Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

The Muslim Brotherhood:
In the Shadow of the Koran (1)  

April 29, 2007 

 Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our hope. (Muslim Brotherhood) 

Concerning the polytheists and the hypocrites, it was commanded in this chapter that Jihaad be declared against them and that they be treated harshly. (Sayyid Qutb, Milestones) 

One of the challenges facing all students of Islam is to sort out the many different shades of Islam that have emerged since its founding under the charismatic leadership of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 622 in Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia.  

That history includes rapid territorial expansion in the first one hundred years, severe internal conflicts, the formation of two major branches with numerous subdivisions, and a series of setbacks and decline in the past 400 years. 

 After World War II Islam experienced a revival of militancy as it attempted to face the overwhelming forces of modernity. This revival was powerfully aided by the demise of the Western colonial overlords and the simultaneous flow of hundreds of billions of dollars to the Islamic oil-producing countries. The renewed militancy is directed especially at the Western democracies and the Jewish state established in 1948. 

The volume of literature produced by Muslim as well as non-Muslim authors, now expanded and speeded up via the Internet, is massive and wide-ranging. What adds to the challenge is that these sources represent a wide range of viewpoints, often diametrically opposed. What really complicates matters is that the language and concepts of fundamentalist Muslims are very different from those steeped in the Western notion of freedom, truth and logic.  

There are many compelling reasons why we should try very hard to understand that difference. In the following two articles I want to attempt to do that by taking a careful look at one of the major organizations that has been spearheading militant, that is, jihadist, Islam: the Muslim Brotherhood. 

This Brotherhood has gained a lot of experience in waging jihad during its nearly 80 years of turbulent existence. It has also learned a lot of lessons in operating in the  shadow” of the openness and freedom within the Western democracies. 

An Incubator of Jihad

In 1928 the Egyptian schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) founded the Muslim Brotherhood, dedicated to the spread of Islamic orthodoxy. It began when six men paid al-Banna a surprise visit and demanded that he become their leader. This is part of the pledge they made, expressing a deeply held conviction that has marked the Brotherhood during its entire history: 

We despise this life, which is one of dishonor and enslavement.

Arabs and Muslims no longer have a place here in this country,

nor do they enjoy any dignity. And they do nothing about their

state of bondage as wage earners working for foreigners.

As for us, we have nothing to offer but our blood, which circulates

 in our veins with boiling rage. We have nothing but our souls,

 which sparkle with faith and dignity….

We do not know how to serve the fatherland, the faith and

the Muslim Ummah. Thou hast the answer….

Thou shalt be responsible for us and our actions, responsible

for an entire community of devoted [fighters] which takes

an oath in front of Allah to live only according to His religion

and to die for him…(Amir Taheri, Holy Terror, 1987. p. 45) 

 What these men had in mind with their passionate statement of belief and commitment was to devote their lives to a cause that was bigger than them. They were dedicating themselves to stand against the laxness and defeatism among Muslim believers; and externally, against the colonial regimes, especially Britain. The Brotherhood’s founding took place only four years after the abolition of the rule by Islamic clergy (caliphate) in Turkey under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk. (Osama bin Laden has described that event as a grievous insult that he listed as a motive for his declaration of war on the West.) 

Al- Banna lamented the end of the caliphate as a separation of “the state from religion in a country [Turkey] which was until recently the site of the Commander of the Faithful.” He saw this as part of a “Western invasion, which was armed and equipped with all [the] destructive influences of money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, power, and means of Propaganda.” He summarized the Brotherhood’s worldwide ambition as follows: 

…it is a duty incumbent on every Muslim to struggle towards the aim of making every people Muslim and the whole world Islamic, so that the banner of Islam can flutter over the earth and the call of the Muezzin can resound in all the corners of the world: God is greatest [Allahu akbar]!  (Quoted in Robert Spencer, Onward Muslim Soldiers, pp. 217, 218)   

Consequently, the Muslim Brotherhood set out to reverse the trend of secularization and made the spread of sharia law the purpose of its existence. At first Al-Banna chose the route of peaceful opposition by debate and persuasion. But after absorbing the teachings and examples of other Muslim leaders who preached a message of violence and murder, in 1938 he declared that Islamic rule in Egypt must be established “by force if necessary.” He also began forming an “alternative administration” that would in time take over the government and wage war “against ’the heathen, the apostate, the deviant,’ who would, when judged too dangerous, be put to death in the name of Allah.” (Taheri, p.51) 

In the 1940s the Brotherhood began a campaign of terror and assassinations that became a model for Muslim organization in other countries.  Many came from the surrounding countries to learn the deadly art of murder and mayhem. Mass arrests followed and Al-Banna was executed in January 1949, though his writings are still in circulation and continue to inspire those who long for the worldwide caliphate. 

The following decades saw more violence and death, which led to the Brotherhood’s being banned in Egypt for a number of years, but its offspring is now active in many other countries as well.  

The Father of Militant Islam

The second influential leader of the Brotherhood was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) who has been called “the father of modern [Islamic] fundamentalism.”  He studied in the U.S. from 1948 till 1950, where he acquired a strong aversion to what he perceived to be the moral degeneration of that country.  After his return to Egypt, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and he served in the Ministry of Education from which he was dismissed in 1952. (He is considered to be the main inspiration for the ideas of Osama bin Laden, who was a student of Sayyid’s brother Muhammad Qutb, professor of Islamic studies.) 

Though imprisoned from 1954-1964 and executed by the Egyptian government in 1966, he developed a huge following as a result of his involvement in the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in opposition to the government in power. Even more important is the legacy of his voluminous writings.  They include a 30-volume commentary on the Koran (In the Shadow of the Koran – of which a 15-volume English translation is in progress) and his Signposts on the Way, also called Milestones. The latter is a passionately written argument for the elimination of all man-made laws to be replaced by the worldwide rule of Islamic law.  

In chapter 4 of Milestones, “Jihaad: the Cause of God,” Qutb describes the various stages of Islamic progress. Here he discusses the notion of freedom in the Koran as stipulated in Sura 2: 256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” But in trying to balance the idea of freedom with the absolute claims of divine authority of the Koran, he seems to assume that if the followers of Allah provide the right environment of universal Islamic rule, everyone will voluntarily submit.  

 However, until such perfect conditions materialize, presumably by persuasion and discussion, the enemies of Islam must be dealt with. Qutb leaves no doubt as to which approach has to be used. After quoting Sura 2: 256, he writes that Jihad in Islam on the other hand, tries to annihilate all those political and material powers which stand between people and Islam, which force one people to bow before another people and prevent them from accepting the sovereignty of God. These two principles [human freedom v. divine sovereignty] have no relation to one another nor is there room to mix them…. The Islamic Jihaad has no relationship to modern warfare, either in its causes or in the way it is conducted. The causes of Islamic Jihaad should be sought in the very nature of Islam and its role in the world, in its high principles, which have been given to it by God and for the implementation of which God appointed the Prophet – peace be on him- as His Messenger and declared him to be the last of all prophets and messengers. 

Qutb continues in this vein, explaining that Islam amounts to a universal declaration of the freedom of all mankind (not just Arabs and Muslims) from servitude to other men and to his own desires.  In contrast, any other system in which humans are seen as the final authorities deifies humans and thereby become usurpers of the authority of God. 

He writes that because Islam teaches the freedom of man from all authority except that of God, it is faced in every period with obstacles and opposition of many kinds, it must first of all deal with the obstacles of political power. Thus Islam strives from the beginning to abolish all those systems and governments based on man-made rules, which, according to Qutb, are by definition a form of slavery. 

Qutb deals in detail with the different methods and timing of Jihad.  In a logic that for many will be hard to follow he argues that in an “Islamic system there is room for all kinds of people to follow their own beliefs, while obeying the laws of the country which are themselves based on the Divine authority.” You can be sure that the defenders of radical Islam will readily quote the first part of the last sentence, but the real meaning lies in the last part. 

The Bible v. the Koran

Again and again Qutb returns to his overarching concept of the absolute authority of God and how that in fact is the source of human freedom. There is an odd surface similarity here with what the Bible teaches about this topic, but there is a world of difference between the two religions. 

The Bible also teaches that God is the sovereign authority and sustainer of all that exists. Secondly, it furthermore teaches that true human freedom is found in surrendering our lives to His service. But the difference is like that between day and night, or light and darkness. 

This is a topic that needs far more commentary, but let me here try to give a brief summary of the difference between the teachings of the Koran and the Bible about the central issue of human freedom. The main difference lies in what the Koran and the Bible teach about divine love and compassion. 

The love of God is revealed first of all in that Christ came to save the world and reconciled us sinful human beings to a holy God, by giving his life as a ransom for our sins. Consequently, salvation and true human freedom is a gift of God’s grace, which is open to all people. Now we are called to love God above all and our neighbour as ourself. Jesus teaches that we are even to love our enemies and to pray for them. 

In the Koran, as interpreted by Qutb and likeminded teachers, God is depicted as a hard, unpredictable taskmaster, who can only be pacified by having our good deeds outnumber our bad ones. The same teachers tell us that the main struggle in life is to establish Islamic rule worldwide. Those who refuse are considered unworthy, unclean, infidels, destined for hell. Depending on circumstances, they are declared to be second-class citizens (dhimmis), to be persecuted, and sometimes killed in the name of Allah. 

There is also a fundamental difference in the way society ought to be organized. The Bible teaches principles and guidelines for all human relations and social structures, summarized in the call to love God and our neighbours. There has evolved within Christianity over the centuries certain insights with respect to the different roles and authorities of the various social structures. This has led to the recognition that the boundary between the public and private spheres must be respected. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and the God what is God’s.”  Behind this recognition lies the fundamental freedom of conscience and belief. 

The contrast with Islam could not be more acute. It teaches that Islamic law, that is, based on the Koran and the Hadith, contains all of the instructions for the proper conduct of politics and all others areas of life. There is no separation between the mosque and the state, but the supreme authority for every aspect of life rightly belongs to experts in Islamic law.  This is the establishment of a theocracy in which there is no freedom of religion – and therefore no freedom at all. In fact, where sharia law dominates there is a death penalty on renouncing the Islamic faith. 

Thinking Sanely About Deep Things

If we want to understand the character of radical Islam, the life and works of Sayyid Qutb is a good place to start. It will help us to understand the appeal  of his message to millions of  Muslims. It will also help us to fathom the true nature of the war declared on us, and thereby rid us of any illusions about the dangers ahead. 

 It is the responsibility of all who treasure freedom, especially Christians, to gauge correctly the spiritual forces at work here. To that end we might benefit from the observations by someone who has seriously struggled to understand the significance of Qutb’s life and message. 

Paul Berman wrote a lengthy essay in the New York Times Magazine of March 23, 2003, with the revealing tile “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” which he concludes with a challenge that should speak with special force to Christian leaders and thinkers. 

Berman struggled to get into the minds of the followers of Qutb, who are inspired to suffer any hardship and even face death themselves and kill others in the name of Allah. This is how he describes the followers of this prophet of the Koran:  

These people are in possession of a powerful philosophy, which is Sayyid Qutb’s. They are in possession of a gigantic work of literature, which is his “In the Shade of the Qur’an”…They feel that, with an intense study of the Koran, as directed by Qutb and his fellow thinkers, they can make sense of thousands of years of theological error. They feel that, in Qutb’s notion of shariah, they command the principles of a perfect society....They feel they are benefiting the world, even if they are committing random massacres. 

The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse. 

But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society’s every failure? President George W. Bush in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing.  He is not the man for that. 

Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding – one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

continue.