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Jewish World Review August 13, 2002 / 5 Elul 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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LETTER FROM CAIRO: Meet the Egyptian writer who provided foundation for radical form of Islam

The writer, who lost his nephew on Sept. 11, is traveling to three Arab countries in an effort to make sense of the tragedy and to find answers to unanswered questions. Below is his third dispatch. | CAIRO, Egypt Over the centuries, Islamic scholars, like theologians of other religions, have studied and written about G-d, holy writ and the way in which the faith and its traditions call followers to live.

Indeed, the history of Islamic thinkers and writers is rich, varied and continuing. Focusing on just one would be like picking out one Christian or Jewish theologian to represent a whole panoply. Still, it's native Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (pronounced kuh-TAHB), born in 1906 and executed as a political prisoner here in 1966 by the Nasser regime, who probably deserves to be called the primary thinker behind the radical version of Islam to which Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other fanatics have pledged allegiance.

Qutb - sometimes with 20th century Muslim theorist Abul Ala Mawdudi - often is seen as the one who most inspires bin Laden and his violent ilk.

Qutb's own journey into extremist Islam (which religious scholars sometimes call Islamic revivalism) included a two-year stop in the United States that started in 1948. As an inspector of schools in Egypt, he came to study education in America. But while there, he saw what he believed was cultural decadence, racism and liberty run amok - however quaint and innocent the late 1940s seems to Americans now. Even American churches, he concluded, were just sexual playgrounds.

He noted that Americans seemed to go to church more than any other people, but he wrote that "there is no one as removed from feeling the spirituality, respect and sacredness of religion than the Americans."

When he returned to Egypt, he was determined to live according to strict Islamic law and to oppose what he had seen in the West. In effect, he envisioned an Islamic utopia in which church and state never would be separated. As the capitalism-communism debate of the 20th century raged, Qutb argued that Islam offered a third, competing and better world view. Qutb's form of Islamic revivalism came after similar efforts the previous century led by Jamal Eddin al-Afghani and his disciple Mohammed Abdu.

Qutb joined a radical movement called the Muslim Brotherhood (now outlawed here in Egypt but still influential; indeed, the group nowadays is considered almost moderate) and fought for the rest of his life against "jahiliyyah." It's a term from the Qur'an meaning "period of ignorance" and refers to pre-Islamic conditions in Arabia. It has come to include disdain for Western ideals and their influence on Islamic culture.

"The jahiliyyah order," he wrote, "has to be exterminated root and branch." His book Milestones describes how Muslims can do that and establish a society based on Islamic law.

That law is called Sharia, though Sharia extends beyond just Qur'anic law and includes all of religious, political, social, economic and private life. It's based not just on the Qur'an but also on the Prophet Muhammad's life and teachings and on the thinking of Islamic scholars.

Qutb's enemy was not just Western culture and values. He also battled - even more fiercely - Muslims whom he blamed for not living by the Sharia. In that way, he set a pattern for bin Laden, who has attacked the West as degenerate but also has flailed the royal family that rules his native Saudi Arabia, site of Islam's holiest shrines. (Members of the royal family have been close friends of many bin Laden relatives.)

Qutb was a prolific writer. His major work was a 30-volume commentary on the Qur'an, in which he emphasized the unrelenting requirements that Islam places on believers. He continues to be revered for that scholarship. To Qutb, Islam was an all-sufficient system for every aspect of life. In the end, he had no use for Christians, Jews or anyone shaped by Western values.

His influence didn't end with death. As his writings spread through the Islamic world, they became especially popular in Afghanistan in the 1960s and '70s. Bin Laden's own writing reflects his debt to Qutb as well as to 20th century militant Abd al-Salam Faraj.

In turn, Faraj drew heavily on Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah, who lived from 1262 to 1328 and who sought to justify militancy. Taymiyyah said it was permissible to fight against Muslim rulers who don't live by the Sharia. Sometimes the radical bin Laden version of Islam is called Salafism. The term refers to the pious early generations of Muslims.

Not everyone interprets Qutb the same way, but his works have provided an intellectual foundation for violent radicals. Early in his career, Qutb did not advocate violence, arguing instead that establishing an Islamic order must be willed by the people. But eventually he moved toward violence as a necessity. In the end, he believed jahiliyyah had to be destroyed by any means necessary.

Many Islamic scholars have opposed Qutb's views, but his work still is read and his continuing influence among today's extremists is unquestioned.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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12/19/01: Lost in the cloning debate
12/10/01: It's all in the name: Unraveling the mystery of Osama's whereabouts
11/19/01: Flying with damaged trust
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07/27/01: We are more than the sum of our work days
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05/30/01: When are wars worth dying in?
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05/07/01: Killing McVeigh will wound us all
05/01/01: Dubya reinforcing negative GOP stereotypes?


Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved