An Even Fresher Look At Sayyid Qutb's Milestones:
(a reply to Muqtedar Khan)

Elmer Swenson

What or who inspired Al-Qaeda and why? Following the 9-11 attack a slew of articles appeared by journalists and scholars of the Middle East attempting to explain the motivation of the attackers. One name and one book came up repeatedly - Syed (aka Sayyid) Qutb, an Egyptian writer, and Milestones, the short and enormously popular book he wrote "for the vanguard of Islam."

[Qutb was] regarded as the father of modern fundamentalism and described by his (Arab) biographer as `the most famous personality of the Muslim world in the second half of the 20th century` ... Qutb was the most influential advocate in modern times of jihaad, or Islamic holy war, and the chief developer of doctrines that legitimise violent Muslim resistance to regimes that claim to be Muslim, but whose implementation of Islamic precepts is judged to be imperfect....
"Is this the man who inspired Bin Laden?" Robert Irwin, Guardian, November 1, 2001
The essential charter of the jihaad movement - its Mein Kampf - is Sayyid Qutb's Milestones...
"Truly, madly,deeply devout," Jonathan Raban, Guardian, March 2, 2002

But Qutb didn't get to be famous and influential without gathering a lot of supporters, supporters who saw him in a different light. Currently, when you Google "Qutb Milestones" one of the first hits you'll find is A Fresh look at Sayyid Qutb's Milestones, an essay by Muqtedar Khan, a professor at a small "liberal arts college in Michigan," (Adrian College in Michigan) posted several places on the Internet. Ostensively Kahn just wants to tell us about Qutb's ideas and how they "mobilized and motivated millions of Muslims . . . to reintroduce Islamic practices in their lives," but reading between the lines it's easy to get the idea that he also wants to clear Qutb's name from charges of inspiring the terrorists of 9-11.

Simply stated, Khan offers three arguments toward that end:

  1. While some may portray Qutb as supportive of a dictatorial Islamic vanguard ("a handful of Islamists") imposing shari'ah (Islamic law) "on all Muslims and non-Muslims living in Muslim lands," Qutb advocated something else. He wanted implementation of Islamic law to wait "until every member of the community had completely submitted to the sovereignty of Allah."
  2. The Islamic law to be implemented would not be rigid and doctrinaire, but "framed merely to serve the needs of this `living community of Islam`".
  3. Jihaad, so-called holy war, properly understood, was also flexible, varying according to what "the stage of development" the Muslim community was in. Qutb "challenged" talk by the timorous hacks of his day that jihaad was "defensive," arguing that jihaad to spread Islam was a "proactive" duty for Muslims. On the other hand Qutb was "careful to emphasize" that jihaad did "not necessarily mean the use of violence."

Thus rather than aggressive, violent pursuit of perfect Islam, Qutb wanted patience, voluntarism, and flexibility. And while vigorous and evangelistic, his Islam did not force itself on others or (Kahn implies) resort to violence unnecessarily.

Has Qutb been given a bum rap by Western observers? How does Khan's description of Milestone's compare to what Qutb actually said?

  1. The voluntary nature of shari'ah.
    Qutb does indeed talk about waiting until "Muslim society is "ready," at which time "various laws will be legislated" (p.34-35). But that doesn't mean those who aren't ready won't be subject to some strict regulations.

    In a theme he repeats many times, Qutb writes

    when Islam releases people from this political pressure of . . . servitude to other men . . . it gives them complete freedom to accept or not to accept its beliefs,
    but in the next breath adds
    However this freedom does not mean that they can make their desires their gods, or that they can choose to remain in the servitude of other human beings, making some men lords over others. [p.61]
    The "desires" that some "make their gods" are presumably non-Islamic desires for things like drinking, fornicating and pork eating, Qutb never says. But just what exactly is the "servitude" that some choose to remain in? It's the obedience of Christians and Jews to their religious leaders. Though these People of the Book "did not consider their priests or rabbis as divine", they "gave them the authority to make laws, obeying laws which were made by them, [and] not permitted by God." (p.82) And why did God forbid this?
    ... according to the Shari'ah, `to obey` is `to worship.` Taking this meaning of worship when the Jews and Christians disobeyed God they became like those who `associated others with God.`... It is taking some men as lords over others, while this religion has come to annihilate such practices ... [p.60]
    Thus, obeying non-Islamic religious rules, (the "laws" of priests or rabbis), is a form of polytheism and idolatry, ("associating others with God") which Islam cannot allow. The same goes for any laws in a state where "assemblies of men" have been "established" that have "absolute power to legislate laws" (p.82) regardless of what the shari'ah says. In regards to this "servitude" Qutb makes no mention of any need to wait for non-believers to submit to "the sovereignty of Allah."

    As for non-Islamic countries, Qutb considers how peace might be possible with them hypothetically ...

    It may happen that the enemies of Islam may consider it expedient not to take any action against Islam, if Islam leaves them alone in their geographical boundaries to continue the lordship of some men over others and does not extend its message and its declaration of universal freedom within their domain. But Islam cannot agree to this unless they submit to its authority by paying Jizyah, which will be guarantee that they have opened their doors for the preaching of Islam ... [p.73]
    But other times reckons submission and tribute won't be good enough.
    It is immaterial whether the homeland of Islam ... is in a condition of peace or whether it is threatened by its neighbors. When Islam strives for peace, its objective is not that superficial peace which requires that only that part of the earth where the followers of Islam are residing remain secure. The peace which Islam desires is that the religion (i.e. the Law of the society) be purified for God, that the obedience of all people be for God alone, and that some people should not be lords over others. [p.63]

    So while Qutb is all in favor of "complete freedom," he draws the line at non-Islamic "desires," the practicing of any religion that follows non-Islamic rules (i.e. any other religion), or the failure of any non-Islamic country to "submit" to the "authority" of Qutb's Islamic homeland by paying tribute.

  2. The flexibility of Shari'ah to serve a community's needs.
    Here is what Qutb says:
    ... when an autonomous state came into existence in Medina, general laws were revealed and that system [Shari'ah] came into existence which satisfies the needs of a Muslim community... [p.34]

    [Islam] first looks at the prevailing conditions, and if it finds a viable society which, according to its form, conditions or temperament, is a Muslim society, which has submitted itself to the law of God and is weary of laws emanating from other sources, then indeed this religion provides a method for the legislation of laws according to the needs of such a society. [p.34]

    ... then, when such a group of people is ready [i.e. has demonstrated they are good Muslims] and also gains practical control of society, various laws will be legislated according to the practical needs of that society. [p.35]

    Eminently reasonable. The problem is the massive crowds of demonstrators throughout the Muslim world chanting for Shari'ah law (part of the Islamic revival movement Qutb did so much to create) want something pretty specific, not general. They want the hand of the thief cut off, the drinker lashed, the adulterer stoned (in the words of one of Qutb's followers, the blind Sheikh `Umar `Abd al-Rahman, currently serving time in Super Max penitentiary for his part in attacks actual and planned on Manhattan). So what exactly would vary in the "legislation of laws"? The number of lashes or stones thrown? Qutb gives not the slightest hint in his book. He does, however, have something else to say about Islamic law:
    Man cannot understand all the laws of the universe, nor can he comprehend the unity of this system; he cannot even understand the laws which govern his own person, from which he cannot deviate by a hair's breath. Thus he is incapable of making laws for a system of life which can be in complete harmony with the universe or which can even harmonize his physical need which his external behavior. This capability belongs solely to the Creator of the universe and of men, Who not only controls the universe but also human affairs, and Who implements a uniform law according to His will [p.89]
    - that uniform law being the shari'ah.

    Thus Qutb's sharia seems to be two wildly different creatures:

    A. "General laws" or "a method for legislation," patiently waiting to find a "viable society" of true Muslims, whose social "needs," the Shari'ah then pliantly "satisf[ies]" by shaping itself "according to the practical needs" and "actual conditions," of the society. (p.33-34)

    B. "Uniform law" of utter perfection beyond human comprehension. "As accurate and true as any of the laws known as the `laws of nature,`" that "cannot deviate by a hair's breath," let alone molded and shaped. (p.89)

  3. What about the flexible, not-necessarily-violent Jihaad?
    Qutbian Jihaad varies "depending upon the stage of development of the Muslim community." It's "a mandatory proactive activity that seeks to establish Allah's sovereignty on earth," and so cannot be thought of in wimpy terms like "`defensive.'" Qutb "is however careful to emphasize that [Jihaad] does not necessarily mean the use of violence, it includes preaching use of service and wealth in the way of Allah. He is also careful to remind his readers that there is no compulsion in Islam. But if someone has chosen to live by [Islam] then no one has the right to prevent him from doing so." Khan doesn't specifically say that armed jihad is reserved to defend Muslims and their rights, and "non-defensive" Jihaad limited to non-violent things like evangelism and charity ("preaching use of service and wealth in the way of Allah"), but readers would be excused for getting that impression. They would not be if they read Qutb in his own words. Look at the "stages of jihaad." The non-violent stage was the earliest one, when Muslims were at their weakest, following this . . .
    Muslims were permitted to fight, then they were commanded to fight against the aggressors; and finally they were commanded to fight against all the polytheists. [p.64]
    Note polytheists includes Jews and Christians, in effect any non-Muslims. Note Qutb specifically says fight, not preach or give charity. What about today? Can contemporary Muslims choose from among these four types of jihaad depending on the circumstances? Not according to Qutb. "Only the final stages of the movement of Jihaad are to be followed, [where "polytheists" replaces "aggressors" as the enemy] the initial or middle states are not applicable." (p.63) In what is the most misleading part of his essay, Khan paraphrases Qutb as saying
    at the earliest stage [jihaad] implies struggling to assert the principle of tawhid [the unity of God] against all odds. Further along the journey of Islamization it means defending the communities right to 'freely practice Islamic beliefs' even if it entails the use of arms [Khan]
    ... and then skips Qutb's final "fight against all the polytheists" stage, the only one that is now "applicable." Khan would no doubt argue that Qutb believed this jihaad necessary for the spread of Islam, and in fact he (Qutb) did. Convince Muslims that Islam can be freely spread in your country and you won't have to worry about paying Jizyah or fighting back Jihaad. But this brings us to the biggest flaw of Khan's work, his failure to give us the real flavor of Qutb's thought, the paroxysms of hatred and paranoia against anything not "truly" Islamic.
The non-Muslim world (including most who think they ARE Muslim) is Jahiliyyah or imbued with pagan ignorance.
  • It is "evil and corrupt, whether it [Jahiliyyah] be of the ancient or modern variety." (p.132)
  • It is satanic - "In the world there is only one party of God; all others are parties of Satan and rebellion." (p.117)
  • It is uncivilized - "The Islamic society is by its very nature, the only civilized society." (p.94)
  • A live-and-let-live co-existence with it is unthinkable - "Islam cannot accept or agree to a situation which is half-Islam and half-Jahiliyyah ... The mixing and co-existence of the truth and falsehood is impossible." (p.130)
  • And as for that part of Jahiliyyah known as the West, Qutb's loathing goes well beyond hatred of Western imperialism or materialism. Europe and North America are "backward," a "rubbish heap" and "filth." (p.139) The West not only has nothing to offer the Muslim world, it is pursuing a "well-thought-out scheme" to "demolish the structure of Muslim society." (p.116)

    Anything un-Islamic being irredeemably worthless and evil, it's not surprising that there's no room for it in Qutb's Islam. The only thing there is room for is Islam. Forget about a mere five pillars (shahadah, praying, fasting, alms, and hajj). True Islam extends

    into all aspects of life; it discusses all minor or major affairs of mankind; it orders man's life ... people should devote their entire lives in submission to God, should not decide any affair on their own, but must refer to God's injunctions concerning it and follow them. [p.32, 47]
    Anything that does not follow "God's injunctions," be they on government and public law or any other "aspect of life" has to go.

    So when Qutb says "Islam has the right to take the initiative ... this is God's religion and it is for the whole world. It has the right to destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions which limit man's freedom of choice" to become Muslims, (p.75) be forewarned what those obstacles are. He's not talking about repealing some non-existent laws that prevent Muslims from preaching or praying. The "many practical obstacles in establishing God's rule on earth" in need of destroying include not just "the power of the state, the social system and traditions" but "in general, the whole human environment." (p.72)

    Qutb's movement will use "physical power and jihaad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system which prevents (sic) people from reforming their ideas and beliefs." (p.55) After all, Jahiliyyah won't surrender without a fight.

    Those who have usurped the authority of God and are oppressing God's creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching. [p.58-9]
    Whether violent jihaad is necessary to pre-empt the West's alleged "well-thought-out scheme" to "demolish" Muslim society, or needed to "destroy all obstacles" standing in the way of a world "purified for God," "polytheists" will come be under attack by those who heed Qutb. There is nothing non-Islamic civilization (or rather non-civilization) can do to satisfy Qutb's movement short of ceasing to exist.

  • Conclusion

    How to explain this "flexibility" that isn't flexible, this "peace" that's offensive war, this "freedom" of following all-encompassing regulations 24-7, and "servitude" that translates as daring to disobey those regulations?

    It's easy to imagine Qutb throwing up his hands at complaints against his contradictions and Alice-In-Wonderland use of language. "What are the meanings and words compared to God's infinite wisdom and knowledge! People like words like `practicality` and `flexibility` and `freedom` so I talk about `practicality` and `flexibility` and `freedom.` What WE have in mind won't exactly be what THEY have in mind, but that won't matter. It's what GOD has in mind! Once people taste God's law all their old desires and doubts will melt away!"

    But of course once "they" do know what Qutbians have in mind the element of surprise is lost - which may be the best explanation for Muqtedar Khan's essay. Could he have been hoping the lazy, pleasure-loving kuffar would never make it all the way through the repetitious and disorganized Milestones? His much shorter essay would convince them Milestone's ideas were more or less compatible with values (like individual freedom, democracy and human rights) so esteemed in the land of jahiliyya where he earns his salary.

    If deception is can pretty much be expected from Qutb’s followers, is terrorism also? Qutb's Milestones taught the "Vanguard of Islam" much that al-Qaeda subscribes to - that Christians and Jews are really polytheists, that Muslims (except for the vanguard of course) are not really Muslims. Did it teach them terrorism also? Qutb never talks about "shahid operations" or even uses the word "kill," preferring vaguer terms like "force" and "movement" (though he uses the word "annihilate" more than once). But he gives his followers something maybe equally dangerous - paranoia and expectations boldly out-of-touch-with-reality. The elimination of "evil and corrupt" non-Islamic society is not just vitally important but urgent. "Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice." (p.7) One false step and it could hurl into the abyss. And not just urgent but much closer to the grasp of the Islamic Vanguard than Muslims might think. For at the same time the west has a "well-thought-out scheme" to "demolish the structure of Muslim society," (p.116) "the Western world" also "realizes that" Western so-called civilization "does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence." (p.7). How frustrating than that after some decades of loitering at the edge of the cliff these Westerners still fail to act on their "realization" that their world's existence has no "justification". Might it then be necessary to up the ante and actively start putting an end to the existence of that world (and thousands of people in it)? From this point of view, mass murder might be thought of (as one Islamist interviewed on CBS Television put it) "a wake up call". It would also explain bin Laden's videotaped claim that Europeans were flocking to convert to Islam following the 9-11 attack. [1]

    It goes without saying, but these days it should be said anyway, that as popular as Qutb is (reportedly nearly 2000 editions of Milestones have been published), not all Muslims are Islamists, not even all Muslims in the Islamic revival. Plenty of Muslims embrace democracy and are willing to live in peace with non-Muslims. But when you hear someone start in on what a great man and misunderstood lover of freedom Sayyid Qutb was, watch out.


    [1]Haneef, Suzanne, Text of Osama bin Laden Tape, (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Filed at 4:56 p.m. ET December 13, 2001),

    OBL: [Following the 9/11 attack].... Some of them said that in Holland, at one of the centers, the number of people who accepted Islam during the days that followed the operations were more than the people who accepted Islam in the last eleven years. I heard someone on Islamic radio who owns a school in America say: ``We don't have time to keep up with the demands of those who are asking about Islamic books to learn about Islam.'' This event made people think (about true Islam) which benefited Islam greatly. [The transcript and annotations were independently prepared by George Michael, translator, Diplomatic Language Services; and Dr. Kassem M. Wahba, Arabic language program coordinator, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. They collaborated on their translation and compared it with translations done by the U.S. government for consistency. The government said there were no inconsistencies in the translations.]