Sayyid Qutb in Jail

The history of Islamic thought in the later part of the 2oth century is riveted in series of  problems that are the consequence of the absence of a manifestation of Islamic principles, norms and values on a societal level. The intellectual Sayyid Qutb tried to map this reality by drawing from Qur’anic characterizations and extending their application to the social sphere. Of those notions Qutb drew from the Qur’an was the notion of “Jahillia (the age of ignorance and unbelief; pre-revelation).“  The notion of Jahillia as established in the pamphlet Milestones has oft been charged with the cause of violence in the Muslim world in that it contributed to the delegitimization of contemporary political arrangements birthed out of the clash of civilizations that ensued during the Colonization of the Muslim world. There is textual evidence to support the notion of Jahillia as a term and notion documented in the Qur’an on the other hand some may argue that the original lexical sense of the notion has been marginalized by Qutb and in its stead an alien sense has been installed a sense that has radical political significance. One feels that the historical context of the later part of the last century has led to partiality in comprehension on the part of a good many. What this entails is that Qutb stands to a great degree misread as a thinker and intellectual faced with the political crisis of a social reality born of colonialism.

Qutb’s Milestones branded as a manifesto for revolution and violence stands as a misread text. To begin with the notion of Jahillia itself a core notion of the text has been perverted. Despite the fact that one can argue that the idea of Jahillia in one reading lends itself to legitimizing violence because it fails to see legitimacy in any political order other than one that is Islamic this reading is not an honest read. Qutb is not concerned with this political order or that per se rather he is concerned with the decline and eclipse of  overarching Islamic values (qiy’am). Jahillia for Qutb is not the absence of an Islamic government rather it is that state in which there is an absence of Islamic values this is the central problem for Qutb. He is concerned with social disorder in that it results from the eclipse of values. He is preoccupied with understanding how as Muslims we stand distant from Islamic values and life this state is for him a consequence of the dethroning of the Qur’an. So, we find that in the new Jahillia the Qur’an does not occupy a central role in the daily life of the Muslim, in effect, ceases to inform life when it is not central and this is the cause of a crisis of values in society. Although one can argue that for Qutb an absence of the rule of Islamic law is a core issue given more importance than the centrality of the Qur’an.

Reading Qutb as soley concerned with the violent overthrow of political order in and of itself is to miss a fundamental point in his thought. For Qutb civilization must be able to speak to the human condition, ensure a humane order and this results from values in his thought not revolution per se. Qutb sees Democracy-Capitalism and Martial-Socialism as systems of thought and practice forced by history to come to a denouement because in the lack the values that will preserve the humanity of man  despite the fact that these systems have been the source of material progress. In the case of Democracy-Capitalism man has been been subdued by consumerism materialism and despite the fact Capitalism has advanced man’s material status it has marginalized and dehumanized a good majority. Whereas, in the case of Martial-Socialism for Qutb it has manifested too many inner contradictions not to mention it has birthed a crushing totalitarianism. Jahillia then is the age in which a crisis of values reigns it is the complete opposite of Karl Jaspers “axial age.” Where many readings of Qutb fall short is that they fail to key in on Qutb’s position on values and their cultivation as a way to reform society. Qutb’s notion that the worth of a civilization lies in values which cultivate humanity not just at an economic and political level but also spiritually and intellectually and emotionally is helpful to us who live in the West. Unfortunately, many read Qutb as providing a program for violence and consider it soley as an intellectual legitimation of violence. This reading of Qutb fails to see that he teaches us an important lesson and that is that society and civilization if they are to continue to exist must be in the service of humanity by way of communicating lofty values give meaning to life, which preserve and develop the whole human being and not just material human culture. The tenor of thought at least in the early parts of Milestones is really a call to reform and renew society by reinstalling those values which speak to the whole of the human condition and in this way material progress is complimented by purpose and meaning.

An outline of the political philosopher Hobbes conception of nature and society:

Man is not naturally good but naturally a selfish hedonist — “of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself”.  As human motives were, in their natural state, guided by unenlightened self-interest, these could, if left unchecked, have highly destructive consequences.  Left unrestrained, humans, propelled by their internal dynamics, would crash against each other.  Hobbes tried to envision what society would be like in a “state of nature” — before any civil state or rule of law.  His conclusion was despiriting: life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a “war of every man against every man”.

Nonetheless, as all people are equal (in a physical not a moral sense), possessing a passionate love of survival (right of nature) and some degree of rationality (law of nature), Hobbes concluded that a viable, working society would arise as an equilibrium between these competing forces.  The logic is simple.  Any person’s right of nature justifies violence against everybody else. Consequently, in the interests of personal survival, people will come around to agreeing that they should renounce their right to use violence.  However, this yields up a tense and unstable equilibrium.  The moment one party deviates from their promise, all will deviate and war restarts.

Essentially, this is a characterization of Sayyid Qutb’s notion of “Jahillia. Principally, in Milestones, Qutb outlined in the inception of the work the core concepts for an Islamic anthropology predicated upon the Qur’an it is these concepts which set the tone for the work. His theory revolves around two core principle notions:

1.) Vicegenerency of man

2.) The life purpose of man is worship

Further, these two notions which are to be found in the Qur’an are couched and contextualized in a series of secondary embellishing ideas which serve as markers, and distinguishing characteristics of Qutb’s theory of anthro-politics (theory of man in society). For Qutb man comes to full realization of self, knowledge of self, when he comes to understand and then realize “practically” his status and purpose in the Created order (universe) more properly said -in society (al-mujtama’). The realm of time and space, life in the world then is a field, in which, man participates in an anthropocentric scale and he is crowned with the status of “vicegenerency” (khilafah). On the other hand, in this measured scheme of things “man is not the measure of all things” but rather that is the role of Allah (swt). Qutb subscribes to the tenet that it is Allah (swt) who bestowed upon man the unique and elevated status of vicegenerency. What this means, in effect, is that man stands at the peak of the created order of the Universe and it is from Allah that man and the rest of community of creation gets purpose and meaning.

Therefore, existence for Qutb is a theo-centric order of being. In that characterization of existence meaning and purpose are inherent in being and not left to the interpretations and fancy of men, in this order “man is not the measure of all things but rather responsible to Allah for all things.” In addition, man lives with others, with men and nature, in the community of creation. It is at this point that Qutb is concerned with “justice and fair measure (adl wa’l qist)” more specifically with the quality of relation and life man will live out with other men in a society of human beings. This being the case, Qutb is fixed on working out human relationship anxious to clarify that in the realm of men freedom ought reign but freedom is not absolute to the detriment of others as is the case in the order of ignorance (jahillia) it is rather inextricable from responsibility (cupability). The union of man with man is society in Qutb’s thought but society if it is to be life giving and suitable to looking after the reality of human existence in the most highest degree and realize the purpose of life it is by necessity bound to be a union grounded in the rule of law (hakimiyyah).

As a first principle sovereignty and “the right to legislation (haq al wad’a)”: are with Allah alone his subtle defense of this position returns back to two sources one textual and the other historical. The first source for Qutb’s position is the Qur’an and the second is the age of the Prophet (s) and his companions (r). The age of the Prophet and his companions is normative for Qutb and it stands as an age in which the reality of Islam was incarnate, alive and rooted in historical reality, in time and space. The anthro-politics of Qutb holds that the Qur’an outlines not only the origins of man and his relationship to Allah but further elaborates on his and her purpose and still it does not stop there but extends to clarify the relation of man to man (society) and man to nature outlining and defining the values and qualities that ought govern those relationships if they are to be considered legitimate. It is due to the incommensurability between the state and status of relationships in the Prophetic era and the era of Qutb that it seems he feels obliged to speak out for the sovereignty of Allah (swt) in the political arena especially but not primarily for Qutb holds that core life values (qi’am), foundational concepts (tasawuraat) about life and the world and law (shar’iah) and its parameters (qanun) are the right of Allah to determine. Unfortunately, what is given primacy by many a reading of Qutb is not the many trajectories of his notion of Hakimiyyah but rather narrowly only the political significance of the notion of Hakimiyyah. What stands greatly neglected in popular readings of Milestones is the importance he gives various realities such as:

a.) the role of man in the world

b.) the role of worship (ibadah) as a holistic extensive notion

c.) the role of arch-values (qi’am) in the life of man and society

d.) the role of material culture (knowledge, social and cultural order, production)

e.) the role of intellect and conceptualization in transforming the world of man

f.) the role of man as an individual-social being who participates in society (mujtama’) as well as in the Greater community of believers (ummah)

g.) the limits and potential negatives of the social construction of values and the limits of philosophy

h.) the problems of un-just government

i.) the contours of leadership

j.) the poverty of text-book “aqeeda” that has no effects in the life of man and community

Until next post…

Allahu Must’an

Imam Yusuf Rios