Tag Archives: Sayyid Qutb

From Waco to Isis: Radical Islam’s Conflicted Vision

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.

From Waco to Isis: What’s Wrong with the West?

At the core of Sayyid Qutb’s theology (he was in many ways the father of fundamentalist Islam, from which al Qaeda and ISIS have arisen) is a fundamental analysis of the human condition, particularly as illustrated by the secular West. According to Qutb, the human race has completely lost its way. It has lost touch with God. Especially in the western world, human beings are consumed with money, sex and power. As a result they have become miserable, anxious and skeptical. He argued that the richer the country, the more unhappy the people are. The proof of his thesis he found in the fact that the West is tormented by drugs, alcohol and rampant sexuality, which can consume one’s focus but will never satisfy. Wealth is no answer to the human condition. Science has proven no answer to the human condition. The core problem with modern life is that it alienates people from their true selves. As messed up as the West is, how is it possible that Christianity has had so little impact on Western culture? What is wrong with Christianity and the West that this sad condition has developed and continues?

At this point Sayyid Qutb offered an explanation of this condition grounded in the history of Western civilization. For him, the foundation of Western civilization was in Judaism as revealed by God. God gave the Jews a wholistic approach to life (unity of body, soul and spirit). Israel was a theocracy (a politic entity ruled directly by God through inspired judges or prophets) with clear laws of life laid out by God. But instead of heart obedience to God, Israel allowed its religion to degenerated into lifeless rituals.

According to Sayyid Qutb, Jesus came along to reform Judaism and restore it to what it had been before. But instead of buying in fully to the Jesus program, the followers of Jesus (the Christians) rejected Judaism and broke away from God’s intention. They replaced the wholism of Judaism with a divided human nature based on Greek philosophy. For these degenerate Christians the body no longer mattered, and daily secular life became separated from the relationship with God, which the Greeks felt occurred at a spiritual, non-bodily level. This resulted in two Christian extremes. Constantinian Christianity often led to debauchery. If the body did not truly matter then what you did with it didn’t matter either as long as your soul was connected to God and the church. A second Christian extreme, monasticism, was in full reaction to this. If the body didn’t matter to ones’ spirituality, the godly person should ignore it, starve it, beat it, keep it under complete subjection. By denying the unity of body and soul, Europe continued to profess Christianity but the secular and the sacred were no longer united and everyday life was increasingly divorced from religion.

Sayyid Qutb believed that God sent an answer to the problems of the West and its challenge to faith through the revelations received by the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was not called to start a new religion but to reform the Judaism and the Christianity that already existed in western Arabia. He was called to restore what was lost when Christianity abandoned the Jewish teachings of Jesus. Muhammad restored the unified human nature that was so central to the biblical world view. In Sharia he restored God’s rules for life. He restored respect for the physical world, weaving faith into every aspect of business, war and pleasure. This movement not only restored faith, it led to the discovery of scientific method and vast developments for the improvement of everyday life. This led to what many call the Islamic Golden Age, from about 750-1250 AD. The Islamic Empire became the world’s leading civilization, during the very centuries when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages.

But this islamic Golden Age did not last. Islam also lost its way. A combination of the Crusades, the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and Muslim unfaithfulness led to the decline of the Islamic Empire (and the Ottoman Empire that replaced it). As islamic civilization declined, muslim science was exported to Europe. Europe soon came to dominate the world, but that dominance in the context of a divided human nature also brought in secularism, with all of its alientation. Islam was humiliated and alienated, with the result (in the early Twentieth Century) that the heartlands of the Middle East and most of the Muslim world (including the Indian sub-continent and Indonesia) were divided up by European colonial powers. In essence, through colonialism, the Christian powers in the world had declared war on Islam.

What fascinates me is the similarity between Qutb’s analysis of Christian history and that of Ellen White in the book Great Controversy. The root analysis of history behind the jihadist vision is not crazy. It offers a sober analysis of the weaknesses of modernity and suggests that the only solution to the problems of the modern world can be found in faith. But there is a fundamental flaw in the jihadist logic that we will discuss in future blogs. In the next blog we will explore how Qutb, al Qaeda and ISIS respectively have sought to solve the human crisis, with particular focus on the present situation in the Middle East.