Jihad versus Jahiliyya: The Seminal Islamist Doctrine of Sayyid Qutb
by Richard L. Rubenstein (February 2010)
Those who wish to understand the genocidal potentialities of jihad would do well to examine, however briefly, the ethic of war and peace of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), one of the twentieth century’s most influential Muslim thinkers.[i]
Qutb and radical Islamists such as Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their followers take the behavior of Muhammad and his Rightly Guided Companions as the paradigmatic role models for the vanguard that is to overcome jahiliyya, defined by Qutb as the “state of ignorance of the guidance of God,” and restore the sovereignty of Allah to humanity.
Qutb was born and received his early education in a village of the Asyut District (Markat Asyut), some 235 mile by rail south of Cairo. [ii] In spite of the fact that his parents sent him to a modern primary school rather than a traditional Qur’anic school, he memorized the entire Qur’an at an early age. At thirteen, he was sent to his maternal uncle in Cairo to continue his education. He was a student at Dar al-Ulam College from 1929 to 1933 where he was exposed to modern Egyptian and Western intellectual trends and literature.[iii] Upon graduation, he was appointed an inspector of the Ministry of Public Instruction.[iv] Initially impressed with western secular culture, Qutb came to reject it as corrupt, barbaric, and hopelessly immoral. He first achieved a reputation as a poet, and then became prominent as a literary critic.[v] In 1949 the Egyptian Ministry of Public Information gave him a two-year scholarship to study American educational administration during which time he spent several months at Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley, Colorado, now the University of Northern Colorado. Greeley was a conservative town, but there was little, if anything, about it or America that Qutb did not hold in contempt.[vi] Predominantly white Protestant, Greeley was not the sort of town in which a sensitive, well-educated, dark-skinned Egyptian could feel at home in the immediate post- World War II years. He especially resented what he took to be American support of the new State of Israel in 1948. His American experience reinforced his conviction that anthropocentric, cultural modernity had been the spiritual destroyer of the West and threatened to destroy the world of Islam as well.
Returning to Egypt in the summer of 1951, he joined the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and quickly assumed a leadership role. When in July 1952 a group of army officers, known as the Free Officers Movement, forced King Farouk to abdicate and took power themselves, Qutb and the Brotherhood supported the new regime. Relations soon broke down when it became clear that the new government had no intention of establishing an Islamic state. The officers were Pan-Arab, secular nationalists and modernizers. As Emmanuel Sivan, Professor of Islamic History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has pointed out:
For Islamists such as Qutb, the ummah consisted solely of the worldwide community of truly believing Muslims. Neither in Muhammad’s time nor today could there be any place for Christians within the world of Islam, save as dhimmis. Nevertheless,it is hardly surprising that many well-educated, Arabic-speaking Christians took leadership positions in the Arab nationalist movement:[viii] If being an Arab speaker native to the Arab Middle East constituted one’s primary identity and Christianity a secondary identity, then their second-class, dhimmi status would finally be overcome. In addition to sharing a common hatred of Jews and a genuine desire to expel the Israelis from Palestine, one must ask whether an important element in Christian Arab nationalism might have been the desire to overcome their inferior dhimmi status within the Muslim world. One is reminded of the attraction Bolshevism had for non-religious Jews with its seductive, but ultimately deceptive, promise that proletarian membership rather than Jewish religion or ethnicity would determine their primary identity and permit them to escape from pariah status into the world of left-wing socialism.
Although Arab Christians were partners with Muslims in the struggle against Israel, Islamists like Qutb considered their presence in the Arab nationalist movement “reason for alarm.” [ix] Unlike secular Arab nationalists, the Islamists sought to create an Islamic community governed by shari’a. In such a community, Arab Christians were dhimmis and no dhimmi could have a position of leadership or authority, save within their own subordinate minority communities.
There were other reasons for Islamist disenchantment with the secular, Free Officers’ movement. On October 1, 1954, President Gamal Abdul Nasser renewed a treaty with Britain permitting British troops to return to Egypt if Turkey or any Arab state were attacked.[x] On October 26, 1954, Abd al-Latif, a Muslim Brother, attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Nasser. As a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb was suspected of complicity in the plot, arrested, brutally tortured, and sentenced to twenty-five years at hard labor, later reduced to fifteen because of his poor health.[xi]
The colonels who seized power did not hesitate to use extreme measures against their opponents.[xii] Horrified by the assassinations and the torture to which prisoners were subjected, Qutb became convinced that the guards and the torturers were not true Muslims nor could Nasser’s state be considered a Muslim state in anything but name.[xiii]
Qutb used his ten prison years to write. His most influential book, Milestones (Maalim fil-Tariq), also known as Signposts, was published in 1964 after having been circulated in the form of private letters to his brothers and sisters. The book was condemned as an heretical abomination by the ulema of Cairo’s Al Azhar University, Egypt’s senior religious establishment. Moreover, the more traditional members of the Muslim Brotherhood “considered it a simultaneously fascinating and repellent text.” Gilles Kepel, a French authority on radical Islam, rightly characterized the work as “the royal road to the Islamicist movement of the seventies.” [xiv] Although banned by Egyptian authorities, the book became an international best-seller and the most influential Islamist document of the twentieth century.
Through the intervention of President Abd al-Salaam Arif of Iraq, Qutb was released from prison toward the end of 1964 but not for long. On August 30, 1965, Nasser announced that a “new Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy” had been uncovered Considered the ringleader, Qutb was once again arrested, tortured, tried with two other Muslim Brothers, and hung on August 29, 1966.[xv]
According to Mahfouz Azzam, Qutb’s lawyer at the trial, when sentence was pronounced, Qutb declared, “Thank God, I performed jihad for fifteen years until I earned this martyrdom.”[xvi] As the date of his execution approached, Nasser realized that Qutb was more dangerous dead than alive. He dispatched Anwar Sadat to the prison to promise Qutb that if he appealed his sentence, Nasser would show mercy and would even offer him the post of Minister of Education, a post he had already been offered and turned down at the beginning of the regime. His sister, also a prisoner, pleaded with him to save himself for the sake of “the Islamic movement.” Qutb responded, “Write the words. My words will be stronger if they kill me.”[xvii]
Like the English word “martyr,” which is of Greek derivation, the Arabic word “shaheed” means “witness” in the sense of bearing witness to one’s beliefs even at the cost of one’s life. Sayyid Qutb understood that there could be no stronger evidence of his religious and moral seriousness than his willingness to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. Whatever one may think of Sayyid Qutb’s views, there can be no doubt concerning the sincerity with which he held them or his personal incorruptibility. Qutb understood that his jihad consisted in setting forth his vision in his writings and leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood. His refusal to be bought off by Nasser and Sadat, left no doubt of his uncompromising seriousness. It should also have left no doubt concerning how dangerous his ideas and his personal example could be.
Qutb’s fully developed thought rests upon his doctrine of jahiliyya which he defines as the “state of ignorance of the guidance of God.” [xviii] Gilles Kepel, William Shepard, an Australian scholar, and others see Qutb’s understanding of jahiliyya as decisively influenced by his viciously brutal prison experience.[xix] The term itself occurs only four times in the Qur’an where it referred to the society of unbelief, ignorance, and barbarism that prevailed in the Arab world before the advent of and in opposition to Muhammad.[xx]
According to Qutb, jahiliyya did not disappear with the coming of Islam. On the contrary, he insists that jahiliyya is the fundamental characteristic of contemporary society and that it continues to prevail wherever and whenever Islam is either rejected or ignored.[xxi] Jahiliyya is the polar opposite of Islam which proclaims the absolute sovereignty of God. By contrast, jahiliyya represents the pretensions to sovereignty of fallible human beings. Qutb holds that when men claim they can govern themselves unaided by divine guidance, they make gods of themselves and arrogate to themselves prerogatives that properly belong to God alone. For Qutb, democratic self-government is nothing other than jahiliyya and constitutes a most profound rebellion against God’s rule.[xxii] Moreover, contemporary jahiliyya is far more sophisticated and duplicitous than older expressions of the attitude because it is capable of using science and technology to foster its objectives.[xxiii]
Qutb does not restrict his ascription of jahiliyya to the non-Muslim world. His prison experience taught him that the states of the contemporary Islamic world are ensnared in jahiliyya and hence are only nominally Muslim. For Qutb, such states are humanly-created political entities and ipso facto in rebellion against God. He rejected as illegitimate not only Nasser’s Egypt but most, if not all, of the states of the Muslim world of his time. Only insofar as a political leader carries out the will of Allah, as expressed in the shari’a, can he claim genuine legitimacy. By thus defining political legitimacy, Qutb rejects all claims to legitimacy of the entire civilization of secular, democratic modernity.
Nor did Qutb confine himself to abstract analysis. He was engaged in a multi-dimensional jihad to overcome jahiliyya that called for practical and, sooner or later, violent action. He sought the restoration of the ideal Islamic community which, he argued, required a “vanguard of the umma” that would take as its model the original Qur'anic generation, “sweep away the influence of jahiliyya from our souls” and withdraw from the larger, godless world as a first step in replicating the achievements of Muhammad and the “rightly guided caliphs,” his four successors.[xxiv] Qutb held that they were the proper model for the vanguard that would overcome jahiliyya and restore God’s original covenant. He insisted that compromise is impossible between the world of jahiliyya and the world of Islam: [xxv]
Islam, then, is the only Divine way of life which brings out the noblest human belief characteristics, developing and using them for a human society. Islam has remained unique in this respect to this day. Those who deviate from this system…. are truly enemies of mankind (emphasis added).[xxvi]
Note that all who “deviate” from Islam, defined by Qutb and his followers as the entire non-Muslim world, are without exception “enemies of mankind.” Moreover, true Muslims have therefore no choice but to take up jihad against the modern culture of jahiliyya, as Muhammad did successfully in his time. As noted, the power of jahiliyya has been strengthened in the modern world. The Enlightenment intensified the conflict between Islam and jahiliyya by replacing the sovereignty of God with that of man. In the nineteenth century, “Karl Marx, a Jew, developed the philosophy of materialism, while in the political area an unholy alliance between Christian imperialism and Zionism was forged.”[xxvii] In “our modern time” this jahili alliance has become an aggressive force aiming at nothing less than the destruction of Islam altogether.[xxviii]
Qutb’s radically dichotomous division of the world into Islam and jahiliyya prevented him and those whom he influenced from having a realistic understanding of secularization, which has been defined as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”[xxix] This is a far cry from Qutb’s belief that an active assault is being perpetrated against Islam or any other religion. Ideally, secularization fosters freedom of choice in matters religious. Such freedom is not absolute. Secular governments have placed limits on the public practice of some religious traditions. In September 2004, France, for example, banned the wearing of the hijab, the Islamic veil for females, and the display of other religious symbols in state schools. Free choice of religion is often constrained by familial, communal, and social bonds, but in a truly secular society the state can never act as the constraining agent.
How different is Qutb’s view. For him, a truly Muslim state will actively determine Muslim moral and religious behavior with the severest penalties for deviance. Such a state will also determine the degree of toleration granted to dhimmis or “protected” non-Muslims. According to Qutb, the purpose of jihad is to establish “God’s authority” which secures “complete freedom for every man … by releasing him from servitude to other human beings so that he may serve his God” [xxx] True freedom for Qutb can exist only in a polity governed by shari’a. Qutb acknowledges the Prophet’s dictum that “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). He claims that after victory, “Islam gives the conquered people “complete freedom to accept or not to accept its beliefs.”[xxxi] Elsewhere, we have noted that Qutb’s “complete freedom” would involuntarily subject non-Orthodox Jews to the authority of Orthodox rabbinic courts backed by the coercive power of the Muslim state.[xxxii] There would be comparable constraints on Christian dhimmi communities.
Given the viciousness of the military regimes that governed Egypt and Syria in Qutb’s time, one can understand how Qutb could imagine an Islamist regime as liberating, at least for believing Muslims. Nevertheless, those who read Bat Ye’or’s The Dhimmi or Andrew Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad, will get a starkly contrasting and more accurate picture of the “freedom” dhimmis would receive after submission to such an Islamic regime.[xxxiii] The conditions endured by dhimmis ranged from the merely humiliating to outright rape, slavery, and murder, none of which carried any penalty for the Muslim perpetrators.
Qutb’s description of the dhimmis’ “freedom” under Islam also ignores the role of forced conversions in bringing non-Muslims into the fold in spite of the assurance that there is “no compulsion in religion.” The fear induced by the conquering Muslim armies was often enough to persuade non-Muslims of the “truth” of Islam, especially when enemy men were slaughtered and women and children enslaved, as was the case of the Banu Qurayzah in Muhammad’s time and in the twentieth century during the Armenian genocide.
According to Qutb, jahiliyya will only be defeated by jihad which he understands in fundamentally religious rather than territorial terms. Rejecting the idea of the “defense of the homeland of Islam” as a valid basis for jihad, he wrote: “The soil of the homeland has in itself no value or weight, from the Islamic point of view.” The homeland is worthy of defense only when “on that soil God’s authority is established and God’s guidance is followed.”[xxxiv] Territorial wars, such as those fought by European powers between 1815 and 1914, were limited in objective. As Qutb understands, in principle jihad can have no limits. He tells us that God “made Islam a universal message, ordained it as the religion for the whole of mankind … and made it to be a guide for all the inhabitants of this planet in all their affairs to the end of time.” [xxxv]
Hence, Qutb warns against the “naïve” assumption that “preaching and exposition” (da’wa) alone would suffice to persuade “the whole of humankind throughout the earth” to heed Islam’s call to “freedom.”[xxxvi] While not denying that “preaching and exposition” have a role to play, he argues that the jahili world will place obstacles in the way and that committed Muslims will be compelled to remove them “by force.”[xxxvii]
Qutb argues that just as the Muslim vanguard in Muhammad’s time took up arms against what they took to be jahili aggression, the contemporary Muslim “vanguard” must use force against modern jahiliyya. According to William Shepard, Qutb’s idea of jihad is consistent with the following comment of [Abu ‘Ali] Mawdudi (1903-1979), one of the intellectual fathers of modern radical Islam:
Islam is not the name of a mere “Religion”, nor is Muslim the title of a “Nation”. The truth is that Islam is a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals. “Muslims” is the title of that “International Revolutionary Party” organized by Islam to carry out its revolutionary programme. “Jihad” refers to that revolutionary struggle and utmost exertion which the Islamic Nation/Party brings into play in order to achieve this objective (emphasis added).” [xxxviii]
Qutb also rejects the idea, current in some Muslim circles, that jihad is purely defensive, arguing that had not Islam employed aggressive force in the time Muhammad, Abu Bakr, ‘Omar, and ‘Uthman,” it would never have achieved the widespread dominion that it did.[xxxix] This is a theme echoed by Osama bin Laden.
There is some debate concerning whether Qutb was calling for outright revolutionary violence. Shepard reminds us that Qutb envisioned his revolution as falling in two stages, the first resembling the non-violent Meccan stage of the Prophet’s mission, in which the power equation weighed against the new and fragile faith, and the second akin to the later, Medinan stage in which the reverse was true. In the modern version of the Medinan stage, Qutb would probably have advocated violent action. Shepard argues that Qutb saw the non-violent, “Meccan” stage as relevant “in his time,” but not the later, violent Medinan stage. Qutb believed that the West’s technological and scientific advantage would last for several centuries. While Qutb considered resort to violence “premature,” Shepard believes that Qutb would resort to it “when the time came.”[xl]
When the opportunity arose, Qutb was convinced that the physical destruction of jahiliyya would be the only solution.[xli] Moreover, he argued that total destruction would be “ethically justifiable” because jahiliyya’s evil is ipso facto rebellion against God and aggression against those striving to create a world wholly obedient to His Will. Since jahili unbelievers seek to destroy Islam, such a destructive jihad is regarded by Qutb and other radical Islamists as purely defensive and entirely justifiable.
Moreover, Qutb argues that only true Muslim believers partake of full humanity while unbelievers are in some sense sub-human.[xlii] Hence, the destruction of infidels violates no ethical or moral principle. On the contrary, killing unbelievers, however implemented, is a positive gain for the restoration of the world to conformity with the Creator’s original intent. As Hanzen and Kainz point out, in Qutb’s theological universe, the idea that there is something wrong with killing unbelievers rests upon the mistaken conviction that mortal life is to be positively valued. In reality, respect for life and fear of death are expressions of materialism and, as such, jahiliyya. Hanzen and Kainz conclude: “In sum, Qutb’s interpretation of the world contains all elements necessary to justify any kind of mass murder in the name of ‘faith (emphasis added).’”[xliii] Moreover, Qutb’s ascription of a paranthropoid identity to non-believers exactly parallels National Socialism’s characterization of those targeted for destruction as Untermenschen (sub-humans). Denial of full humanity to such a group is a major step on the road to their guilt-free extermination.[xliv]
In sum, Qutb’s fundamental view of the world is expressed in the following statement:
There are two parties in all the world: the Party of Allah and the Party of Satan –the Party of Allah, which stands under the banner of Allah and bears his insignia, and the Party of Satan, which includes every community, group, race and individual that does not stand under the banner of Allah (emphasis added).”[xlv]
Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport and Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Jewish theology, the Holocaust and other issues including After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, The Cunning of History, My Brother Paul and Dissolving Alliance: The United States and the Future of Europe. His most recent book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010)
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