This paper examines one of the considered father’s of the current wave of Islamic fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb, primarily his Milestones, in contrast to political philosopher Hannah Arendt- particularly her concept of plurality. The outcome shows that Sayyid Qutb’s arguments are faulty in that they are hypocritical, and furthermore, do not account for plurality, which is a necessity for the progression of society.
Man as a Social Political Animal
“Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (Arendt 7)
In Qutb’s paper Milestones, he puts forth the argument for one way of Islam, in its rejection of modernity, Western thought, and the acceptance of the literal interpretation of the Qur’an, through the means of Jihaad (holy war). According to his interpretation of Islam, Jihaad is necessary to reverse all of man from “the brink of […] complete annihilation” in order to reach the Islamic way of life and to help man from his returned stage of Jahiliyyah. Therefore, this is the only way for man to reach social justice. I will use Arendt’s concept of plurality, and her arguments for man as a political animal and social creature, to debunk Qutb’s singular concept for the “right” way of life, seen as the Islamic way of life. As she famously said, it is “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (Arendt XI). Men rely on plurality, on the mode of action and speaking in the presence of others, in order for societies to progress, and for man to continue existing. Qutb’s call for the Islamic way of life in order to free mankind from one another and to claim all servitude to God is the hindering of social progression in its deficiency of putting forth the concept of plurality.
Jahiliyyah, Jahili, and Jihaad
Through a comparison of the dichotomy between the West and the Non-West, Qutb argues for Islam as the “only Divine way of life”, able to “bring out the noblest human characteristics” (Qutb 51). By criticizing the Western World, he is able to put the Islamic world on a pedestal, discussing how the Roman Empire was built on national greed, which led to oppression and exploitation, followed by future Western societies such as the European empires. The dichotomy then becomes clear: Islam is a society that is not built upon underlying emotions of hatred, envy, and greed, the founding of class systems, while the Western societies, such as the French, Spanish and Portuguese Empires, are based on national greed, on class system rather than human relationship. In contrast, he argues Islam, then, is a unique way of life in wanting to see a society where “capabilities, experiences and characteristics” experience a blending of together in a “harmonious blending” (Qutb 51). This binary between the West and the rest is an oversimplification, omitting phenomena of nation-states today, nationality between nations, globalisation and the mixing of culture and loss of culture as a result and the rise in multiculturalism. Qutb chooses to focus solely on the concept of colonialisation, thereby dividing cultures and regions into a binary of colonizer and colonized, victim and oppressor. The paradigm of societies and cultures are constantly shifting, and even if Qutb’s ideas were a product of his time, of the late 1900’s, we are no longer in a post-imperialist stage- to put forth such a binary is too simplistic.
Qutb argues Islam’s former role of playing the leader of mankind to be lost, as Islam has strayed from its original form, and an attempt to revive Islam must be done to prevent man from staying in his current modern stage of Jahiliyya. He uses the term Jahiliyya, conventionally meaning “Age of ignorance”, to refer to the time before the Prophet Muhammad, to bring light to the dire situation today, to the rebellion against the authority of God- of one man’s lordship over another that “is now not in that simple and primitive form of the ancient Jahiliyyah” (Qutb 46). The revival process will not be done through material progress, which is a concept he attributes as far more advanced in Europe’s “creative mind”, but rather, by first determining the milestones preventing from reaching the goal of an Islamic way of life, where “all men become free from the servitude of some men to others” and are then able to “devote themselves to the worship of God alone” (Qutb 11). The succumbing of man to his evil characteristics, to the greed of servitude of other men, and loyalty to other gods and men aside from God himself, is why, he writes, it is necessary to revive Islam.
This brings him to the concept of Jahili. By rejecting divine authority for human authority, Jahiliyyah has manifested into a physical existing system, Jahili. This goes against the two theoretical foundations of Islam, “La ilaha illa Allah” and “Wa asshadu anna Muhammadar Rasul Allah” (Qutb 47). As Jahili is a practical system with material authority behind it, therefore Jihaad, a form of physical power, must be used in abolishing this system, in order to free those people […] from enslavement to men so that they may Serve God alone” (Qutb 56). In this sense, the establishment of divine authority, enforcement of the Divine Law, the Shari’a, will bring about servitude for all men reserved for God alone. In the annihilation of materialism, of what he calls a “tyrannical force”, the abolishment of class distinctions and racial distinctions will ensue, and the “concept of the freedom of man is applied in practice” (Qutb 61). Here, Islam is not just a belief, but the only way of life, as it will lead to the freedom of man from the servitude of other men and his evil characteristics.
He argues societies today have fallen and succumbed to emotions of greed, vulgarity, self-centered desires, and has lost a sense of ethicality and loyalty to God, therefore, man must engage in Jihaad as the solution to eliminate self-interest and to ensure sovereignty will be given to God. Jihaad then becomes the “instrument” to “abolish all those systems and governments which are based on the rule of man over men and the servitude of one human being to another” (Qutb 61). The only system that may be established, globally, must be “on the authority of God, deriving its laws from Him alone” and only then has “Islam release[d] people form this political pressure and presents to them its spiritual message […] purified for God alone” (Qutb 61). His reasoning for Jihaad are fourfold, and he lists them as such: to establish God’s authority in the earth, to arrange human affairs according to the guidance of God, to abolish Satanic forces and systems of life, and to end the lordship of one man over others, because “all men are creatures of God and no one has the authority to make them his servants” (Qutb 70). These are reasons sufficient enough, he argues, for proclaiming Jihaad. The outcome will not just secure the Islamic societies, but the entire world, because then there will be no sense of nationality, which he believes creates a better and more equal world- a universal system under one Divine authority, with no race, class and creeds separating man.
He lays out three categories for non-believers Jihaad would target: the first those that are peaceful, the second those the Muslims are at war with, and the third the Dhimmies, literally meaning “responsibility”, referring to non-Muslims living in Muslim states. The Qur’an commanded that once the non-believers broke the treaty, and continued to persist after a notice was given of them having broken it, only then is permission given to practice takfir (Qutb 54). This treaty must meet the obligations of that of the Prophet, who was commanded by God to “fight the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established” (Qutb 54). He goes on to state explicit rules for what would happen if they do not accept Islam, for example, paying Jizyah. The Prophet was under specific rules for when to carry Jihaad against the polytheists and when to withhold, when to wait for treaties to be broken, for how long, etc. He argued that “man has usurped the Divine attribute” which must be returned to him “and the usurpers thrown out” (Qutb 58). By depicting these usupers as evils on this earth necessary of obliteration, he is setting out steps to reach the Islamic way of life. He quotes a verse from the Qur’an:
“The command belongs to God alone. He commands you not to worship anyone except Him. This is the right way of life.” (12:40 Qur’an)
Only in this way will this bring about the sovereignty of God, eliminate all human kingship, and denounce the authority of humans, as God showed this was the only way. Qutb puts forth Islam as the universal, only, singular way of life, as he wrote, “in this great Islamic society […] people of all nations and races […] took part in the construction of the Islamic community and Islamic culture” (Qutb 49). By omitting segregating factors such as class, race, nations, and creeds, Qutb believes the Islamic way of life is universal in its unification of man under the servitude to one God and one God only.
The Concept of Plurality
The definition of plurality I will use here is from Arendt’s The Human Condition, in which she refers to it as such: “plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live” (Arendt 8). She speaks to a “mass phenomenon of loneliness”, in its most extreme and antihuman form, which is present when one lives a life deprived of things essential to human life: the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, living in the absence of others (Arendt 58). Plurality, then, is essential to the human condition, on the presence and acting of others, in the mode of acting and speaking.
Arendt speaks to the importance of plurality in what makes man a “political being”. The notion that “whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about” is referring to the concept of language, or more importantly, the function that language holds in creating interaction and bonds between men (Arendt 4). Men experience meaningfulness only because they can communicate with each other, as it is “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (Arendt XI). She repeatedly stresses the concept of collective life, thus leading to the role of plurality in the political realm of all social life, which she uses the term vita activa to explain, referring to human life as active life. Human life is dependent on the collective interaction with other beings and the fact that men live and thrive together.
She goes further into this in her application of the public sphere, as “the public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak” therefore, it is precisely when people lose their power to gather together, to relate, that “mass society [becomes] so difficult to bear” (Arendt 52). This is proven by the history of mankind, to find a “brotherhood” for all human relationships and to focus on the bond between people, which has been the political task of both Christian philosophies and communities of people together. She uses Christianity as an example, due to its strong roots in mankind’s history albeit its unpolitical, non-public character, as it was defined early on that it should form a corpus, a “body” whose “members were to be related to each other like brothers of the same family” (Arendt 53). As noted in her footnotes, the term corpus, initially derived from its Latin form, has the connotation meaning a res publica, a given political realm. This corpus or “body” is crucial to the healthy, continuation of a natural progression of mankind, with the understanding of man as a social, political animal.
“Action […] is never possible in isolation” (Arendt 188). This is the one of the two core modes that together constitute Arendt’s concept of plurality, alongside speech. The notion of a strong individual who is isolated from other men is “sheer superstition” from what she calls a “utopian hope that it may be possible to treat men as one treats other ‘material’”, proven through an examination of the course of history, in the “co-acting of his fellow man” (Arendt 189). Here she goes into an examination of leader and beginner, and later that of ruler, all wholly dependent on the mode of action. This is the foundation upon which civilizations and cultures were built on. Action is a natural phenomenon as it “always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries” (Arendt 190). Therefore, it is safe to assume that a society deprived of action, or a society attempting to withdraw action from its individuals, will cause limitations to occur and a halting of social progression in its creation of boundaries.
All human activities are conditioned by the presence of others, and “only action is entirely dependent on the constant presence of others” (Arendt 23). It is precisely the mode of action that allows humans to be differentiated from that of other species, and that of a Creator, “neither beast nor a god”, that allows for human activities, and it is upon this notion that Aristotle’s concept of zoonpolitikon was founded: “homo est naturaliter politicus, id est, socialis” (man is by nature political, that is, social), a historical fact residing on the only two activities he thought to be necessary and political in human communities, praxis (action) and lexis (speech), which then leads to the realm of human affairs (Arendt 25). Radical isolation occurs in hand with tyrannies, causing the fall of political and social life, and therefore, man’s natural and social progression. After all, the “end of the common world” will come when “it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective” (Arendt 58). As man is by nature a political being, thereby the states that man created are a creation of nature, founded on the natural behaviours of man, of praxis and lexis, and to attempt to deconstruct this, must therefore be, unnatural, and hindering to social progression.
The Divine Authority of God as Hindering to Social Progression
To critique Qutb’s argument from within Islamic tradition, his concept for the establishment of divine authority and the enforcement of the Divine Law, the Shari’a that will bring about servitude for all men reserved for God alone, I will argue Qutb’s singular concept falls under Ahmed’s first axis of deficiency in conceptualizing Islam. Ahmed terms it “Islam-proper”, which centers on Islamic Law as the core of Islamic society, with culture, philosophy, literature, theology, art, etc., as derived and secondary to this core. This therefore excludes and marginalizes these other parts of Islam, as it uses the selective definition of one pattern to represent the whole of a society (Ahmed 117). The consequences of this is a constraining line of thought, with Muslims as subjects, and a distorted perspective for others to recognize and understand Islamic society as having other norms, that the law is merely a part of Islam. Therefore, “we” do not see the normative Islam, and much of the discourse surrounding modern reformist Muslims looks at the Islamic law, omitting other aspects of Islamic society, such as theology, philosophy, ethics, and so on (Ahmed 125). Islam as “object X”, in this case, the Shari’a, which would ensure divine authority and the enforcement of the Divine Law, risks cutting off other objects and the notion of plurality within Islamic societies.
Qutb believes that by engaging in Jihaad in order to abolish the Jahili system and free mankind from his current state of Jahiliyyah, Islam will have “given them complete freedom to accept or not accept its beliefs” but goes on to say that this “ought to be on the authority of God, deriving its laws from Him alone”, as people can “follow their own beliefs, while obeying the laws of the country which are themselves based on the Divine authority” (Qutb 61). This omits the other discourses, the range of discourses negotiated by Muslims, legal and non-legal. By privileging the law and concept of divine authority as Qutb does in Milestones, he is endorsing one authority claim among many human and historical phenomenon of Islam (Ahmed 123). He believes that man will be free if all of man worships a Divine God, without the materialistic influence of Jahili systems and without the influence of the authority of men. However, in reality, “no one man can be free”, as the very idea of sovereignty, of “uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership”, is contradictory to the condition of plurality (Arendt 234). It is men who inhabit earth; men are dependent on others, thus deeming sovereignty “possible only in imagination, paid for by the price of reality” (Arendt 235). Qutb’s notion of using the force of Jihaad to ensue all men, although “free” from their servitude of other human beings, will merely cause men to be enslaved another phenomenon: to his concept of God, the Qur’an, and the Shari’a. This is not only hypocritical but tyrannical in and of itself, in its restriction of other discourses and therefore in the interaction of listening, speaking and acting with other men.
Ahmed argues that if this axis of deficiency exists, with the Islamic Law as the core, then there is no dialect. What he does not go on to say is that this is unnatural in its hindering to social progression. Arguing from within Islamic tradition, Ahmed is making the same argument as Arendt in stressing the importance of plurality in political life, and therefore, in all social life. While the Islamic law becomes authentically “Islamic”, it restricts and disenfranchises other elements, thereby also going against the very notion of ethical pluralism, of valuing several phenomena simultaneously, which occurs in the acting and speaking together, of the citizens who inhabit this world. The notion that Ahmed refers to of the conceptualization of Islam as law, thereby the essence of Islam as the Shari’a, he argues, leads to the consequences of misunderstandings and a distortion of perspective, further deeming Muslims as the exotic “Other” (Ahmed 121). More than this, the reality of the situation wherein Islamic law is the core of Islam is to withhold individuals of their right in the public, political realm of plurality and freedom.
According to Arendt, man is, by nature, a political being, and plurality, the mode of acting and speaking in the presence of others, is essential to the human condition. Qutb’s belief that true social justice may only be attained if all of mankind live the Islamic way of life is, he says, the “very nature of Islam to take initiative for freeing the human beings throughout the earth” and “cannot be restricted to geographical or racial limits, leaving all mankind on the whole earth in evil, in chaos, and in servitude to lords other than God” (Qutb 73). Here he says all mankind, as it is the function of Islam for “universal freedom” to reach this goal through means of Islamic Jihaad. Based on this, he believes the Islamic way of life is not only superior to all other ways of life, all other schools of thought, but the only way of life. This would require the implementation of the Shari’a to society in order for man to adhere to God’s commands, and God’s commands only. This ignores the concept of plurality, based on the presence of others, of speaking to, listening, and communicating with others, and thereby accepting the variety that is mankind, and the variety of thought of individuals, building upon this a political life that is able to continue forward and a reality, dynamic in its nature, that is not held stagnant by singular beliefs. As previously noted, this “body” or corpus and lack thereof goes against the history of mankind.
Qutb viewed Islam as the means to achieve Justice, which in turn, was what he believed to be the solution to mankind’s corruption, and to present-day Jahiliyya. In Milestones he wrote, Islamic Jihaad carries out the commandments of the Prophet, who was commanded by God to “warn his near relatives, then his people, then the Arabs who were around them, then all of Arabia, and finally the whole world” (Qutb 53). His intention was moral in that justice would be reached whereby everyone would be treated fairly, without discrimination of race, sex, class, etc., perhaps constructing a society that is the closest to egalitarian human societies man is able to reach. Yet the society he wishes to see, and which his ideologies strive to reach, is a society derived of collective life, of a political realm, of human life, of active life, of vita activa. It is a society derived of the justice that comes with freedom of choice. This freedom he speaks to, of “the religion [Islam] is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires” is a momentary transaction of men’s servitude from one form to another, as he is enforcing the Jihadists and his own rule over man in his attempt to “free” men from his own desires and servitude to other men (Qutb 57).
After all, “to be free meant to be free from the inequality present in rulership” and to be able to “move in a sphere where neither rule nor being ruled existed” (Arendt 33). Not only does a hierarchy still exist in Qutb’s utopian society, of his “own people” (those that follow his ideologies), but also of the rule of God. Therefore, his attempt of “freedom of man” is merely from one form of oppression into another. His neglect of the opinions of the men that inhabit the earth, not one man, nor a minority of the men, is unnatural in its hindering of social progression and freedom of choice.
In an examination of Qutb’s claim for the Islamic way of life as the only way of life, one is able to see his logic is derived on the deduction that because God created man, he must be the Ruler, and His religion must be the way of life (Qutb 84). He writes in Milestones,
“Furthermore, Islam asks: ‘Do you know better, or does God?’
and then answers it: “God knows, and, you do not know” (Qutb 84).
However, this relies on the assumption on the existence of this specific concept of “God”. This is a logical fallacy. He is assuming A, then B; there is a “God”, and only a very strict concept of God (Allah), and therefore the only way of life is the Islamic way, which must be achieved by means of Jihaad. Since he has made this assumption, all of the other conclusions fall into place, for example, following the strict interpretation of the Qur’an- “Whatever the Messenger gives you, accept it; whatever he forbids you, refrain from it” (59:7 Qur’an, Qutb 84). There is no space for dialogue here and no space for discussion. This goes into Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere, which he defines in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as “the domain of social life where public opinion can be formed and where citizens deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion” (Habermas 231).
Looking at Qutb’s arguments as deeply disinterested in public opinion, rather in the violent conversion of all men to the Islamic way of life is the epitome of a lack of public opinion regarding issues in which all citizens deal with matters of general interest. The public sphere that I refer to here is not necessarily in reference to Western democracy, but looking at certain characteristics of its ideal form: the generating of opinion of the public. The idea began in 18th century, in coffee houses, voluntary associations, amongst the mundane normative daily interactions between mankind, or as Arendt would say, on the mode of acting and speaking in the presence of others; the wheels to human progression. Arendt also speaks to this notion of a “public sphere” as she writes,
“for us, appearance- something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves, constitutes reality […] the reality which comes from being seen and heard […] lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed […] into a shape to fit them for public appearance” (Arendt 50).
Qutb’s argument shows a lack of discourse in his assumption and dogmatic authority in the way in which he argues the Islamic way of life as the only way of life and the means to achieve this. He even goes so far as to say “it is not the intention of Islam to force its beliefs on people, but Islam is not merely ‘belief’” (Qutb 61). This reductionist view is unnatural and hindering to the social progression of man on the basis of Aristotle’s philosophy, “homo est naturaliter politicus, id est, socialis” (Arendt 25). It goes against Arendt’s inclusive and pluralistic concept of man who should be able to have the freedom to “make their desires their gods”, a choice in the establishment of government, whether or not they want to ‘serve’ a God at all; to allow man’s nature of plurality to continue to present itself through the modes of action and speech in order to build a collective life in the public and political realm.
Ahmed, Shabab. What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago, 1958.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. DEKR Corporation, 1962.
Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Kazi Publications, 1964.