Syed Qutb – John Locke of the Islamic World

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

July 28, 2003

Anyone who takes time to read the works of Qutb, would make a perplexing discovery. His formative writings are not too far from those that adorn Christian thinking during the period of the Enlightenment.

Underpinning of reform: Ijtihad

That is how I came to see him as the John Locke of the Muslim World, who advocated freedom—and supported rebellion against tyrannical rulers.

This thesis must come as a complete surprise to those in the West who have heard of Qutb. For example, in this New York Times Magazine feature in March 2003, Paul Berman argued that Qutb’s philosophy—and his rigorous understanding of Islam—was underpinning the ideological basis of al Qaeda and its affiliates.

As a liberal Muslim, the quality that most appeals to me is Syed Qutb’s use of ijtihad, an Islamic juristic tool that is employed to articulate Islamic legal positions on a specific issue. It uses independent reasoning when traditional Islamic sources are silent on a subject.

Today, liberal and progressive Muslims argue that ijtihad should be employed as a tool to reform Muslim societies.

Beyond the military

Syed Qutb’s key contribution was that he redefined the Islamic ideal of jihad. The traditional understanding of the Islamic principles of Jihad (= struggle) in its military sense was as a war of defense against non-believers.

Syed Qutb argued that not only was Jihad an offensive war, but that it could also be waged against internal enemies—including the state, if it had lost its legitimacy.

Echoing Locke

His call for jihad against illegitimate rulers was contrary to traditional Islamic legal thought, which preferred to elevate stability and order over justice and legitimacy—and expressed strong disapproval of rebellions and armed opposition to state authority.

In his book “Milestones”, (Indianapolis: ATP, 1993)—which was originally written in the 1960s—he writes:

“If we insist on calling Islamic jihad a defensive movement, then we must change the meaning of the word “defense”—and mean by it “the defense of man” against all those forces that limit his freedom.” (Milestones, p. 50)

His emphasis on freedom and the legitimacy of government remind me of the works of John Locke, the 17th century English thinker whose imprint is manifestly clear on American democracy. On the topics of freedom, government and its legitimacy and on rebellion, both Qutb and Locke have similar ideas.

Both Locke and Qutb imagined freedom in the same absolutist terms. The human individual was, by virtue of his divine creation, subordinate to God—and God alone—and therefore was a free agent.

Freedom—more important than government?

Locke starts the chapter on “Slavery” in his “The Second Treatise of Government,” which was written in 1680s, with the following comment:

“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authoritative of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule.” (p. 15)

For Locke, freedom was a God-given, inalienable attribute that took priority over civil society. Qutb, who argues that Islam meant freedom from human authority, echoed Locke’s ideas about natural rights as God-given and more important than civil society and government.

Hanging onto freedom

For Qutb, Islam was freedom and Islamic society was the civil society, which takes priority to government (Islamic State). He writes:

“This Din (faith) is a universal declaration of the freedom of man from slavery to other men and his desires, which is also a form of human servitude.” (Milestones, p. 47)

“Its purpose is to free those people who wish to be freed from enslavement to men so that they may serve Allah alone.” (Milestones)

It should not be surprising that, after suffering incarceration and harassment by the state (in this case, the Egyptian government), Qutb came to value freedom as necessary even for the practice of faith. He was living in an authoritarian state that imprisoned him—and then eventually hanged him for his ideas.

Authority by contract

Both Locke and Qutb were deeply concerned about the legitimacy of government. They recognized that governments will necessarily compromise the absolute freedom that individuals enjoy in the state of nature — and both therefore focused on the issue of legitimacy.

For Locke, continued consent was the key to legitimacy. Government that did not rule by consent lost its authority to govern.

Locke saw government as a product of a social contract that would identify the objectives and limits of governmental authority. If governments, whatever their form, transgressed their limits or failed to fulfill the designated objectives, then they became illegitimate and could be dissolved.

Legitimacy by way of ethics

Qutb divided societies into two kinds: Islamic—and ignorant. Ignorant societies were bereft of Islamic principles, values and the Islamic way—and hence illegitimate.

Islamic rhetoric aside, Qutb was essentially seeking a connection between social norms and political norms. He identified this connection between social and political ethics as the key to Islamic legitimacy.

Thus, in a rather laborious manner, he did assert that rulers must govern by the values of those governed in order to be legitimate rulers. When governments, which are formed to reflect and defend the values of society failed to do so, then they lost legitimacy—and could be dissolved or replaced.

Revolutionary rationale

John Locke, for his part, developed a careful case to identify the origins of government and its legitimacy. In the process, he developed the rationale for revolution.

Governments must rule by consent and work only to realize their mandate. When they exceeded their limits, they became tyrannical and must be dissolved. If they resorted to force, then they must be dealt with with force.

Lockean terms for dissolution

John Locke’s justification for the use of force to dissolve illegitimate governments was simple and straightforward. Systematic, not occasional, violation of the social contract merited dissolution. And if dissolution was not possible peacefully, it must be done by force.

This is how he put it in his book “The Second Treatise of Government” (p.124):

“Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people who are thereupon absolved from further obedience and are left to the common refuge which God has provided for all men against force and violence.”

Activism against political powers

Unlike John Locke, who saw the role of government essentially as the defender of property and freedom, Qutb argued that the role of the state was to free individuals to pursue their moral values. He lived in the age of socialist authoritarianism—and he desperately sought the freedom to practice his faith.

Syed Qutb believed that tyranny could only be undermined through activism and the use of force. He therefore argued that:

“When they have no such freedom, then it becomes incumbent upon Muslims to launch a struggle through individual preaching as well as by initiating an activist movement to restore their freedom, and to strike hard at all those political powers, that force people to bow to their will and authority, defying the commandments of God, and denying people the freedom to listen to the message of Islam, and to accept it even when they wish to do so.” (Milestones, p. 49)

When liberalism turns to totalitarianism

Surely, what I present here is a liberal reading of Qutb—but it is also a liberal reading of Locke. There are moments when Qutb showed sparks of intolerance and even totalitarian proclivities, but then so did Plato.

Unlike Locke, who only focused on his own society, Qutb also included a polemic against the West.

I am sure if Locke had seen his own society colonized and ravaged by the West—as was the Muslim world by European colonialism—he too would have used some tough words for the colonizers.

Locke, more than anything else, believed in the absolute right of private property. He certainly would not have had any kind words for those who robbed other civilizations of their freedom and their resources, through use of force.

Diverging uses of Qutb

While advancing the notion that there can be an alternate reading of Qutb by Muslim ideologues, I am also suggesting that discourses are what we make of them.

Ideas have impact on reality, but reality too has an impact on the formation of ideas and on how ideas are interpreted and applied.

Some Muslims read Qutb and are motivated to use violence against their regimes and the West—whom they perceive as tyrannical.

But Muslims should read Qutb’s ideas as advocating freedom and responsible governance—perhaps the most important traits missing from many Islamic societies today.

Internal diversity

The different readings of Syed Qutb underscore the diversity within Islam and Muslims. Profiles of Islam and Muslims cannot be painted with broad brushes. Muslim realities, like Muslim thought, are complex, diverse and challenging.

As policymakers in Washington rethink the Muslim World, they must remember that ethno-centric interpretations and sweeping judgements will only enhance misunderstanding and lead to bad policy. Bad things happen because of bad policy.

A sympathetic reading of Qutb reveals him as a philosopher of freedom and justice—and not a philosopher of terror. Similarly, a sympathetic view of the Muslim World will reveal a thirst of freedom and justice and not a penchant for violence or hate.

The Enlightenment—a global movement?

The most important lession that can be drawn from this comparison between Locke and Qutb is the fundamental convergence in basic Islamic principles and enlightenment values.

The West while undergoing socio-political and culture reform under the influence of enlightenment thinking may have moved away from Christianity and religiosity.

But curiously it also moved closer to Islam. The most compelling irony of the tensions between Islam and the West is not how different the two are, but indeed how similar the two civilizations really are.