Revisiting Sayyid Qutb's Milestones

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“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 a 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”.

These are the first few words written by Sayyid Qutb in his last book Ma’ālim fi at Tarīq (Milestones), the book that is believed by many biographers of Sayyid Qutb to be the main reason why he was sentenced to death.

To many Muslims all over the world, Milestones is considered the “textbook” of da’wah (preaching of Islam). It can be boldly divulged that not a single Islamic worker who had lived during the time of Islamic resurgence in our country in the era of post-Iranian Revolution; had not read Milestones.

And this book has also earned the author his reputation as the major architect of modern militant Islamism. Whether Qutb deserves such a sacrilegious honour, or whether his death had turned Milestones into an “icon-text” for many militant Islamic movements remains debatable.

This article will try to analyze the impact of his last work in the shadow of his martyrdom.

The Unique Qur’ānic generation

The entire premise of Milestones lies on a basic tenet of educating and motivating the potential vanguard of the re-Islamization movement. The book was written in order to re-orientate the Muslim minds in such a way that it could inspire the masses with a transformative revolutionary consciousness as inspired by the Qur’ān.

It is against this background that it has been remarked that the principles laid down by Hassan al-Banna (right) – the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood – became clear only after Sayyid Qutb wrote the Milestones.

Like most contemporary Islamic revivalists, Qutb was distressed with the growing distance between Muslim societies and true Islamic values based on the Qur’ān. He emphasizes the need to demarcate between the anticipated Islamic society as it was during the period of the first generation of Muslims whom he addressed as al-jīl al-Qur’ān or the Qur’ānic generation, and various jahili (ignorant) societies in the contemporary world.

According to Qutb, the only hope that remains is for a new Islamic movement to rescue mankind from the crutches of ignorance. Qutb reveals the main recipe for the creation of the Qur’ānic generation. First and foremost was the clear spring from which the first generation of Muslims quenched their thirst.

The spring from which the companions of the Prophet drank was only the Qur’ān, and only the Qur’ān; as the hadith (sayings) of the Prophet were offspring of this fountainhead. The Qur’ān was the only mold in which they formed their lives.

It was according to the well thought-out plan to prepare a generation pure in heart, pure in mind and pure in understanding. Their training was to be based on the method prescribed by God who gave the Qur’ān, purified from the influence of all other sources.

The second ingredient of this recipe according to Qutb lies in the approach towards the Qur’ān.

The first generation according to him did not approach the Qur’ān for the purpose of acquiring culture and information nor for the sake of knowledge or to solve some scientific or legal problem. They turned to the Qur’ān to find out what the Almighty Creator had prescribed for them and for the group in which they lived. They will then react to the verse immediately like soldiers on battlefields who will react spontaneously upon instructions.

According to Qutb, this understanding that instruction is for action, had opened-up the doors to spiritual fulfillment and to knowledge. The method of later generations was instruction for academic discussion and without doubt, this is the second major factor that made later generations different from the first unique generation of Islam.

The third ingredient, and this is the most contentious issue with regard to Qutb’s analysis; lies in the separation of the Muslim’s present Islam once he embraces Islam from his past jahiliyyah (ignorance).

This renunciation of the jahili environment, its customs and traditions, ideas and concept, according to Qutb; proceeded from the replacement of polytheism by the concept of Oneness of God, of the jahili view of life and the world by that of the Islamic view.

The Doctrine of Lā ilāha illa Allāh (No god but God)
From Qutb’s analysis, it is clear that the Qur’ānic generation started in the early period of the Meccan phase where aqīdah (creed) was first built in a revolution of conscience. In Qutb’s opinion, the true ummah (Muslim community) has been dormant for centuries. And the challenges faced by the aqīdah jadīdah (novel creed) in establishing itself amidst the hostile jahiliyyah society of the 7th Century have re-surfaced in our modern era. Reconstructing the new society compels a return to the earliest stage of Meccan Islam with a rejuvenated commitment to the pure and pristine original aqīdah.

This dichotomous world-view between modern jahili values and true Islam may be an example of what logicians call the black-and-white fallacy. His arguments refuse to allow any middle-path or grey-areas in-between these two extremes. Some contemporary Islamic scholars have criticized this dichotomous world-view and warned against the misinterpretations of such demarcations that may lend credibility to extremist and jihādist groups that promote violence in seeking their aim.

Without doubt, Qutb advocates a structural change in societal systems to the Islamic doctrine of Lā ilāha illa Allāh, which seeks to establish for the emancipation of humanity from man’s exploitation by his fellow man.

The doctrine of Lā ilāha illa Allāh has been recommended to be the core doctrine of revolution against any authority or systems that usurp the authority of God as the one and only true sovereign.

Qutb intends to highlight Islam’s relevance as an alternative, positive and sustaining system (manhaj takāful wa ijābi) to the prevailing orthodoxies of capitalism and communism. What set Islam apart from the other systems is its intense concern for social justice.

According to Qutb, those who obstruct the path of Islam at any time realize that the pure and straightforward Islamic way of life endangers their unjust order, interests, hollow structure and deviant practices.

This is the Road

While Qutb made it very clear in his Milestones with regard to the establishment of a new social order based on true Islamic system, and that religion is not merely confessional affiliation but behaviour, culture, a way of life and a system that regulates man’s conduct; there was never an iota of evidence to suggest that he promotes violence in establishing the Islamic system.

Qutb even envisages persecution and hostility to any group of people that may accept the responsibility to initiate the process that will lead to the structural change he is advocating in the book. If violent uprising is what he had intended, then the final chapter of the book would have been on a different story altogether. But the final chapter of the book is titled This is the Road.

The Qur’ān is not exiguous with stories of confrontations between truth and falsehood, between good and evil. If Qutb were trying to insinuate the use of violence in uprising against despotic governments, then perhaps the story of Saul against Goliath as denoted in verses 246-251 of the second chapter of the Qur’ān would have been more appropriate: “How often has a small host overcome a great host by God’s leave. For God is with those who are patient in adversity” [2:249]

However in the last chapter of Milestones, Qutb chose the Qur’ānic story of al-ashāb al-uqdūd (the Makers of the Pit) as told in the chapter al-Burūj (The Great Constellations); the eighty-fifth chapter of the Qur’ān. In this story, the Qur’ān points out to the Believers the road that lies before them and prepares them to accept with fortitude whatever comes their way, as yet unknown to them, with the permission of the All-Wise God.

This is the story of a group of people who believed in God and openly proclaimed their belief. They encountered tyrannical and oppressive enemies who were bent on denying the right of a human being to believe in the Almighty God.

The believers will be tortured by the tyrants, burned alive, and provide entertainment to his tormentors by his cries of agony.

Qutb asserts that even if a Muslim fails to achieve earthly victory, he still achieves victory because the highest triumph is the victory of faith over persecution.

Violence and Terrorism
Perhaps far from promoting violence, Qutb advocates a philosophical concept of struggle as modeled out of the Qur’ānic texts, a concept of striving for justice that is totally non-violent and peaceful. And perhaps this non-violent concept of struggle against oppression is a more effective way for the weak to fight against tyrannical rulers and injustices.

It must be understood that in the discourse on violence and terrorism, it is the powerful who will ensure that the discourse will be in their favour. While the world gets excited about some act of violence of some group or other in the Muslim world seeking a modicum of justice, the terrorism of the powerful very cleverly clothe their terrorism in a moral garb, as if they are defending freedom or human rights or democracy. As a result, their immorality is not exposed.

Sayyid Qutb had lived-out and died for his beliefs. Though his Milestones may be misunderstood as a mere invitation to misguided radicalism, a thorough and conscientious reading will provide a great milestone that will revive the ummah.