In Sayyid Qutb’s analysis both the West and the islamic world find themselves in a condition of alienation where faith is isolated from everyday life. People are consumed by money, sex and power. Their lives are filled with drugs, sex, and alcohol, things that can never truly satisfy. To the lost condition of today’s world Qutb offered a radical islamic solution, which I will share in oversimplified form so that those outside of radical Islam can gain a basic understanding of the issues as seen through jihadist eyes.
For Qutb, the core solution to the world’s alienation is a re-commitment to God’s original authority. It is a call to go back to the beginnings, which for a committed Muslim means back to the Qur’an in its original setting (something like the “Back to the Bible” movement in evangelical Christianity). It means to restore the natural order of things as laid out originally by God. This would mean restoring God’s rules for life as laid out in Sharia law, including its rules for modesty and charity. For Qutb Sharia law was not a burden or a confinement of the human spirit. It meant declaring one’s freedom from human rules and expectations so one can live by God’s rules and expectations. In Sharia law it is recognized that women are crucial in shaping human character and that this work is best done at home. So the domestication of women was not seen by Qutb as a way of showing their inferiority, but to protect sexual boundaries and free women to do the most important work, shaping the character of the next generation. This is an ideal he set forth. In practice it often more about male dominance and privileges.
In Qutb’s theology, the only way to truly reform the world is to unite religion with the state. It is only when religion is recognized as the highest goal by the state that Sharia law will truly be applied. This is a complete rejection of western principles, including freedom of religion. In a truly islamic state, conversion would not be tolerated and non-muslims would be tolerated only if they do not interfere with the religio-political agenda of the majority. How would such islamic states be achieved? Only by a faithful vanguard who was willing to live by their convictions even unto death. Sayyid Qutb was certainly committed to being one of those, he was executed for treason (accused of plotting the assassination of the president) against the Egyptian state in 1966.
Qutb’s vision of radical Islam is conflicted today. First of all, those who buy in to this vision are divided between salafists and jihadists. Salafists do not believe in taking up arms to achieve the goals of radical Islam. They see the achievement of those goals as the work of God. They support God’s work by personal jihad (wrestling with one’s own faults and character flaws), by individual faithfulness to God’s rules, and by witness (in Arabic: tabligh) to others in words (an-Nahl 16:125). Salafists themselves are divided into two groups, those who renounce all violence in pursuits of religious goals (generally called salafists or Wahhabis) and the Muslim Brotherhood, who believe that violent jihad is not appropriate now but will be appropriate at some time in the future.
The jihadists themselves are also divided into two main groups, today usually identified with al Qaeda and the Islamic State or ISIS. This conflicted vision can be very confusing to outsiders. I will try to simplify that conflict with a series of contrasts between al Qaeda and ISIS. 1) AQ was largely founded by wealthy intellectuals, who often had gained a western education, ISIS tends to attract simple, uneducated believers including, in the words of some analysts, “street thugs.” 2) AQ does not seek to control territory and offers no social services. It seeks to influence the political realm by propaganda and spectacular terrorist attacks. ISIS, on the other hand, sees territory as crucial and social services within that territory are a central part of the agenda. 3) AQ is focused on modern political concerns, its operatives were often quite secular and western in their thinking and behavior. ISIS, on the other hand, is following an ancient religious vision, to aid God in re-establishing the theocratic state. 4) For AQ the apocalypse is in the future, for ISIS the apocalyse is now. 5) AQ is extremely secretive and unpredicatable, ISIS is very open about its plans for both the present and the future. 6) AQ is almost impossible to eradicate, as it operates in secret and underground, ISIS, on the other hand, must have territory to survive. While ISIS could go underground if the Islamic State is defeated, its main appeal is in its ability to create such a counter-cultural state.
As a results of these differences, ISIS is often found in conflict with various movements allied with al Qaeda; such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and al Qaeda in Arabia in Yemen. Before I turn in detail to the vision of the Islamic State, I would like to offer a short history of al Qaeda and its vision of how violent jihad will reshape the world.