Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | August 24, 2008

Excerpts from “Milestones” by Sayyid Qutb

I have recently started reading some of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian writer who was a forerunner of today’s Islamic extremists or Islamists. In his book, Milestones, he calls for the use of violence against people and institutions that stand in the way of the spread of Islam. With the following excerpts I hope to introduce Qutb’s book and start on the road to making a critique of it.  To really do a good job of critiquing, I know, would take more study, but the book is very obvious in its message.  It is not difficult to disagree with.  (The book was written in 1964 near the end of Qutb’s life. Qutb had already been arrested and tortured for his Islamist views by Egypt’s Nasser government.  In 1966 he was executed.)
To critique Qutb’s book you must start practically on the first page, practically with the first line, the first word.
“Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice, not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head – this being just a symptom and not the real disease – but because humanity is devoid of those vital values which are necessary not only for its healthy development but also for its real progress. Even the Western world realises that Western civilization is unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind. It knows that it does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.” (p. 7)
“It is essential for mankind to have new leadership.” (p. 7)

This argument seems to me to be overly simplistic. Although it is good to hold up moral and spiritual values in our downward sloping societies, to say there are no values at all that we can hold on to is premature.  Not everything about the West is dire or decadent. There are some nihilistic tendencies in the West, but there is still a greater tendency, I think, to common sense and decency among the people. It depends on where you look. In some cases, religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism prop up the moral or ethical outlook.  However, I think it is also true, that people not connected with organized religion have the innate ability to perceive truth and morality which are the “values” Qutb seems to be referring to here.

“It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable.” (p. -8  )

“Islam is the only system which possesses these values and this way of life.” (p. -8  )

Actually, although I find this statement flawed, I do have some sympathy towards it.  In fact, at one time I was like that in my own religion.  So, for me, it is easy to imagine a person who puts all their faith in their religion viewing it as the only way for mankind. It seems natural to me that people who accept a religion by faith, and have invested that religion with all their faith, would come to this conclusion. But just because it is understandable, does not mean that it is in all aspects correct or true.  All people have the ability to connect with God and the values he might teach.  It’s part of our being human.

I believe the time has come for all our religions to admit that those outside the church, the synagogue, or mosque are people that God alone will judge. Believers are not right to judge. In fact, in Christianity at least, Christ’s injunction – “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37) – seems to refer to this situation. Also, one could make a case that early in the Book of Genesis, if one interprets that book typologically, that people like Seth and Abel and Noah were saved by God without any special membership in a community of believers.

It may be that, on occassion, it makes sense to oppose someone if their sins or their intention to continue in sin is endangering others. But even granting that we should oppose such a one, this does not give us the authority to judge their eternal status with God. God may know things that we do not.

And it could be added that the Apostle Paul said that some who do not have the law, “do instinctively the things of the Law,” (Romans 2:14)  meaning that those outside of the main faiths may also have some perception of God.

“If Islam is again to play the role of the leader of mankind, then it is necessary that the Muslim community be restored to its original form.” (p. 9)

Reformers of Islam have always taken this approach. But whether this is helping Muslims truly is still up for debate.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to go back to the Qur’an to try to renew and revive the religion. Going back to the original sources may actually be healthy.  I’m just saying that that’s not all that has to be done in this world.  People of faith should know that faith alone cannot solve all problems.  There must be works also.  And those works should probably include the political, economic, social and intellectual realms. Without paying attention to those areas, the well being of the people is still not provided for. And if there’s nothing to eat, you have strife and division. You have fighting over resources, civil wars, etc. – which are already happening in Rwanda and Sudan. And in Sudan, Muslims are fighting other Muslims over resources. To my mind, you have to start moving toward a sustainable economy.  Without these things, calling only on faith is just stoking the flames.

“Only in the Islamic way of life do all men become free from the servitude of some men to others and devote themselves to the worship of God alone, deriving guidance from Him alone, and bowing before Him alone. …” (p.11)
“This is that vital message of which mankind does not know.” (p. 11)
“This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires, which is also a form of human servitude; it is a declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone and that He is the Lord of all the worlds. It means a challenge to all kinds and forms of systems which are based on the concept of the sovereignty of man; in other words, where man has usurped the Divine attribute. Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings by designating others than God as lords over men. This declaration means that the usurped authority of God be returned to Him and the usurpers be thrown out – those who by themselves devise laws for others to follow, thus elevating themselves to the status of lords and reducing others to the status of slaves. In short, to proclaim the authority and sovereignty of God means to eliminate all human kingship and to announce the rule of the Sustainer of the universe over the entire earth.” (pp. 57-58  )

To be sure, this position is extreme.  It basically abolishes all forms of authority.  If I understand it correctly, one of the reasons Islam was given was because of the lawless situation which engulfed the tribes of Arabia at the time of Muhammad’s teaching.  In addition, to abolish all authority would leave no visible presence of authority in the world, making relating to God’s authority that much more unimaginable.  Authority is commonplace. It’s in families, it’s in our places of work. Saying “sir” or “maam” is a form of acknowledging authority.  The idea is not to abolish authority but to practice it truly and for the benefit of those who live under it.  It means those in positions of power should serve benevolently and not lord it over those who are under them.

And it should be remembered that communism also made great claims in the prior century, but the reality was always tyranny.  Someone is always wielding the authority on behalf of the many but without becoming responsible themselves.

“It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of Jahiliyyah which has encompassed the entire world. …” (p. 12)
“It is necessary that this vanguard should know the landmarks and the milestones of the road toward this goal so that they may recognize the starting place, the responsibilities and the ultimate purpose of this long journey.” (p. 12)

Immediately after setting up this great goal of eradicating subservience, Qutb introduces “a vanguard” that is going to take us there. Is this vanguard later going to place into servitude those who end up following it?

“The people ought to know that Islam means to accept the creed ‘La ilaha illa Allah’ in its deepest sense, which is this: that every aspect of life should be under the sovereignty of God, and those who rebel against God’s sovereignty and usurp it for themselves should be opposed;…” (p. 35)
This legal formulation is based on the principle that Islam – that is, submission to God – is a universal Message which the whole of mankind should accept or make peace with. No political system or material power should put hindrances in the way of preaching Islam. It should leave every individual free to accept or reject it, and if someone wants to accept it, it should not prevent him or fight against him. If someone does this, then it is the duty of Islam to fight him until either he is killed or until he declares his submission.” (p. 57)

And here’s the crucial passage. To put it simply, if anyone opposes Islam or the spread of Islam he must be killed. This seems to set up something of a vicious circle. People are opposing Islam because they believe they are preventing violently disposed groups, and then the Muslim “vanguard” so-to-speak is killing those in authority because they believe they are standing in the way.  This is the cycle of violence that is killing the Middle East.

Also, the way I see it, there seems to be more worry here about being free to accept Islam than there is about being free not to accept it.  In some Muslim countries, isn’t it a crime to turn away from Islam after one has already accepted it?  If I’m not wrong, it’s a crime punishable by death.  Why is that?  If you defend conscience, shouldn’t you defend it even if someone chooses a position different from your own?

“No doubt the Shari’ah is best since it comes from God; the laws of His creatures can hardly be compared to the laws given by the Creator. But this point is not the basis of the Islamic call. The basis of the message is that one should accept the Shari’ah without any question and reject all other laws in any shape or form. This is Islam. There is no other meaning of Islam. One who is attracted to this basic Islam has already resolved this problem; he will not require any persuasion through showing its beauty and superiority. This is one of the realities of the faith.” (p. 36)
“The only principle on which the totality of human life is to be based is God’s religion and its system of life. If this principle is absent, the very first pillar of Islam – that is, bearing witness to – ‘La ilaha ila Allah, Muhammadar Rasul Allah’ – will not be established nor its real influence felt. Unless this principle is accepted without any question and followed faithfully, the complete submission to God as taught by the Messenger of God – peace be on him – cannot be fulfilled.” (p. 84)

“To establish God’s rule means that His laws be enforced and that the final decision in all affairs be according to these laws.” (p. 58  )

Qutb calls the Shari’ah “the Divine Law” of God. As such, he says it must be accepted in whole, entirely by faith, no questions asked. This is actually his definition of Islam. “There is no other meaning of Islam,” according to Qutb.  So instead of putting men in the position of God, according to his argument, he has put the Shari’ah there instead.  I hope this is not too controversial to say.  I’ve read that for many Muslims the Shari’ah is like the glue which holds Islam together.

“What kind of a man is it who, after listening to the commandment of God and the Traditions of the Prophet – peace be on him – and after reading about the vents which occurred during the Islamic Jihaad, still thinks that it is a temporary injunction related to transient conditions and that it is concerned only with the defense of the borders?
“In the verse giving permission to fight, God has informed the Believers that the life of this world is such that checking one group of people by another is the law of God, so that the earth may be cleansed of corruption. Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they are oppressed, and God is able to help them. These are the people who were expelled from their homes without cause, except that they said that our Lord is God. Had God not checked one people by another, then surely synagogues and churches and mosques would have been pulled down, where the name of God is remembered often.’ Thus, this struggle is not a temporary phase but an eternal state….” (pp. 64-65)

This passage is complex because, as I see it, it was also the view of the Old Testament when God told the Hebrews to make war against the Canaanites. God wanted Israel to eliminate the Canaanites because they were so sinful.  Specific crimes like child sacrifice and fertility cults were named.  Later, in the Minor Prophets, God sent judgments on the nations surrounding Israel because of these reasons, as well as unjust wars and brutal killings of innocent people!

In the settling of the United States, we might remember, Americans viewed the Native Americans as morally inferior, and almost eradicated them. Was this justified? When is it right to view another people as morally inferior and when is it not? Don’t peoples always view other peoples, other groups, as inferior to themselves? And doesn’t this throw into doubt their ability, by themselves, to determine when it is right to do this and when it is not?  I suppose it happens when it must – take the example of fascism – but how and why it should happen all the time is something much more difficult to determine.

“It means to be above all the powers of the earth which have deviated from the way of the Faith, above all the values of the earth not derived from the source of the Faith, above all the customs of the earth not colored with the coloring of the Faith, above all the laws of the laws (sic) of the earth not sanctioned by the Faith, and above all traditions not originating in the Faith.
“It means to feel superior to others when weak, few and poor, as well as when strong, many and rich.” (p. 141)
“This message relieves him from both dejection and grief, these two feelings being natural for a human being in this situation. It relieves him of both, not merely through patience and steadfastness, but also through a sense of superiority from whose heights the power of oppression, the dominant values, the current concepts, the standards, the rules, the customs and habits, and the people steeped in error, all seem low.” (p. 142)

Finally, there is no place for feeling “superior” in religion. There might be confidence or gratitude.  There might be excitement when worshipping with people from all over the globe.  There may even be pride, although in English that word has other connotations. What I don’t get is that they would somehow feel superior.  To me, religion is instituted for other reasons than to feel superior.

And I wonder if this passage on superiority may tell us something about the author, his comparative newness to his religious outlook, and his experience at the hands of his Egyptian torturers. It’s surely tragic, but I can easily see how his experiences of torture could have affected his opinions about “feeling superior.”  Here we must have some sympathy for Qutb, but we should not be made to think that being “superior” is the best there is.

I want to make clear here, too, that although I am criticizing Qutb, I am not trying to criticize in any way the Islamic religion. I’m not sure that all my statements will appear so peace-oriented (both to Christians and to Muslims), but I’m not sure how else I can say these things.  I am new to studying Islam, and I ask forgiveness if I have said anything that is destructive to anyone’s faith.  I hope my comments will not be interpreted as against a religion which has inspired billions of people for many centuries and, hopefully, will continue to do so for many more.


See Milestones, by Seyyid Qutb. — Damascus, Syria: Dar al-Ilm, [1964]. I purchased this book new at a  bookstore in Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois. It is probably also available through Amazon. It’s 160 pages.

Another book which I would like to read soon is – From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism, by Adnan A. Musallam. — s.l.: Praeger Publishers, 2005.

NOTE: There seems to be an unspoken and more mature way to deal with persons outside of one’s own religion.  It is implied in the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan.  What’s of first importance is not one’s own religion, but the willingness to help and to include another person, whatever their condition, in one’s own immediate world. (Luke 10:25-37)


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