by Theodore Dalrymple (May 2007)
In my youth (in which I include my early adulthood), I read a lot of philosophy. In those days, I picked up books of metaphysics with an excitement that I cannot now recapture, and that completely mystifies me, indeed seems to me faintly ridiculous. I still cannot quite make up my mind, however, whether or not I wasted my time. After all, I was a medical student, not someone training to be an intellectual. I doubt that philosophy made me a better person, let alone a better doctor, but I suppose it is possible that it made me a better writer, which is not the same thing at all.
In those days, the Soviet Union loomed very large in all our imaginations. It was the ruffian on the stair of western civilisation, or a looming presence to the east. And that meant that, for anyone who wanted to understand the world, it appeared necessary to immerse himself in Marxism (actually, it was more important to read the history of the Russian intelligentsia from the time of Nicholas I than to read Marx), since the Soviet Union claimed to be a society founded on Marxist principles.
Marxist writers were not famed for their clarity or elegance of exposition. Indeed, clarity was rather looked down upon by them, for the dialectical nature of the world was inherently hard to understand and therefore to express. For Marxists, clarity was simplification, or worse still vulgarisation. It was the handmaiden of false consciousness that misled the workers into not being revolutionaries.
As with philosophy, I am not sure whether my efforts to understand Marxism were a complete waste of time, which I could and should have employed better. At any rate, when the Soviet Union collapsed, no thanks to my efforts to understand Marxism, I thought, ‘Well, at least I shall never have to struggle through any ideological nonsense again if I want to understand what is going on.’
How wrong I was! In short order, I found myself reading about Islam, a subject of great interest to scholars, no doubt, for nothing human fails to interest them, and of course also because Islam was the basis of great civilisations in the past, but not a subject (in my opinion) worth studying for any internal or new truths that it might be expected to yield me. No; I found myself reading about Islam because it had suddenly emerged as the next potential totalitarianism.
During my reading, I found myself swinging like a pendulum between taking Islam as a threat very seriously indeed, and not taking it seriously at all. The reasons for taking it seriously were that a large proportion of humanity was Muslim, that an aggressive and violent minority had emerged within that population with apparently very widespread, if largely passive, approval, and that the leadership of western countries was very weak and vacillating in the face of this, or any other, challenge. The reasons for not taking Islam seriously were that, in the modern world, it was intellectually nugatory, that the disproportion in power between the rest of the world and the Islamic world appeared to be growing rather than contracting, and that behind all the bluster about the certain possession of the unique, universal and divinely ordained truth for man was an anxiety that the whole edifice of Islam, while strong, was extremely brittle, which explained why free enquiry was so limited in Islamic countries. There was a subliminal awareness - and perhaps not always subliminal - that free philosophical and historical debate could quickly and fatally undermine the hold of Islam on various societies. Fundamentalism was therefore a manifestation of weakness and not of strength.
Recently, I have been reading one of Sayyid Qutb’s best-known books, Milestones. Of course, not being an Arabic-speaker, I rely on the accuracy of the translation. Qutb, who was hanged by the secularising nationalist, Nasser, in 1966, for allegedly plotting the overthrow of the government, was one of the most influential Muslim thinkers of the 20th Century. He did not start out as an Islamist, but became one partly in response to his sojourn in the United States. He was appalled by what he saw there as its moral laxity (though he went at a time now looked back on by moral conservatives as a time of great and even exemplary personal restraint, at least by comparison with the moral atmosphere of today). He was a cultivated man, and very far from an ignorant one. He did not deny, for example, the contribution that Europe (and America, which he regarded as part of Europe) had made: speaking of the Renaissance and the recent past, he said:
This was the era during which Europe’s genius created its
marvellous works in science, culture, law and material
production, due to which mankind has progressed to great
heights of creativity and material comfort.
He did not expect the Muslim world to equal the European world in wealth or power soon, but this did not worry him. Like many an intellectual from a materially backward society, at least by comparison with a much richer and more advanced one, he consoled himself with the spiritual superiority of his own society, at least in potential. (Actually, he was highly critical also of so-called Muslim societies, which he criticised for not being Islamic enough and for chasing after the false god of westernisation.)
Curiously, though, Qutb’s thought has many parallels with Marxism. Where Marx has Historical Inevitability, Qutb has God‘s Law. Marx, you remember, envisages a time when the state will wither away and history will end. In Marx’s vision, political power will have dissolved, and the exploitation of man by man will have ceased, to be replaced by the mere administration of things. (How anybody of minimal intelligence could have believed such a thing beats me.) In Qutb’s vision, all political power will have dissolved, replaced by man’s spontaneous obedience to God’s law. Just as the administration of things in Marx’s utopia will not confer power on the administrators, presumably because everything will be so plentiful that no one will be tempted to appropriate more than the next man, so in Qutb’s utopia no one will have to interpret the law and gain power from doing so. God’s law will be as evident as thing will be abundant in Marx’s classless society.
In both Marx and Qutb, the idea is expressed that, under the new dispensation, man will become more human, less animal. Personally, I have always found this kind of thought an appallingly arrogant slur on all the people who have lived before the thinker of it: does humanity really have to wait for Marx and Qutb before it becomes truly human?
Marx understood that the classless society could not come about by merely preaching socialism, as if it were merely an ethical demand or theory. Violence would be necessary. Similarly, Qutb denies that the world will become Islamic merely by preaching the word of God. He refers to Mohammed’s Meccan period, when the Prophet did not resort to arms. This, he says, was merely tactical; it would have been impossible in practice to impose his rule by force. But when he went to Medina, he had no hesitation in fighting his enemies, including those who simply did not accept his message.
Just as Marx says that a showdown between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is inevitable, leading to the triumph of the former and the subsequent establishment of a classless society, so Qutb thinks that a showdown between believers and infidels is inevitable, leading to the victory of Islam, which will eliminate all religious conflict. Is this Marx or Qutb speaking:
[there] is a natural struggle between two systems which cannot
co-exist for long.
It is Qutb; but it could have been taken from the writings of thousands of followers of Marx, if not from Marx himself, including Mao Tse-Tung.
The violent imposition of a socialist and Islamic society is justified in the same way in Marx and Qutb: if people were really free, that is to say suffering from neither false consciousness not jahilliyah (ignorance of divine guidance), they would accept the socialist or Islamic state not merely without demur, but joyously, as being for their own good freely chosen. True freedom in both Marx and Qutb is the recognition of necessity. Everything that prevents people from seeing the truth of their messages is an enemy of real, as against merely apparent, freedom.
There is very little that is specifically spiritual in Qutb’s book: it is a political rather than a religious manifesto. And like Marx, he insists that Islam is not so much a body of doctrine or theory or facts, but a method. His notion is uncommonly like the Marxist one of praxis, of a dialectical relationship between theory and practice. Here is what he says about the Islamic society to come:
Only when such a society comes into being, faces various
practical problems, and needs a system of law, the Islam initiates
the constitution of law and injunctions, rules and regulations.
Over and over again he insists, just like Marx, that Islam is not doctrine, but a unified theory and practice.
Qutb insists that the triumph of Islam is the only way that what he calls the lordship of man over man will be abolished, just as Marx and Marxists insist that the triumph of Marxism is the only way that the exploitation of man by man will cease.
Marx believed that man once lived in a state of primitive communism which ended with the division of labour. Qutb believes (much less excusably or plausibly) that the first generations after Mohammed lived in a perfectly functioning Islamic society. He doesn’t ask himself, at least not in this book, why it was, then, that three of the four supposedly rightly-guided caliphs were brutally murdered. This is a very odd kind of perfection, to say the least. But, just as the division of labour came and spoiled primitive communism, so did Greek philosophy and other innovations come and spoil the perfect Islamic society. Why perfection should fall apart because of outside influences - could perfection be as imperfect as that? - is a question Qutb does not ask himself.
Throughout his book, one senses his rage. Just as Marx expresses his admiration for the work the bourgeoisie has done in the past, so does Qutb pay tribute to Europe: but both Marx and Qutb are full of hatred. Of course, Qutb would have claimed to be nothing more than a humble instrument of God, expressing God’s design for humanity, just as Marx would have claimed that he was merely the mouthpiece of historical inevitability. But all is not humility that claims to be humble. Self-knowledge and self-examination is no more part of Qutb’s programme than it is of Marx’s.
Qutb’s book is obsessed with the achievement of political and social power. There is very little spiritual content in it. He says:
It is clear, then that a Muslim community cannot be formed or
continue to exist until it attains sufficient power to confront the
existing jahili society.
Only the total triumph of Islam (in Qutb’s sense) will bring peace to the world, just as all human conflict will end when the classless society is brought about by the final triumph of the proletariat.
The only religious aspect of Qutb’s thought is his belief that the Koran is the unmediated word of God, a belief that he does not, because he cannot, justify. For him, the will of God is indisputably known without any need of interpretation, and in fact he knows it. It isn’t difficult to see, then, that in the name of the destruction of all political authority and of the lordship of man over man in obedience to God’s will, Qutb thinks he ought to be total dictator, and that he is as obsessed with the here and now as any Marxist.
It is the same old story. As Dostoyevsky said, starting out from limitless freedom, we end up with total despotism.
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