Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sayyid Qutb, Milestones

Sayyid Qutb, 1906-66, is a prominent extremist. A member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he was executed by Nasser's regime for his radical rejection of all government not based on the word of God. I have read excerpts from his work in the past, and scholarly treatments, but now I am near done with one of his key writings, Milestones.

Qutb qualifies as an extremist because though he claimed to represent a long and well-known tradition, Islam, he implicitly claimed that he and his followers (I'm not aware that he credited teachers, beside the Prophet) were the only ones who understood that tradition. Indeed, he explicitly claimed that the entire world, including the so-called Muslim world, was sunk in a state of pagan confusion or Jahiliyya, just as it was when Muhammed appeared. (He did not explain how or why the divinely-inspired movement led by the Prophet had come to this state, or how this reflected God's will and God's plan, things he was generally pretty big on.)

A central tenet of Qutb's thought has a real 20th century flavor: since Islam means "submission to the will of God," (a standard and central Islamic idea) than any other form of government than the simple enforcement of the divine legislation in the Quran and hadith was tyranny. Man should not obey man. Only Islam is freedom, since in it only God is obeyed. Although "there is no compulsion in religion," non-Muslims were free to worship as they liked, they could not erect barriers to the free preaching of Islam or the enforcement of Islamic law: all non-Muslims should be in the status of "Dhimmis" (protected and regulated by the Muslims), as in many places during the Middle Ages and early modern period. Otherwise they would be legitimate targets for jihad.

Non-Muslims may well balk at this vision, especially the part which says that their own governments, however freely chosen, are illegitimate, but look at it from the Muslim point of view. Many Muslims would likely see this presentation of God's will as arrogant and deeply insulting. For Qutb, what God wants, the law of God, is simple and straightforward and any problems in understanding the Quran are simply resolved using well-known techniques. Yet if the world is sunk in Jahiliyyah, obviously many people who considered themselves Muslims, teachers and scholars, are wrong about many crucial issues. Only Qutb and his Islamic organization -- the only real Muslim movement -- know the truth.

In this you can see how extremist movements that claim to be true Islam are as much a threat to other Muslims as to non-Muslims, if not more so. Qutb called for civil war.

Update, Sept. 9, 2007: Maajid Nawaz, a British/Egyptian militant, rejects Qutb's position.

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