Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book Comparison

Religious Terrorism:
A comparison of Sayyid Qutb and Mark Juergensmeyer’s political and religious views
Ty Ludwig

Recently, religious extremism has captured the world’s attention to the point that terrorism has become a worldwide phenomenon. Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, writes extensively about different religions and the recent rise of religious violence in the world today. He believes that the best solution to this recent increase in terrorism can be solved by “...secular authorities embracing moral values, including those associated with religion.”[1]Contrast this with one of the most influential Islamic writers of recent history, Sayyid Qutb. He is best known for his writings on social and political Islamist ideology. One of his most popular publications was entitled Milestones and was first published in 1964 as guide to keep Islam from extinction. Qutb outlines several steps in which Islam needs to follow in order to take the lead in a world where Western dominance is fading and, as Qutb exclaims, “It is essential for mankind to have new leadership!”[2] Qutb writes on three major aspects within Islam; while Juergensmeyer compares and contrasts terrorist acts and looks to find a common thread to these in order to learn more about terrorism. I believe that, especially in North America; Islam is portrayed as being the sole religion advocating terror. More specifically; I believe that there is a public perception that Muslims are the sole contributors to religious terrorism. Qutb’s ideas are often viewed as unique to militant Islam, however; Juergensmeyer proves that this is not the case. Further; Juergensmeyer provides concrete evidence to contradict Qutb’s sensationalist writings and proves that terrorism is mostly a symbolic gesture of a power struggle between religion and politics.

One major aspect of Qutb’s argument deals with the term “Jahiliyyah” or “jahili” which he uses to describe those who are ignorant of Islamic divine guidance.[3] Qutb has a very broad description for those he calls the “Jahiliyyah,” including those Muslims who claim to be pious but, in actuality, are not practicing their faith. He believes that a Muslim community can be defined as “...that which is a practical interpretation of the declaration of faith and all its characteristics; and the society which does not translate into practice this faith and its characteristics is not Muslim.”[4] Qutb uses the Qur’an extensively to build upon his definition of a Muslim community and eventually such a community could be summed up as based on the Qur’anic definition of a devout Muslim, where every action in a citizen’s life is “based on submission to God alone.”[5] With such a strict definition of what a Muslim and Muslim community is; Qutb goes on to describe the jahili society as “any society other than the Muslim society...”[6] Qutb claims that these societies do not submit to God and use the “sharia”[7] as legal law. As a result of his strict definition of a Muslim society, Qutb is forced to concede that “all the societies existing in the world today are jahili.”[8] It is necessary to establish a very precise definition of Jahiliyyah as to understand some of Qutb’s major themes within Milestones.

At this point, Qutb begins to establish guidelines for a Muslim community. He believes that the only way for Islam to become a true Muslim community, it must be organized as a nation.[9] This is due to the fact that a true Muslim community must establish the sharia (or, as Qutb uses, Shari'ah) as the legal law. Nations which are not true Muslim would not be able to fulfill this requirement so Qutb argues that a nation must be established. Qutb argues quite extensively about what is not to be considered a Muslim society and often quotes from the Qur’an to show that societies, such as Christian and Jewish, are at odds with Muslim views of God. Within Milestones, there is only one concrete chapter describing how to create this resurrected Islamic community. Curiously, this chapter is omitted in some online versions of the document, however; this chapter can be found in print, labelled as “The Islamic Concept and Culture.”[10] Within this chapter, Qutb explains that:

“...principles of their faith, the implications of the Islamic paradigm, the interpretation of the Qur’an, and hadith, the life history of the Prophet, the philosophy of history, the traditions of their community, the constitution of their government, the form of their politics, and similar branches of knowledge...”[11]

cannot be trusted to be taught but in a Muslim community. Qutb is constantly reminding the reader that God, as described in the Qur’an, is the entire basis for the Muslim community and Muslim’s should look no further than Allah to teach such subjects as faith, morals, economics, politics, values/standards, and the concept of life.[12] If these few guidelines are not adhered, the entire Muslim society will cease to exist as it will have been corrupted by jahili principles. Qutb argues that it will be very hard to keep jahili ideology from invading this true Muslim community and measures should be taken to establish and protect this society.

Now that Qutb has established exactly what it is to be Muslim and what it is to be Jahiliyyah, he begins to describe the approaches which should be taken to create a Muslim community and maintain it. The method he urges Muslims to use is called “jihad,” which is described as a two pronged approach: “preaching” and what Qutb describes as “the movement.”[13] Preaching, to Qutb, is simply not enough on its own. In order to bring the freedom to choose Islam as a religion, the Jahili system must be abolished as it “...prevents people from reforming their ideas and beliefs but forces them to obey their erroneous ways and make them serve human lords instead of the Almighty Lord.”[14] Qutb claims that in order for any individual to be able to accept Islam as their religion, they must first be free to choose to convert and under Jahili ideology, it is impossible to do such. Therefore, Qutb concludes, “...it is the duty of Islam to fight him until either he is killed or until he declares his submission.” [15] Qutb takes great offence to those Muslims who read the Qur’an and see jihad as a “defensive approach” to dealing with attacks on Islam, and argues that this definition would only fit if defence were to mean “...the defence of man against all those elements which limit freedom.”[16] Qutb concludes that, because Islam is not simply a belief but rather a way of life; Muslims must ensure that they rise up to defend it. Islam is the religion of God, and because of this, it has the right to remove all obstacles that are in the way of freedom of choice.[17] Qutb claims that Islam does not attack individuals, but instead, “institutions and traditions.” This is to ensure that humans are released from “poisonous influences,” which distort the reality of true Islam.[18] Qutb’s ideas on jihad have inspired many Islamic terrorist factions as his interpretations clearly show not only the right to use force, but the obligation. This sort of ideology has lead to thousands of deaths and Qutb effectively declares war on all societies which do not accept sharia law as legal law, which is most of the countries in existence today.

These three elements are the dominant themes contained in Milestones and begin to develop how Muslims should go about developing a true Islamic community. Some may think that these viewpoints are solely that of militant Islam and Muslims’ are the only religion with radical theologians proclaiming death on seemingly innocent people. [19] However, I would contend that this is simply not the case. Mark Juergensmeyer makes a compelling case against this argument in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. He would argue that terrorism and the ideologies contained in Qutb’s works are not unique to Islam and would further prove that these ideologies are not beneficial and do not work. Juergensmeyer shows that religious terrorism is spread across a great number of different religions and goes into great detail in the first six chapters of Terror in the Mind of God.

Juergensmeyer begins with Christian examples of terrorism and reminds readers that Christianity “has always had a violent side...”[20][21] More specifically; he discusses the bombings on abortion clinics in the United States by Reverend Michael Bray and his associates. Bray is a leader in the Defensive Action Movement, from which he “justifies the use of violence in anti-abortion activities...”[22] He has served a prison sentence from 1985-1989 for the destruction of seven abortion clinics in the Eastern United States and some of his known associates and friends have been convicted of the murder/attempted murder of abortion doctors. Bray claims that “Americans live in a situation comparable to Nazi Germany, a state of hidden warfare...”[23] and that it is his “right to defend innocent unborn children, even by use of force, whether it involves destroying the facilities that they are regularly killed in or taking the life of one who is murdering them.”[24] Bray views this ideology as defensive, his movements attempts to protect the unborn no matter the means in which it takes to be accomplished. These views are strikingly similar to Qutb’s ideas, especially that of “defence” and what actions are deemed permissive in achieving it.

Bray searches Christian theology for support, and claims to have found it in John Calvin’s ideas regarding “the necessity for presupposing the authority in all worldly matters.”[25] Bray and his followers believe in reconstruction[26] and reference the author Gary North for his ideology that “it is the moral obligation of Christians to recapture every institution for Jesus Christ.” As well; Bray and followers see Christians “as the newly chosen people of God, destined to dominate the world.”[27] Again, these ideas are strikingly familiar to Qutb’s writings and ideas found earlier in this paper. These examples are not limited to Protestantism, either, as Juergensmeyer describes with regards to the IRA and Sinn Fein later on in the chapter.

Finishing up with Christianity; Juergensmeyer moves onto Judaism and examples of Jewish activists. Like extremist Christianity and Islam, Judaism often turns to theological history for justification.[28] One of the major points for Jewish extremist contention focuses around the Dome of the Rock which is also reportedly the site of the ancient Jewish temple.[29] Juergensmeyer describes an event in which Yigal Amir assassinated the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. According to militant rabbis during this period of time, “...such an assassination would be justified by the ‘pursuer’s decree’ of Jewish legal precedence.”[30] There are other justifications made for the assassination, however; the fact remains that according to Jews who believe in Messianic Zionism, killing one of your own religion because they are perceived as not pious or in direct conflict with God is justified. These ideas are not far off of Qutb’s when elaborating on who is considered a ‘true Muslim’ and who is considered ‘Jahiliyyah’. Juergensmeyer also describes another form of Jewish extremism, known as “catastrophic messianism,” to which it is believed that “Anything which humiliated the Jews was not only an embarrassment but retrograde motion in the world’s progress toward salvation.”[31] A man named Meir Kahane, who started the extremist group known as “the Jewish Defence League,” believes in the establishment of a religious Israeli state,[32] explanatory violence against a government which allows Jews to be killed[33], and justification of using force to accomplish “...religious goals.”[34] Comparisons can again be drawn to Sayyid Qutb, whose writings justifying similar points.

In addition to these examples of religious extremist violence; Juergensmeyer discusses Sikh, Islamic, and even Buddhist terrorism. He goes into great detail describing their individual religious views and justifications for violence but the trend remains the same. It soon becomes obvious that the description of violence and extremism that Qutb portrays in Milestones is not unique to Islam. Parallels can be drawn between Qutb and other extremist authors. One of the main themes which Juergensmeyer latches onto has to do with the fact that all of these examples of extremism see their cause as at war with the rest of the world. [35] Juergensmeyer shows that, historically speaking, these religious wars, viewed as ‘cosmic wars,’ are only won by the complete destruction of one of the factions.[36] So; Qutb’s ideas concerning Islam being at war against the Jahiliyyah must therefore conclude that, in the end, true Muslims will destroy all the jahili. However, this is not the case. While Qutb agrees that war must come to free man from the bonds of slavery to each other; he argues that once the bond of slavery is broken, men will be free to choose or reject Islam while living under sharia law.[37] This conflicts with Juergensmeyer’s ideology, as there would have to be a complete destruction of the jahili in order to have peace. The only people who would still have the choice as to accept or reject Islam would be those who are not ‘true Muslims,’ however; according to Juergensmeyer, they would have been destroyed in the cosmic war. This shows an inconsistency in Qutb’s writings, as Juergensmeyer relies on solid history to back his viewpoint up.

Yet another area in which Qutb’s ideology falls short has to do with the construction of the ‘true Muslim community’. Juergensmeyer points to Afghanistan as proof that, even when militant Islamic leaders take control, an Islamic state is impossible to set up. The Taliban, a radical Islamic group in Afghanistan, took control of government 1998. They returned the country a most conservative Islamic state, to the point where even women were not allowed to work. However; they “...never won the hearts of most Afghanis, including the traditional Muslim clergy.”[38] This is in direct conflict with Qutb’s ideology, which states that:

“When the number of Believers reaches three, then this faith tells them; ‘Now you are a community, a distinct Islamic community, distinct from that jahili society which does not live according to this belief or accept its basic premise.’ Now the Islamic society has come into existence (actually). These three individuals increase to ten, the ten to a hundred, the hundred to a thousand, and the thousand increase to twelve thousand-and the Islamic society grows and becomes established.”[39]

Afghanistan is a Muslim community and during the reign of the Taliban, according to Qutb’s theories, and Islamic state should have been set up. To further this point; when the United States military attacked Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban, “it was clear that very few Afghani’s had risen to defend the Taliban regime. Even members of the Taliban’s own ethnic community, the Pushtoons, celebrated as if the country had been liberated from an evil oppressive rule.”[40] This, along with a few further examples Juergensmeyer provides proves that Qutb’s ideas of a ‘true Muslim society’ to be unattainable and crumbles Qutb’s further arguments.

Throughout the reading of Milestones, Qutb holds to the fact that once radical change is swept through and ‘true Muslims’ take control and steer the community away from the jahili, a true nation of Islam will begin to take root. Qutb claims that Muslims must rise up against the jahili governments and institutions so as to destroy their oppressive ways and create a freedom for all men, under sharia law. Juergensmeyer collapses these arguments by proving that a case where ‘true Muslims’ took power in Afghanistan and the Muslim population did exactly the opposite that Qutb expected. As well; Juergensmeyer argued that the war in which Qutb was rallying Muslims to fight could only be won by the complete destruction of the jahili. Juergensmeyer goes on to prove that they most efficient method for reconciling and quelling terrorism is for governments to take on aspects of religion, such as moral values. He describes several case studies in which terrorist activity has been quelled as a direct result of “...governments taking the high road, and upholding moral and civic values in responding to terrorism.”[41] This solution is in direct conflict with Qutb’s ideology but Juergensmeyer’s points have case studies[42] to back their credibility, whereas Qutb’s theory of complete sharia law has never come into existence. Juergensmeyer proves that terrorism is not limited to Islamic extremists while at the same time he takes apart Qutb’s arguments for a ‘true Muslim society.’


Ganor, Dr. Boaz. "The Islamic Jihad" The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (1995)

Articles [database on-line], accessed November 1, 2007.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California, 2003.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. (http://majalla.org/books/2005/qutb-nilestone.pdf)

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. American Trust Publications, Revised edition, 1991.

[1] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California, 2003), 19.

[2] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, 1964, p. 2.

[3] Qutb, Milestones, 4.

[4] Ibid, 71.

[5] Ibid., 73.

[6] Ibid., 74.

[7] Encarta dictionary, North America Ed., s.v “sharia.”

[8] Qutb, Milestones, 75.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, (American Trust Publications; Revised edition, 1991), 91-99.

[11] Ibid., 95-96.

[12] Ibid., 92

[13] Qutb, Milestones, 53.

[14] Ibid., 49

[15] Ibid., 51

[16] Ibid., 55.

[17] Ibid., 67.

[18] Ibid., 68.

[19] Dr. Boaz Ganor, "The Islamic Jihad – The Imperative of Holy War," The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, (1995), in Articles [database on-line], accessed November 1, 2007.

[20] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 19.

[21] See Chronicles I or II, or Samuel I or II, or Judges I or II for more information.

[22] Ibid., 21.

[23] Ibid., 23.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 28.

[26] See Gary North and Gary Demar, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn't (Institute for Christian Economics 1991), for more information on Christian Reconstruction

[27] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 28.

[28] Ibid., 46.

[29] Ibid., 47.

[30] Ibid., 49.

[31] Ibid., 55.

[32] Ibid., 56.

[33] Ibid., 58.

[34] Ibid., 57.

[35] Ibid., 150.

[36] Ibid., 220.

[37] Qutb, Milestones, 54

[38] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 224.

[39] Qutb, Milestones, 98-99

[40] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 224

[41] Ibid., 244

[42] Ibid.