Like, whoa

One subject which is of more or less recurring interest to me is the philosophy of one Sayyid al-Qutb, sometimes identified as the philosopher of al-Qaeda (though he died in 1966), and certainly one of its intellectual forebears. Probably this subject interests me because, and I hope I am not to be misunderstood here, I feel that I can deeply understand its attractions. With my own tendency to romantize the historical, the mystical and “divine certainties,” reading about him is almost like seeing a grotesque shadow of my own intellectual proclivities in some parallel universe. There’s a good article here, excerpted from a book by Paul Berman, himself a writer of whom I am rather fond, partly due to being one of the very few journalists on current affairs and politics at the present with a good prose style.

I will simply note a couple of salient points with regard to al-Qutb at present. I think Berman is very definitely correct that al-Qutb’s philosophy ought to studied and grappled with intellectually, no matter how obscure and even embarrasing it may seem to be arguing about Islamic theological issues after having throughout our lives either no experience with them or being taught that they were nonsense. It is almost like an extremely advanced skier being exiled to the bunny hill to learn snowboarding. But while the initial steps may feel like a pointless indulgence in superstition, no one could argue about the rather dangerous coherence of al-Qutb’s views. It seems to me that, rather than simply dismissing them as nonsense, if one cannot find compelling grounds for dissenting from them and for upholding one’s own views, then one’s own views are not worth upholding.

Coherence is of course not necessarily the measure of the truth, however. I can well appreciate al-Qutb’s attack on the “fragmented” Western world-view, though I have my doubts that anyone’s point of view is not fractured to some extent. Furthermore, I find something rather naive and self-defeating in those, like Karl Popper, who in fact relish the uncertainties and unsettledness of science and a liberal world-view and then are perpetually surprised when people flee from it for the security of some blanketing dogma (the “escape from freedom”). What both they and al-Qutb seem to fail to apprehend is that, among those who cherish freedom, freedom is not, or ought not, be the end-goal of human endeavor, but rather the beginning. No one can really cherish the nebulousness of total uncertainty and wavering, even though space should be allowed for dynamism and the change of values and ideas. Paul Nizan, for example, the communist writer I cited some weeks ago, after deploring the aimlessness and pointlessness of total freedom without any personal drive or motivation, writes: “La liberté est un pouvoir réel et une volonté réelle de vouloir être soi. Une puissance pour bâtir, pour inventer, pour agir, pour satisfaire à toutes les ressources humaines dont la dépense donne la joie” (Liberty is a real power and a real will to be oneself. A force to build, to invent, to act, to satisfy all the human capacities whose use gives us joy). In other words, to counter the alleged emptiness of freedom he means to substitute a new notion, something along the lines of Kantian “positive freedom.” But he confuses the two elements: one may exert a positive constructive force in a condition of freedom, but the freedom remains the conditions under which the action occurs, not the action itself or the force behind the action.

An openness to the possibility of an active, constructive human will operating in a condition of freedom, of the absence of external restraint, is similarly lacking from al-Qutb’s analysis. He diagnoses the split between mind and body, between church and state that characterizes Western society as a whole, but does not allow for the possibility that that split may not necessarily be operant in the individual lives of all its constituent members. It seems to me that one might be entirely in agreement with al-Qutb on the need to heal that rift on an individual and even on a societal level and still not want some particular sect like Islam or Christianity to be imposed by the authority of a government or by him and his “vanguard” of true believers. But then again at that point it all depends on whether you believe the Qu’ran is the word of God or not. But that at least does seem to reduce al-Qutb’s considerable intellectual force to a simple matter of a leap of faith, and that is an achievement not unworthy of the effort. The reason I bring up Nizan and, by extension, the Western critics of the notion of freedom is that I fear that some might feel themselves compelled by the compulsive need to oppose a priori communism or Islamism or whatever else to accept the terms of the debate that these critics impose, to accept al-Qutb or Nizan’s view of Western society as schizophrenic or aimless and then to actually defend schizophrenia and pointlessness! It is only when we open ourselves to the real merits of the case that the seeds of a defense are to be found, and if none is to be found then what, I repeat, is the point of the defense?

4 Responses to “Like, whoa”

  1. Dave Says:

    “It seems to me that, rather than simply dismissing them (al-Qutb’s views) as nonsense, if one cannot find compelling grounds for dissenting from them and for upholding one’s own views, then one’s own views are not worth upholding.” Curt The reason I find it easy to dismiss these views is that I sees them as fanatical attempts to find meaning and closure to all life’s mysteries and discomforts and to redress all of life’s real or imagined grievances by relying on ideology. “Brilliantly? complex and internally consistent, yet lacking in common sense or simple humanity these movements attract all kinds of malcontents, brainy neurotic youths, naive believers, idealists, opportunists, phony charismatic psychopaths and thugs. The latter two groups end up running these organizations. These movements are a dime a dozen and range from Nazism to various extreme nationalistic, nativist, primitivist or religious dogmas and various brands of Communist or socialist doctrine. Devotes these ideologies get temporary personal benefits and special dispensations including relief from a meaninglessness, social cohesion and status, relief from the depressing need to think independently and permission to have fun brutalizing, dehumanizing, and violating other humans while maintaining a clear conscience. Inevitably these movements come under the personal dominance of some Stalinesque figure and devour their own, split into factions that war with one another or become groups of common criminals. (For the Muslims you already have an irrevocable schism between the Shia and Sunni. And guess who is attracted to the Muslim religion in this country, criminals.) It takes little intelligence to see the commonalities between these groups, but it seems that many idealistic, unhappy people are attracted to this kind of autocratic, twisted thinking and as a consequence there is much unnecessary human suffering. I was reading somewhere about a campus radical in the Sixties who finally realized the true insanity of the “Students for Democratic Society? group he was involved with when there were dead serious discussions concerning what to do with any surviving white babies after the revolution. Should they reeducate them or kill them? Whose life view is superior to that of al-Qutb? In my opinion the man who decides to make a living by becoming the best damn cake decorator in town has a better philosophy.

  2. Curt Says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your view of al-Qutb’s philosophy, though I’m not sure whether you are implying all “attempts to find meaning and closure to all life’s mysteries and discomforts and to redress all of life’s real or imagined grievances” are fanatical or whether there are any that don’t rely on ideology in a broadly construed sense of the term. But in any case I think you may underestimate the need to offer an explicit philosophy to counter such a set of views as al-Qutb’s. I don’t doubt that it’s easy enough for you to dismiss it all as nonsense instigated by “fanatical” youth, but being an aforementioned disaffeted youth myself it’s not so easy for me to do so before thinking out the arguments on both sides and, I would suspect, the same is true for many of my age and inclinations who have not yet cast very deep roots in the soil yet. I don’t think al-Qutb’s philosophy will or was meant to appeal to those that have already lived through the 60’s and become disenchanted with the curative powers of ideology, but every generation will have its radicalisms, and for them it is quite important to have something which will prove more appealing than al-Qutb’s on an intellectual as well as social level. I have already suggested that all the ideas are there in our society, but when it comes to articulating them it seems we are speaking a different language than al-Qutb and hence will not be heard by those who listen to him. I may not like the solutions that he offers, but the problems he voices are real, and the longer people in the West continue to ignore them or consider them as stupid, quite apart from the potential alienation of people that may later resort to a philosophy like al-Qutb’s, we miss the opportunity to improve our own society.

  3. Dave Says:

    I certainly don’t begrudge your having a shot at figuring out the world. The most boring thing I find about most people is that they don’t have serious or curious minds. The thing I like about you and your brother is that you are not fanatics. I am an idealist myself, believe it or not. Trying to understand makes it fun even if you never get there. Also life is very long and an active mind precludes boredom and you do make slow progress. Instead of buying into one program I like to look at different times and places and when you do you see patterns. For instance one day I when I was in high school , I was walking down the street and a man had thrown out a pile of books on the street. I picked up some and took them home, and dried them out. One book was entitled “Studies in a Dying Culture? by Christopher Caudwell. 1938 You can actually still purchase the book or thanks to the magic of the internet you can get some chapters on line. But perhaps best of all you can get a lot of information about Caudwell from a site by Hellena Sheehan a Marxist professor from Ireland. This man had some sort of ideological crisis in the late thirties became a Marxist and felt like it brought about some sort of intellectual salvation and renewed purpose. He became an active revolutionary, joined the Spanish Civil War and was shot dead in his first battle. Ms. Sheehans web site is:


    Has some chapters from his book. There was a lot of concern on his part about science just a tremendous amount of gobbledygook about bourgeois science vs. Marxist science but it saves his soul. If you do have time to glance at it please let me know what you think.

    What does this have to do with anything? This man is an archetype for the intelligent young man in search of ideals and finding it through radicalism. But you can see what happened subsequently. You can see how he took the bait and thought he had found answers. Quite frankly I have never been able to figure out what he was talking about. Ms. Sheehan thinks it is some great insight that Marxism provides, as she is still a Marxist. You know as well as I do the damage done by Marxist ideology but the jargon evidently strikes some as profound. But that is not the only path; there are is also the al-Qutb path and others.

    Maybe there are sensible and moderate way of addressing the perennial issues raised by the philosopher kings but is it too much to ask, given the past’s experiences that we agree to dispense with the tyranny?

  4. Chris Says:


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