The Power of Nightmares
In 2003 the BBC showed a documentary entitled “The Power of Nightmares” which sought to identify the ideologies that underlay both ‘sides’ of the ‘War on Terror’. It identified the ideological basis of the neo-conservative movement in the philosophy of Leo Strauss. In a nutshell, Strauss argued that a nation needed a unifying myth to function as a rallying and launch point from which it could develop its greatness and global image. To do this by necessity it had to project itself into the consciousness of the world, and to be prepared to enforce its worldview to maintain its eminence. It did not matter if the myth or the worldview were actually grounded in reality, or that the elite did not believe in them. All that mattered was that the masses were made to believe it, and the elite acted as if they did. I wish to say no more about this side, but it is on the opponents, the philosopher of radical pan-nationalistic Islam, that I wish to focus now.
Turning to what might be loosely termed the opposition; Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zarqawi, the documentary makers suggest that they derived their philosophical base from the writings of Sayid Qutb, and specifically identified his 1925 book Fi Zilil Quran (“In The Shade of the Quran”) as the prime intellectual market of his ideas, and of their subsequent application and development by Al-Qaeda.
I pause a moment to add that it was suggested to me later and it seems plausible, that what Al-Qaeda have put into practice is an acceleration of Qutb’s philosophy, and in a way mirrors Leninism and Maoism in their conceptions of Communism, mostly in the belief that the precise mechanism could be alternated and the revolution accelerated by the forcible creation of the institutions and then the molding of the people to fit into those confines. It is a possibility that must be considered throughout.
I decided that I needed to see what Qutb had to say about Islam and especially to see how coherent a rationale he could offer to justify what his words has purportedly twisted my religion into; the business end of an anti-American and anti-modernity crusade that seeks to rebuild an Islamic state and rescind the progress of the Westphalian world. Or indeed to see if Qutb actually stood for that at all and if it might be the case that the documentary makers had identified the wrong intellectual in radical Islam for special mention.
Before getting to the book itself, it is worth spending a few lines describing the author himself. Qutb (1906-66) was born in a small town in Upper Egypt and moved to Cairo as an adolescent in order to further his education.
He joined the Egyptian education ministry, and in that capacity went to the USA to research educational theory as it was applied there. His experience with racism there, and what he perceived as the essential bias in the western world, Qutb felt that he had to fundamentally move away from that model and revitalize the Islamic state that was failing in his
Qutb began to write in the late 1920s as a poet and literary critic, writing about social and political matters from a secular standpoint. By 1948, Qutb changed his mode of writing, and began to write from a more Islamic perspective, according to the limited knowledge of Islam that he had. Social Justice, his first Islamic book, was published in 1949.
After his return from a two-year study tour in the United States that ended in 1950, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, becoming one of their leading spokesmen. After the movement openly opposed the government of Jamal Abdul Nasser, Qutb essentially spent the rest of his life in prison after 1954, except for a brief period in 1964-65. After being temporarily released, Qutb was re-apprehended, tried and executed for treason in 1966.
Fi Zilil Quran
The 30th volume of the writing of Sayid Qutb’s extensive ‘commentary’ entitled “In the Shade of the Quran”, sets out to be the combination of an exegesis of the Quran’s 30th volume as well as to highlight the problems possessed by Islamic society and its incompatibility with the West. It attempts to identify the malaise that has infiltrated the Islamic world, and attempts to derive the solutions from the eternal message that the Quran brings.
I have chosen to focus on just the 30th volume for three simple reasons, firstly that the author himself attaches special weight to this volume, believing it to be of signal importance, secondly that as the culminating volume of his commentary, the author has made special effort to include his philosophy and interpretation in more quantity then it necessarily was in previous volumes and lastly, the accessibility of a clear and concise English translation, with the approval of the authors brother Muhammad Qutb of this volume means that this is the only reliable English translation available of the work.
I do not propose to spend any time on the exegesis that Qutb presents, or upon his interpretation of the Quran. I think there are myriad faults in his attempts to interpret the Quran in many locations of his analysis. These problems can be summarized as:
1) Presumed equivalence of events
2) Selective acceptable ignorance
3) Inability to prove things he deems proved
4) Overemphasis on the literary aspects of the Quran
(1) Presumed Equivalence of Events
Sayid Qutb focuses on the 30th portion of the Quran. This is a portion that focuses essentially on the end of days and the Day of Judgment, the Day of Decision, the Promised Day and the Great Catastrophe and the events that occur leading up to the last judgment, not in terms of what does or does not happen actually, but in terms of its import and effect, what it holds for those who are to be judged and the condemnation that awaits those who deny or disbelieve on the Last Day.
What perturbs me about Sayid Qutb’s analysis is that it presumes that all the different descriptions given above are equivalent, or for all intents and purposes that they may be treated as the same. This assumes that Allah has nothing better to do then to repeat himself again and again, with different phrasing or emphasis. That seems to be a questionable assumption. You have a book that claims to cover in its course all the events that have been or will be, and all things that are existent.
Surely confined as it is to a paucity of 600-700 pages in most modern editions, there cannot be the space to justify myriad repetitions of a single event, however import. The wise man needs but one warning; the fool will not listen to a score.
(2) Selective Acceptable Ignorance
Qutb quickly works into his narrative a story that states that if there are parts of the Quran that you do not understand then you can just ignore it. You don’t need to know everything about what the words mean. The meaning only needs to be known to the strict extent that they are required for you to fulfill your role in the world and to make the easiest transition to the next life.
I find this odd because the Quran itself informs you that this is folly. It exhorts the reader to ask the ‘people of the book’ in the event that you do not understand something. It is this precise requirement that Qutb does not deal with.
If he has to admit his inability to understand or deal with a certain line of the Quran, then it is incumbent upon him to admit that and to not persevere with an incorrect or inconclusive analysis. Sadly he does this far too often, undermining how much if any weight can be placed on the remainder of his interpretation.
(3) Inability to Prove Things he thinks are Proved
Qutb tends to take the Quran too literally at its word. A book that he takes the time to congratulate for the spectacular nature of its poetry and the splendour of its imagry cannot be anything but literally true in Qutb’s thoughts. While this might be defended as an orthodox interpretation, and many languages and traditions have their literalists, it seems especially out of sorts in the context of the Sura (Chapters) of the Quran that Qutb has chosen to investigate.
His attempt to presume that certain things are exempt from rational analysis seems flawed, especially in trying to treat the words of the Quran as being self evident. It is not something that I’m willing to accept so blatantly unproved, but it is further reinforced by my next point. Suffice it to say that it further undermined the credibility of his theological arguments.
(4) Overemphasis on the Literary Qualities
This is a weaker criticism then the others, but it is something that I find at least questionable about Qutb’s writing and argument. He seems to believe that the poetic quality of the Quran, its meter and verse, the sentence structure and its cadence and rhythm are of persuasive value in and of itself. I agree that it enhances its impact and its effectiveness, but it does not justify this amounting to a distinct factor in adding to his reasoning. It certainly does not prove a theological argument or enhance its strength.
I also concede, and perhaps in light of it ought to withdraw my objection, that Qutb’s right in stating that the language of the Quran is powerful poetry and metaphor. Its imagery is vivid and powerful, and it draws our attention to things such as the magnificence of dawn or sunset, the transit of the stars through the sky and the alteration of day and night, are truly magnificent things when we consider them. They do really jibe with our minds at some transcendental level, it really evokes the feeling of wonderment that something beyond the scope of our comprehension is going on. It is not a rational evocation, but it does not address itself to the rational. It addresses itself to the very fiber of man’s constitution and resonates there leading to very power and fundamental questions.
In conclusion, I find that Qutb draws unjustified distinction, controverts explanation into interpretation before descent into hypothesizing, fails to establish his fundamental position and disdains reasoned argument by preference of lyrical and poetic argument. Furthermore I believe that he does not deviate very far from the traditional orthodoxy in how he interprets the Quran, and so adds nothing new or noteworthy. Where he is noteworthy, and the reason why I am reading him in the first place, are the conclusions he draws from the verses in their aggregate, and the philosophy of Islamic militarization, radicalization and ultra orthodoxy that he draws from them. It is that to which I will now turn.
His Political, Religious & Social Philosophy
It bears repeating that I do think he incorporates some interesting ideas into his discourse and that they are ideas of tremendous weight and equal danger in the modern world. It is for these that I wished to read Qutb, and they are what I want to focus on from this point onwards. The ones that I found particularly interesting were:
(1) Struggle against oppression
(2) The proper standard to judge people by
(3) Fair and moral behavior
(4) Armed Struggle
(5) A Repugnant World
(6) Tolerance and Compassion
(7) The Aims of Jihad
(1) Struggle Against Oppression
Based on Qutb’s analysis of the Sura an-Naziat, “The Pluckers”, in which the story of the altercation between Moses and Pharaoh is recounted he draws the lesson that tyranny and oppression, characterized by the ability of Pharaoh to declare that he is their one most “Supreme Lord”. From this conceit and arrogance, Qutb draws the lesson that tyranny is always a function of ignorance and irrationality.
The people outnumber the oppressor by millions to one, and if they have the ability to understand the real position, then they had the strength to liberate themselves from oppression. They could be free to undertake and organize their affairs and liberate themselves from oppression. They have to take the first step. Religious identity, with its power to show people their true worth and to remove them from the patina of fear that embraces worldly concern, create a people that not only are free to demand a society that should accord with what they visualize it as being, but are also unafraid of seeking that ideal society.
Here we can see the first inklings of the revolutionary ideals that signify Qutb’s work. It is already here apparent that he is famous for advocating. It is an ideology that does not balk at revolution to see its desired outcome, and that is precisely what the Muslim Brotherhood did in its short but abortive bid for power.
(2) The Proper Standard to Judge People By
Based on Qutb’s analysis of the Sura Abasa, “The Frowning”, Qutb draws up what he considers the only standard by which we should judge people by. He rejects all material and worldly standards to assess people. He argues that the proper standard to accept is that of how religious a person is, and how close they are to Allah as the best way to determine the proper weighting to give a person.
How do you determine the piety and devoutness of someone? Physical characteristics such as a beard or proclamations of piety cannot ever reveal the internal piety of a person. It’s an ethereal attribute and is not capable of external discovery. I would have to look into your heart and use that to determine what you think rather then how you act. Because essentially piety is a frame of mind rather then about behavior.
I find this ideal interesting and very tempting, but practically impossible. How am I as a mere mortal to determine how close someone actually is to Allah. It’s information that is beyond my ability to determine, and I am rather sure that it is beyond Qutb’s and any other mortal to so determine. I find this an exemplary ideal, but beyond that it is an idea of no practical or real world value.
(3) Fair & Moral Behavior
Based on Qutb’s analysis of Al-Infitar, the “Cleaving Asunder” Qutb draws attention to what he considers another fundamental concern of human behavior that should be required of people. He draws attention to the injunction that he believes underlies and underpins the basic notion of Islamic behavior towards other people. He postulates that the fundamental principle after the determination of a person’s value is to give him the credit due of that worth. This encompasses all manners of fair dealing and equitable conduct.
It is hard to understand how such a vague principle is of significant guidance in every day life. While a generic principle of fair dealing, and equal conduct and conscientious dealing are to be admired, I do not see why they should be exclusively theological or Islamically derived. I think that even a non-theistic model could come up with a model of behavior that is balanced to give everyone their fair due. Kant’s Categorical Imperative comes to mind as one secular notion that would suffice to generate a ‘fair treatment’ clause. Similarly Qutb’s notion that this is another aspect of the munificence of the Divine Creator and that it can only be solely derived from Him can also be similarly dismissed.
(4) Armed Struggle
Here Qutb, amidst much banal theorizing and abstract principles, becomes truly dangerous. He talks about the armed struggle that the prophet went through, and draws from them some simple principles that should guide the modern struggle when it takes its necessary shape and form.
Firstly they have to fight purely and only for Allah, no secular purpose should taint their campaign. Secondly they should never compromise in this cause; they should go for the most radical agenda that they can aim for and never shirk from it. If they do not win in this life, they can be assured of reward in the next for their unflinching support. Thirdly they should feel that the more adversity they undergo, the closer they attain the first two states. Persecution perversely becomes a sign of Allah’s favor and the greater the persecution they undergo the better they should consider themselves in the Lords sight, the only true standard of judgment. A final fourth idea is developed later on in the book, that in the broader picture the results are irrelevant, because victory and defeat are emanations of the Divine Will, He grants victory when it is His plans to grant victory, and the fighter should expect no logical or cognizant reasons for victory or defeat to undermine his struggle, the Divine Will has cast him as a fighter and it there where he should remain.
A highly militarized and radicalized worldview, that admits no conceptions of victory, compromise or defeat, only endless struggle as the path to the Truest glory. Qutb could not have penned a more harmful ideology if he had tried.
(5) A Repugnant World
It underlies the whole book, and is implied in many of the categories above but in his exegesis of Sura Al-Aalla (“The Most High”) Qutb makes it explicit that the world is a devious and undermining consideration, that should have no or very little position in the Islamic psyche. It should be relegated out of mind, as the world is both temporary and seductive without any chance of proper or good reward for those who aspire to rewards in the true life that follows this one.
Whatever the truth of this statement, and I do think it is of dubious spiritual provenance, it also seems to be blatantly contradictory to the normal Islamic message, and what Qutb draws later on in Al-Aala which is highlighted below. The world is indeed a trying and hard place, but Islam’s message has never been of worldly disengagement, but rather about making a better life in both this world and the next, and that both these goals are complimentary and co-existent. Islam itself is designed to navigate what Qutb decides to slice into a clear dichotomy that should be resolved in favor of the next world. The dichotomy is wrongly conceived, and proper Islam should be considered to help navigate the troubles of both this world and the next. I can only consider Qutb to be misguided in his interpretation here, or else drawing some sort of distinction I am unable to grasp.
(6) Tolerance and Compassion
If my reader is struck by a sense of a terrible non sequiter happening here, then he or she may be reassured to know that it feels the same way when you are reading through Qutb’s work. Amidst his license to kill, Qutb draws attention to the upstanding character of the Prophet (SAW) especially his tolerance and compassion for those around him, his flexibility in attending to their problems and his simplicity in living. Qutb holds these out as ideals to be cherished and followed by all Muslims who wish to be responsible parts of society.
There are only two alternate interpretations that I can come up of this. Firstly and rather implausibly given Qutb’s prior arguments, he means that people should be treated like this all the time, but this seems inimical with his exhortations to perpetual struggle and his general contempt of those who deny the truth of Islam and its message.
The only meaning that can be given to his ‘compassion’ argument then is that such caring and compassionate behavior is restricted only to those who live in Dar-al-Islam the “World of Islam’ and that it remains open season on the rest. It must be interpreted as an exhortation to treat fellow Muslims properly and to refrain from engaging in war with them and to not try and think that you are superior to them in any way. To give it the more benign and broader meaning, I believe would be to give Qutb more credit than he deserves.
(7) The Aims of Jihad
In a detailed and clear manner unprecedented so far in the rest of his philosophy, Qutb spells out precisely what the aims of the modern jihadi movement should be, and specifically circumscribes it by reference to the scope of the struggles undertaken by the Prophet. The guiding principle had to be confined to only removing obstacles to the Islamic call. The forceful imposition of the religion or the attacking of nations for political or social aims does not qualify as jihad in Qutb’s conception.
This presents a remarkable contrast to the active aggressive jihadist movements that now seem to proliferate. In the Islamic state it seems, or in the Islamic non-established community, Qutb makes it absolutely clear that the only rationale for attack is when the actual concept of ‘dawah’, the ability to let people make free and informed choice of religion and to not be subject to unfair social or political pressure that restricts this freedom.
The modern conception seems to be that the power to fight for sovereign Islamic state, but without answering the obvious questions that remain in the rise of a sovereign state, such as law and leadership. The famous groups in the UK such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir who are famous agitators for the establishment of an Islamic state in the UK, have notoriously failed to establish any premise from which the Islamic Caliphate, which for the majority of Muslims (specifically the Sunni) would be the recognized source of centralized religious authority. The problems to its re-establishment are insurmountable though, and the fact that they have not succeeded from even fielding decent contenders since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1916 suggest that they are unlikely to be able to do so.
Qutb covers a comprehensive amount of material throughout in his exegesis. I confess that I have culled much that I consider minor or trivial interpretation or ideas from the list above. Qutb has ideas on many fields, and feels himself qualified to comment not only on the Islamic world, but to chastise the behavior of the other great religions and their failure to live a peaceful harmonious existence with each other. The irony is probably weighed in kilograms.
The core of his book, and the part that I have endeavored to focus on is the comprehensive attempt to rationalize the Islamic society, to clarify what its foundational precepts were, and what the modern Islamic struggle, epitomized by the Muslim Brotherhood, ought to be. His account is a forward looking exegesis.
His initial social theory seems to be vague and generic, highlighting and prescribing moral standards that I would hope that all good people aspire to. There does not seem to be anything of special distinction or unlike the mainstream Islamic theorists who have espoused all these concepts before. It is the conception of the Islamic state orientated jihad that Qutb has that is what has drawn special attention. It seems that the jihadist concept espoused by Qutb does not jibe with those who are placed as his intellectual descendents, especially in the way groups such as Abu Sayaff and Al-Qaeda have behaved.
His vision is wrongly construed in the modern age. Numerous sources, not just the documentary I started with, such as The Guardian and The New York Post have claimed that the root of the extremist movement could be traced to his work. I would argue that Qutb never descends into explicit details, but does lade his work with constant and subtle rejoinders of the weakness in compromising to the World, and to buy into material prosperity at the cost of eternal reward.
An alternate perspective on Qutb is that he is the progressive front of Islam, the Islamic answer to the philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Locke or Mill. Focused on the supreme nature of the individual in the sight of both God and man, and how a life could be structured on the basis of the Islamic faith, while still not being counter intuitive to reason .he advocated individual responsibility, the necessity of striving in both intellectual and spiritual reformation of the dead weight that holds up the current establishment of the Islamic world. His organization, the Muslim Brotherhood was a revolutionary organization committed to delivering a sovereign and peaceful but arguably based on Qutb’s model, a non-extremist, state that would act in opposition and in an opposite manner to the
It is more that perhaps Qutb falls into neither of these moulds, that he inextricably combines radical reactionary with sophisticated liberal progressive in his message, a message that he claims is embodied in the very heart of what he seeks to return to. It is this diametrical opposition, Qutb’s desire to move both backwards and forwards in the western political perspective that makes him so difficult to explain and understand. I am sure though that Qutb was not a fond advocate of violence. He may believe that it was necessary for his cause, but he hoped that it could be done by alternate means, by raising a people enlightened enough to want to live under the Islamic state. His stigma to me seems undeserved.