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)


pond studyRecently 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.)

gobsmackedTwo, 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)