Sayed Qutb, Islamic Extremism & Philosophy

The inspiration for religious violence in the world

By Professor Arif Ahmed (Cambridge University)

April 1, 2015          Picture: Alisdair Hickson/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive The Great War Series Part I: Gaza, Isis and The Ukraine.   

Politicians in Britain, Europe and America routinely assert nowadays that ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ There are two sorts of evidence for this. Both of them are dubious.

First, it is true that the vast majority of Muslims strongly reject the terrorism and political violence that some of their co-religionists carry out. You would probably find more widespread and more vehement rejection of ISIS in Gaza than you would in France. And the Islamic countries, both Shia and Sunni, are amongst our most important regional allies against that movement.

But just because most of its followers reject violence does not mean that a religion or other creed is peaceful as such. Nobody would say that Irish nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s was a peaceful movement, at least not compared to Irish nationalism or Scottish nationalism today, in spite of the fact that most republicans at the time would have rejected the methods of the Provisional IRA.

Second, it is also true that in many places the Koran rejects both intolerance and violence. But it like the Bible also has plenty to say about war against unbelievers and about their gruesome fate in the afterlife. It may be that the book is inconsistent. In that case calling Islam a religion of peace would just be cherry-picking. Or it may be that it does have a single coherent message, but what it is is a very complex matter on which politicians who are not scholars cannot pronounce with authority.

In any case, it is unsurprising and understandable that political leaders should make that sort of claim. They are more concerned with promoting inter-religious tolerance than with speaking the truth at any cost.

That at least some of their followers accept violence is something that Islam and Christianity have in common. The behaviour of ISIS and Al Qaeda seems especially shocking to us because it is happening on television today. But religiously motivated brutality is quite familiar to European countries that have endured centuries of Christian dominance.

Islam has now been around for about 1400 years. If we date it back to St Peter, the Catholic Church at that age already had to its credit the mass torture of heretics, the burning of ‘witches’ and the persecution of the Jews. The St Bartholomew’s day massacre, the Spanish Inquisition and the Lateran Treaty were still to come. Of course today the Pope no longer has any divisions, and since losing them he has become strangely willing to start apologizing for what his predecessors did when they had them.

It is also unsurprising that religious atrocities occur. Both the Christian and the Islamic systems, unlike the Jewish, concern not just one particular people but all mankind: its origin, its nature and its relation to God, in which last they locate the whole meaning of life. Such belief systems are viral in the sense that anyone who adopts them has an incentive to see to it, perhaps at the cost of his own life and others’ lives, that everyone else adopt it too. Contrasting Judaism with the early Christian church, Gibbon wrote:

“The promise of divine favour, instead of being partially confined to the posterity of Abraham, was universally proposed to the freeman and the slave, to the Greek and to the barbarian, to the Jew and to the Gentile. Every privilege that could raise the proselyte from earth to heaven… was still reserved for the members of the Christian church; but at the same time all mankind was permitted, and even solicited, to accept the glorious distinction, which was not only proffered as a favour, but imposed as an obligation.”[1]

But the violence of their methods is not the only threat, and perhaps not even the main threat, that Islamic fundamentalism represents. Probably some of its protagonists are just psychopathic thugs. But ISIS and al Qaeda themselves are political and philosophical movements. And Islamic fundamentalism is a coherent and systematic ideology that rewards further investigation. We get a clearer sense of what it is from the writings of its most important intellectual figure of modern times. This was the twentieth-century Egyptian writer and political activist Sayed Qutb.

Qutb was born in 1906 and spent his early adulthood as a teacher. He later became a civil servant in the department of education in Cairo. In the late 1940s he visited the United States for two years. This trip must have crystallized something in his mind, as on his return he resigned his post and joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

That movement was then allied with Colonel Nasser, who took power in the revolution of 1952 and offered Qutb a position in the new government. Knowing that Nasser was secretly plotting against the Brotherhood, Qutb refused. Nasser’s covert opposition to the Brotherhood became overt following its attempt to assassinate him in 1954. Qutb himself spent most of the next twelve years in prison before being hanged by Nasser in 1966.

Qutb’s influence on Islamic fundamentalism is well known. It is clearly set out in Paul Berman’s enlightening book Terror and Liberalism. Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri and Al-Awlaki all seem to have learnt indirectly from him. And both Al Qaeda and ISIS seem bent on achieving the political aims stated in his best-known work, Milestones, written in prison and first published in 1964. In this work, quite clearly the product of a penetrating and highly organized intelligence, Qutb makes very many interesting points, of which four are worth mentioning here.

(1) The starting point of Milestones is the central doctrine of Islam itself, that there is no deity except God. It is supposed to follow that all political authority belongs only to God. There is no other legitimate authority. In the modern world, ignorance of divine authority ‘takes the form of claiming that the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behaviour and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to what God has prescribed.’[2] ‘No deity except God’ means ‘No sovereignty except God’s, no law except from God, and no authority of one man over another, as the authority in all respects belongs to God.’[3] The effect of this doctrine is to render illegitimate every political system that has ever actually existed on Earth, with the sole exception—Qutb thinks—of the Salaf, the very earliest generations of Muslims.

For this reason the Islamic movement might be regarded as a movement of liberation. It frees everyone from servitude to others because it denies that any one can legislate for anyone else on any basis at all, whether it be class, race, wealth, physical power or democratic mandate.

‘The Jihaad of Islam [—that end for which it strives—] is to secure complete freedom for every man throughout the world by releasing him from servitude to other human beings so that he may serve his God, Who IS One and Who has no associates.’[4]

(2) God’s writ extends to everything in the cosmos, material as well as spiritual. The metaphysical realization of this point is the all-encompassing nature of Islamic doctrine, which, as Qutb wrote elsewhere, ‘discusses the nature of the servitude to God that permeates both the universe and human life. It expounds the nature of the universe, of life and of man; their origins, attributes, and conditions; the relations that exist among them; and finally the connection that links them all to the supreme divine reality. It joins this all together into a single, logical concept.’

Politically, what it means is the penetration of God’s law—sharia—into every aspect of human life, even into mundane and personal matters. As well as defining criminal behaviour and prescribing punishments for it, sharia governs economic behaviour, prayer, personal hygiene, diet, marital relations and dress. In this respect it contrasts sharply with Christianity, which distinguishes between the spiritual and the practical areas of life and is relatively unconcerned with the latter.

(3) What makes a truly Islamic civilization unique is that it appeals to the essence of humanity, the features of a man that make him a man and not only an animal. Thus Qutb writes that ‘in spite of the characteristics which man shares with animals and inorganic matter, man possesses certain other characteristics which distinguish him and make him a unique creation.’[5] Cardinal amongst these is the spiritual tendency towards monotheistic belief, which Islamic thought quite generally takes to be innate.

Other civilizations have typically erred in emphasizing the animalistic or material side of humanity. For instance, the Roman Empire and the British Empire were erected on class systems that exploited human selfishness and greed. Similarly, both the United States and Marxist Russia are or were purely materialistic societies: the United States in its practice because it emphasizes the pursuit of material wealth, and communism in its theory because it saw man and his history as mere phenomena of the interplay of material forces.

By contrast the Islamic society was a community of belief. It paid no heed to distinctions of class, nationality, race or colour. Its peoples ‘all came together on an equal footing in the relationship of love, with their minds set upon a single goal; thus they used their best abilities, developed the qualities of their race to the fullest, and brought the essence of their personal, national and historical experiences for the development of this one community, to which they all belonged on an equal footing and in which their common bond was through their relationship to their Sustainer.’[6] Because it appeals to what is both distinctively human and universally human, Islamic society is the political ideal of all humanity.

(4) In striving to establish this utopia—in Jihaad—it is permitted to use physical force. Here, however, Qutb makes a sharp distinction. On the one hand there is the forceful imposition of Islamic beliefs. This he rejects, on the Koranic basis that ‘there is no compulsion in Islam.’ On the other hand there is political violence aimed at destroying the institutions that stand between the people and the faith, that ‘force one people to bow before another people and prevent them from accepting the sovereignty of God’. An example of these would be the secular institutions of the United States and the instruments of her civil and military power. Qutb considers these targets to be legitimate. The distinction would have seemed rather academic to the people who died in the World Trade Center.

Is any of this true? On point (1), there is little to say about belief in a divinity that has not been said very well, and more often than ought ever to have been needed, by skeptical philosophers from Democritusand Lucretius to Hume and Russell. Neither observation nor reason gives anyone the slightest grounds for believing in deities of any sort, let alone that there is just one, that he created the universe and that he is the source of all value and the locus of all political authority.

Point (2) reveals the affinity of the Islamic fundamentalist movement with totalitarianism, by which I mean a political arrangement in which the state ideology controls all aspects of its subjects’ lives. But one might here object that whereas other totalitarian regimes, for instance in the Soviet Union and fascist Italy, attempted to impose systems that were fundamentally alien to human nature, Islam when properly understood is thoroughly in harmony with our essential characteristics.

This brings me to point (3), which is in fact triply in error. First, the whole notion of ‘essence’ is a philosophical superstition that we ought to have outgrown since the time of Darwin.

There are many features that distinguish human animals from other animals, for instance that they are featherless bipeds, but it makes no semblance of sense—though it may have a rhetorical effect—to say that any one of these features, for instance the tendency to theistic belief, identifies what it really is to be human.

You might as well say that it is our capacity to compose music, to understand mathematics, to know that we die, or any of many other things that ‘makes us truly human’. Which of those features you do select will probably depend on what you want your audience to think, say or do. If you want them to give money to charity, you might say that what makes us truly human is our capacity for kindness to others. If you want them to kill unbelievers, you might say that what makes us truly human is our recognition of a deity. Still, neither of these things would be true.

“The whole notion of ‘essence’ is a philosophical superstition that we ought to have outgrown since the time of Darwin”

Second, the idea that Sharia is in harmony with universal human drives is simply at odds with the philosophical truth that rational people can differ over ends. You might wish to lead your life in one way and I might wish to lead my life in another; and there need not be any mistake involved. Denying this point is what makes idealism into fascism. It is what drives the philosopher to agree with Rousseau—perhaps the western thinker closest to Qutb—that he who rejects the favoured philosophy must be ‘forced to be free’.[7]

But accepting it encourages a vastly more modest conception of the law and the state than what Qutb is proposing. The law is a framework in which each citizen can plan and execute the pursuit of his own happiness, wherever that may lie. That framework is necessary to prevent one man from restricting the liberty of another. But it is not there to co-ordinate all human activity in pursuit of some single common end—be it the glory of God, the triumph of the proletariat or the supremacy of a race—on which everyone is somehow supposed to agree in advance.

The third, more practically-minded objection to Qutb is that political arrangements should pay less heed to what drives are distinctively human than they do to what drives are most powerful and widespread amongst humans. On this point I think Hobbes was closer to the truth when he said that men naturally love dominion over others[8], to which Friedrich Hayek and Lord Acton rightly added that it is the worst who usually get it.

This is the lesson if anything is the lesson of Roman history, in which we observe a dreary procession of Emperors running the whole range of human wickedness from the venal and corrupt to the viciously psychopathic. It would not take anyone two minutes to think of a dozen other examples from all times and places. Even in my own country (Britain), which is peaceful and democratic, the mendacity and general moral poverty of the political class is nowadays almost proverbial.

The idea of a state in which very far-reaching and intrusive laws are justly administered and enforced by a benevolent and disinterested civil power is therefore a dangerous fantasy. In every state the people who get power are the people who want it the most. Can anyone wonder how these people will act in order to get it or how much restraint they will exercise when they do?

The lust for power indeed contaminated Qutb’s vaunted Islamic civilization itself. It was the dispute over the succession to Mohammed that provoked that great schism in the religion that has been raging for centuries, and which has now pushed the entire Middle East to the brink of an apocalyptic war.

Anyone who accepts people as they are, rather than imagining them to be as he would like, will therefore aim at the polar opposite of Qutb’s dystopia. Rather than a system that would be perfect in the hands of a saint, the proper aim of politics is one that would be tolerable in the hands of a megalomaniac.

This means a state that is both limited and divided: limited in the sense of having clear constitutional restrictions on the areas within the reach of government, and divided in the sense of distributing power amongst antagonistic branches of government.

Despite all of her imperfections in reality, the United States in her constitution reflects a clearer recognition of what people are really like—or better, what they are usually like—than is apparent from these writings of Qutb.

Probably though, Qutb’s vision has a deeper source of attraction for some people in the West. It seems to offer a vision of life that lifts us above the endless, pointless quest for material possessions that many of its opponents think is characteristic of middle-class life in twenty-first century Britain or America.

But consumerism is simply a by-product of what is truly important about Western civilization. Our most precious and fragile possessions are not our smart-phones or our plasma televisions or even our welfare arrangements. They are our freedoms: the freedom to think what you like, to say what you think, and to lead the sort of life that you choose in pursuit of the goals that you value.

A good example of this would be gay rights. Things are very far from being perfect, but it remains true that Western Europe, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand are by far the best places in the world for a gay man or woman to live.

I myself am proud to live in a country where, in my own lifetime, public tolerance towards homosexuality has dramatically and measurably increased. By contrast it is illegal throughout the Muslim world and punishable by death in a number of those countries.

This difference has nothing to do with the materialistic values of the West. What it reflects is the spiritualsuperiority of the West. In aspiration if not always in fact, each man or woman is a free individual who should be able to choose both what matters to him and how to pursue it.

The individual citizen should not be a slave to any other person; nor to public opinion; and especially not to an all-encompassing and oppressive ethico-legal system, backed by stone-age cosmology and the resources of the modern state.

When George W. Bush said in his address to Congress that they hate our freedoms, he put his finger on the deepest difference between Western and religious fundamentalist views of life.

I believe that philosophy has a role to play in reminding us of what we are fighting for. The late Secretary of State for Education has said that the teaching of history should emphasize the key events and people in British life that give a sense of a national narrative.

I don’t agree with that. But I do think that both it and philosophy, which ought to be taught more widely, can helpfully emphasize the evolution and practical impact of values that make the entire Western world, and not only Britain, something vastly more important than just a materially advanced civilization. They should tell the story of the events, people and ideas in the long struggle of liberty against repression and bigotry, from Magna Carta to the fall of the Berlin Wall and from Socrates to John Stuart Mill.

And even an introductory training in modern philosophy both can and should inculcate the paramount intellectual imperative, the one that ought to be its first and last lesson: think for yourself!

In fact since it offers a very good training in logic and critical thinking, philosophy not only should valorize, but also can sharpen, the human capacity for independent thought and action that constitutes the final safeguard of those liberties that so many have fought and died to achieve and to preserve.

Footnotes & References

[1] E. Gibbon, Decline and fall of the Roman Empire vol. 1 ch. 15.

[2] S. Qutb, Milestones. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service: 11. In these footnotes abbreviated as ‘Q’.

[3] Q 26.

[4] Q 70.

[5] Q 49.

[6] Q 50.

[7] J.-J. Rousseau, The Social Contract Book I ch. 7. For a statement of Rousseau’s complex attitude towards ‘civil religion’ see Book 4 ch. 8.

[8] Leviathan Part II ch. xvii.

Arif Ahmed
Arif Ahmed
Arif Ahmed studied mathematics at Oxford University and Philosophy at Sussex and Cambridge. He has worked at Birmingham University and Sydney University and is now Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Cambridge University. He writes mainly on decision theory, but also has an interest in religion and has debated the subject against William Lane Craig, Tariq Ramadan, Rowan Williams and others. He is an atheist and a libertarian and his philosophical outlook is most closely allied with those of David Hume and Friedrich Hayek.
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