By Yusuf Masud
In the Midst of an Epistemological Crisis
The Muslim world is in crisis[i] – at least that has been the contention of an array of Muslim scholars, thinkers, and individuals for the past few centuries up until the present day. The nature of the crisis, however, is subject to dispute. Some would perhaps argue that it is an existential crisis, like the author that is the subject of the following discussion. I argue that in addition to a conceivable existential crisis, there is a greater epistemological crisis.
In order to decipher this epistemological crisis (or more appropriately crises, as there are a host of contending theories), it would be sensible to elaborate more clearly on what is meant by epistemological crisis in the present discussion. A thorough and profound treatment can be found in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. An epistemological crisis, according to him, is “the crisis of the self as a crisis in the tradition which has formed the self.”[ii] To be in epistemological crisis is to be in a state where one’s surrounding circumstances and situations are rendered unintelligible and incoherent because the narrative fabric, which allowed for coherence in the first place and provided a unifying thread, has been subverted, leaving nothing adequate in its place.[iii]
In the midst of such a crisis, the character of questions that are asked, and the questions that need answers to constitute a resolution, are akin to “what is going on here?” or “how ought the narrative of these events be constructed?”[iv] MacIntyre argues that the resolution of an epistemological crisis is rooted in the construction of a new narrative — one that is able to both address the crisis, and take into account the obsolete set of beliefs that ordered the previous faulty narrative that allowed for such a crisis.[v] This new narrative does so by explaining how one could have been deceived in the first place by the former narrative.[vi] A living tradition responds to such an epistemological crisis through the rigorous defense, argumentation, and reconstruction of the narrative upon which it is based. In short, according to MacIntyre, “Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.”[vii] These continuities of conflict are the grounds of constant reconstruction. A successful narrative theory that properly addresses the crisis is one that introduces new standards for evaluating past events, and makes it possible to understand those preceding circumstances in newly intelligible ways.[viii]
When the argumentative retelling of tradition does not occur, it is subject to lapse into incoherence. In MacIntyre’s words, “One of the signs that a tradition is in crisis is that its accustomed ways for relating seems and is begins to break down.”[ix] In the case that a tradition is no longer living, and becomes unintelligible entirely, “revolutionary reconstitution” is the only way it can be recovered.[x] The past few centuries saw a series of thinkers across the intellectual spectrum address what they deemed to be the epistemological crisis faced by the Muslim world. Many of them held firmly onto the conviction that the tradition was still alive (although perhaps not well), and the current situation could be made coherent by way of the tradition itself, despite its need of revitalization. Others held the impression that the tradition in its contemporary form was outmoded, and may even have been so for centuries, rendering the current situation incomprehensible. In the wake of an obsolete application of tradition, some Muslims offered a bold alternative framework and narrative that departed from its former self. This was conceivably an attempt at a revolutionary reconstitution of the sort to which MacIntyre alludes.
At the conclusion of Islam: The View from The Edge, Richard Bulliet speaks about an assumption that existed by the middle of the 20th century, that the social role of Islam would recede until it became a footnote in history or at best, an aspect of private observance. Given these expectations, the reassertion of Islam in political and social spheres came unpredictably on the global arena.[xi] Bulliet goes on to say that the reemergence could be attributed to the largely unnoticed attachment and growing interest, especially amongst Muslim students in schools and universities, to “the writings of a new and militantly assertive group of Muslim thinkers: Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, Muhammad Baqir Sadr of Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati of Iran, Abu al-Ala’ Mawdudi of Pakistan, and others.”[xii] These thinkers, amongst many others including traditional ʿulamaʾ such as Abu al-Hasan ʿAli Nadwi and Salafi reformers such as Muhammad ʿAbduh, were all engaged in a project of Islamic revival, meant to address the state of the Muslim community, make sense of what went wrong, and suggest a path forward.
Sayyid Qutb was amongst the avant-garde of the cadre of Muslim intellectuals who attempted to address the epistemological crisis. His work operates squarely under the assumption that the state of the Muslim umma is in desperate need of revival. He sought to address how this came to be and suggest ways to actualize an alternative future. Central to this project was his reconceptualization and rearticulation of the long-established term “jāhiliyya.” The following discussion will take Qutb’s conception of jāhiliyya as its point of departure in examining how he grappled with his perception of the larger epistemological crisis facing the Muslim world.
Classical Conceptions of Jāhiliyya
Sayyid Qutb used jāhiliyya in a way that was different from how it was classically formulated. The following discussion will examine how the term was deployed in earlier usage by pre-Islamic Arabs, in the Qurʾan, and by Muslim scholarship. Lexically, the word jāhiliyya is an abstract noun derived from the substantive jahl. It can also be considered a verbal noun because it expresses the meaning of the verb jahala without referring to an object, subject, or time.[xiii] The adjectival form of the word is jāhili, but it is not solely a descriptive term and is used to serve as a negative contrast.[xiv]
Jāhiliyya is a term perhaps best known by its opposite. It is often used in contradistinction to the term ‘ilm, or knowledge. In this context, a proper translation could be a word like ignorance. Whereas it could refer to lack of knowledge entirely, examples of jahalatan were used in some instances of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry to refer to ignoring knowledge, not lack of knowledge.[xv] In this usage, jahl is not used to highlight ignorance or lack of knowledge, but rather an attempt to neglect knowledge. Both meanings can be inferred if the term is employed as the antithesis of ‘ilm.
Another meaning of jāhiliyya can be gleaned if it is posed counter to the term hilm. According to Lane’s Lexicon, hilm is “to deliberate, think over, meditate on meekness, patience, forbearance, calm, solidity of moral character, unemotional, gentleness, insight, prudence, firmness, or moral integrity.”[xvi] Interestingly, when hilm appeared in contrast to jahl in pre-Islamic poetry, jahl was not necessarily a negative ascription, rather, it was a neutral or positive description of an aspect of an individual’s personality. If hilm was gentleness or forbearance, jahl was akin to physical strength or firmness. Ignác Goldziher made the point that jahl in this usage was not a virtue, but it was not wholly condemned either because it was appropriate of “a young and impetuous character.”[xvii] The Qurʾan on the other hand reframes hilm as a social value and marker of obedience to God, and jahl as something condemnable.[xviii]
The term jāhiliyya appears in the Qurʾan four times.[xix] Each of these instances appear in the Medinan period, although the Muslims had used the term prior in the Meccan period. According to Sayed Khatab, jāhiliyya is a term that emerged from within the Islamic tradition.[xx] Although the pre-Islamic Arabians used jahl and its derivatives, they never used jāhiliyya itself.[xxi] This is an instance of the Qurʾan transforming pre-Islamic Arabic to express newfound Islamic ideas. Jihad also came to signify a condemnable feature of society, practices, and individuals, which was not necessarily the case before. The Qurʾanic usage in the Medinan period also served as a confirmation of how the Muslims were using it in the Meccan period.[xxii] Evidently, the meaning of jāhiliyya was expanded by its Qurʾanic usage from what it had meant in pre-Islamic poetry.
The understanding of this Qurʾanic conception of jāhiliyya was considered by scholars to be one of two things. In the former, jāhiliyya was a period prior to Islām, which also implies a human condition and state of affairs. Under this context, jāhiliyya has the two meanings of being antithetical to ‘ilm and hilm as discussed previously.[xxiii] The other understanding was that the values and culture of pre-Islamic Arabia were not jāhiliyya because of a lack of knowledge, but jāhiliyya was a characterization of their knowledge itself.[xxiv] Under this framework, the type of knowledge they possessed constituted jāhiliyya. Sayyid Qutb’s conception of jāhiliyya did not fall under either of these two categories.
The Life and Work of Sayyid Qutb
Sayyid Qutb was born in an Egyptian village in 1906, a time when Egypt was still under British occupation. He was exposed to anti-British Egyptian nationalism from an early age following the influence of his father.[xxv] He memorized the Qurʾan at an early age, and went on to study at a teacher's college from which he received a license in Arabic Language and Literature.[xxvi] He went on to serve as an elementary school teacher in the 1930s before serving as an inspector of public schools.[xxvii] During this period he became a noted poet and literary critic determined to join the ranks of Cairo’s intellectual class.[xxviii] Although from the mid-1940s many of his writings were part of the curricula of schools and universities, his writings were banned in 1965 due to his Islamist activities.[xxix]
After 1945, Qutb moved away from writing primarily on literature, and focused his attention on political events and social problems, with an increasing interest in Islam.[xxx] The Ministry of Education sent him to the United States to study the American system of education in 1948, largely because of the shift in his focus over the few years prior and the increased disturbance it was causing. However, those two years cultivated even greater anti-Western sensibilities in Qutb.[xxxi] Upon his return to Egypt, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and quickly became one of the intellectual leaders of the movement and the editor-in-chief of their weekly publication. However, after one member of the Muslim Brotherhood attempted the assassination of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Qutb, along with many others, was imprisoned in 1955, where he withstood torture and spent much of his time in the infirmary.[xxxii]
Qutb remained in prison until 1964; it was during this time period – marked by the massacre of a number of Brotherhood members, along with a great deal of time spent in isolation – that Qutb’s thought grew radical.[xxxiii] He was a prolific writer who, in the span of 40 years, published 130 poems, 500 articles and essays, and nine books.[xxxiv] During his prison experience in particular, he wrote much of his Islamic writing, including his magnum opus Fi Zilal al-Qurʾan, or In The Shade of the Qurʾan, which he began in 1953 and completed in 1964.[xxxv] This commentary (tafsīr) of the Qurʾan contained many passages which served as the springboard for Qutb’s subsequent conceptualizations of jāhiliyya and other related concepts central to his theoretical framework. These ideas would be refined and crystallized in his final book, Ma’alim Fi al-Tariq, or Milestones Along the Road.
Milestones was and continues to be a highly influential work in Islamist circles. Sayyid Qutb started the draft for the piece in 1962, and it was published in 1964, the year that he was released from prison at the behest of the President of Iraq.[xxxvi] The treatise was Qutb’s attempt at elucidating how the Muslim world could be reconstructed under a Qurʾanic framework. He outlined in it his vision for Islam in political and social realms of life. Qutb was arrested for a third and final time after the publication of this work and it was used in the trials against him. In 1966, he was executed by hanging, dying as a martyr for the movement he represented.[xxxvii] He remains an influential 20th century Muslim thinker who served as one of the intellectual forefathers of contemporary Islamist thought.
Qutb’s Conceptualization of Jāhiliyya
Sayyid Qutb’s conceptualization of jāhiliyya departed from classical understandings, which largely regarded it as a particular period in time or the condition of a particular people. Qutb, however, stripped it of its temporality and spatiality, thus opening the door for jāhiliyya to refer to any person, place, race, state, or society. Simply put, jāhilliya according to him was “a condition of any time and place where Allah is not held to be the highest governmental and legal authority.”[xxxviii] Commenting in In The Shade of the Qurʾan on the 50th verse of Sura Ma’ida, one of the four verses in the Qurʾan that utilizes the term jāhiliyya, he explicitly denied that it referred to a particular period in history, and instead suggested it described a condition (hāl) that can arise at any period of time. He went on to say that jāhiliyya is to judge and legislate according to human desires (ahwā’ al-bashr) in place of God and his Sacred Law, regardless of whether such desires are of an individual, group, nation, or entire generation.[xxxix] In another instance, commenting on the 33rd verse of Sura Ahzab, he asserted that he himself lived in a time where society was in “blind jāhiliyyah” (jāhiliyya ‘amyā’).[xl] In Milestones he reiterated this saying “Our whole environment, people’s beliefs and ideas, habits and art, rules and laws — is Jahiliyyah, even to the extent that what we consider to be Islamic culture, Islamic sources, Islamic philosophy and Islamic thought are also constructs of Jahiliyyah!”[xli]
The idea of God being held as the highest governmental and legal authority is reflected in Qutb’s articulation of another concept, hākimiyya, or sovereignty. It is worth noting that Qutb appropriated both the terms jāhiliyya and hākimiyya from another contemporary Islamist, Sayyid Abuʾl Aʾla Mawdudi, and also Abuʾl Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi. The latter was the one who introduced Qutb to Mawdudi’s thought and work, and they had corresponded on numerous occasions, Qutb writing the foreword to one of Nadwi’s prominent works.[xlii] Hākimiyya is deemed by Qutb to be a major attribute of divinity, a novel assertion as hākimiyya does not appear in classical literature to be used in that manner.[xliii] What this meant was anyone claiming sovereignty over others was in a sense violating God’s Oneness, specifically His Oneness of sovereignty.[xliv] Jāhiliyya being a contravention of hākimiyya then was akin to a form of polytheism, which made the former a theological point as well.
On this issue, Albert Bergesen argues that Qutb was drawing from the 14th century Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, and applying his theoretical framework to the current day political climate. Ibn Taymiyyah held that the Mongols, despite converting to Islam and following its basic tenets, such as praying and fasting, did not rule on the basis of the Sacred Law. Bergesen makes the important distinction that the former was psychological, an aspect of belief, whereas the latter was sociological, something that manifests in society. Ibn Taymiyyah considered the Mongols apostates, because even if they were psychologically Muslim, they were not sociologically Muslim.[xlv] Similarly, for Qutb, having faith requires having a political community where Qurʾanic principles are what govern society. Personal, private belief had to be accompanied by a collective and communal political structure.[xlvi]
If jāhiliyya was akin to polytheism, i.e. associating partners with God, in particular His sovereignty, it was a sociological polytheism rather than a psychological polytheism.[xlvii] Insofar as Qutb conflated the Oneness of God with the Oneness of political sovereignty, contravention of the former was a religious jāhiliyya whereas contravention of the latter was a political jāhiliyya.[xlviii] Under this framework jāhiliyya is not considered the opposite of Islam, as it was deemed historically, but an attack on Islam itself. Whereas a Muslim who obeys the laws of society would generally be considered a good citizen, whether in a traditional Sunni context or a liberal democracy, in the Qutbian paradigm, he becomes a denier of the Oneness of God.[xlix] The term jāhiliyya was used by Qutb as “an epithet rather than a historical condition, a way to simultaneously characterize and condemn what he viewed as the pervasive moral bankruptcy produced by human usurpation of God’s authority.”[l] James Toth points out that as early as 1948 in his book Social Justice in Islam, Qutb was quoting and commenting on the 44th verse of Sura Ma’idah: Whoever does not judge by what Allāh has revealed is an unbeliever."[li] Bergesen mentions the interpretation of Shuki Mustafa who took Qutb’s formulation to its logical conclusion: if Egyptian society was as a whole in a state of jāhiliyya then it must be anathematized entirely.[lii]
Given that jāhiliyya was the obstacle and hākimiyya the objective, according to Qutb, jihad was the method to overcome the obstacle and attain the objective. Jihad in the Qutbian paradigm consisted of four types: jihad of the heart, tongue, hand, and sword. The first was a personal recommitment and renewal of faith. Jihad of the tongue involved persuasion, preaching, and proselytizing (daʿwa). Jihad of the hand did not necessarily imply militancy, and included political activities, charity work, and mobilization. The final type of jihad was engagement in martial combat.[liii] For Qutb, jihad was not strictly defensive, but a way to remove obstacles that stood in the way of establishment of divine sovereignty and an Islamic community. With regards to jāhili beliefs and ideas, they would be reformed by way of preaching and persuasion. However, with regards to jāhili organization and authorities, they would have to be managed by means of physical power.[liv]
What is important to note here is that jihad was historically reserved by Muslim scholars as that which took place against belligerent parties who were not Muslim. However, Qutb formulated jāhiliyya as a sociological polytheism that infringes on the Oneness of God’s sovereignty. He also argued that it was not only the West which was jāhili — rather, “Arab nationalists and socialists, Muslim monarchs and theocrats are all [also] jahili.”[lv] Thus, all of the groups highlighted above could not be considered truly Muslim, and jihad could be utilized to overthrow them. In Bergesen’s words a “modern Islamic theory of domestic resistance and revolutionary politics by Muslims, within a Muslim state, against political rule by fellow practicing Muslims, was formulated.”[lvi] This is significant because the mainstream Sunni approach towards political revolution always held that it was objectionable and inadmissible. Here however, Qutb was laying the “grounds for resistance, revolt, and revolution being set in Islamic, not Marxian or socialist, terms.”[lvii]
Qutb in the Matrix of MacIntyre
Toth frames the Qutbian program in three concepts, jāhiliyya, hākimiyya, and jihad. The first concept dealt with the question “what’s wrong with society,” the second emphasized “the glorious future,” and the third highlighted the “method of moving from one to the other.”[lviii] Bergesen points out the exact same program: “(1) a goal to be realized, (2) obstacles to be overcome, and (3) a means to overcome these obstacles and realize that goal,” implicitly mapping hākimiyya to the first step of the program, jāhiliyya to the second, and jihad as the third.[lix]
Toth goes on to point out that the aforementioned concepts align with the theory of revitalization movements that anthropologist Anthony Wallace provides: “cultural breakdown and crisis, the formulation of a revitalizing vision, the organization and adaptation of this vision to transform society, and finally, a social palingenesis and renewal.”[lx] He likewise points out that the concepts also align with the sociologist Martin Riesebrodt’s categories of the regeneration of religion in the modern world including “a social critique (the movement’s grievances), a salvation history (the mythologized past, the crisis-ridden present, and the eschatological future), and an ideal order (the future in detail).”[lxi]
In addition to the above theories, Sayyid Qutb’s formulation of the crisis faced by the Muslim world can be mapped to MacIntyre's notion of an epistemological crisis. Furthermore, we can examine how this epistemological crisis may be resolved through the program Qutb offers in his writing. Qutb evidently noted that the Muslim world is in crisis. Indeed, he went further than that, beginning Milestones with the statement “Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice…”[lxii] He constructed a narrative to evaluate both the current and past situation of Muslims, and the world in general, to make sense of why it is in the state that it is in and how it got here. He attributed the crisis to the loss of hākimiyya, or divine sovereignty, and central to his thesis was the notion that society, culture, and civilization were steeped in jāhiliyya – a term that found newfound meaning and currency in his and subsequent Islamist thought. This was the epistemological crisis of the Muslim community, and the narrative Qutb constructed through his program was meant to resolve that crisis. As for the existential crisis he believed the Muslims faced, that was meant be resolved by translating the program from theory into reality. Whether his diagnosis for both, and the prescriptions he provided each were conclusive, only time will tell.
Wa Allāhu A'lam
Yusuf Masud is completing a degree in Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College. His interests are primarily in Islamic intellectual history, legal and political philosophy, and metaphysics. He currently resides in Berkeley, but hails from Chandler, Arizona.
[i] Anthropologist Janet Roitman (2013) and other scholars have aptly noted how the logic of crisis represents a blind spot from which much is observed, evaluated, and produced, while the conditions of such observations remain unquestioned. For Roitman, the judgment of ‘crisis’ often serves to maintain the status quo. In this article, however, I draw from MacIntyre’s specific reading of crisis, and work out a potential compatibility between his thinking and that of Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb.
[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre, Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science. The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 459.
[iii] MacIntyre, Epistemological Crises, 460.
[iv] Ibid., 454.
[v] Here I am drawing from MacIntyre's notion of crisis, and his focus on the influence of narrative construction. But it must be noted that crisis always has historical, practical, and material contingencies.
[vi] Ibid., 455.
[vii] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 221.
[viii] Ibid., 459.
[ix] Ibid. 461.
[x] Richard W. Bulliet, Islam: The View from the Edge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 193.
[xi] Bulliet, Islam, 194.
[xii] Sayed Khatab, The Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb: The Theory of Jahiliyyah (London: Routledge, 2009), 14.
[xiii] Robert Gleave, Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilization and Religion, Edited by Ian Richard (Netton. London: Routledge, 2008).
[xiv] Khatab, Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb, 17.
[xv] Ibid., 26.
[xvi] Ibid., 29.
[xvii] Ibid., 31.
[xviii] Gleave, Encyclopedia.
[xix] Khatab, Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb, 23.
[xx] Ibid., 43.
[xxi] Ibid., 33.
[xxii] Ibid., 2.
[xxiii] Ibid., 3.
[xxiv] Albert J. Bergesen and Sayyid Qutb, The Sayyid Qutb Reader: Selected Writings on Politics, Religion, and Society (London: Routledge, 2008), 3.
[xxv] James Toth, Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 15.
[xxvi] Muhammad Qasim Zaman and Roxanne Leslie Euben, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 129.
[xxvii] Toth, Sayyid Qutb, 17.
[xxviii] Ibid., 35.
[xxix] Khatab, Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb, 54.
[xxx] Bergesen, Qutb Reader, 3.
[xxxi] Zaman, Princeton Readings, 130.
[xxxii] Bergesen, Qutb Reader, 3.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 4-5.
[xxxiv] Toth, Sayyid Qutb, 16.
[xxxv] Ibid., 3.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 4.
[xxxvii] Zaman, Princeton Readings, 130.
[xxxviii] Khatab, Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb, 3.
[xxxix]Sayyid Qutb, "Fī Ẓilal al-Qur’ān: Sūrah Mā'idah" in Tafsir Fi Zilalil Quran. Accessed December 2017, https://tafsirzilal.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/5.pdf.
[xl]Sayyid Qutb, "Fī Ẓilal al-Qur’ān: Sūrah al-Ahzāb" in Tafsir Fi Zilalil Quran. Accessed December 2017, https://tafsirzilal.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/33.pdf.
[xli] Sayyid Quṭb, Milestones (Lahore: Kazi Publications, 2003), 20.
[xlii] Zaman, Princeton Readings, 34.
[xliii] Bergesen, Qutb Reader, 18.
[xlvii] Ibid., 19.
[xlviii] Ibid., 22.
[xlix] Ibid., 19.
[l] Zaman, Princeton Readings, 131.
[li] Toth, Sayyid Qutb, 135.
[lii] Bergesen, Qutb Reader, 5.
[liii] Toth, Sayyid Qutb, 145.
[liv] Bergesen, Qutb Reader, 28.
[lv] Zaman, Princeton Readings, 131.
[lvi] Bergesen, Qutb Reader, 8.
[lviii] Toth, Sayyid Qutb, 123.
[lix] Bergesen, Qutb Reader, 14.
[lx] Toth, Sayyid Qutb, 123.
[lxii] Qutb, Milestones, 7.