A manifesto for political Islam: ‘Milestones’ (1964)
Sayyid Qutb died as Karl Marx died, with his political thought in its germinal stage — the fruit would come later.
The fruit has come in the 21st century, as Marxism’s 19th century seeds made bloody blossom in the 20th century.
Qutb was an Egyptian Islamic scholar who died in 1966. He died with the Arab world still enthralled to Nasserism, Ba’athism and Marxism.
The dominant political trend was modernity, and the question was what path to modernity the Arab people would tread. Would the Arabs align with Soviet world? Would they unite under an Arab nationalism — and would that nationalism be Ba’aathist, or Nasserist? What would Arab socialism look like?
Qutb sequestered himself from the maelstrom. He was a lone, quiet voice in the wilderness for an alternative path — a path away from modernity, away from nationalism.
A popular video among Western anti-Islamic social media shows Nasser addressing a political rally. Nasser mocks the suggestion that women should wear a veil, and the crowd roars along with him.
The veil? How backward!
This is modern Egypt. Egypt with the mighty Aswan Dam. Egypt that checked the Western imperialists in Suez Crisis. Egypt the educated. Egypt whose factories roar with machinery.
One can imagine the people who attended that rally laughing at Qutb, the scholar who desired to return Islam to a leading role in society.
But it is Nasserism, Marxism and Ba’athism that have deliquesced, evaporated as surely as spilt water under a Cairene sun. And it is Qutb’s thought that has encouraged a renaissance in Islamic, anti-modern politics — his words influence the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and other Islamic movements against modernity.
Mock the quiet men at your peril.
Western liberal democracy has failed not in material terms, but spiritual terms. It is a system that denies the values of life.
When Western liberal democracy enters crisis it turns to socialism for renewal — but socialism is a moribund system that conflicts with human nature, and cannot deliver material prosperity.
Mankind needs new leadership. This leadership must maintain the advances made in Europe while also developing human values.
Islam is this system, according to Qutb.
The scientific advances that started in the Renaissance have come to an end. In this assertion Qutb follows Oswald Spengler who saw Europe’s spring time as belonging to the 1500s. European civilization is now in an autumnal phase in Spengler’s cyclical theory of history, and on course for a return to mysticism and magic.
The forward, Faustian drive in knowledge and discovery is exhausted.
Scientific stasis is matched with stasis in nationalism, which has proved to be a failure.
The time has come for Islam to take up its God-appointed mission.
‘You are the best community raised for the good of mankind. You enjoin what is good and forbid what is wrong, and you believe in God.’ (Qu’ran, 3:110)
Islam has no objection to material innovation, and so is well placed to take up the European legacy in science but combined with human values.
However, the Islamic world lags behind other civilizations in scientific and technological innovation. This, as we shall see, is in fact a hidden strength for Qutb.
Islam must be embodied in a practise to fulfil this task, but this has not been the case for several centuries.
If Islam is to fulfil its political potential then political archeology must take place — the original Islamic form must be unearthed and implemented.
Islam cannot hope to compete in the material, scientific realm, says Qutb. Where it can compete is in creating civilizational values not present in the West.
If Islam is to lead mankind it must offer an alternative spiritual model for the world, a model that other civilizations cannot offer.
Modernity has created a world that lives in ignorance of divine guidance [Jahiliyyah].
Man claims lordship over the Earth. He has displaced God.
But it is only in Islam that men are united in their servitude to God.
If Islam is to take on leading role for mankind there must be a vanguard willing to combat Jahiliyyah. Here Qutb takes influence from Leninism, which held that an intellectual elite should shepherd the proletariat towards socialism and eventual communism.
Milestones is conceived as the handbook for the vanguard that will dispel Jahiliyyah.
Qutb acknowledges that other civilizations existed when Muhammad lived, but claims that his decision to make the Qu’ran the sole source of guidance because and to create a purified generation differentiated Islam from other civilizations.
Later, the Muslim tradition mingled with Persian myth, Greek philosophy, Christian theology and a veritable gallimaufry of intellectual influences.
This separated the first Muslim generation from later generations.
This generation also treated the Qu’ran differently — they did not parse the text, and did not read it as a legal scholar. This generation took quick, sharp and refreshing drafts from the Qu’ran.
Qutb rejects reading the Qu’ran for analysis or debate — the work must be taken intuitively, and immediately.
There must be a unity between spirit and action, if one pauses to debate a point like a lawyer then one loses the text’s spiritual essence.
The Qu’ran must serve as a guide to action, and not as a collection of stories or a history.
The only way to really understand the Qu’ran is to act as the first generation that encountered the Qu’ran. That means a retreat from the world, a retreat from Jahiliyyah — only in these conditions can the text’s spiritual wisdom become apparent.
Qutb identifies the Qu’ran’s Meccan portion with a revolutionary call to overthrow the existing social order.
To place the divine in a primary position is to usurp all existing social arrangements. What are kings, tribal leaders, and merchants when compared to God’s will?
The political domination the Arabs laboured under during this time was Roman and Persian. Here Qutb draws a parallel to the Arab position in the 20th century where their lands faced first European, then US, Soviet and Zionist imperial domination.
Tyranny must be rejected completely, and it was only thanks to submission to divine will that the Arabian lands were freed from Roman and Persian influence.
The parallel between the first Qu’ranic generation, and the Arab position in the 19th and 20th centuries is easily apparent.
What is absent, and what accounts for the weakened Arab position in both cases is an absence of submission to the divine — the first Qu’ranic generation received this guidance, but the contemporary world has forgotten or dismissed it.
The world of the first Qu’ranic generation was divided simply between the rich and poor. This unjust division was swept away in this generation, according to Qutb.
Qutb’s class division is not sophisticated. There are the obscenely rich and poor — the rich are unjustly celebrated.
In our current age where wealth stratification is coming to be ever more polarised we see a recapitulation of this simple class system.
Sexual morality is also lacking under Jahiliyyah, with marriage receiving little or no regulation. Qutb takes this opportunity to emphasise Muhammad’s role as a law giver, a social reformer.
Indeed, as an historical figure Muhammad has much in common with Napoleon — a flair for military leadership, an ability to forge a nation together and a desire to create new laws.
The spiritual reform of Islam has always had a political, economic and social dimension. This contrasts with the Christian approach where temporal matters are not a central concern for religion: ‘ Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
Qutb depicts the victory of the first Qu’ranic generation as a golden age of justice and purity. Their call echoes down the centuries: Abandon caste, class, and country — submit to God’s will.
There is no theory in Islam for Qutb, although this is a contradiction of his own thought which is a theory of Islam. If Qutb was entirely consistent to his own world view he would not have written a word and merely directed people straight to the Qu’ran from which, according to his own thought, animmediate understanding of the will of God shall emerge.
There is a relation here between Qutb’s thought and fascism. His desire to use the tools of modernity to return to a period before modernity is similar to fascism’s objectives. As with the fascists, he is suspicious of the intellectuals, the thinkers and the analysers who corrupt the intuitive, instinctual understanding that is essential to a healthy life — whether one rooted in the Qu’ran or in one’s nation and race.
This approach is also bound with anti-semitism, for the Jews are typically portrayed as the intellectual thinkers par excellence — and so represent the greatest threat the pure Qu’ranic generation or the Volk.
For Qutb the just society will emerge when a direct, intuitive understanding of the Qu’ran is imprinted on the population. This population will then create laws in accordance with God’s will. To start reforming a society with intellectualising is to corrupt the Qu’ran.
The Qu’ran is against superstition, and improves human intelligence. Qutb’s view on the Qu’ran’s benefits provides an amusing counter point to the liberal popular atheists — perhaps best exemplified by Christopher Hitchens — who railed against the intellectual backwardness of Islam when contrasted the knowledge of science, both sides held their rationality in high regard.
In a sense it is the disciples of science who have become superstitious. It is they who wait in Silicon Valley for brain emulators that promise immortality while the society around them collapses in economic inequality and social chaos. And it is they who seek drugs and surgery to change a child’s sex based on the latest — soon to be abandoned — psychological fashion.
The Qu’ran’s revelation was a gentle process because God intended an Islamic society to form around it without obfuscation from theory and analysis.
Qutb’s move in stressing direct interpretation of the Qu’ran was prescient for it defeats any attempts to ‘de-radicalise’ his Islam.
All the effort and importance placed on de-radicalising Islamists in the West by exposing them to different interpretations of Islam are presaged in the the very political Islam they have adopted. An appeal to scholarships legal traditions and even local tradition was anticipated by Qutb — doubtless he met such resistance to his ideas in his own life — and checked in his very belief system.
The act of scholarship and interpretation in regard to the Qu’ran is itself a contribution to Jahiliyyah. This means that even if Muslims are ‘inoculated’ against Islamist ideas through exposure to varying interpretations of Islam, the Islamist appeal remains latent because it is an appeal to abandon interpretation itself.
The struggle against Jahiliyyah cannot be a private struggle because Jahiliyyah permeates and corrupts an entire society. An individual who acts in accordance with God’s commands will find themselves in conflict with the law, state and mores if their society is dominated by Jahiliyyah.
Qutb’s Islamism is similar to Marxism in that prioritises a unity between theory and practise. ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it,’ said Marx. Qutb adds that Islam is only Islam in so far as it is practised in the world. Islam that exists in one’s private heart is not Islam at all.
His Islam is political, or it is not Islam at all.
Qutb differs from the fascists in that his political Islam transcends race, class, and nation. It is the materialist move that likens man to an animal that leads men to worship nations, races and classes. Indeed, his celebration of a global Islamic political entity that encompasses Indonesians, Turks and Arabs in a system of economic justice is more akin to Marxism than fascism.
The Marxists have gone wrong in simply inverting the class system, which Qutb sees as an inheritance from the Roman Empire. The Marxists celebrate the working class and not the upper class, according to Qutb. He does not appreciate that Marxists wish to abolish the class system altogether — only that they wish all nations and races to be joined together.
Qutb does not argue his points. When he seeks to counter materialism, he caricatures it as reducing human beings to a quest for ‘food, shelter and sex’. He then presents the idea of human life as being a struggle for food (one could substitute any material factor) as being self-evidently foolish without argument.
I suggest that as an intellectual Qutb was not a practical man. Intellectuals rarely are practical. Marx was hopeless at organising his finances, and the Battle of Jena almost passed Hegel by.
But for Qutb Islam embodies the most practical system possible. Again, he does not argue for this but merely states Islam’s practicality as a self-evident fact.
Intellectuals who are impractical often come to romanticise the most practical men, and the most practical man is the soldier.
Accordingly, Qutb has an enormous crush on warfare and fighting. He was the type of man to wistfully leaf through military histories on the weekend (possibly that is every man).
‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea,’ as Samuel Johnson observed.
He also never married, and appears to have been sexually reticent. There is a tendency among men who restrain their sexuality in a bitter way to become enamoured with violence.
What is not slaked sexually returns as a violent envy.
When Qutb writes about Jihad he is keen to emphasise that the Jihad he understands is the most practical form — and much more practical than any other interpreter who claims Jihad means defensive warfare alone.
He does not believe that Islam forces other people to accept its beliefs, but in this he equivocates. The Islamist society he envisages can come about only if the Qu’ran is intuitively inscribed on the people’s hearts, and yet Qutb claims that this society would have free conscience in regard to religion.
I find it hard to conceive a situation where such a terrific mobilisation of piety would make it easy for anyone to exercise free conscience — especially if this free conscience was associated with the previous, imperfect Jahiliyyah state that had been removed.
Tolerance, for Qutb, is perfectly possible but only within a system where Islam dominates. There may be other systems that claim to protect freedom of religion, but since these deny divine sovereignty as embodied in Islam these are not truly free societies. These societies are in fact repressive, for these societies prevent societies that submit to God’s will from being formed.
Qutb does not consider himself a theocrat, which may come as a surprise to those who characterise political Islam as an attempt to form a theocracy. He associates a theocracy with the centralised, Church rule that derived from Roman Catholicism. Islam is adherence to law, and not a priesthood.
Islam is a way of life for Qutb, and not a belief — though, of course, his definition is contradictory as belief is probably necessary to sustain a way of life.
Under his system one may believe what one wants, but one must act in accordance with Islam. In this respect an individual under Qutb’s system is in a similar position to Ernst Jünger’s anarch in Eumeswil:
“For the anarch, little has changed; flags have meaning for him, but not sense. I have seen them in the air and on the ground like leaves in May and November; and I have done so as a contemporary and not just as a historian. The May Day celebration will survive, but with a different meaning. New portraits will head up the processions. A date devoted to the Great Mother is re-profaned. A pair of lovers in the wood pays more homage to it. I mean the forest as something undivided, where every tree is still a liberty tree.
For the anarch, little is changed when he strips off a uniform that he wore partly as fool’s motley, partly as camouflage. It covers his spiritual freedom, which he will objectivate during such transitions. This distinguishes him from the anarchist, who, objectively unfree, starts raging until he is thrust into a more rigorous straitjacket.”
Jihad is not simply war in its narrow sense. On this point Qutb is quite insistent, and in his insistence I see the genesis for the Islamist movement in the 21st century. The Islamist movement is similar to the 20th century guerrilla movements and insurgencies, but it is more than this at the same time.
There are many variations in those who claim a supreme role for Islam in society: the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and so on. There is not necessarily concordance between these groups, and there are sectarian and doctrinal differences but these groups hold in common is a Qutbian approach to the struggle.
The Islamic State has perhaps perfected this approach. The movement is truly global as Qutb envisioned; it can reach out and convert a European teenager as easily as it can pull an Arab into the struggle. The struggle is not merely military. There is an aesthetic. There is a place for women.
The Marxist left ran an urban guerrilla campaign in Europe during the 1970s that was as violent as the Islamic State’s escapades, but it could not develop a way of life. There were communes, co-ops and trade unions — but Qutb is correct in saying that Islam can represent a way of life, and its struggle is not merely military but also a struggle to win people to that way of life.
In this respect the movement towards the veil, traditional Islamic dress and mores represents the soft edge for a Qutb-ite approach. Every woman that takes the veil is a victory for Qutb’s political Islam as much as a town or city falling in Syria.
We may look back a century hence and see that Qutb and political Islamism developed a new form of political and military struggle — one that was well adapted for the age of social media, and fast global travel.
The jet set Jihad.
Islam means freedom for Qutb, an ironic counterpose to the US message that secular liberal democracy means freedom. We are all fighting for freedom, apparently. But freedom for Qutb is freedom from Jahiliyyah.
And his test for initiating Jihad is two-fold: first, when a group attacks the Muslims; second, when a group practices polytheism, and when the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) do not prohibit what Islam prohibits.
Since Christians and Jews are not going to prohibit what Muslims prohibit, and are often content to live under Jahiliyyah Qutb is issuing a writ for non-stop struggle.
Qutb’s soldiers do not fight for a country, or a people:
“For what purpose have you come?” Their answer was the same: “God has sent us to bring anyone who wishes from servitude to men into the service of God alone, from the narrowness of this world into the vastness of this world and the Here- after, and from the tyranny of religions into the justice of Islam. God raised a Messenger for this purpose to teach His creatures His way. If anyone accepts this way of life, we turn back and give his country back to him, and we fight with those who rebel until we are martyred or become victorious” .
Again, this is an ideal worldview for a globalised planet — and mirrors in a religious way the Marxist desire for global revolution.
The Marxist left often defends Islam and Islamist movements for Leninist, and Machiavellian reasons. The Islamists oppose capitalist imperialism and so must be supported. The Islamists represent the most exploited and demonised section of the working class in the Western capitalist countries, and so must be defended.
But is there more than a Machiavellian ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ element to this alliance? The Marxists hope to make the Islamists atheists eventually, and the Islamists to make the Marxists Muslims. But outside the strategic political considerations the systems are quite similar in their opposition to the wealthy class, and in their internationalism.
This point was not lost on Malcolm X.
Qutb cannot admit his own desire for violence, which is again perhaps connected to his repressed sexuality. Jihad is not violent, says Qutb, and that accusation stems from an Orientalist distortion of Islam. His Islam is not inherently violent, but it just so happens that the conditions that require violent struggle are constantly met in societies dominated by Jahiliyyah.
One might say that Qutb’s Islam is not more violent than is necessary to achieve justice on Earth.
This approach to violence is disingenuous. Qutb claims that Islam must have the leading role in society, but denies that this will necessarily entail violence while expanding the conditions where violence is permissible.
In this respect he mirrors fascist, nationalist and alt-right groups who demand an ethnically or racially homogeneous society while denying this will almost certainly require ethnic cleansing to achieve.
A nationalist political party may claim it will simply pay second or third generation immigrants to leave a country once in power, but who really believes all immigrants would take up the offer (if it is even made)?
Violent removal and ethnic cleansing is latent in the idea, as violence is latent in Qutb’s politics.
Within a Jahiliyyah society Qutb sees Islam as playing a patient role in building a parallel structure to eventually take power, but Islam can expect to be attacked by a Jahiliyyah-dominated society.
Qutb’s was a man against the world, for when he wrote Milestones he considered every society in the world to be jahili. This included the ‘so-called’ Muslim societies, which had abdicated the role of divine law. And this divine law is related to the laws of the universe as embodied in man — for Qutb the law of Islam is a natural law that carries into human affairs.
Islam is as ineluctable as the progress of the planets across the heavens.
Islamic civilization is the only civilization for Qutb, although he is content to use the term ‘civilization’ as a descriptive term for other social organisations that rival and influence Islam.
But civilization as a normative concept means only Islam for Qutb. A person is fully human in so far as their spirit and reason are recognised, says Qutb. He excludes race, language, history, and class from considerations of what makes a person human. Qutb’s human is a rather disembodied affair. The civilized society is the society the raises the spiritual to the highest consideration.
The real distinction between the civilized and uncivilized states is between humans and animals. Qutb sees humans as forever falling back into an animal state, and by including this distinction his politics build in the capacity to dehumanise those who oppose Islamism.
He scorns the utilitarian approach to sexual relations:
“In all modern jahili societies, the meaning of ‘morality’ is limited to such an extent that all those aspects which distinguish man from animal are considered beyond its sphere. In these Societies, illegitimate sexual relationships, even homosexuality, are not considered immoral. The meaning of ethics is limited to economic affairs or sometimes to political affairs which fall into the category of ‘government interests’. For example, the scandal of Christine Keeler and the British minister Profumo was not considered serious to British society because of its sexual aspect; it was condemnable because Christine Keeler was also involved with a naval attache of the Russian Embassy, and thus her association with a cabinet minister lied before the British Parliament! Similar scandals come to light in the American Senate. Englishmen and Americans who get involved in such spying scandals usually take refuge in Russia. These affairs are not considered immoral because of sexual deviations, but because of the danger to state secrets!
Among jahili societies, writers, journalists and editors advise both married and unmarried people that free sexual relationships are not immoral. However, it is immoral if a boy uses his partner, or a girl uses her partner, for sex, while feeling no love in his or her heart. It is bad if a wife continues to guard her chastity while her love for her husband has vanished; it is admirable if she finds another lover. Dozens of stories are written about this theme; many newspaper editorials, articles, cartoons, serious and light columns all invite to this way of life.”
Qutb is perfectly content with material innovations and technology. But he does not seem to consider the fact that these technologies rely on a thought system that is not compatible with his obedience to divine will. He does not consider that these technologies may inherently undermine a divinely ordered society.
Further, he has — understandably — a static view of technological advance. Technology and science has advanced thus far, up to 1963, and those advances are quite excellent. But he does not have the imagination to consider that there will be further changes, and that these changes may undermine his worldview.
Qutb’s politics seem envious, he acknowledges that the Muslim world is backward technologically, and so conceptualises civilization in a way that makes Islamic societies the pre-eminent in the world. If this was not so one would expect him to be sceptical — as with Heidegger and other reactionary thinkers — of technology and science.
Further, if — as he claims — adherence to divine law is sufficient for civilization then there is no reason why a people should pursue technological or scientific advance.
He is keen to emphasise a popular point used to defend Islam against attacks by right-wing liberals today: Islam developed the experimental method in science, and not Europe. But empirical sciences are wicked for Qutb in so far as they operate in Europe without divine guidance. He does not make the connection that it was the freeing of the empirical method from divine constraints that gifted Europe the technological advance he admires.
When one looks at Qutb’s critique of non-Islamic culture one cannot help but think he had a point. When men cease to worship God they worship themselves.
Welcome to celebrity world, and what dismal world it is.
What is appealing in Qutb is that he does not ask Muslims to apologise for themselves. Liberals enjoy lecturing Muslims on their ‘backward’ traditions.
Qutb tells Muslims, ‘Don’t take it! Fight back! Don’t apologise for yourself!’
This, probably more than his analysis, makes his analysis appealing for Muslims — and particularly Muslims in non-Muslim societies.
Islam is logic, beauty and humanity, says Qutb. Outside Islam there is vulgar sex mixing; the ‘vulgarity which you call “emancipation of women”’; divorce, and family break up; exploitative capitalism and usury; and atomisation.
Qutb rightly says that when these aspects of Western and other non-Muslim societies are pointed out to people they become embarrassed. And this is just — for these are failings in non-Muslim societies.
I expect to see a movement towards conversion to Islam among European women who are tired of ‘liberation’ under feminism — a liberation that frequently amounts to sexual exploitation; a false and destructive attempt to use female sexuality in a ‘manly’ way; and delayed, or failed family formation.
There is liberation beneath the veil, especially in an atomised and highly sexualised society.
‘Turn the tables!’ says Qutb.
Qutb’s concluding comments intrigue.
Crusades were not imperialist, he says. This does not, of course, mean that he considers the Crusades as positive. No, Qutb perceives that contemporary accounts that explain the Crusades in materialistic terms, as adventures for booty and territory, as a denial of the impious intent behind these actions.
So, contrary to contemporary accounts, the imperialism of today is really religiously not economically motivated.
It is not oil that draws Western armies to the Middle East, but religion.
The Crusades never ended.
Qutb is an analyst who is against analysis. He values intuition, and spirit against thought — and yet he is a thinker, of a limited type.
Milestones is effective in transforming resentment, and envy into a vigorous assault on existing societies. Qutb did not simply delude himself that existing Islamic societies were spiritually superior to other societies as a substitute for lagging technological progress.
He is as opposed to existing Islamic societies as he is to the societies that do not proclaim Islam at all. His thought is not deep, and is inconsistent when it comes to technology — the technology and science he admires is probably not possible under divine guidance, and also undermines the society he wishes to create.
The Taliban were right to shred cassette and video tapes.
But he is supreme in his assertion that a ‘way of life’ is what is missing in modernity. This is one aspect that attracts people from a non-Muslim background to the Islamic State. And Qutb’s international, broad conception of struggle between differing world views well equipped those who followed his thought to conduct a struggle in keeping with the 21st century.
By telling people to go back to the first generation that received the Qu’ran Qutb is also a rebel and a free thinker. Almost all contemporary societies are dominated by bureaucracies, media complexes, advertising and economic systems that constrain what an individual may think or do.
We are drowning in interpretation.
Qutb gives us permission to abandon our reliance on interpretation from teachers, journalists, relatives and academics. He allows us to go back to how we experience a divine religious text — a pure, heady experience.
And a powerful brew for the young, and headstrong.
This essay is a summary and response to Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (1964).