, but naturally desired to spread over the whole world in every direction. However, it found itself opposed by political forces in the Persian and Roman Empires, which were its neighbors; these stood in the way of Islam…. Therefore it followed that these political forces had to be destroyed…. The Islamic conquests, then, were not wars of aggression…. They were simply a means of getting rid of the material and political opposition that stood between the nations and the new concept that Islam brought with it. They were an ‘intellectual war’ with respect to the people and a physical war with respect to the powers that held these people [captive to idolatries], and which denied them access to the new religion through the exercise of power and coercion…. Three possibilities are placed before the people of a conquered country, one of which everyone must choose – Islam, the poll tax, or war…. For to refuse both Islam and the poll tax indicates clear insistence on maintaining the material forces that intervene between Islam and the minds of men. Hence this insistence must be removed by physical force, which is ultimately the only way.”
It’s a clever sleight-of-mind way of reasoning with subtle nuances, not the least of which is his euphemistic way objectifying the actual people who are on the receiving end of Islamic wars (“They were simply a means of ….”) But what I want to call attention to is that Qutb turns his new breed of Muslims – those he often calls his vanguard or Muslim warriors – into the non-aggressors; thus the peoples they conquer are not victims of aggression. Qutb’s attitude toward war, here, is not in the same moral universe as just war tradition. But, then, Qutb’s way of reasoning is not Western. It is a radical Islamic way that has reversed the roles of aggressors and their victims.
In Milestones Qutb is quite clear about this: “The Islamic Jihaad has no relationship to modern warfare, either in its causes or in the way in which it is conducted. The causes of Islamic Jihaad should be sought in the very nature of Islam and in its role in the world.” Thus the “reasons for Jihaad” are: “to establish God’s authority on earth; to arrange human affairs according to the true guidance provided by God; to abolish all Satanic forces and Satanic systems of life; to end the lordship of one man over others.”
In all of this Qutb’s warriors are let off the hook. They are not to think of themselves as the aggressors because Qutb sees jihad as a “defensive war,” by which he seems to mean the right of his vanguard, if necessary, if preaching fails, to attack those who resist their efforts to implement God’s authority in their lands. In other words, a people’s resistance to having their country overrun and ruled by Islamic militants is viewed by Qutb as an attack on Muslims who are simply trying to implement God’s rule. This stunning example of doublethink – turning the victims of an attack into the aggressors and the aggressors into those transgressed against – would have made the rulers of the Oceania superstate proud.
In Milestones Qutb discusses reasons for conducting jihad, and he includes these lines, which clearly show the radical difference he posits between his view of jihadist war theory and that of just war theory:
“If [early Muslim warriors] had been asked the question, ‘Why are you fighting?’ none would have answered, ‘My country is in danger; I am fighting for its defense’ or ‘The Persians and the Romans have come upon us,’ or, ‘We want to extend our dominion and want more spoils.’ They would have answered … ‘God has sent us to bring anyone who wishes from servitude to men into the service of God alone, from the narrowness of this world into the vastness of this world and the Hereafter, and from the tyranny of religions into the justice of Islam.’”
I have been greatly encouraged during this series by everyone who, each in their own way, whether via email, social media, or in-person has explained why these posts were important to them. One of the most frequent was the comment “I now understand why they think and act like they do.” I get that, because these things are not discussed by our politicians and the media. Another omission is the underbelly of U.S. – Iran relations, which is another key area of discovery that must be made by anyone seeking to make sense of the role of religion in the Middle East. This may be the subject of the next series of posts.
Meantime, as I was pondering how to end this series, I happened to read this recently:
“There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached. Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive of an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price is too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used – if necessary terror, slaughter.”
That timely piece of wisdom comes from a short speech by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in 1994, recently printed in the New York Review of Books. I would just add this. Any and all attempts to rule over the world by oppression, violence, or war are inevitably doomed to failure, no matter how long they have been at it, for their ultimate defeat has been guaranteed by the One who rules from the throne of the universe: the Lamb of God. By rejecting, not accepting, the devil’s offer of rulership over all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus Christ, on his way to Calvary not a caliphate, demonstrated that God’s kingdom does not come via the sword.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by sokhar and The Iglesia’s respectively (permission via Creative Commons)