Sunday, February 1, 2015

Faith and Reason in the writings of Sayyid Qutb


After perpetual continual wars of religion up until the Peace of Westphalia, Europe underwent a philosophical paradigm shift in the 17th century, from scholasticism, which tried to embrace reason as long as it would go in accordance with the Christian doctrine, to the idea of scientific reason: Philosophers of the Enlightenment period were ambitious in paving the way for the liberation of man from “religious and metaphysical control over his reason, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols”. The disenchantment of nature was trumpeted in Western philosophy, through the intellectual mastery of the world and the rationalisation of natural events; people were supposed to be freed from the magical image of the world. 

Even though Islam is widely characterised as a religion based on revelation, rational methods and reason have always been central to most fields of Islamic sciences, Islamic theology, philosophy, eschatology and education. Both modernists and fundamentalists have always been loath against this intellectual tradition. This tradition throughout the history has employed reason in the service (and for the explication) of a revelation, “a non-rational revealed code of conduct”, the Shari‘a. The extent to which human beings should trust their reason has always been controversial, drawing a broad spectrum of attitudes. Some scholars have rejected and condemned the rational tradition of early Islamic scholarship by emphasising the need for submitting and accepting the superior authority of Hadith like Ibn Taymiya. Some others (generally known as the Mu‘tazilites) believed in a system of universal truths which can be acquired by individual independent reason alone and the revelation being a complementary tool which completes and particularises the norms that lead to moral perfection. A third category, which I argue constitutes the bulk of Islamic intellectuals, includes prominent Mutakallimun, thinkers, historians, sociologists and theologians such as Al-Māturīdī, Al-Ghazāli, Ibn Khaldun, al-Fārābī, Muammad Shīrāzī (also known as Mulla Sadra), Said Nursi, who were ambitious to synthesise, reconcile, dovetail the three types of fountains of Islamic knowledge in an epistemic unification, seeing no contradiction between these domains of knowledge and believing in their complementary nature: revealed knowledge (qur’an), discursive reasoning (burhan) and spiritual realisation (irfan).
Sayyid Qutb, who is considered to be one of the most distinguished thinkers and figures of Islamic fundamentalist movements of the 20th century, has undoubtedly made a solid and substantial contribution to this philosophical discourse. In view of his 41 published books, 30 unpublished works and mass of articles in journals, his works are still waiting for a serious critical study and theoretical discussion by Western academia. Even though his influence on Islamic fundamentalists and Islamic resurgence is recognised by both Western and Islamic scholars, this very limited research may be due to a political distaste against Islamic fundamentalist movements, which refuses to inquiry the key theoretical elements of this new modern stream and narrows them down to their political functions  of mobilising people and embodying anti-imperialistic and nationalist ambitions.  More objective and substantial contributions are necessary for a better corresponding understanding of their ideological and philosophical presumptions. 
In this essay, we will examine the tension between faith and reason in the writings of Qutb. We will begin by providing the general conceptual framework of hakimiyyah upon which Qutb’s ideas on the status of the human intellect is built. We will then ponder his attitude towards the human intellect and the aims of science in accordance to Islamic conception of being. Finally we will explore his understanding of religious knowledge as a dynamic experiential revelatory process interwoven with action and struggle.

The concept of hakimiyyah

The writings of Sayyid Qutb revolve around the concept of hakimiyyah, of which his widely known idea of jahiliyyah represents the antithesis. Undoubtedly, every discussion on socio-political theory and ontology will eventually revert to the question of what is considered to be the chief source of knowledge or (political, economic, scientific and philosophical) justification. Qutb’s position on the relationship between rationality (al-‘aql) and revelation should be examined within the conceptual framework of hakimiyyah. Examining the idea of hakimiyyah, upon which the concept of jahiliyyah was built, will help us to understand the status of the human intellect in the thought of Qutb.
The term hakimiyyah indicates that the ultimate sovereignty and regulation over the universe and all kinds of political and legal authority belong to Allah, that the entire universe came into being and its existence is maintained by the absolute will of God. There is an integral unity (al-wahdah al-kubra) and harmonious interdependence and interconnectedness of all parts of the universe. Hakimiyyah is closely connected to the theocentric ontological concept of tawhîd, which includes the principle of tanzîh, namely the negative part of the sentence of tawhîd. This negative part (nafy, Lâ ilâha) rejects all kinds of other sources of transcendence and sovereignty, whereas the positive (ithbât, illa Allah) part excludes the sovereignty of God from this rejection. Any kind of deification of created beings, formation or existence of mediating entities between God and Man thus destroys the ontological hierarchy between Allah and Man and is therefore considered to be idolatry or the attribution of ‘partners’ besides God (shirk). 
Qutb rigorously contrasts the concept of hakimiyyah to that of jahiliyyah. For him,  unlike the traditional understanding, jahiliyyah is not restricted to the pre-islamic society of the Arabian peninsula, but rather a set of socio-political circumstances and conditions resulting in an essentially unislamic social order, in which the sovereignty of Allah is usurped by men or worldly powers and institutions and which is the main cause for human pain and societal corruption and misery . The whole world is stuck in jahiliyyah, since all societies submit to an authority other than God’s and attribute the absolute power to legislate laws and articulate moral codes of conducts to human assemblies. The Jahili system is utterly antithetical to the Islamic conception and contrary to the human fitrah. Thus, establishing the divine islamic order based on obedience to hakimiyyah  and eliminating this prevailing jahiliyyah should be the essential and main goal for Muslims living under such a jahili system, since the absolute will of Allah in the universe should be manifested in social norms and political legislation. This would create a harmony between the different spheres of divine Sovereignty at the micro-, meso- and macro-level. The divine islamic order is in total harmony with the natural order and contains no exploitation of man by man. The struggle (jihad) for such a system is another act of worship according to Qutb. 
There are questions remaining unanswered within Qutb’s conceptualisation. Qutb argues that the Shari’ah (the Islamic constitution according to Qutb) was revealed after the paradigm shift in the Meccan period and the creed of hakimiyyah penetrated the conscience of the first generation of Muslims. As a legal implication, he concludes that the power of the islamic government is constitutional and limited to its function of administration and executing this given divine authorised constitution of Shari’ah. However, the confession of the concept of hakimiyyah and  the shari’ah as the compact, competent, authentic and authorised law requires an external epistemic source that supports and sustains the reasonableness of the revelation’s claim to be arising from a divine source. Qutb seems to be ambivalent concerning the question, what the role reason and the human intellect plays in obtaining this essential ontology. Furthermore, the limitedness of the divine sources, the nass, and the emergence of new problems to be solved in accordance to that divine revelation require at least an intellectual reasoning that engages critically with this sources and implements its essence to new circumstances.

Revelation and the Human intellect (al-‘Aql) and Science

For Qutb, the human intellect (al-‘aql) cannot replace revelation (al-wahy) in establishing the foundations of a consistent socio-political system for human beings due to its limitedness. The revelation is the primary and superior source of knowledge and the supreme yardstick for right action and belief and has the predominant legitimacy in guiding human affairs. For him, it is another kind of blind jahiliyyah, to try to measure God’s Will (mash’ah) and determinism (qadar) in the universe based on the narrow-mindedness of the human intellect or to attempt to understand the relationship between God, the creation, the universe, man and the purpose of his existence merely through philosophical reasoning. Contrary to the general Mu’tazilite position or Avicenna’s concept of reality and reasoning, he muqawwamat al-tasawwur al Islami, the fundamental components of the Islamic conception, which is a term Qutb used to refer to the epistemological foundations and principles of the Islamic creed, cannot be obtained by theology, philosophy or the use of the human mind. While confirming reason as an act of God in this world, he is against the ‘deification of reason’ and argues, that reason needs to acknowledge its limitedness and admit what is beyond its grasp.
Qutb was totally opposed to the idea of positivism, which elevated intellect and science without taking their limitations into consideration and sought for materialistic and psycho-social explanations for natural events, human behaviour, societal conflicts and developments and consequently paved the way for secularisation. Even though he thinks that positivist science underrates the ethical individual responsibility of our actions and deeds, he is not opposed to scientific progress and technological improvements. Science is neutral in itself, Qutb argues, it can be used for both good and evil. As the vicegerent of God on earth, human beings need to treat nature justly and responsibly, recognising the absolute sovereignty (hakimiyyah) of God, and create harmony between God, nature and themselves. He criticises Western materialistic science for commodifying nature, reducing it to a mere object of utility for scientific research and technological progress, depriving it of its cosmic and ontological meaning as the Book of Creation and highlighting material development and worldly power, disregarding spirituality and morality. Without rejecting science per se, Qutb is opposed to its use for evil, and philosophical theories such as Rationalism, Positivism, Idealism and dialectic materialism that attempt to explain our existence, ethical values, principles of law and political theories through the authorisation and legitimation of reason alone and its recognition as the superior tool to truth.

Qutb’s Theory of Religious Knowledge

For Qutb, in order to rebuild and revive principles and foundations for an Islamic epistemology, Modern muslims need to rethink and refashion their approach towards the Quran as a foundational text. Thus, he argues:
“The real problem in grasping the significance and the spirit of the Qur'anic teachings does not lie in understanding its words and sentences, that is to say, its exegesis, as is often claimed. This does not constitute a problem at all. The problem lies in the capacity of our minds to reconstruct feelings, ideas, and experiences like the feelings, ideas, and experiences of the first generation of Muslims when they received these revelations from the lips of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the thick of the struggle. Theirs was a struggle of jihad, of striving within oneself and striving with other people.”
True quranic knowledge for Qutb is therefore a constant self-renewing revelatory process based on action and struggle. Knowledge and action are defined as two inseparable interconnected dynamic entities. Only experiencing similar struggles with those of the first Muslims and thus sharing the same atmosphere of experience would make it possible to truly comprehend the meanings and messages of the Qur’an. He draws attention to the connection of the first generation of Muslims to the Quran. Theirs was not a relationship aimed to gain more academic knowledge or acquire culture and information, Qutb continues, but they constantly translated the revelation into action. Simply gaining cultural or philosophical knowledge, that lacks this ‘experiential meaning of knowledge’ interwoven with dynamism and action, is characterised by Qutb as ‘cold knowledge’. He disregards seeking the truths of the Qur’an for the sake of gaining knowledge, but invites his readers to get away from ‘intellectual rubbish’, but to bring the contents of the Islamic concept into realisation. Knowledge and intellectual endeavour is therefore not rejected or underrated by Qutb, but it is constricted to its positive function and pragmatic significance of creating a new reality and guiding people from the condition of the ‘darkness of jahiliyyah’ to the ‘light of hakimiyyah’. He limits the function of reason to a single mission: spreading the message of the divine revelation and understanding the message through effort, action and struggle. 
Greek and Roman Philosophy is incompatible with the Islamic conception and the method of understanding the Qur’an, Qutb says. Thus, the translations of Greek philosophy into the Arabic language during the Abbasid period ‘introduced deviations and foreign elements into the original Islamic concept, which had come originally to rescue mankind from such deviations and speculations’, polluting the purity in the minds, hearts and souls of the early Muslim generations. The attempt to raise Islamic thought to maturity and perfection with the acquisition of the cold logical terms of rational philosophy narrowed the Islamic concept and rendered it ‘superficial, dry, complicated, and incomprehensible.’


We have firstly explored Qutb’s concept of hakimiyyah and its antithetical idea of jahiliyyah. We have seen that Qutb’s understanding of the hakimiyyah, which is deeply embedded in the Islamic theocentric belief of tawhid, is a given conceptual framework. The question however, what role reason and the human intellect play in obtaining this essential ontology, remains unsolved. Furthermore, the limitedness of the divine sources, the nass, and the emergence of new problems to be solved in accordance to that divine revelation require at least an intellectual reasoning that engages critically with these sources and implements its essence to new circumstances. Qutb does not really touch upon this problem.
We can sum up as a conclusion that Qutb neither rejects nor underrates knowledge and intellectual endeavour, but constricts it to its positive function and pragmatic significance of creating a new reality and guiding people from the condition of the ‘darkness of jahiliyyah’ to the ‘light of hakimiyyah’. He limits the function of reason to a single mission: spreading the message of the divine revelation and understanding the message through effort, action and struggle. 


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  1. As says,“Strange are the matters of believers.For him there is good in all his affairs, and this is so only for the believer.When something pleasing happens to him,he is grateful (shukr), and that is good for him; and when something displeasing happens to him he is enduring patience (sabr) and that is good for him.”