From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism
On the face of it an unlikely figure—here was a middle-class intellectual Egyptian from a traditional village background of waning family fortunes; propelled into modern urban life; an intellectual—in London, he might have aspired to joining the Bloomsbury set; a writer of poetry, and a rising literary critic; a man of sensibilities, a little priggish, even a touch prudish; a man who yearned for romantic love; but whose one love affair turned out to be a painful disaster—how did this lonely, prickly figure transform into a revolutionary who ended—defiant—on the gallows in August 1966?
Adnan Musallam’s careful account of the affect of Egypt’s life and society in the years preceding the 1952 military revolution on a man caught between his traditional roots and secular urban modernism and reflecting the political and cultural dislocations of his time is compelling. Colonialism, the growing Westernization of Muslim societies unleashed by Mustafa Kemal’s ending of the Caliphate and the forced cultural suppression and demonization of Islam in book reviews Turkey had its impact. Closer at hand, the disenchantment with the conduct and racialism of British soldiers during the second European War, traces the path of a man returning to the values of his youth and to the Qur’an in the face of alienation from the society around him.
Here was a man whose experience of Western influence had already provoked a moralist counter-reaction before his—relatively mundane—criticism of Egyptian corruption and policy irked the Palace severely. He was exiled—albeit on scholarship—to the United States where his experience hardened further his sense that Western secular liberalism had created a de-humanized, hollow society which soon would implode: ‘The civilisation of the white man has already exhausted its restricted usefulness.’ The impulse toward radical change in his own society was given a hard edge by this Western experience that fitted with a somewhat priggish man facing anger and resentment at home—rather than general admiration at his forensic criticism—of his own society enthralled by Western materialism and mired in social injustice.
His frustration at the imperviousness of the Egyptian elite and of society as a whole to his admonitions, and their wilful closed-mindedness—as he saw it—to the societal and moral consequences of Westernization led him into direct involvement with the Free Officers movement and the Muslim Brotherhood that ultimately would carry him to nearly a decade of imprisonment from November 1954 until May 1964.
Musallam touches on it only briefly, but one can imagine the psychological impact of a decade in gaol for a man like Qutb. A man of neat almost stiff appearance; a participant in literary circles, a poet and a bachelor faced the horrors of the mistreatment and torture that was common in Egyptian prisons. We are told of but one incident in 1957 when 21 Muslim Brothers were arbitrarily killed for refusing to report for their daily hard labour of rockbreaking. Qutb, we are told, was horrified by the barbarism of the gaolers to other human beings. We can imagine how this incident and the routine of torture impacted on a man of sensibilities. He was sickened and revolted by this violent mindless assault on ideas. It is no wonder that he decided that intellectual suasion had no place in the horror of an Egyptian system that crushed dissent and which erased all humanity. Qutb decided to pull down the ‘Temple pillars’. He became a revolutionary.
Musallam describes Qutb’s radicalization in prison. Qutb is convinced that humanity is heading for ‘the deep, awful precipice of destruction’ unless a determined Muslim vanguard takes up the struggle—jihad—against the modern version of that narrow-mindedness that clung so tenaciously to narrow tribal interest, and which closed its ears to the Prophet’s revelation during the early years of the first Muslim community, and for which Qutb used the term ‘Jahiliyya’ (ignorance).
His solution was to establish a vanguard whose role would be to fight a present-day Jahiliyya of materialism and self-centredness; to carry the message of Islam as a system for modern life that is complete and balanced, that embraces modern technology for its own ends, but which is situated in real human needs. Qutb adds that there ‘are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and tradition and, in general, the whole human environment’.
It is clear that Qutb sees this as a revolutionary struggle to change the nature of society and of its government too. He is critical of Muslims who restrict Muslims to ‘defensive war’ only. This he brands as ‘defeatist’. The place of ‘Jihad through the sword’ is ‘to clear the way for striving through preaching’. Islam is not a ‘defensive movement’, but a ‘universal proclamation of the freedom of man from servitude to other men . . . and the end of man’s arrogance and selfishness’.
It is this latter aspect that is really radical. Musallam does not touch on this aspect specifically. But Qu3b is taking a sledge hammer to a 1400 year Sunni social compact. After the murder of the fourth caliph ‘Ali, in 661 the Sunnah acquiesced to the seizure of the caliphate by the then Governor of Damascus. This was the beginning of the (mostly) worldly Umayyad dynasty—kings and conquerors—rather than keepers of the Prophet’s revelations.
In accommodating the hereditary Umayyad dynasty, the Sunnah made their historic compromise with power—a compact rejected and shunned by the Shi’a. Sunni Islam embraced what was to become their traditional stance of accepting a worldly Caesar – providing that he maintained order, protected the Islamic territories and left theology to the ulema. Qutb defined this outcome essentially as Jahiliyya, and called for God’s rule, rather than rule by some ‘Caesar’.
The vanguard, he accepts, may need to use the sword to bring about the end of Jahiliyya. To complete his pulling down of the ‘Temple pillars’—Qutb, like the revolutionary Martin Luther did before him to the Roman Church—consigns the Sunni hierarchy and the superstructure of Islam to the dustbin by insisting that the Qur’an must be accessible to all without the need for the intervention of a learned ‘alim or through the dry prism of traditional commentary.
In proposing these revolutionary changes, Qutb is again (albeit posthumously) in the dock—on this occasion facing the charge of having laid the foundations for radical jihadists to emerge through his espousal of an offensive jihad against Jahiliyya. Musallam concludes that Qutb’s execution in 1966 pre-empted any final judgement on the issue—as his intentions could not be clarified effectively, and admirers have argued that the jihadists have distorted his concept of Jahiliyya by justifying war on fellow Muslims—whom they chose to label as ‘unbelievers’.
Musallam’s analysis suggests that Qutb may not have intended this elaboration of jih:dism, although it is easy to see that the step might have been seen to be logical in the face of the ruthless repression and cruelty inflicted on the early Qutbists who will have wondered how fellow-Muslims could have inflicted such repression on those seeking to free man from selfishness and materialism. However the legacy of Qutb should not be centred on this dispute, important though it might be. Qutb—through his prolific output that has been devoured by Islamists everywhere—may finally have left his most important legacy to mainstream Islamism in the form of direct activism. His message has been taken up in the context of confronting—not just Jahiliyya—but the imposition of the Western template in the evolving world order. It is not enough to be passive. It will require a more assertive struggle to shape a just world order.
Almost all Islamists would agree with Qutb on this. In this respect he is the ‘father of revolution’.