Sayyid Qutb on Islam’s role in the modern world

Preparing for my Middle Eastern history class, I read an excerpt of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, written while the author was imprisoned by Egyptian dictator Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s secular regime.  Qutb was extremely influential in modern Islamic radicalism, arguing that the reduction of Islamic influence in the modern world had created a new period of Jahiliyyah, or ignorance, that was similar to the time before Muhammad.  Thus, even those who called themselves Muslims were considered ignorant.

Qutb believed that only Islam could address the world’s crisis.  Lawrence Wright notes in the first chapter of The Looming Tower, his history of al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, that Qutb believed (wrongly, I would say) that Christianity was only spiritual and therefore could not confront the modern world.  Islam, on the other hand, was a comprehensive system that could answer all of the challenges of modernity, and thus Islamic revival was necessary.

It’s widely recognized that Islamic civilization was built on the heritage of the Greco-Roman-Christian and Persian civilizations.  In the excerpt of Milestones, Qutb seemed to endorse this again:

The leadership of mankind by Western man is now on the decline, not because Western culture has become poor materially or because its economic and military power has become weak.  The period of the Western system has come to an end primarily because it is deprived of those life-giving values which enabled it to be the leader of mankind.

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.

Islam is the only system which possesses these values and this way of life….

Islam cannot fulfill its role except by taking concrete form in a society, rather, in a nation; for man does not have to listen, especially in this age, to an abstract theory which is not seen materialized in a living society.  From this point of view, we can say that the Muslim community has been extinct for a few centuries. (Gettleman and Schaar, The Middle East and Islamic World Reader, pages 304-305).

On a related note, Peter Leithart recently passed on Rodney Stark’s contention that Muslims often didn’t put it to good use; this is contrary to the conventional wisdom and I’d like to look more into it.

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