paleo Ideofact

Saturday, August 03, 2002
Xavier Basora of Buscaraons has posted some interesting questions about Qutb, King James, and other topics I've written about. I have to confess to some embarassment -- he refers to me as "Prof. Bill Allison." Let me gently disabuse him and anyone else who might have that impression -- I'm certainly not a Ph.D. in anything, and don't even have a Masters degree, and I'm not even sure my high school would let me go to my class reunion, let alone a university hiring me to teach.

In any case, the good Prof. Basora (sorry, couldn't resist) writes,
Reading through Prof.Bill's observation, a recurring question crept up. Qtub dispenses with 1400 years of Islamic thought and history in order to advance his book's theses and I kept asking does Qtub's repudiation of that history represent a latent Platonic strain in Islamic thought? I'm thinking more of the Republic when Plato wanted a tablua rasa but by the time of the Laws he'd mellowed sufficently on the ineveitability of the human condition's 'messiness' and concentrated on ensuring that good laws were legislated. Or did Qtub articulate the nascent tiers mondisme?
Well, I'm probably not qualified to answer this entirely, but my sense is that Qutb isn't rejecting Islamic thought entirely -- he has a whole chapter (the one after economics) devoted to Islamic history; Qutb seems to follow the Wahhabis in rejecting everything that contradicts his views as being an innovation, whether this is true or not. I don't know if this is Platonic per se. Perhaps Adil or Aziz could answer this more definitively. It is worth noting, however, that Plato wasn't the only one to demand a tabula rasa; I recall a Borges essay called "The Wall and the Books," that begins,
I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emporer, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned. ... The Chinese had three thousand years of chronology (and during those years, the Yellow Emporer and Chuang Tsu and Confucius and Lao Tzu) when Shih Huang Ti ordered that history begin with him.
Prof. Basora goes on to write,
Prof Bill's reference to the 1599 Geneva Bible is quite interesting. As I'm not an Anglophone, I'd never heard of it; hence unfamiliar with both it and its marginalia which could've influenced the American constitutional founders. My ignorance brings up another musing about Bible versions -- which will raise a complimentary question on the Qu'ran further below. Although, I'm not an Anglophone, I do know that the King James Bible wasn't the first translated translated into English; while I did vaguely hear of Tyndale, I didn't realize that he forged many of the memorable turns of phrases when translating the Bible into English.

Nonethesless, I've always been at some loss as to why Anglophones- and Protestants in particular, fixate on; indeed, have a fetish towards the King James (I'm not disrespectful, I'm using fetishism in its original anthropological definition).

Out of curiosity, I went to Goole to see when the first Catalan bible appeared. According to the result, the first one was published in 1480 by Fr. Bonifaci Ferrer St Vincent Ferrer's brother. That's interesting as both brothers came from Valencia and spoke a Catalan variant called Valencian (valencià en Catalan and it's still quite vigourous).
I think, in part, this explains the English-speaking world's fetish with King James. I can think of two reasons why this is so: The first is that the King James version is based largely on Tyndale (at least the books he translated -- the Catholics burned him at the stake before he'd had a chance to finish), and Tyndale, like Shakespeare, was a master of the English language. I don't know anything about the good Father Ferrer's translation, but I do know that various coinages of Tyndale are still current in the English language. I would say that the fetish has less to do with religion than with artistry. And the second reason (and it is quite secondary) I already alluded to: Tyndale was burned at the stake for his efforts. The struggle for a complete vernacular Bible for the English speaking peoples didn't end until Henry VIII needed a divorce, and the Catholic Church wouldn't give it to him. That was more than a full century after the Spanish version appeared. The first official English Bible -- the Bishop's Bible -- was rather a ham-handed affair; the Geneva Bible, with which it competed, was, like the King James version, based largely on Tyndale's efforts. It's a long, complicated story -- at some point, I'll write an essay explaining it. But back to the questions raised by Prof. Basora:
This rather prolix digression raises a delicate question about the Qu'ran. Do the non-Arab Moselms understand the Qu'ran? I'm certainly not insulting the believers of being ignorant or stupid about their holy book. Far from it but one of the admonitions is that the Qu'ran really can't (and shouldn't) be translated from Arabic to another language.

The translation simply can't do justice to the beauty and subtlety of the former. I often wonder what the consequences are to the ordinary non-Moselm believer who recites the Qu'ran in the original language. How do they interpret the Qu'ran to resolve a practical moral question? Memorization doesn't necessarily transmit understanding and there might not be doctors of the shar'ia around to assist them.

These questions bring me back to Qutb again. His book is about social justice in Islam but none of the chapters that Prof Bill has analyzed, even bothers with this question of discouraging the Qu'ran's translation. The neglect is significant because if Prof Bill's principal argument is that tyranny and not Islam that's the root of the Arab/Moselm backwardness, surely the Qu'ran would constitue the central repository of ideas, advice even a source of moral strength for the populaces to overthrow their tyrants, reestablish social justice and break out of their backwardness.
These are all interesting points. It's worth noting though that the Catholic Church for years forbid vernacular translations of the Bible; men like Luther and Tyndale caused the huge schism of believers by defying the Church on this point. For the record, Qutb doesn't address the question of translation anywhere in Social Justice in Islam, although it's possible he did in other works -- I can't say. I seem to recall reading something about the Qur'an being translated fairly early on, with the translators noting that it was more of an aid to studying the Arabic original than a substitute for it.

Aziz Poonawalla of Unmedia wrote about my latest Qutb effort:
...if Qutb is the brains behind Osama, then Osama must be schizophrenic.

From your analysis of Qutb I feel he is just a Wahabi (derived from Hanbali, themselves), who has tried to meld Wahabi virulent anti-non-Wahabi rhetoric with a cloak of modern pan-Islamic appeal. There's an inherent contradiction.

As far as Osama is concerned, I sincerely doubt that any Islamic theological framework is driving him. The Wahabis were just tools for the British and the House of Saud, so are Qutbis just tools for al Qaeda. It's the same pattern of quais-religious justification used to incite followers for an essentially purely political cause.
I'm not sure I'm reading him accurately, but to the extent that Osama is trying to dress up his perversion of Islam into a pan-Islamic appeal, I think this is a fairly accurate statement.

Two other things occurred to me. Osama seems (or seemed -- of course it's possible that the past tense is more accurate) to buy into the whole nonsense that the Soviet Union collapsed because of the mujahadeen in Afghanistan; I think some of the bin Laden epistles make this claim. Qutb believed that the Soviet system would triumph over the Western capitalist-democratic model, because it was inherently superior, and the final battle would be between Islam against the godless communists. I think I read somewhere that Osama expected the United States to split into its constituent states over the question of Israel, or perhaps the 9/11 attacks (sorry I'm not providing cites -- I'll try to do so at some point); as if the states of the United States were more or less no different than the constituent "republics" of the old USSR.

Is it possible that bin Laden read Qutb too closely? That, having "defeated" the Soviet Union, he figured that the lesser evil empire, the United States, would fall that much easier?

Friday, August 02, 2002
Sorry for the short posts last night and tonight, but I need some sleep. I want to respond to some questions Xavier Basora posted and some comments of his as well, but I'm just too worn out.

The other night, just before my three year old (four in November, in case anyone was wondering) went to bed, he asked me, "Daddy, did people really go to the moon?"

For me it was a very depressing question. Yes, of course, I told him. We did it, Americans. I was not much older than you when we went for the first time. I remember a few things from that era -- if not the "one small step for man" scene. (Actually, I do have a memory of the 1969 landing, although I was 4 1/2 at the time, and I've heard the story often enough that I don't trust it as an actual memory). But I do remember an inch-thick, probably 8 X 10 inch paperback book that my mom got for me at our regular Gulf gas station. I can't remember if it was a premium with so many fill-ups or if it was just on sale there, but it was loaded with pictures of everthing from the first experiments with rockets in the early part of the century through to the Apollo program. I still remember the schematic showing the Lunar Limb below the Command Module in the Saturn rocket, the pictures of the space suits, the layout of the capsule, and what not.

It was very sad to think that we did this so long ago.

A few weeks ago, I heard on C-Span Radio John F. Kennedy's speech announcing his decision to commit the nation to reaching the moon by the end of the decade. I can't help wondering what it will take for us to reach even the moon again in my son's lifetime.

Thursday, August 01, 2002
I hope he continues to send me emails, but even if he doesn't, I can now see what's on Xavier Basora's mind any time I like. He's started his own blog, called Buscaraons. No, I didn't know that the word was Catalan and translates roughly to troublemaker either, but do now thanks to his blog. I've added a link, and can't help feeling that the blogosphere is richer.

I'm taking a short break from the Qutb analysis. The next chapter, Economic Theory in Islam, is roughly 40 pages long and filled with odd twists and turns. It will also challenge what little I know of the economic history of the Islamic world. So I'm going to have to think about it quite a bit before I actually write anything. In short order, my impression is that he varies between orthodoxy, which isn't entirely unreasonable, toward crackpotism, which is. But a longer exposition will get this across.

Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Qutb 5
A while back, the insightful Xavier Basora wrote to me about the second part of my journey through Sayyid Qutb's work, Social Justice in Islam:
Qutb's dismissal of Averroes and Avicenna compliments the question I have. Your point of departure in reviewing Social Justice of Islam is that it's tyranny not Islam itself that holds back Arab/Islamic civilization. Does Islamic political and legal philosophy have anything with respect to unlawful authourity? Can a Moslem legitimatially ignore unlawful legislation and disobey illegitamate authority? If not, why not?
I don't presume to be enough of an expert in Islam or the Qur'an to adequately answer that question, but I can offer a few observations, and then move on the Qutb's less-than-satisfying fifth chapter, translated as Political Theory in Islam. I've noted before that in the Geneva Bible (linked to the left), a marginal note to Daniel 6:22 reads:
For he disobeyed the kings’s wicked commandment in order to obey God, and so he did no injury to the king, who ought to command nothing by which God would be dishonoured.
That's one of the reasons that the somewhat inferior King James Bible became the dominant English language translation: King James himself hated such marginalia in the Geneva Bible (the best-selling version when he came to the throne), because much of it suggested that there were limits to the king's authority, and that there was nothing wrong with disobeying a king who contravened God's law. As modest as this note is, I believe it contains the seeds of a sentence that read: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." and we all know how much trouble that sentence caused a later English king.

Yet the Geneva Bible's marginalia, like Tyndale's translation, was not inevitable. One could just as easily have written something like, "Because the king was a Persian infidel, it was fine for Daniel to deceive him." I have noted before that Eusebius, the father of ecclesiastical history, derived from the same Bible the idea of the divine right of kings, which is a very different idea from that expressed in the Geneva Bible, or the Declaration of Independence, for that matter.

The reason I took this detour into Christianity is that Qutb, in his fifth chapter, answers Mr. Basora's question:
No ruler has any religious authority direct from Heaven, as had some rulers in ancient times; he occupies his position only by the completely and absolutely free choice of all Muslims; and they are not bound to elect him by any compact with his predecessor; nor likewise is there any necessity for the position to be hereditary in the family. Further, in addition to this, he must derive his authority from the continual enforcement of the law. When the Muslim community is no longer satisfied with him his office must lapse; and even if they are satisfied with him, any dereliction of the law on his part means that he no longer has the right of obedience.
I'm not about to put Qutb in the same league as Jefferson, but the sentiment is the same as that in the Geneva Bible: a ruler who abandons the tenets of the faith is not owed obedience. Qutb's claim that Muslim rulers rule by virtue of the free choice of all Muslims is just bizarre -- unless he's talking about Turkey, or some idealized Muslim polity that did not exist circa 1950, when he wrote this. And it's also worth noting that this paragraph, unlike most of Qutb's others, is unsupported by Qur'anic quotations or hadith. But nevertheless, Qutb seems to believe in some form of consensual government.

And now for another caveat: In the post I linked above, I noted that Qutb rejects much of classical Islam, substituting for it his own reading of the Qur'an. I don't believe that he speaks for Islam, any more than I think the Wahhabis do. As I'd mentioned before, I got interested in Qutb because he has been described as the "brain of Osama." If this is true, then Osama is working with a series of self-contradictory propositions that cannot be reconciled one with the other.

For example, Qutb quote the same verse that Aziz Poonawalla of Unmedia quotes: There is no compulsion in religion. After quoting it in his chapter on political theory, Qutb writes:
...Islam grants to men the utmost freedom and protection to continue in their own religious beliefs.
Yet earlier, in a prior chapter, he had written, (quoted in Qutb 2 linked above)
So the Islamic belief is that humanity is an essential unity; its scattered elements must be brought together, its diversity must give place to unity, its variety of creeds must in the end be brought into one. For thus and only thus can man be made ready to be at one with the essential unity of creation. "O mankind, We have created you male and female, and We have made you people and tribes, that you might know one another." (49:13)

There can be no permanent system in human life until this integration and unification has taken place; this step is a prerequisite for true and complete human life, even justifying the use of force against those who deviate from it, so that those who have wandered from the true path may be brought back to it. (emphasis added)
I don't know how one reconciles these two statements.

In any case, back to chapter five. Qutb's political theory is incredibly short on specifics. This is not the Federalist Papers, not Aristotle or Plato, not Polybius on the Roman Republic. After beginning by arguing that, in its historical development, Islam was not an empire, and in fact, the Islamic polity was unlike any other conceived by man, Qutb goes on to warn against adopting any outside influences:
Islam is a comprehensive philosophy and an homogeneous unity, and to introduce into it any foreign element would mean ruining it. It is like a delicate and perfect piece of machinery that may be completely ruined by the presence of an alien component.
Now, there were quite a few alien components introduced to the Islamic world (or conquered by it) in the first seven or eight centuries of the religion's existence, from the complicated administration required by Iraqi irrigation to the ruling proclivities of Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and Ottoman Turks, to name just a few.

I'm skipping ahead somewhat. The ruler is owed obediance if he follows the Qur'an; in matters for which the Qur'an provides no guidance, he is supposed to consult with others. The nature of these consultations, the method of the ruler's selection, the means by which a ruler who does not follow the law is to be gotten rid of, are not spelled out. Qutb writes:
...the wide variety of questions which now arise leaves ample room for a wide range of systems and methods; hence no system is specified by Islam, which is content rather to lay down only the general principle.
As I said, not exactly the Federalist Papers.

One other interesting passage: Qutb gives the usual quote about Muslims being allowed to wage only defensive wars, of which he writes:
This is war solely to defend the Muslims against physical aggression, so that they may not be seduced from their faith; it is war to remove all material obstructions from the path of the summoning to Islam, that it may reach out to all men.
This sounds rather like an offensive war to me, particularly if we regard things like MTV, the Marines, and the Miami Dolphins as "material obstructions from the path of the summoning to Islam, that it may reach out to all men." But then maybe I've just been spending too much time with this book.

Correction: Qutb does offer a few Hadiths and Qur'anic verses to support the notion that Muslims owe no obedience to a ruler who does not follow the dictates of Islam. Of the former: "There can be no obedience to any creature which involves disobedience to the Creator." The latter is less definitive: "If anyone sees a tyrannical power which is contrary to the will of Allah, which violates the compact of Allah, and which produces evil or enmity among the servants of Allah, and if he does not try to change it by deed or word, then it is Allah who must supply the initiative."

Tuesday, July 30, 2002
I upgraded to Blogger Pro to try to solve some of the archive bugs I've been having -- if anyone is still having trouble with links, please let me know. Also, I think I lost some emails from bloggers who've linked me and requested a reciprocal link. I feel terrible about this, and if you emailed me asking for a link and I didn't comply, please do so again. Finally, I have to say I'm pleased to see that Adil Farooq is back posting.

Monday, July 29, 2002
Qutb 4
Perhaps it's worth pointing out again what Sayyid Qutb's larger purpose is in Social Justice in Islam. Qutb's aim is to show that the answer for Islamic countries (and the world beyond them), the choices offered by the West -- whether communism on the Soviet model or the welfare state of the Europeans or the more liberal capitalist order in the United States -- should be rejected. Qutb offers countries with predominantly Muslim populations the elixir of home cooking. Islam, he argues, answers all their needs.

In the fourth chapter of his work, translated as The Methods of Social Justice in Islam, Qutb drops the comparisons of Islam to Western systems (they crop up again later), and focuses on various practices ordained by the Qur'an that further social justice. While reading this chapter, I got the distinct impresstion that Qutb, who seemed to be addressing a primarily Muslim, most likely Arab, audience, suddenly shifted gears, and began addressing some other intended reader (Western? Non-aligned Third World? I can't say.) I may be wrong, but I can't imagine that a Muslim would need a lengthy introduction to the zakat, for example. In any case, this observation is just an aside.

Qutb begins with a formulation somewhat reminiscent of the theology of the Pauline epistles. Islam, through the Qur'an, sets down laws that must be observed, but seeks ultimately to work a spiritual change in the individual believer. In Qutb's formulation, the believer must observe Islam's decrees not out of a sense of obligation or compulsion, but because doing so is a pleasure. The law is the minimum that a man must follow, but the ideal for which Islam strives is a spiritual awakening in the individual.

Here's a passage from Qutb:
...because it has a profound knowledge of the depths of the human spirit, Islam makes use both of laws and of exhortations, it formulates commandments and prohibitions, it lays down laws and enforces them. But it also encourages the human spirit to exceed such legal responsibilities as far as it can.
In Paul, there is also that profound knowledge of the depths of the human spirit; the law is a reminder of sin, and sin cannot be overcome. For Paul, faith trumps human nature; the key thing is the spiritual transformation that faith works in the individual. Qutb has a slightly different view. This paragraph, only the third in the chapter, coming right after the discussion of law and spiritual transformation, hit me like a brick:
When Islam seeks to establish a complete social justice, it sets it on a higher level than a mere economic justice and on a more elevated plane than can be attained merely by legislative measures; thus it establishes a comprehensive human justice, established on two strong foundations: first, the human conscience, working within the spirit of man; and second, a system of law, working in the social sphere. These two powers it unites by an appeal to the depths of feeling in human consciousness: "Verily in that there is a reminder for every one who has a heart, or who will lend an ear; he is a witness of it." (50:37) Islam does not overlook the weakness of man or his need for external restraint. As 'Uthmann ibn 'Affan said: "Allah restrains man more by means of the ruler than by means of the Qur'an."
'Uthmann can be forgiven for his statement (to some extent); he was a practical man, one of the four rightly guided caliphs, an early convert to Islam who standardized the Qur'an. I'm certainly no expert on the early history of Islam, but from what little I've read, 'Uthmann seems like a decent enough guy by the standards of the times. That he said this doesn't surprise me; that Qutb should quote it so approvingly is nothing short of astonishing. After spending 90-odd pages arguing the perfection of the Qur'an and various Hadiths, Qutb brings in the whip hand of the ruler to keep men in line, more than any spiritual awakening that the Qur'an provides.

Qutb immediately follows this quote with a return to his theme of Islam's stress on refining "the human soul in all its aspects, dimensions, and dealings." He runs through various prohibitions -- not to spy or gossip behind other's backs, not to gamble, not to drink, the forbidding of usury; and on various duties, giving true evidence in legal proceedings, paying zakat (a kind of tax on the wealthy to be given to the poor) and almsgiving (over and above what is required by zakat). Qutb writes,
[Islam] prescribes fighting in the way of Allah as a responsibility incumbent on every one who is able for it. But over and above that, it kindles a love for fighting by inciting the conscience to accept it, by depicting it in glowing terms, and by emphasizing its justice and the glories which it brings to a society.
There follow three Qur'anic quotations supporting his statement.

Qutb ends by saying that Islam the wisest and the most profitable course for human nature, and its results have already been proved in the early history of Islam and throughout the long period of the past fourteen centuries.
I found the evocation of the fourteen centuries interesting, and it's followed by an assertion that, provided that it follows the straight course (I presume Qutb means the one he's describing), the Muslim world can regain its former glory and preeminence.