Muhammad Qutb on Islam, Capitalism and Communism

The late Qutb was known for being a critic of western ideologies such as capitalism and communism and his assertion that Islam is the complete system. The context of Qutb’s writings was the Cold War when Islam was severely questioned by the western ideologies.

Muhammad Qutb, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars of the 20th century and brother of the great Islamic thinker Sayyid Qutb, died in Jeddah on 4 April. The death of 95-year old Egyptian scholar – who had been in exile in Saudi Arabia since his release from jail in 1972 – was mourned by a large number of Muslims across the world. The late Qutb was known for being a critic of western ideologies such as capitalism and communism and his assertion that Islam is the complete system. The context of Qutb’s writings was the Cold War when Islam was severely questioned by the western ideologies.

The basic purpose of Qutb’s writings is to dispel misconceptions about Islam and to present it as the complete system and alternative to capitalism and communism.  He, therefore, calls for following the teachings of Islam in all walks of life. While his views on Islam influenced a large number of people to embrace it in its totality, they also came in for a sharp criticism for his support for “radical political Islam” in the 20th century. He articulated his views in 36 books but his masterpiece is arguably Islam: The Misunderstood Religion (Shubuhat Hawla Al-Islam in Arabic).  In recognition of his work, he was awarded with the prestigious King Faisal International Prize in 1988.

 

LIFE OF QUTB

Born on 16 April, 1919 in Musha village near Asyut in Egypt, Qutb was sent to Cairo for his primarily and secondary education. He held a graduation degree in the English literature from Cairo University in 1940. Besides, he also received a Diploma in Psychology and Education. He soon came under the influence of three Egyptians – Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, literary critic; Ibrahim Abd al-Qadir al-Mazini, journalist, poet and literary critic; and Taha Hussein, one of the most influential 20th century intellectuals. But no one can deny the role of his elder brother Sayyid Qutb in shaping the outlook of Qutb. As he grew up, Qutb spent a lot of time in discussion with Qutb whom he regarded as his father, brother and friend. With the passage of time, both the brothers began to share a lot in their thinking.

With Sayyid Qutb seen as the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood and its opposition to the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the State turned hostile to the family of Qutb and his supporters. On 26 October, 1955, President Nasser was shot at when he was addressing a rally and both the brothers were arrested for their alleged involvement. Though Qutb was released after sometime but his brother remained in jail and was finally executed in 1966. A year before the execution, Qutb was, once again, arrested on 30 July, 1965 and kept in prison for around six years.

The Egyptian State was not content to punish the two brothers. It also arrested and harassed other members of his family. His three sisters were detained and his nephew (sister’s son) was arrested and tortured to death. In jail Qutb also suffered torture. Expressing his feelings about the sufferings and pains in prison, he said he had read a lot in literature about tragedies, sufferings and pains but during his detention he himself felt them. Qutb saw the state crackdown on him, his families and supporters was an attack not only on them but on Islam as well. These assaults on him, in his views, were led by the Muslims who were Muslims only in name but in their deeds were followers of the ideology of the crusaders and Zionists.

His life after the release from jail was committed to learning, writing and preaching. Even at the later part of his life in Saudi Arabia, he attended many educational institutions, including Umm Al Qura University in Makkah. He was a prolific writer but Islam the Misunderstood Religion is perhaps the most read and most influential. It is plausible to state that his painful experience at the hands of the Egyptian State, which was seen following the western model, may have had bearings on his thoughts and writings.

The basic target of the book is to answer the “misconceptions” posed by capitalism and communism about Islam: Isn’t Islam a dated religion as it was most suitable to the period of the 7th century Arab? Isn’t Islam reactionary? Isn’t Islam enemy of freedom of expression and modern science? Doesn’t Islam support private property, slavery, capitalism, gender injustice, class domination and sexual repression? These were the questions a Muslim often received. In what follows we will primarily discuss Qutb’s views on Islam, capitalism and communism.

 

ISLAM AS COMPLETE WAY OF LIFE

His view of Islam as the complete system has its resonance with Jamaat-e-Islami’s concept of Iqamat-e-Deen. He categorically says that a Muslim, according to the true teachings of Islam, cannot be content to follow Islam in private spheres in performing just rituals and religious practices and then accept non-Islamic system in public sphere. Islam, claims Qutb, is the complete way of life. Nothing escapes it. To him, it is wrong to assume that Islam is all about “spiritual creed” or “plea for morality” or “just an intellectual research in the kingdom of heavens and earth”. Instead, he believes that Islam encompasses everything both spiritual and “worldly affairs”.

‘Nothing escapes its penetrating eye. It takes notice of all the diverse patterns of relationships binding men together irrespective of the fact that such relationships fall under the political, economical, or social heads; regulates them by prescribing suitable laws and then enforces them in human life, the most outstanding characteristic of the performance being the achievement of a unique harmony between the individual and society, between reason and intuition, between practice and worship, between the earth and Heavens, between this world and the Hereafter, all beautifully couched together in a single harmonious whole.’ (All the quotations in this article are from Qutb’s Islam: The Misunderstood Religion. This book does not contain the page number)

As the emergence of modern states in modern Europe was possible after state and religion was separated, relegating faith to private sphere while secular activities, such as production and administration, were performed in public spheres. The argument of Qutb questions the very notion of separation. For him, the political and economic life of individual should also be governed by Islamic laws. Islamic laws, says Qutb, are Divine and thus they are superior to man-made secular laws. He, thus, critiques secular legal, political and economic system of both capitalism and communism for their rejection of religion and morality.

He then narrates the events of the 20th century’s secular tyranny, as exemplified by Hitler in Germany, Mao and Chiang Kai-shek in Nationalist China and others, claiming millions of the lives of people. The very purpose of Qutb’s attack on secular tyranny is to critique the import of the process of secularisation from the West to the Islamic society. As it is to be noted, the methodology of Qutb is to underline the difference between the experiences of East (Islam) and that of the West.

Further, he criticises the imposition of the idea of secularism and atheism in the East, adding that priests of Christianity and its sects in Europe exploited the people, hunted the scientists for discovering the truth as such phenomena were an attack on their interests. But there is, argues Qutb, no such history in the East. Therefore, the categories and experiences of the West cannot be considered universal and therefore they cannot be imposed elsewhere.

After underlining the different trajectories of the West and the East, Qutb then takes on capitalism and communism. For him, both capitalism and communism – the ideology of the USA-led bloc, and the worldview of the USSR-led bloc – converge, despite their difference, had been imperialistic in outlook against “Islamic Orient”. ‘Today’s world is divided into two big power blocs – the capitalist and the communist blocs, each set against the other in a deadly struggle for the capture of world-markets and important strategical points on the globe. They, however, despite all their differences still remain one and the same thing as both are imperialistic in outlook and are out to enslave other peoples of the world.’

While capitalism is vehemently criticised for its greed and exploitation, communism comes in for criticism for its rejection of God, spirituality and individual freedom.

 

QUTB’S CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM

Let us first discuss his critique of capitalism. He declares that Islam and capitalism are in conflict because the base of capitalism is laid on the practices of usury and monopoly, both of which were prohibited by Islam. ‘Capitalism cannot prosper or grow without usury and monopoly both of which were prohibited by Islam about one thousand years before the existence of capitalism.’ But his rejection of capitalists’ practices of usury and monopoly does not mean that he would embrace the communist’s idea of treating private property as fountainhead of all injustices.

‘…Islam does not rate human nature so low as to take it for granted that ownership will always inevitably lead to injustice and oppression.’ In other words, he argues that Islam does not hold the view that private property alone is the root cause of all problems which are faced by humanity. He says that the propertied classes in Europe committed “serious injustice” on the poor because they were also the lawmakers. But such provisions are not allowed in Islamic system as God alone is the lawgiver. His emphasis on God as the lawmaker is also linked with his claim that there is no concept of class struggle in Islam as no class, not even the propertied class, is given “a legislative prerogative”. ‘…Islamic society is a classless society. It will be understood that existence of classes is closely connected with the existence of a legislative prerogative. Where such a privilege is non-existent, and no one can make legislations which safeguard his own interests at the expense of others, there will be no classes.’

Moreover, Qutb also deals with the women question in a great deal. He contends that the West, unlike Islam, treats women unequally. Embarking on the history of medieval Europe, Qutb says that many of western philosophers even had doubt if women, unlike men, possessed a soul or not and if she had one, whether it was a human soul or animal soul. Even after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, western women, he argues, continued to be exploited when they were paid less wages than men for the same work. Besides, he claims that the women of Europe were sexually exploited by their employers at factories and at work places and in this process there began breaking down of family structures. Contrary to this, Islam, in Qutb’s view, offers women equality and dignity while the “civilized” Europe denied property rights to women till recently, which were given by Islam some eleven hundred years ago.

Moreover, he comes down heavily on Marxists for looking at the women question from purely an economic perspective. Islam holds the role of economy but it also goes beyond it. For example, Islam, in Qutb’s views, recognises women’s right to property, and to knowledge at the same time, gives them right to choose their husband and also gives them “the right to leave her husband by securing separation”. However, he concedes that Islam, while giving equal rights to men and women, does recognise difference between men and women from “the physiological, biological and psychological standpoints”. Explaining this, Qutb says that women are more emotional than men and therefore she is better adept at looking after home and children.

 

QUTB’S CRITIQUE OF COMMUNISM

Qutb then turns to communism and spends much time in discussing its challenges to Islam. This may be due to the fact that a number of Muslims were being drawn to communism and the Nasser regime – which Qutb, his brother and the Muslim Brotherhood was fighting against – appropriated some of the languages of the Left.

Another important challenge was the perceived penetration of the communist party among Muslims. He does not hesitate to state that Islam and communism are irreconcilable and both cannot go together. ‘Can we in reality embrace communism and yet live on as Muslims? The answer is a big No, for, when we apply communism (erroneously or dishonestly described as being a purely economic system), we find that it is opposed to Islam in theory as well as in practice. Their collision is inevitable for the simple reason that it cannot be helped or avoided.’  From here, he goes on to show tension between both the systems.

Discussing the different tactics of communists towards Islam in the East, Qutb says that communists, at initial state, ‘adopted an aggressive attitude towards Islam in the East and cast various doubts about it.’ But when they found that their acts, instead of alienating Muslims from Islam, brought them closer to Islam, then they changed their strategy and began to show a synergy between Islam and communism as both of them uphold social justice. Besides, communists also tried to assure that they are not opposed to Muslims’ performing their religious duties such as prayers, fasts, etc. Despite such communists’ positive approach towards Islam, Qutb asks Muslims not to get trapped in their “diabolical game”. Delineating this “fraud “, he says communists’ appreciation of Islam and no-opposition to Muslims’ offering religious rituals are to draw Muslims closer to communism and gradually alienate them from Islam.

He then goes on to show fundamental difference between communism and Islam.  First, communism is a materialistic philosophy, which does not recognise anything save that is perceived by sensory organs. Second, communism has no place for God or spiritualism and calls it unscientific. Third, man is viewed as a “passive being” shaped by structure. In other words, communism stresses society over individuals. Fourth, communists recognise the supremacy of economic factor, which determines diverse social relationships. Fifth, the communist system has little place for individual freedom.

Unlike communism, Islam, argues Qutb, gives importance to human agency and sees human beings as an active agent with a free will of his own, subjected to the Divine Will. In other words, Islam makes it clear that human beings are not passive but enjoys supreme power and positions on the earth. Instead of giving primacy to structure, Islam relies more upon individuals than on society for the realisation of end. Further, Islam teaches and civilizes human beings so that they will be able to carry out their responsibility as members of the community. Thus, the position of human beings is elevated by Islam and human beings are treated as conscious members of society with will of their own.

While giving important to economic factors, Islam, unlike communism, does not believe in economic determinism. It does not think that the end of economic problems will lead to complete peace in the world. For example, two persons placed in the same economic conditions may behave differently. Why does this happen? Qutb would answer this difference by factoring in moral values and spirituality.

 

CONCLUSION

As stated above, Qutb continues to be admired and criticised. While his supporters see in his writings a ray of hope of transforming the current failed secular system in favour of Islam, his critics hold him responsible for being one of the key philosophers of the 20th century political Islam. But many would agree with us that Qutb, along with his brother Qutb, was among the first scholars to show limitation of Western methodology and ideologies. Thus, the relevance of scholars like Qutb is likely to remain in future as well.

[Md. Eisa (mdeisajnu@gmail.com) and Abhay Kumar (debatingissues@gmail.com) are Ph.D students of Centre for Arabic and African Studies, JNU, and Centre for Historical Studies, JNU respectively.]

First published in Radiance

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