paleo Ideofact

Wednesday, October 08, 2003
Note: I'm still posting at I reposted three old posts (immediately below) from the Sayyid Qutb series that seem to have disappeared from the archives.

Note: I'm still posting at I reposted three old posts (immediately below) from the Sayyid Qutb series that seem to have disappeared from the archives.

Qutb 8:1
I first read Social Justice in Islam, by Sayyid Qutb, in February 2002. I have to admit I read it the first time carelessly; it wasn't until I got to the eighth chapter, translated as "Present State & Prospects of Islam," that I began to think of blogging it. Like the other chapters, I started breezing through it, but slowed down and began taking notes on it, none of which are useful for my purposes here, but nevertheless helped me begin to get my bearings. I've reread it now five or six times, and each time I can't help thinking two things: 1) that Qutb has a very low opinion of humanity; and 2) that this is matched, or exceeded, only by the low opinion he has of Islam itself, which for Qutb is apparently a delicate flower whose petals will wilt from the slightest breeze from non-Islamic culture generally and the West specifically. Even Muslims themselves can do grievous damage to Islam. (Actually, reading this sentence, it occurs to me that someone could argue that I don't necessarily disagree with Qutb on this point -- that I merely disagree with Qutb on which Muslims do damage to Islam. However, I would tend to argue that Islam itself cannot be damaged by anything that, say, Islamist terrorists do in Islam's name, any more than, say, the Gospels can be damaged by Ku Klux Klan members burning crosses. Perhaps that's the subject for another post...)

Qutb begins by saying that his mission is to call for a renewal of Islamic life, and noting that it is not enough that Islam was a force in the past. Given that his program has not been adopted, one can reasonably conclude that Qutb would argue that, for the more than one billion Muslims in the world today, Islam is not a living force. He goes on to make two points:
1. That Islamic society today is not Islamic in any sense of the word. ...

2. So long as Muslim society adhered to Islam it manifested no weakness and no tendency to abdicate its control of life.
It is worth recalling that for Qutb, the date at which Muslim society ceased adhering to Islam was roughly 680 C.E., and what followed was a series of disastrous political leaders (and there is more on this subject later in the eighth chapter). To clarify his position, Qutb also notes that he is speaking strictly of politics; that while the polity of Muslims of ceased to be Islamic in any real sense quite early on, the religion itself thrived in individuals, and that it was solely the Umayyads, who introduced rule by hereditary succession (rather than by acclamation of the faithful), who were responsible for the political disaster.

I began this series of posts by making the following conjecture (I'm grateful, as always, to Aziz Poonawalla, who's quoted the words with which I began this series, thus saving me the bother if fishing through my archives for them, and indexed the whole series as well):
...I tend to think the main problem of the Middle East is tyranny. ...

Islam shares [with Judaism and Christianity] the concept of the equality of souls before God. It has not found expression in anything like our Declaration, it is not the organizing principle of any predominantly Muslim society, but the concept is there, and is something which perhaps can be built upon.
A moment ago, I mentioned acclamation -- the process by which Muslims in the 7th Century C.E. chose their first political leaders (the first four Caliphs). It is somewhat analogous to an election (and analogy is one of the means by which Islamic religious scholars and jurists adapt the past to the present). Qutb himself describes the ascension of Ali, the nephew of Mohammad and the last of the four rightly guided Caliphs. After having been chosen by the faithful, Ali said, according to Qutb:
O people, I am only a man like yourselves, with the same rights and obligations; I will lead you in the path of your Prophet and will enforce upon you what has been enjoined on me. justice there is an ampleness of life, and whoever feels that he is constrained by right, let him remember that he would be more so by tyranny.
This is not quite Jeffersonian (Jefferson wrote that one of his proudest achievements was the Virginia bill establishing religious freedom, which, he noted, protected the beliefs of "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."), but nevertheless is suggestive of concepts we hold dear under our democratic/republican system (both with small letters): the accountability of a ruler chosen by the people to the rule of law. If Qutb is interested in the political failings of Islamic culture, then one would assume he offers some system, derived from Islamic sources and using analogy, to suggest a mechanism by which Islamic society could ensure it was ruled by those who respected right rather than tyranny. Instead, Qutb writes:
As for the suggestion that the Islamic system does not provide by nature adequate safeguards against disruption, for one thing we must bear in mind that that this system was assailed by disruption before it had properly struck roots; and for another thing we must remember that in practice no system has any real such safeguards. Where, for example, are the safeguards of democracy in Europe? This is a strongly entrenched system, which has achieved a definite form, and which has had time to establish itself and to spread its influence over a long period into every quarter of life. Yet where were its safegaurds at the time of the Nazi coup d'etat, or the Fascist, or the Spanish?
I will leave aside the dubious assertion that democracy was "strongly entrenched" in Italy, Germany, or Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, and also the fact that, rather than rely on Islamic sources for analogies to further his arguments, Qutb chooses to draw on (for him) recent European history. What he seems to be saying is that the best Muslims can hope for is a Mussolini, a Hitler or a Franco, or a system fragile enough to allow their ascension to power.

Qutb 7:6
Note: The previous post in this series can be found here, which provides links back to the others.

Hammer and crescent
Actually, I suppose I should be a bit more tentative in discussing Qutb's economic ideas, which are scattered over several chapters. It's difficult to sort them out, not least because Qutb fairly consistently contradicts himself. After a lengthy passage explaining that Islam strives to take into account man's nature, and thus recognizes the right to private property, he'll then turn around and say that that right is not absolute, but subject to the control of the community; he'll go further and say that the individual is merely the steward of his property, implying that the community can strip him of it if he does not exercise his ownership in accord with the needs of the community. Who is determine those needs is something Qutb glosses over. He'll write at length of the dignity of labor, that Allah expects the individual to work for recompense as the only honorable way to live, and then obliquely suggest that the public treasury to provide support to all Muslims. Sometimes his economics seem to borrow a page from National Socialism, sometimes from communism, and sometimes even from capitalism (although, generally speaking, if he begins with a capitalist idea, like private property, he quickly subverts it). One of the odd things about his economic writing is his lack of specifics -- he does not, for example, specify when it is that an individual has become such a bad steward of his property that the "community" must manage it in his stead. Qutb rather consistently attacks excessive wealth and luxury (although he recognizes that what passes for excessive wealth in, say, Africa would be fairly average -- and thus not excessive -- in America), but beyond that, he doesn't explain himself. I am vaguely reminded, not so much of Marx (yes, I once doped my way through not only Das Kapital, but also Die Grundrisse -- we have a fondness here at Ideofact for fat books), but of the later attempts to figure out what Marx's utopia would look like. Perhaps the most absurd thing I read was something in Sartre, in which he wrote that in the paradise of the workers, the subconscious mind (which elsewhere he said did not exist) would merge with the conscious mind. I could never figure out what Sartre had in mind, but I didn't lose too much sleep over it.

One of the tropes of communist intellectuals and apologists was that a new "Soviet man" was being created. Qutb, in chapter 8 (sorry to skip ahead, but I think I should reference this here) similarly believes that there should be a new Islamic man:
No renaissance of Islamic life can be effected purely by law or statute, or by the establishment of a social system on the basis of Islamic philosophy. Such a step is only one of the two pillars on which Islam must always stand in its construction of life. The other is the production of a state of mind imbued with Islamic theory of life, to act as an inner motivation for establishing this form of life and to give coherence to all the social, religious, and civil legislation. Social justice is an integral part of this Islamic life; it cannot be realized unless this form of life is first realized, and it cannot have any guaranteed permanence unless this form of life is built up on solid foundations. It is in this similar to all other social systems; it must have the support of public belief and confidence in its merits. Failing this, it will lose its spiritual foundations, and its establishment will depend on the force of religious and social legislation; this is a force that obtains only so long as evastion is impossible.

Hence Islamic legislation relies on obedience and conviction; it depends on religious belief. Thus we must always keep in mind the necessity for a renaissance of our religious faith; we must cleanse it of all accretions, such as alterations and arbitrary interpretations and ambiguities; only thus can it be a support for the necessary social legislation that will establish a sound form of Islamic life.
We have heard, from various sources, that there are roughly one billion Muslims in the world, give or take, and that somewhere between 250 million and 300 million of them are Arab (note: in a later chapter, it appears that Qutb, who argues that Islam solves the problem of racism, argues that the conversion of Persians, Turks, Chechens, Mongols, Circassians and Bosnians was an unmitigated disaster for Islam -- stay tuned for that installment). Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that in the 1950s, when Qutb was writing, there were roughly 700 million Muslims in the world, of whom 220 million were Arab. According to Qutb, they must produce (must have produced in them) a state of mind imbued with the Islamic theory of life. This is a prerequisite to his utopia. I imagine that the 220 million Arab Muslims and the 700 million Muslims worldwide would have been surprised to hear that they lacked this.

I point all this out because, at the end of the seventh chapter of Social Justice in Islam, Qutb enumerates ten economic principles. Among them is, "To each according to his needs..." which was a rallying cry of Marxists. I certainly don't know the Qur'an well enough to definitively say that the formula doesn't appear there, but from what little I know of Islam, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Perhaps my good friend Aziz -- if I haven't offended him too much with my carping -- can enlighten us on this point.

In any case, the other principles are as follows: 1. The poor have a better right to welfare than recent converts to Islam (although Qutb doesn't say whether poor recent converts have the same rights as poor longtime followers of the faith); 2. that Islam opposes excessive wealth and excessive poverty; 3. that Islam endorses the graduated income tax -- at least for nonbelievers; 4. tax collectors should not deprive taxpayers of "staples," nor should they resort to force; 5. To each according to his needs...: 6. Islam endorses universal social security and the something that looks very much like the Swedish welfare state (amazing, considering that Qutb is still writing abut the 7th century); 7. What Qutb delightfully calls the "principle of where did you get this?" which is supposed to prevent corruption among public officials; 8. Paying the zakat, a religious tax; 9. The principle of mutual responsibility -- i.e., it's not so great if your next door neighbor starves to death; 10. Usury is forbidden.

Interestingly, in the next chapter, Qutb contradicts himself -- or at least seems to -- on this point, but I'll get to that later.

Sorry if this post is short on examples and specifics, but I do the best I can with the book.

Qutb 7:4
A short post. Here is Qutb's view of Western civilization: is a civilization founded on pure materialism, a civilization of murder and war, of conquest and of subjugation.