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)


sword of justice statueAs we have seen in recent posts, for Sayyid Qutb the core problem of the world’s many and diverse societies is their secular / scared dichotomy, or the hideous schizophrenia. He sees this as a deep spiritual disorder within the trajectory of human history. It has prevented all societies, with rare and short-lived exceptions, from implementing God’s rule over all of life. The solution, as Qutb writes in Islam: The Religion of the Future, is to implement “the religion of God,” by which he means “the Islamic way of life.” “Only then will the hideous schizophrenia come to an end…. The religion of Islam is the Savior.”

As we saw here, Qutb wrote prolifically in 1940s-1960s Egypt and called for a new breed of Muslim leadership – a purified, or cleansed, vanguard movement – that would implement the religion of God. In a major work titled Social Justice in Islam (SJI), first published in 1949, Qutb expounded the “features and properties” of what his view of the Islamic way of life would look like in a society. The book, which expounds his theory of social justice and the public policies of that theory, is much too densely detailed to discuss in a short blog post, so all I want to do here is summarize its basic idea.

Qutb writes that his theory of social justice is based on “the general lines of Islamic theory on the subject of the universe, life, and mankind,” and that the authoritative source for this is “the Qur’an and the Traditions,” which provide a “general scheme” that must be grasped before one can begin to implement social justice (of the kind that Qutb promotes). Early in the book he lays out this general scheme, which I summarize here in six points:

1.    Allah (God) is, a priori, an absolute unity.
2.    “The Active Will” of Allah, from which “all creation” is “issuing,” or “emanating,” and is sustained and ordered, implies an “all-embracing unity” in nature and in the world of man.
3.    The Creator gives “direct care and constant attention” to nature and the world of man, and because of that all “aspects [of life] are interconnected [politics, economics, faith, history, conduct, work, jurisprudence, etc.] so that one cannot possibly be separated from another.”
4.    Mankind, however, had “lived through long ages without arriving at any comprehensive theory” by which to unite himself and the aspects of life to the essential unity, having developed and followed human creeds that militate against life’s “fundamental solidarity.”
5.    This produced a perennial struggle in which individuals and societies have differentiated between “spiritual and material powers” and either “denied one of these in order to strengthen the other, or … admitted the existence of both in a state of opposition and antagonism”; thus “the struggle between the two types of power continued, with men continually uncertain and perplexed and without any definite assurance as to the true solution.”
6.    Then “came Islam, bringing with it a new, comprehensive, and coherent theory in which there was neither this tension nor this opposition, neither hostility nor antagonism. Islam gave a unity to all powers and abilities, it integrated all desires and inclinations and leanings, it gave a coherence to men’s efforts. In all these Islam saw one embracing unity which took in the universe, the soul, and all human life. Its aim was to unite earth and Heaven into one world; to join the present world and the world to come in one faith; to link spirit and body in one humanity; to correlate worship and work in one life. It sought to bring all these into one path – the path which leads to Allah.”

Legislating justice. Having set out this theoretical backdrop, which Qutb invariably calls “this universal theory, or “Islamic philosophy,” or simply “the Islamic concept,” he then states three principles that “are the foundations on which Islam establishes justice”:

1.    “Absolute freedom of conscience” [he means conscience in submission to Allah alone].
2.    “The complete equality of all men” [women are equal to men not in a liberal Western sense but in a qualified sense he develops called “difference in responsibility”].
3.    “The firm mutual responsibility of society” [everyone, but everyone, is responsible for the welfare, or lack of it, of a community].

In the remainder of the book, beginning with chapter three, Qutb articulates his policies for legislating social justice in Islam. These policies are not possible without the public establishment of Islam in a society. And he ties the policies to long discussions about political theory and economic theory in Islam, while throughout the book interpreting many dozens of surahs in ways that he believes lend support to his views.

SJI covers many areas of legislating justice, including specific public policies for human rights, taxation, banking, debt, inheritance, charity, hunger prevention, theft, murder, property ownership, and courtroom testimony. And some of his policy prescriptions intrude into areas of overt moral conduct – places where Western jurisprudence dares not go publicly – such as adultery, fornication, mocking, flogging, drinking alcohol, hoarding, frivolous spending, overindulgence, and wastefulness.

Continued in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


Continued from the previous post.

wave curlAccording to Sayyid Qutb, as we saw here, Islam spread widely geographically during its earliest decades because Muslims implemented God’s totality rule over all of life, but when they became idolaters, or impure, Muslims lost God’s favor and were no longer able to implement God’s totality rule. In Milestones, Qutb is quite clear that the solution is first and foremost individual renewal, by which he meant the rise of a new breed of Muslim leadership – purified and  cleansed of idolatry. The “vanguard” (his word) movement would then have God’s favor to fight the flood of idolatry, both in Islam and in the wider world, and implement “the religion of God,” by with he meant “the Islamic way of life,” as he wrote in Islam: The Religion of the Future.

In Milestones, Qutb writes: “It is necessary to revive that Muslim community which is buried under the debris of man-made traditions…, and which is crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to the Islamic teachings.”

For this revival to occur, the vanguard must not simply strap on the ammo and rush into battle. It must be held back to be cleansed by studying the Qur’an, and only the Qur’an, for guidance. Only afterward will it be ready to prevail. Spiritual purity first; the geographic spread of Islam seconds (by war if necessary); social justice third. That was Qutb’s perceived pattern of the original vision of Islam. He insisted that the vanguard follow it.

“Only such a revivalist movement will eventually attain the status of world leadership,” he writes in Milestones. “It is essential for mankind to have new leadership…. Without doubt, we possess this new thing which is perfect to the highest degree, a thing which mankind does not know about and is not capable of ‘producing.’”

A purified vanguard would then first set things right by taking concrete form in a nation: “If Islam is again to play the role of the leader of mankind, then it is necessary that the Muslim community be restored to its original form…. In order to bring this about, we need to initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country. Only such a revival will eventually attain to the status of world leadership. How is it possible to start the task of reviving Islam? It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of [idolatry] which has encompassed the entire world…. I have written ‘Milestones’ for this vanguard.”

Until the Taliban and al Qaeda were driven from power in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, the signs seemed pretty clear that they had been steadily implementing Qutb’s unusual view of Islamic revival in that Muslim country. Apparently the ISIS group in Iraq and Syria, which now claims itself to be an Islamic state, albeit illegitimately, has similar designs.

In Milestones, Qutb frequently reminds his readers of the practical nature of his vision “to wipe out tyranny, and to introduce true freedom to mankind,” and he is quite clear that this may need to occur militarily:

“The method of this religion is very practical…. [It] uses the methods of preaching and persuasion for reforming ideas and beliefs; and it uses physical power and Jihaad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili [idolatrous] system which prevents people from reforming their ideas and beliefs but forces them to obey their erroneous ways and make them serve human lords instead of the Almighty Lord…. [It] is a practical movement which progresses stage by stage, and at every stage it provides resources according to the practical needs of the situation and prepares the ground for the next one.”

Also in Milestones, Qutb describes his unusual view of jihad as moving inevitably from individual renewal, to transforming Muslim societies, to surging into nations, to eventually conforming peoples everywhere to Islamic law. Olivier Roy, a scholar of political Islam, writes in Globalized Islam that radicals since Qutb “explicitly consider jihad a permanent and individual duty…. This is probably the best criterion with which to draw a line between conservative neofundamentalists and radical ones…. Among the few writings of Osama bin Laden, the definition of jihad as a permanent and personal duty holds a central place.”

For Qutb, then, it seems that there is no pick-and-choose jihad. Jihad is one; it is a continuum. It begins with the struggle to personal purity, then goes to its next phase, of taking over a Muslim country, whether by persuasion or by war, in order to implement social justice. In the next post we will look at what Qutb meant by social justice.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Sunova Surfboard (permission via Creative Commons)


Back to the future I sometimes joke that only novelists know the future. Apparently some gifted few also know it in the theater of the real as well. I just tracked down a note to myself in the margin of my copy of Greenmantle (1916). In the opening scene, Sir Walter Bullivant, of the Foreign Office, is explaining to Major Richard Hannay about Turkey and the Ottoman side of the Great War and religious power. Some will say, Hannay, that Islam is becoming a back number.

“Yet – I don’t know,” Bullivant continues. “I don’t quite believe that Islam is becoming a back number…. There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark…. There is a Jehad preparing. The question is, How?” John Buchan’s great tale of derring-do fictionalizes an answer, as Hannay and his band of merry men face off against the Germans who are trying to use Islam to help them win the war.

Today, as everyone knows, many people are dying in the Middle East from very real jihads plotted and executed by militant organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda. Hundreds of thousands (Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others) have fled Iraq and Syria for safety. But the role of jihad can be puzzling to non-Muslims. Here is my short take on it as non-Muslim.

“Jihad” means “struggle” in Arabic, and there seems to be three types. One is military and is known by Muslims as the “lesser jihad.” It is a call to war by a legitimate Islamic nation against an enemy nation. It can be authorized only by an Islamic state and declared only by the legitimately recognized religious authority of that state. Another type of jihad is practiced by individual Muslims. Known as the “greater jihad,” it is the daily inner struggle against whatever seeks to prevent one from becoming a better Muslim. It is practiced in submission to Allah. It seems to me that the desire is not unlike that of a Christian’s inner struggle against sin in order to become more like Jesus and live the faith as well as possible.

The greater jihad, however, is also practiced as a nonviolent collective struggle against social, political, and economic injustices for the good of a community or nation, to build a better Muslim society (again, in submission to Allah). In What’s Right with Islam, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose mosque was just blocks from the World Trade Center, calls it a group jihad. It has also been called social jihad. The concept seems similar in principle to nonviolent Christian social and political activism.

Sayyid Qutb, whose radical religious-political views are the subject of this series of posts, developed what we could call a fourth view of jihad. It is based on his view of Islamic history and does not seem to me to fit the criteria of any of the three forms of jihad just noted. Qutb’s idea of jihad certainly hasn’t made jihad a back number. His view is well developed in his book Milestones, and it seems to be the theological backdrop used to justify the militant jihad practiced by ISIS, which has been considered illegitimate by many Muslim scholars.

We’ll pick that up in detail the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


fall in black & white (ciro@tokyo)In the previous post we looked at the rise of Islam during its beginning years, in Mecca and Medina, especially the difference in Muhammad’s religious-political methodologies in the two cities. In this post we will look at Sayyid Qutb’s curious interpretation of Islam’s history, especially what he seems to have indicated was the fall of Islam. In the next post we will look at Qutb’s radical solution to that fall and how it influences ISIS and al Qaeda.

The Fall of Islam. According to Sayyid Qutb, the arrival of Islam in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century was God’s solution to “the secular vs. the sacred dichotomy,” (“the hideous schizophrenia”), that had spread throughout the world. Implementing that solution would end the sacred vs. secular dichotomy by making the religion of Islam the rule for all of life, including political life. Qutb wrote in Islam: The Religion of the Future (IRF), that “the secular vs. sacred dichotomy has never been postulated in Islamic history, nor can it ever be.” The problem, however, as Qutb saw it, was that totality of what he often called “true Islam” “true religion,” that is, God’s total rule, was only implemented for a short while before Muslims themselves caught secular vs. sacred virus.

In other words, according to Qutb, after the widespread Muslim conquests during Islam’s first century – in and around the Arabian peninsula across north Africa and into Spain – Islam was able to spread only so far, geographically, because Muslims no longer adhered to the unitary Islamic vision of Muhammad and his companions. Instead, the Muslim community and its leaders, with few historical exceptions, continually fell prey to idolatry. They allowed false gods to rule many aspects their public lives, just as Jews and Christians before them had done, by not complying with what Qutb thought was God’s vision for all of life.

For Qutb, the solution for Muslims was to return to the original unitary vision. And the secret for achieving this lay in following Qutb’s interpretation of the Mecca and Medina period. “For thirteen years after the beginning of his Messengership,” Qutb wrote in Milestones, “[Muhammad] called people to God through preaching, without fighting … and was commanded to restrain himself and to practice patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate [from Mecca to Medina], and later permission was given to fight.” The is a key tenet to understanding Qutb’s thought as well as that of militant organizations such as al Qaeda and ISIS.

In Muhammad’s journey from religious prophet to political ruler to military conqueror, Qutb saw two essential attitudes or phases. (1) During the Meccan period, Muhammad held his warriors in check under intensive study of the Qur’an only. This was a time when Allah cleansed them inwardly and they received “initial stages of training” from “that one source of guidance” (the Qur’an). (2) Only after having achieved spiritual purity through such cleansing would victory be granted when the warriors went out to conquer and subdue (Milestones, chapter one). Qutb was insistent on this, and it lead him to a third non-negotiable point: Every failure to establish Islam’s totalitarian rule was the result of premature fighting, that is, of military jihad before sanctification.

This interpretation of Islam fit neatly within Qutb’s general view of world history as manifestations of the sacred vs. the secular dichotomy. According to Qutb, Muslim history, for the most part, had picked up the bug, for which the only solution was an injection of Muhammad’s (lost) original vision for implementing God’s totality rule over all of life. And the only way to get that injection was through a return to the purity of what Qutb believed was Islam’s original vision.

But Qutb did not stop with theory. As we saw here, he recognized the connection between theory and practice, ideas and actions, belief and behavior. So he challenged the Muslims of his generation to get with it. Writing voluminously from his prison cell in Egypt during the 1950s and 60s, Qutb called for a new breed of Muslim leadership – a purified, cleansed vanguard that would fight the flood of idolatry and implement “the religion of God,” by which he meant “the Islamic way of life” (IRF). “Only then with the hideous schizophrenia come to an end” (IRF). “The religion of Islam is the Savior” (IRF).

In the next post we will look at the role that “jihad” plays in Qutb’s vanguard movement.   Osama bin Laden, who, like Qutb, had no formal religious training from any Islamic seminary, is the most infamous jihadist pioneer to date. Bin Laden’s revolutionary al Qaeda movement is the most battle-hardened, and ISIS is an offshoot.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by ciro@toyko (permission via Creative Commons)