Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Milestones by Sayid Qutb

There has never been so much said by so many people about a book that so little have read. Milestones by Sayid Qutb shot to prominence following the September 11 attacks against the United States of America. I was first introduced to his thought when I watched Adam Curtis' remarkable The Power of Nightmares documentary - a three part series in which the ideological inspirations of the Bush White House and Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda were traced back to Leo Strauss and Sayid Qutb. Two remarkable men of vision and conviction who actually shared similar views about the corruption and decadence of modern society - yet inhabited two diametrically opposing poles of political thought. Later, I learned more by watching the excellent Hussein Saleh's documentary on Qutb in his series Mamno'oon (Forbidden) which was aired on al Jazeera a few years ago but it was only till a few months ago that I had time to read his much maligned book Milestones and digest what I had learned.

In the opening chapters of Milestones, Qutb begins forcefully by stating that the period of dominance for the Western man in world affairs is coming to an end. The West, whilst having made remarkable achievements for the development of civilization materially, had reached the end of the road. Politically and morally, the West was, as it had always been, bankrupt, and humanity is at the crossroads. It is only Islam which can offer a meaningful solution for the world and whose adherents must now lead.

In many ways, much of what Qutb has to say was not very new to me, nor was it a surprise. But then again those who live in the shadow of thinkers and personalities like Frantz or Malcolm X can be forgiven if they take for granted the remarkable impact that their influence would have made during their lives, as well as on later generations. Qutb argues that humanity is living through a second Jahiliyah (Age of Ignorance), the first being the period before Islam arrived. This concept was interestingly noted by Karen Armstrong who argued similarly in her excellent book on the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

In this age, morality has declined, what is wrong is upheld as right and those who uphold the right are outcasts. The only way out of this is for a brave vanguard of Muslims to truly live according to the Quran. Qutb is adamant about this, Islamic civilization, philosophy, science, all these pale into insignificance as compared to the driving force which was the belief in Allah only and submission to Him only. None of the later civilizational achievements were essential to this period of greatness. Key to Qutb's call for a renewal of a truly Islamic nation is that complete sovereignty must lie with Allah alone, not with man. This is a recurrent theme in the Milestones and an important keystone for what is in effect Qutb's reinterpretation of Islam into a liberation theology. Quoting the remarkable story of Rub'ee bin Amer when he was speaking with the Persian nobles:

إن الله ابتعثنا لنخرج من شاء من عبادة العباد إلى عبادة رب العباد، ومن ضيق الدنيا إلى سعتها، ومن جور الأديان إلى عدل الإسلام

Allah has sent us to free those who wish so from the worshipping of man to the worshipping of the God of man - and from the confines of the world to its spaciousness, and from the injustice of religions to the justice of Islam.

Islam for Qutb has nothing to feel defensive about, it is other faiths and ideologies that must explain themselves in front of the one true faith. There is nothing backwards about it, nothing which is only for a certain period of history, it is a truth which is valid in all times and places, for all creeds of humanity. It liberates humans from the limits of ideology, race, creed and ignorance into the united, very human faith devoted to the worship of the one true God.

Qutb does over-emphasise these views ad nauseum at times, but it is only to drive home the importance of seeing Islam as it is, of understanding the actions of the Prophet and his companians as they truly were, and in doing so, of benefiting humanity, as he believed, and rescuing it from the moral cesspool it has driven itself into. The book is insightful Islamically, and his remarkable knowledge and faith truly show in almost every paragraph. But this book is a polemic, it is not an academic study or theoretical paper where he expounds his views. Crucial to his belief in a living breathing Islam is his view of a kind of praxis, a fusion of Quranic understanding and of immediate application to life in its every day variations. The Quran for Qutb is not a literary work, not a poetry or history text, it is not a book to be mulled over intellectually. These features are accidental and not essential to its true nature, it is the word of God - nothing less.

Only once there is a living, breathing embodiment of Muslims on earth can humanity see an example of a society in which justice between the genders, political and social justice and environmental and economic stability are finally addressed. To distract ourselves with any of these side issues is to doom ourselves to failure. Qutb is adamant that a true Muslim would find justice in all matters by focusing on the one true paths, and the ill's of human society are symptoms of the straying from this path.

On three occasions, Qutb seemed to emerge from the text, to give his view on contemporary issues. In his chapter, Islam is civilization, we see a more personal side to his writing as he describes his struggle in first attacking notions of "Civilization" as the European man painted it during his colonial adventures in the world, and as a concept in itself. At first he felt that to use that term was to submit to the European "Weltenschauung" of what civilization and modernity were all about. The soluton came when he realised that whilst the Western empires had tried to monopolise the term Civilization, their backwardness could not be hidden. It was, says Sayid Qutb, Islam which was the truly civilising power for man. All else could truly be called backwards in its most crystal clear meaning. Islam was Civilization, not the West.

In one of his closing chapters, he reflects on the formative period he spent in the United States. He describes how some Muslims he met there became apologetic about Islam, arguing that true Islam is not how it is wrongfully portrayed. Qutb says that he refused to be defensive about his faith, arguing with those who accused him and placing them in the defendents seat rather than the other way around. He used as his ammunition the lax morality, the materiality and the bankruptcy of Western modern life. He referred to the freedom for men and women to mix as the "freedom for animals". Those he spoke with would then feel ashamed about the truth of what he had to say whilst people who claimed to be Muslims held a defeatist attitude, a position which bewildered and upset Qutb.
Overall, Milestones is the expression of a confident and extremely pious man who seemed deeply worried about the pervasiveness of Western materialist ideologies throughout the world and the damage they are causing. In his view, the answer lay in the Quran and could not be simpler. Interestingly enough Qutb never specifically calls for war - an accusation commonly levelled against him and Leo Strauss. What he does say though is that the presence of a truly independent and strong Islamic nation would inevitably be provocative to those "Kings" of the world who would not tolerate a nation submitting only to Allah. Here Qutb is clear, there is no backing down from obligation and no compromise in the faith. It is, I suspect, this unyielding positon and dramatic revival of Islamic principles which probably made his thought such a threat to those who opposed him and which would eventually cost him his life.


Amira said...

great analysis and I do agree with you. But why do you think Nasser took against him so much?

MJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MJ said...

very interesting to read. i think i got alot of catching up to do..!!

Maysaloon said...

Hi Arima,
Thanks for taking the time to read it! In answer to your question, I have no idea what it was specifically. He was rounded up with the accusation of being the ring leader for some group trying to assassinate Nasser, but why exactly, probably his thought. The pen was indeed mightier than the sword it seems.

Maysaloon said...

Hi Jabi,
Always good to have you stop by.