By Robert Manne
7 Nov 2016
While Sayyid Qutb was not responsible for the Islamic State, he posted the first milestone on the road that would eventually lead there. CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Sayyid Qutb was a distinguished and prolific Egyptian essayist, literary critic and educational civil servant who, around the age of forty, turned from secularism towards Islam and the study of the Qur'an.
Qutb's political and religious essays were by now sufficiently radical to disturb the Palace. According to one account, one of his superiors in the Ministry of Education suggested that his outlook might moderate if he was encouraged to embark on a study tour in the United States.
Qutb's American experience did not have the desired effect. He was appalled by the racism, the sexual freedom and the materialism he encountered.
In the early 1950s, on his return to Egypt, Qutb '"gravitated" into the orbit of the Muslim Brothers. By this time, the monarchy had been overthrown in what was known as the Free Officer's Revolution. Initially, Qutb enjoyed close relations with its leader, Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser. These relations quickly broke down.
Following an assassination attempt on the President in October 1954, Qutb was arrested along with a thousand members of the Brotherhood. In July 1955 he received a fifteen year sentence. Because of ill-health, he spent most of the rest of his life in the infirmary of Turah, a Cairo prison.
By the time Qutb entered prison; he had begun what most critics regard as his masterwork, In the Shade of the Qur'an. According to his biographer, John Calvert, Qutb's "daily immersion" in the Qur'an brought him "inner happiness." In the early 1960s Qutb composed a political manifesto, Milestones. In 1964 the text was completed. Before it was banned, within six months Milestones went through five editions.
In part because of his connection to a revolutionary group of Muslims following his release from prison, and in part because of Milestones, Qutb was re-arrested. In August 1966, he was condemned to death. A story circulated, which Calvert thinks possibly apocryphal, that on the scaffold Qutb received "from a high ranking officer" a Presidential offer of clemency in return for "an admission of guilt and an apology."
"Sayyid looked up with his clear eyes. A smile, which one cannot describe, appeared on his face. He told the officer in a surprisingly calm tone: 'Never! I would not exchange this temporary life [for] a life which will never disappear'."
With Qutb's death, the movement that would become known as Salafi jihadism had its first and still perhaps most important martyr.
The Two Ages of the World
There is almost universal agreement among scholars that the publication of Milestones marks the intellectual origin of the Salafi jihadist movement. As such, Milestones is one of the most consequential ideological interventions of the twentieth century. If the genealogy of Salafi jihadism and the mind of the Islamic State are to be understood, acquaintance with both its argument and spirit is vital.
The argument of Milestones is framed by two concepts - Jahiliyya and Hakimiyah. The term Jahiliya has three rather different meanings. In its simplest and most common meaning, Jahiliyya represents an historical era, the pagan period in the Arabian Peninsula before the arrival of the religion brought by Muhammad.
Jahiliyya, however, has a secondary cultural meaning, roughly equivalent to the English word "barbarism." In Qutb's usage, Jahiliyya absorbs but goes beyond both ignorance and barbarism. With him Jahiliyya is the terrible condition of a world in the state of spiritual darkness, unenlightened by humankind's submission to God.
In this way the idea of Jahiliyya is linked in Qutb's thought to Hakimiyah. Hakimiyah has a straightforward meaning - namely, sovereignty. It is used by Qutb to suggest that in the world there are only two possibilities: either God's sovereignty or Man's. In those times or places where God's sovereignty is denied, the condition of spiritual darkness, Jahiliyah, reigns.
In Qutb's view the entire world had fallen into the condition of Jahiliyya. It is a terrifying thought.
The Necessity of Violence
Where can hope be found? Qutb tells us that he has written Milestones for those he calls the Islamic "vanguard." The salvation of humankind from the enveloping darkness of Jahiliyya now rests upon them. What are they to do? Qutb regards the present age as closely resembling the time when Mohammad in Mecca began spreading the word of God to the generation of his companions, a generation without equal in history.
Mohammad created in Mecca a community in whose hearts the simple message of the faith - "there is no deity but God, and the Prophet is His Messenger" - has penetrated to the depths. This is what Qutb now calls upon the vanguard to do. He tells them that the Qur'an is the only pure spring from which they can drink. He advises them that they will need to maintain a spiritual separation from the Jahili society in which they live. He warns them that the task of creating a community of the faithful will require "patience." During this time, he advises, the vanguard must spread God's word "boldly, clearly, forcefully, without hesitation or doubt," shrugging off the ridicule, the hatred and the persecution that they will experience. They must endure all this because of a love even for those who torture them.
Eventually, as it did with Muhammad in Medina, the time will come to fight, to wage jihad. Within Islam there is disagreement about the meaning of this term. Some Muslims turn to the hadith which claims that the highest form of jihad is the struggle for the purification of the individual soul. Others, including the Salafi jihadists, who generally dismiss the hadith about the highest jihad as inauthentic, regard jihad as violent struggle in the service of God. Qutb is firmly on the side of violence.
Indeed, in The Shade of the Qur'an he argues that participation in violent jihad provides the most perfect circumstance for the purification of the soul. According to Qutb, it is foolish to believe that Islam will conquer the world of Jahiliyya by preaching alone. If that had been the case during the time of the Prophet, "the task of establishing God's religion in the world would have been very easy." Violent struggle for the faith is an act of highest compassion.
If freedom of man on earth" is to be achieved, if the sovereignty of God is to triumph over the sovereignty of Man, then not only preaching but also violent jihad is required.
Qutb is aware of objections to the idea of violent jihad. One rests on a passage in the Qur'an - "There is no compulsion in religion" - where imposing religion by force is expressly forbidden. Qutb of course accepts this. The purpose of violent jihad, he argues, is not to impose Islam by force but rather to "destroy ... the wall between Islam and individual human beings so that it may address their hearts and minds." There is no connection whatever between compelling belief by force and striving to make "a system of life dominant in the world."
The Western scholars - the group whom Qutb calls "the Orientalists" - who claim that Islam imposes religion "by the sword" are guilty of "a vicious lie". Unfortunately, many Muslim scholars have "capitulated to this slander." Because it is "God's religion," "Islam has the right to destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions which limit man's freedom of choice." Indeed, it has more than a right. "The duty of Islam [is] to annihilate all such systems ... They are obstacles in the way of human freedom." Rousseau believed people had to be forced to be free. Qutb believes that armed force is needed to give people the freedom to choose Islam, which is the only freedom humans can know.
Qutb is equally contemptuous of another idea, commonly propagated by the Orientalists and that even Islamic scholars now commonly embrace - namely, that the only kind of violent jihad that is permissible is the one conducted in defence of Muslim territory. Of course, he argues, it is true that Islamic territory must be defended when under attack. But the mission of Islam is the liberation of humankind: "The object of this religion is all humanity and its sphere of action the whole earth." The peace that Islam desires is not the security of the homeland but the "obedience of all people" to "God alone."
The Task of Islamic Societies
The task awaiting Qutb's tiny Muslim vanguard is vast. He offers his reader a tour of the contemporary world to demonstrate that "all societies existing in the world today are Jahili." Atheistic communist societies deny people their "spiritual needs," reducing them "to the level of an animal or even a machine." "Idolatrous societies" - like India or Japan, or what Qutb calls "Africa" - worship many gods not God. Jewish and Christian societies too deny the Oneness of God, the Trinity in the case of the Christians and (puzzlingly) Ezra in the case of the Jews, while giving their human assemblies or their rabbis and priests "the authority to make laws." They thus repudiate the sovereignty of God.
What then of the Islamic societies? Here Qutb makes his most radical move, his break with all his Islamic contemporaries. "All the existing so-called Muslim societies in the world today are Jahili." Their way of life is not based upon "submission to God alone." "[T]hey make whatever laws they please and then say: 'This is the Shari'a of God'." Islam has no option. It must look at all really existing supposedly Muslim societies as "unIslamic and illegal" - as sunk in Jahiliyya. No society in his view can be "half-Islam and half-Jahiliyya." This thought pushed Qutb and his followers to the necessity of revolution. It is most likely these sentences that led him, after interrogation, to the gallows.
In urging the vanguard to build an Islamic society, where presently none exists, the stakes could not be higher. Either humankind will be sunk in darkness forever or it will be redeemed. The reasons are many. God gave humankind the Shari'a. The human law - the Shari'a - places man in harmony with what Qutb calls "the universal law." Without total obedience to the Shari'a, the creation of the healthy and balanced human person - or, in one more radical formulation, the creation of the only kind of being deserving of the name human - is inconceivable. This is so because total obedience to the Shari'a is the only way in which "the physical laws which are operative in the biological life of a man and the moral laws which govern his voluntary actions" can be harmonized.
In turn, without the emergence under Islam of the fully human person, there can be no good society. When man "makes peace with his own nature, peace and cooperation among individuals follow automatically." When, however, man follows his "desires," "discord" and "conflict" are inevitable. "Desire" is the enemy of the healthy human personality and the spiritual and psychological source of the darkness enveloping the earth.
In one striking formulation, Qutb writes: "The tree of Islam has been sown and nurtured by the wisdom of God, while the tree of jahiliyyah is the product of the soil of human desires." Here, as in many passages of Milestones, the disruptive power of sex lies just beneath the surface of the text.
The Dream of an Islamic Civilisation
For Qutb, there is no such thing as a common human culture. The Jews pretend that culture is the heritage of humankind. This is because they hope to insinuate themselves into all governments and societies so as to take control of the world's financial institutions and to spread the evil practice of usury. (As with all Salafi jihadists, Qutb is not merely anti-Zionist but deeply anti-Semitic.) It is true that Muslims can learn from the pure sciences. But they must reject all Western thinking in the fields of the speculative sciences, like Darwinism, or the human sciences, whose conclusions the Shari'a renders both "ridiculous and absurd." Culture is either Islamic or Jahili. The ambition of Western culture is to destroy Islam.
Because its values are "permanent and universal," "flexible" but not "fluid," "eternal and unchangeable," Islam alone can civilise any society "whatever the level of industrial and scientific progress." Islam is not indifferent to industrial development or scientific knowledge. However, despite their material prosperity, the societies of the capitalist West and the Communist East are all "backward."
Civilization in the capitalist West is thus nothing but "a rubbish heap." Qutb takes what he regards as sexual disorder, which he first observed during his sojourn in the United States, as his primary example. In America, people accept the crazed idea they call "the free mixing of the sexes" and behave "like animals." Sexual and family relations "determine the whole character of a society." And indeed, "Societies which give ascendance to physical desires and animalistic morals cannot be considered civilised."
There is, however, a deeper reason why Islam alone can create a civilized society. Because it is founded upon nothing but shared belief: "black and white and red and yellow, Arabs and Greeks and Persians, and all nations which inhabit the earth become one community."
Qutb's imagined Islamic civilisation is not only de-territorialised - to borrow Olivier Roy's formulation - but also deracinated, detribalised and detached from the blood ties of family. Qutb describes the bonds of race, nation, territory, tribe and family as "residues of the primitive state of man ... Jahili groupings ... from the period when man's spiritual values were at a low stage."
Qutb encapsulates the imagined Islamic community in a single formula: "Nationalism here is belief; homeland here is Dar-ul-Islam (the Abode of Islam); the ruler here is God; and the constitution here is the Qur'an." In this imagined community of the Ummah, Muslims are "God's representatives on earth." They are freed "from the ties of earth so they might soar towards the skies." They take their place in the universe even "higher than the angels." From there, they look down upon Jahili individuals wallowing in "mud and dirt." From this place they are not only de-territorialized, deracinated and detribalized, but somehow also disembodied.
The vanguard must now prepare themselves to struggle in the service of God to create such a world. Qutb speaks to those he hopes will follow him directly. They must recognise that what they are fighting for are not minor changes but revolutionary transformation. "The change from this Jahiliyya, which has encompassed the earth, to Islam is vast and far reaching." At first people will flee from the message as they did at the time of Muhammad. "Then what happened?" "They loved the same truth which at first seemed so strange."
The vanguard must never pollute the call by political admixtures coming from the Jahili world. He warns them against the idea of Islamic Democracy and Islamic Socialism. Qutb warns also that they will be advised, presumably by the Egyptian left, to turn their struggle from religion to economic or political or racial struggle. The purpose is to sow confusion. The struggle they are fighting is for the victory of Islam and nothing else.
Qutb explains the motives of the left-wing critics of the Islamic cause with a curious inversion of Marxism. While the left now interpret the medieval Crusades as imperialism in disguise, in reality it is rather nineteenth and twentieth century imperialists who have tried to disguise with a respectable economic motive the persistence of their deepest desire, the destruction of Islam. In Qutb's view it is not the assertion of economic interest but the struggle of ideas - either true or false, good or evil - that provide the key to the understanding of history.
His historical vision is not materialist but idealist - although for him, and indeed for the entire Salafi jihadist school, the only ideas that ultimately matter in the struggle for mastery of the world are those connected to religion.
Qutb calls his penultimate chapter "The Faith Triumphant." The Believers should never forget that their faith "is bright, clear, beautiful and balanced" and that "the glory of their faith shines forth as never before." Nor should they forget that despite the military and economic humiliation that has been visited upon the Muslim world in recent centuries, those who hold true belief in their hearts have never surrendered their higher human status:
"Conditions change, the Muslims loses his physical power and is conquered; yet the consciousness does not depart from him that he is most superior. If he remains a Believer, he looks upon his conqueror from a superior position. He remains certain that this is a temporary condition which will pass away and that faith will turn the tide from which there is no escape."
One common Orientalist interpretation of recent Islamic history, and indeed of the emergence of Salafi jihadism, focusses on prolonged humiliation of a once proud civilisation and its political and psychological consequences. In this consolatory passage, Qutb provides at least some evidence in its favour.
Qutb begins his final chapter with a vivid Qur'anic story - "The Makers of the Pit" - about the ferocious punishment certain Believers experienced. Their faith lifted them above persecution. "They never recanted and burned in the fire until death." Meanwhile their tormentors - "arrogant, mischievous, criminal and degraded people" - watched even as children, young women or old men were cast into the fire.
Qutb tells this story as a warning to his followers of what they will endure. He warns them that they must not expect that in their own lifetimes their struggles will succeed. God's will is mysterious. Sometimes He punishes wrongdoers; sometimes He does not. Sometimes the meaning of events will be revealed only several generations after they have occurred. Believers can anticipate "contentment of heart"; ''the praise of the angels"; as martyrs, "Heaven in the Hereafter"; and, above all else, "the pleasure of God."
Only however when they understand that rewards are not of this earth will they be able to understand "the milestones" they encounter along the road - "ever paved with skulls and limbs and blood" - that they must travel until death.
Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at La Trobe University. This is an edited extract from his most recent book is The Mind of the Islamic State, published by Black Inc.