Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was one of Islamism's most influential theorists. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Qutb was imprisoned, then executed, by the government of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. In this selection, Qutb discusses jahiliyya, a term that originally referred to the “period of ignorance” before Islam. Qutb redefined jahiliyya to mean the state of ignorance that exists wherever Muslims do not or cannot live their lives according to Islamic principles.
If we look at the sources and foundations of modern ways of living, it becomes clear that the whole world is steeped in Jahiliyyah, and all the marvellous material comforts and high-level inventions do not diminish this ignorance. This Jahiliyyah is based on rebellion against God's sovereignty on earth. It transfers to man one of the greatest attributes of God, namely sovereignty, and makes some men lords over others. It is now not in that simple and primitive form of the ancient Jahiliyyah, but takes the form of claiming that the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behavior, and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to what God has prescribed. The result of this rebellion against the authority of God is the oppression of His creatures....Only in the Islamic way of life do all men become free from the servitude of some men to others and devote themselves to the worship of God alone, deriving guidance from Him alone, and bowing before Him alone....
When a person embraced Islam during the time of the Prophet — peace be on him — he would immediately cut himself off from Jahiliyyah. When he stepped into the circle of Islam, he would start a new life, separating himself completely from his past life under ignorance of the Divine Law. He would look upon the deeds during his life of ignorance with mistrust and fear, with a feeling that these were impure and could not be tolerated in Islam! With this feeling, he would turn toward Islam for new guidance; and if at any time temptations overpowered him, or the old habits attracted him, or if he became lax in carrying out the injunctions of Islam, he would become restless with a sense of guilt and would feel the need to purify himself of what had happened, and would turn to the Qur´an to mold himself according to its guidance.
Thus, there would be a break between the Muslim's present Islam and his past Jahiliyyah, and this after a well thought out decision, as a result of which all his relationships with Jahiliyyah would be cut off and he would be joined completely to Islam, although there would be some give-and-take with the polytheists in commercial activity and daily business; yet relationships of understanding are one thing and daily business is something else.
This renunciation of the jahili environment, its customs and traditions, its ideas and concepts, proceeded from the replacement of polytheism by the concept of the Oneness of God, of the jahili view of life and the world by that of the Islamic view, and from absorption into the new Islamic community under a new leadership and dedication of all loyalties and commitments to this new society and new leadership.
This was the parting of the ways and the starting of a new journey, a journey free from the pressures of the values, concepts and traditions of the jahili society. The Muslim encountered nothing burdensome except the torture and oppression; but he had already decided in the depths of his heart that he would face it with equanimity, and hence no pressure from the jahili society would have any effect on his continuing steadfastness.
We are also surrounded by Jahiliyyah today, which is of the same nature as it was during the first period of Islam, perhaps a little deeper. 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!
This is why the true Islamic values never enter our hearts, why our minds are never illuminated by Islamic concepts, and why no group of people arises among us who are of the calibre of the first generation of Islam.
It is therefore necessary — in the way of the Islamic movement — that in the early stages of our training and education we should remove ourselves from all the influences of the Jahiliyyah in which we live and from which we derive benefits. We must return to that pure source from which those people derived their guidance, the source which is free from any mixing or pollution. We must return to it to derive from it our concepts of the nature of the universe, the nature of human existence, and the relationship of these two with the Perfect, the Real Being, God Most High. From it we must also derive our concepts of life, our principles of government, politics, economics and all other aspects of life.
We must return to it with a sense of instruction for obedience and action, and not for academic discussion and enjoyment. We should return to it to find out what kind of person it asks us to be, and then be like that. During this process, we will also discover the artistic beauty in the Qur´an, the marvellous tales in the Qur´an, the scenes of the Day of Judgment in the Qur´an, the intuitive logic in the Qur´an, and ail other such benefits which are sought in the Qur´an by academic and literary people. We will enjoy all these other aspects, but these are not the main object of our study. Our primary purpose is to know what way of life is demanded of us by the Qur´an, the total view of the universe which the Qur´an wants us to have, what is the nature of our knowledge of God taught to us by the Qur´an, the kind of morals and manners which are enjoined by it, and the kind of legal and constitutional system it asks us to establish in the world.
We must also free ourselves from the clutches of jahili society, jahili concepts, jahili traditions and jahili leadership. Our mission is not to compromise with the practices of jahili society, nor can we be loyal to it. Jahili society, because of its jahili characteristics, is not worthy to be compromised with. Our aim is first to change ourselves so that we may later change the society.
Our foremost objective is to change the practices of this society. Our aim is to change the jahili system at its very roots — this system which is fundamentally at variance with Islam and which, with the help of force and oppression, is keeping us from living the sort of life which is demanded by our Creator.
Our first step will be to raise ourselves above the jahili society and all its values and concepts. We will not change our own values and concepts either more or less to make a bargain with this jahili society. Never! We and it are on different roads, and if we take even one step in its company, we will lose our goal entirely and lose our way as well.
We know that in this we will have difficulties and trials, and we will have to make great sacrifices. But if we are to walk in the footsteps of the first generation of Muslims, through whom God established His system and gave it victory over Jahiliyyah, then we will not be masters of our own wills.
It is therefore desirable that we should be aware at all times of the nature of our course of action, of the nature of our position, and the nature of the road which we must traverse to come out of ignorance, as the distinguished and unique generation of the Companions of the Prophet — peace be on him — came out of it.
Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Mother Mosque Foundation, n.d.), pp. 10-11, 19-22.
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