To understand Islamism as a political movement it is essential to grapple with its key texts and concepts. Without that it is not possible to comprehend the nature of the threat it represents to Jews, the West and the world in general. That in turn is a precondition for an effective fight against it.
Probably the best starting point is Milestones (1964, the title is also sometimes translated as Signposts on the Path or just Signposts) by Sayyid Qutb (1906-66). This is as close as it comes to a foundational text for the movement. It is viewed as an inspiration by jihadis but also by many Islamists more generally.
The author is generally recognised as the most important thinker ever produced by the Islamist movement. Qutb was an Egyptian intellectual who got more radical as he got older. In his early adult years he was a member of the nationalist Wafd (delegation) party which emerged after the First World War. However, he left in the early 1940s when it showed itself willing to cooperate with the occupying British. In the late 1940s he turned to Islamism as he was “enraged by European imperialism, Zionism, and the plight of the Egyptian poor”(1). In 1948 his work on The Social Justice of Islam was published.
From 1948-50 he lived in America where he gained a master’s degree in education. According to Ronald Nettler, a fellow at Oxford University: “Having originally gone to America as an admirer of things American, direct experience and observation of American society seem to have offered a personal Islamic revival for Qutb and to have engendered an animosity toward the West which subsequently became a fiercely-held basic principle of Qutb’s thought” (2).
Qutb was an independent Islamist thinker until 1953. Then in 1953, a year after a military coup by what became known as the Free Officers, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan). The organisation can itself be seen as the prototype Islamist movement that has spawned many others worldwide. Seeing Qutb’s talents the Brotherhood’s leadership chose him to join its Propagation of the Call (to Islam) department (3). From 1954 until 1966, when he was executed by the Egyptian regime, he spent most of his life in prison.
Milestones outlines the key concepts of Islamist thought (although they did not originate with Qutb). These include most notably jahiliyya (a state of pre-Islamic barbarism, also sometimes spelt Jahilliyyah) and hakkimiyyat Allah (God’s rule, often translated as sovereignty). By tracing his use of these two concepts it is possible to start to develop an understanding of the totalitarian nature of Islamist movements.
The most striking feature of the concept of jahilliyya, at least to an outsider, is how broadly Qutb defines it. Unsurprisingly he defines communist societies, Jewish and Christian societies, and what he defines as idolatrous societies ( including India, Japan, the Philippines and Africa) as jahili. But for Qutb all existing Muslim-majority – or in his view pseudo-Muslim – countries are jahili too.
This recognition helps to spell out the subversive nature of his work. His goal was the overthrow not only of non-Muslim societies but those which were defined at least in some senses as Muslim. This underlines the point that Islamism is different from what might be called Islamic nationalism. It is a social movement, led in his view by a political vanguard, which advocates the overthrow of all existing societies including self-defined Islamic ones. In Qutb’s view the loyalty of authentic Muslims should not be to their nation but to the umma, the global Muslim community of believers. This outlook helps explain why the Egyptian regime concluded that he posed such a grave threat that he needed to be executed.
From Qutb’s concept of jahilliyya it follows that most Muslims are not authentic. “People are not Muslims, as they proclaim to be, as long as they live the life of Jahilliyyah” (p149 of the Islamic Book Service edition first published in New Dehli in 2002). The only genuine Muslims from his point of view are those that follow the Islamist approach. This points to a deeply condescending attitude towards his co-religionists.
From this perspective Qutb pledged an all-out ideological war against jahili society. “We must also free ourselves from the clutches of jahili society, jahili traditions and jahilileadership. Our mission is not to compromise with the practices of jahili society, nor can we be loyal to it. Jahili society, because of its jahili characteristics, is not worthy to be compromised with.” (p21).
This complements Qutb’s extreme reading of hakkimiya or sovereignty. For him this means the total domination of God’s will over society. There is no room, in this conception, for any separation of religion and the state. The divine will must totally dominate society.
Qutb seems to derive this notion from a particularly extreme reading of monotheism. He frequently invokes the idea that there is no deity but Allah ( La ilaha illa Allah). For him this does not just mean that Muslims should only worship one God. It means that God’s will overrides everything else. There is no space for the secular.
It was a surprise therefore to learn that Qutb is against theocracy, which he defines as rule by priests. His alternative is not entirely clear but it seems to be rule by a political leadership that is enacting God’s will. From this perspective any appropriate political leadership must presumably be infallible because it is fulfilling the divine will.
It was also unexpected to find Qutb discussing the concept of freedom. Except in his hands it means the opposite of what it means to a classical liberal. For him it refers to “freedom from every authority except that of God” (p62). In effect this means subservience to divine authority.
Although supposed Jewish evil was a central preoccupation of Qutb it is only touched on here. That it more in the realm of his essay on Our Struggle With the Jews (also translated as Our Fight With the Jews), which I will discuss at a later date (it was first published in the early 1950s but the specific year is uncertain) (4). Nevertheless there are some significant references to Jews in Milestones. In particular he defines the purpose of Jewry as “to eliminate all limitations” (p120). The reason that Jews pursue this goal in his view is that they: “may penetrate into the body politic of the whole world and then they may be free to perpetuate their evil designs”.
So whereas the goal of Islam, in Qutb’s conception, is to place strict limits on how the world operate the Jews are, in his view, trying to do the opposite. This is consistent with his view of an existential struggle between Islam and Jewry.
Although Qutb’s work is seminal for Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood is the prototype Islamist organisation, these ideas are adapted by different Islamist groups. For example, Hamas, itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood, avoids condemning Muslim-majority states as apostate. No doubt the fact that it gets backing from states such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey are a disincentive for doing so. Hamas also sometimes uses the Palestinian flag, a national emblem, whereas Jihadist groups tend to avoid nationalist symbols.
Milestones is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Islamism. It helps make clear its totalitarian nature as a social movement that aspires to force the whole world to submit to Islam as the will of God.
* An English translation of the full text can be downloaded as a PDF HERE https://www.academia.edu/25630959/Sayyid_Qutb_Milestones
(1) Fitzroy Morrisey A Short History of Islamic Thought, P200.
(2) Past Trials and Present Tribulations Pergamon 1989, p26. Nettler gives the years when Qutb was in America as 1949-51.
(3) John Calvert Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islam 2010, p14. This book is worth reading as a biography of Qutb.
(4) The relatively short text is reproduced in Nettler cited above.
PS - A German translation of my article is available HERE.
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