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)


Bedouin campIslam arose in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, during a time when there was a lot of fragmentation of kingdoms, rise of new kingdoms, and reshuffling of borders taking place in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Sayyid Qutb believed that Muslims followed Islam in its totality early on; that is, they fully implemented God’s sovereign rule over all of life, what he sometimes called God’s unitary message.

But the totality of God’s rule was only in place for several decades, according to Qutb. Muslims, like the earliest ancient Jews, “having seized the leadership of mankind, lost its grip on Islamic principles, and went into decline,” as essayist and critic Paul Berman put it in Terror and Liberalism, commenting on Qutb’s view. So what happened, specifically?

Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was a committed monotheist, and his biggest religious gripe about the countless small bedouin tribes that populated the Arabian peninsula in his day was that they were polytheists. He preached monotheism with some success among them for more than a decade in and around Mecca. Although he was resisted and at times persecuted for it, he nevertheless united some of the tribes under his banner “There is no God by Allah.”

Then in the year 622, with a small band of close followers, he traveled 280 miles north to Medina, a city with an uneasy balance of power between well-established Jewish settlers and more polytheistic Arabs. It had no stable government and was apparently pretty wild and unruly. Muhammad had accepted the city fathers’ invitation to become the go-to arbiter of Medina’s social and political disputes.

Like many politicians and business people throughout history who have little interest in religion except to manipulate it for their own interests, that was apparently the case in Medina. Islam was merely useful to the city fathers, writes Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis in The Arabs in History (TAH), “not so much as a new religion, but as a system that could give them security and discipline (and) satisfied their political and social needs.” “The full religious conversion of the Medinese did not take effect until much later.”

Lewis believes that it was in Medina, not in Mecca, that the fledgling religion of Islam became politicized, marking a turning point for Muhammad and his closest followers, whom Muslim history calls his “companions.” In TAH, Lewis writes:

“In Mecca, Muhammad was a private citizen, in Medina the chief magistrate of a community. In Mecca he had had to limit himself to more or less passive opposition to the existing order, in Medina he governed. In Mecca he preached Islam, in Medina he was able to practise. The change necessarily affected the character, activities and doctrines of Muhammad and of Islam itself.”

During the several years that Muhammad ruled Medina, a series of bloody skirmishes and deceitful dealings between the Meccans and the Medinese culminated in Muhammad’s victorious return to Mecca. The rudimentary political Islam that ruled Medina now extended to Mecca as well, and here and there in the nearby region. This increased the geography of Muhammad’s religious-political rule, as more and more bedouin tribes and city dwellers came under submission to the new religion of “Islam” – which means “submission” in Arabic.

It was during this period that the growing Muslim “tribe” was first referred to as the umma – the community bound together by the religion of Islam. And in TAH, Lewis writes of key changes in the collective thinking of those so united. Importantly, the Islamic “faith replaced blood as the social bond,” and that “change in effect meant suppression … of the blood feud,” which in turn allowed for greater unity within the umma through arbitration. Also, and significantly, there arose a new conception of authority:

“The Sheikh of the Umma, that is, Muhammad himself, functioned … not by a conditional and consensual authority, grudgingly granted by the tribe [the umma] and always revocable, but by an absolute religious prerogative. The source of authority was transferred from public opinion to God, who conferred it on Muhammad as His chosen Apostle. [The umma, then, was a] political organism, a new kind of tribe with Muhammad as its Sheikh, and with Muslims and others as its members. Yet at the same time it had basically a religious meaning. It was a religious community, a theocracy. Political and religious objectives were never really distinct in Muhammad’s mind or in the minds of his contemporaries.”

After Muhammad’s death in 632, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and a senior companion, became the leader of the umma and was given the title “Deputy” (of Muhammad) – “Caliph” in English. He held executive power and his functions included being the umma’s military leader. With a year of becoming Caliph, Bakr was engaged in a series of successful battles and conquests in and around the Arabian peninsula. And the rest, as they say, is history.

mosque interior domeWithin 100 years, Islamic rule had spread into Southwest Asia, across North Africa, and into Spain. Muslim armies had conquered cities, provinces, lands, and all sorts of Jewish, Christian, Arab, and pagan tribes that were then part of the ruling Byzantine and Persian empires of the Near and Middle East. In the process, the significant question of how to rule such a widespread empire of diverse peoples had been answered by the institution of state rule around the religious caliphate – the central ruling institution of Islam, which had a variety of guises until it was completely abolished in the early twentieth century.

But what concerns us here are those very earlier years and the twist Qutb put on them to account for what we may call the rise and fall of Islam, which we pickup in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by jonl1973 & -Reji respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)