Sayyid Qutb and Aquinas: Liberalism, Natural Law and the Philosophy of Jihad

Heythrop Journal 60:413-435 (2019)
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In this paper I focus on the work of Sayyid Qutb and in particular his book Milestones, which is often regarded as the Communist Manifesto of Islamic fundamentalism. This paper has four main sections. First I outline Qutb’s political position and in particular examine his advocacy of offensive jihad. In section two I argue that there are a number of tendencies that make his position potentially more liberal that it is often taken to be. I here argue that there are at least six reasons why Qutb’s position is not intrinsically as anti-liberal as it might at first appear. First, many western liberals, influenced by the social contract tradition, regard the legitimacy of their societies as based on popular sovereignty. Qutb, however, regards a society based on popular sovereignty, where law emerges from the will of man rather than the will of God, as a form of tyranny, so it would seem that he is in principle opposed to Western liberal societies. It is not clear, however, that we, or Islamic fundamentalist, need to regard Western liberal societies as based on popular sovereignty, for it is always possible to interpret Western political institutions through the lens of natural law theory, which was one of the main sources of the liberal tradition. In this section I will compare Qutb’s political philosophy with that of Aquinas to illustrate this point and suggest the possibility of secularists and puritan Islamists being able to form an overlapping consensus on the legitimacy of liberal Western societies. Secondly, there is an analogue to the social contract in Qutb’s own position as he believes that legitimate authority requires the free submission of the governed. Thirdly, Qutb is in principle a fallibilist about human reason; this fallibilism extends even to our capacity to interpret divine revelation. Fourthly, Islamic universalism requires that Muslims regard enemies they might be fighting as potential converts. Fifthly, Qutb, like most Sunni fundamentalists, is an implacable enemy of theocracy. And finally, Qutb is a gradualist. In the third section I argue that the real danger for liberal societies from believers in a position like Qutb’s is sociological rather than intrinsic to the ideology – specifically, that there is a danger that such groups may develop in a ‘Leninist’ direction. In the final section I argue that one of the main reasons for this danger is the lack of a consensus in the Islamic world about what it is to be a good, or even a true, Muslim, and that the slow emergence of some sort of consensus will require a vigorous public debate amongst Muslims. Western liberals should welcome such debate rather than fearing such, and should do all they can to ensure that civil society, both in Western societies and in predominantly Islamic societies, is open to such debate.
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