The Magazine

Osama's Brain

Meet Sayyid Qutb, intellectual father of the anti-Western jihad.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By DINESH D'SOUZA
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Qutb spent the next several years in and out of prison. He was routinely beaten and tortured, and eventually he was convicted of inciting sedition and terrorism (admittedly under procedures far short of a fair trial) and hanged in Cairo together with two friends. Yet Qutb's prison period was his most productive. He published Milestones, a short account of his vision of an Islamic society, and "In the Shade of the Quran," "the most widely read modern commentary" on the Koran, according to Hamid Algar. Through his writings, Qutb helped his political cause prevail over Nasser's. In recent decades, Arab nationalism has faded, and Islamic fundamentalism has become the power to be reckoned with in the Muslim world.

What, then, did Sayyid Qutb believe? A good place to begin is with his account of this country in "The America That I Saw." While he was impressed with the productivity and technological efficiency of America, he was shocked by what he deemed its rampant racism, especially toward people of Arab descent, its materialism, and the sexual promiscuity of its women. Even the church, Qutb commented, had become a place of amusement and social interaction rather than worship. Qutb concluded that America was materially prosperous but morally rotten. The Muslim believer, he wrote, has no reason to envy American society; rather, he should feel contempt for it. "The believer from his height looks down at the people drowning in dirt and mud."

To explain America's decadence, Qutb argued that from its earliest days Western civilization had separated God and society. Long before the American doctrine of separation of church and state, the institutions of religion and those of government operated in separate realms and commanded separate allegiances. Consequently, God and society were bound to come into conflict. And this, Qutb pointed out, is precisely what happened in the West. If Athens represents reason and science, and Jerusalem represents God and religion, then Athens has been in constant struggle with Jerusalem. Now the terrible truth is that Athens has won. Reason and science have annihilated religion. True, many people continue to profess Christianity, but religion has ceased to shape society. It does not direct government or law or scientific research or culture. In short, a once-religious civilization has been reduced to jahiliyya--the condition of social chaos, moral diversity, sexual permissiveness, polytheism, unbelief, and idolatry that was said to characterize the Bedouin tribes before the advent of Islam.

Qutb's alternative to this way of life is Islam, "an unparalleled revolution in human thinking" that provides the only solution to "this unhappy, perplexed, and weary world." Islamic societies may be poor, he admitted, but at least they are trying to implement the will of God.

In his book "Social Justice in Islam," Qutb told the story of a man and woman who came to the prophet Muhammad and said, "Messenger of Allah, purify us." Muhammad asked, "From what am I to purify you?" They replied, "From adultery." Muhammad asked whether the couple was mad or drunk. Assured that they were not, Muhammad asked them again, "What have you done?" And they said they had committed adultery. Then Muhammad gave the order, and they were stoned to death. While the couple were being buried, onlookers scorned them, but Muhammad chided the scoffers. The couple had repented, he said, and now they were with Allah.

"This is Islam," Qutb wrote. Analyzing the incident, he pointed out that no one had witnessed the adultery, and the prophet initially sought to attribute the couple's confession to the influence of alcohol or mental disturbance. Still, they had persisted. Finally Muhammad had no choice but to have them stoned in accordance with God's law. Qutb posed an interesting question: Why did the couple demand to be stoned? His answer: "It was the desire to be purified of a crime of which none save Allah was cognizant. It was the shame of meeting Allah unpurified from a sin which they had committed."

Islam, Qutb emphasizes, is not merely a moral code or set of beliefs; it is a way of life based upon the divine government of the universe. The very term "Islam" means "submission" to the authority of Allah. This worldview requires that religious, economic, political, and civil society be based on the Koran, the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, and the sharia, or Islamic law. Islam regulates religious belief and practice, but also the administration of the state, the conduct of war, the making of treaties, divorce and inheritance, property rights and contracts. In short, Islam provides the whole framework of life, and in this sense it is impossible to "practice" Islam within a secular milieu.