A specter is haunting the Middle East – the specter of an Islamic state. The eponymous Islamic State already claims to be one. Western officials, though bracing for a sustained conflict, regard Islamic State as a well-heeled but non-state actor with delusions of sovereign grandeur.
Political semantics aside, to American eyes, Islamic State takes on a hue so medieval it borders on the surreal. Executions of apostates have jumped from the history books to YouTube channels. Viewed in high-definition, the emergence of a “caliphate” of Tweeting jihadists looks like the resurrection of a murderous anachronism, a backwards bending of history’s spine in defiance of its natural forward lurch.
The group may well fit that description. However, it is a mistake to regard Islamic State as the expression of a senseless violence that defies rational understanding.
Even evil has its logic.
Islamic State’s actions generally adhere to a set of internally coherent principles. And these principles find, if not their origin, then at least their clearest articulation in an obscure 20th century author.
His name was Sayyid Qutb. Born in Egypt in 1906, he would die in his homeland sixty years later, executed for alleged ties to a Muslim Brotherhood coup. But before he hung on the on the noose of Egypt’s secular military, he authored some two-dozen books. Well-traveled – Qutb even lived in the United States for two years – he wrote on a variety of topics.
Few words reverberate as sharply as those of Qutb on the political and social role of Islam in the modern world.
For it is from Sayyid Qutb’s prose that the generation of jihadists whose names would be uttered in America’s homes drew their inspiration. Osama bin Laden the college student regularly listened to the campus lectures of Sayyid’s brother, Muhammed Qutb, who popularized his brother’s ideas. Senior al-Qaeda operative and former bin Laden mentor Ayman al-Zawahiri still pays homage to Qutb in his writing. The American al-Qaeda operative citizen killed in a controversial CIA drone strike target said he read Qutb so intently that he “felt the personality of the author through his words.” As William McCants of the Brookings Institution explains, today’s jihadists “cite Sayyid Qutb repeatedly and consider themselves his intellectual descendants.”
Qutb’s prose reads like a handbook to understanding today’s Islamic State.
Islamic State’s apparent nostalgia for ancient Muslim caliphates stems from Qutb’s notion of Jahiliyyah, roughly translatable as “ignorance of the divine guidance.” Jahiliyyah—the adjective derivation of which is “jahili”—in practice refers to anything that contravenes Islamic law. According to Qutb, human societies have only ever experienced a brief respite from jahali influences. Jahiliyyah enveloped the entire globe, Arab world included, before the birth of the Prophet. The reprieve came when the “unique Qur’anic generation” of Moslems contemporaneous to Mohammed succeeded in banishing jahili influences from the societies they governed. And the societies governed by Mohammed’s direct followers were Muslim caliphates.
But as generations lived and died, non-Mohammedan influences diffused into Islamic thought and practice, adulterating the pure Islam of the Prophet. Qutb offers Greek philosophy, well-known to have influenced Islamic thought, as an example of such an adulterant. The result, he writes, is that “we are also surrounded by jahiliyyah today, which is of the same nature as it was during the first period of Islam.” The establishment a “caliphate” thus becomes the political goal because a caliphate is history’s prototype of a society devoid of jahiliyyah.
Though fully consistent with Qutb’s prescriptions, the priority placed by Islamic State on creation of an effective state apparatus has surprised many. Rather than leave its specific contours to the reader’s imagination, Qutb emphasized the need for the Islamic society of his vision to constitute a modern state. Though describing “a place on earth which can be called the home of Islam” in occasionally-lofty language, he specifies that it will be a “place where the Islamic state is established” and “Muslims administer the affairs of the state.” Hence the presence of traffic police and receipt-issuing tax collectors in Islamic State stronghold city of Raqqa in Syria are not as surprising as they may first seem.
Any state constructed in the image of Qutb’s vision, however, will be a contrast to the familiar species of nation-state. Unlike the nation-states that now define themselves through the stripes of their nationalism, Qutb’s state will define itself through its commitment to a religious vision. Its core identity will be derived from Islam rather than secular nationalism. His state is a state that is an Islamic caliphate rather than the type of state that is a nation. It is simply an Islamic state rather than a nation-state in the typical sense of the phrase.
The society media savvy of Islamic State’s Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers likewise becomes less surprising when cast in Qutb’s light. An Islamic society, he says, must not throw out the benefits of modernity’s science and technology along with its jahili bathwater. “To attain the leadership of mankind,” Qutb writes, it should offer a “way of life which on the one hand conserves the benefits of modern science and technology” and, on the other, implements its radical Islamic religious program. As with all religions, the relationship of Islam to science may in be tenser in practice than in principle. But there is no paradox of principle or contradiction of internal logic in Islamic State’s dissemination of images of its caliphate through Instagram.
Perhaps their most controversial practice, Islamic State’s treatment of non-Muslims, similarly conforms to Qutb’s script. Christians and Jews, Abrahamic “people of the book” in the eyes of Islam, have three ways of avoiding death if they find themselves inside Muslim territory: leave, pay a special tax, or convert to Islam. The last option is the preferred outcome for the caliphate, as Islam is a missionary religion. And Islamic State has indeed offered these options in the territories they control. They spend substantial time and energy attempting to win converts and do actually collect the tax from the few Christians who remain in their territory.
Though described by the Western media as a form of Christianity, the Yazidi religion is a form of polytheism in the eyes of Islamic State, and polytheists fall in between special crosshairs in Qutb’s Islam. “Concerning the polythesists and hypocrites,” he writes, “it was commanded in this chapter [of the Qu’ran] that Jihaad be declared against them and that they be treated harshly.” Yet even IS’s gruesome acts of violence against this minority bare the imprint of this specific vision of Islam. For example, before launching a raid against a Yazidi village, IS reportedly spent several days attempting to convert Yazidi’s to Islam. However convoluted it may be, there is a logic even to the most grotesque violence of Islamic State.
Despite the explanatory power of his ideas, Sayyid Qutb’s name remains virtually unknown in the West. Even those who have followed IS’s headlines closely are unlikely to have heard of it, much less to know his work. Most are simply content to regard Islamic State as a manifestation of the “evil” that exists in the world. There is not much to understand about evil: the inherent property that renders it “evil” suffices to explain the behavior of evil men.
This is understandable: understanding evil is an unease-inducing process. There is comfort in the belief that evil things happen in the world because some fraction of its inhabitants simply possesses the thing known as evil. There is discomfort in the belief that evil men are, in some sense of the word, “rational” men—who subscribe to a radical and grotesque vision of what the world should become and, accordingly, perform radical and grotesque actions as the means to that end. Who possess your same biological hardware and cognitive software, but use them for different purposes.
Islamic State is unequivocally a moral abomination. Yet they are an abomination that generally operates according to a set of principles articulated in the mid-20th century by an obscure Egyptian author. An understanding of evil may not be enough to defeat it. But ignorance of the logic of that evil is certainly a step in the wrong direction.
Milestones provides the most cogent exposition of Qutb’s views on modernity and the political role of Islam.
The book, like the rest of his work, is widely available online for free.