Ever since Seminary, I’ve had a deep interest in Islam and all things Arabic. It began with a course on introductory literary Arabic, taught mainly as an aid to comparative semitic grammar. But the sinuous script of Arabic, even when you can’t read it, beckons you; tells you this is something worth reading. Just hearing Arabic poetry read aloud moves one even unacquainted with the language. The minaret’s call to prayer sends a thrill down my thoroughly western, Christian spine. At the time, a classmate who was a devoted and effective evangelist castigated me for wasting so much time studying an irrelevant, obscure middle-eastern language when there were lost people in need of the gospel! Intimidated and thoroughly guilt-tripped, I broke off my studies of Arabic. Little did I know how wrong my well-intentioned friend was! I never stopped pondering the role of Islam in history and in our world.
I’ve always felt Christians have missed their chance to communicate with Muslims. I have no advice. I resent those smug missiologists who wax eloquent about the many failures of Christian missions in the past. Just imagine, if Hudson Taylor had taken a modern missions course he would not have…well…maybe he would not have even bothered going to China…
So I won’t lecture us about that. Instead, I’d like to share a little ritual of mine with you. Each year, I take a little time, ranging from half a day to a full day, to think and study intentionally about Islam. Usually that day is August 29, the anniversary of the hanging of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, by the Egyptian government.
Qutb was born in 1906 and came to America in the 1950’s to study at a teacher’s college located in Greeley, Colorado. No more “Norman Rockwell” type town could be found in the USA than Greeley. People could accuse Greeley of criminal dullness, but not decadence.
But not Sayyid Qutb. He saw a seething fleshpot of sexual immorality and western decadence. Horrified at everything from our mania for sports to bad haircuts, he makes a sock-hop sound like the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut. He especially seems to have loathed American jazz and boxing. His descriptions of American women detail how each anatomical feature is exploited by women to drive western men into decadent sensuality. Remember, he’s talking about small-town America in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Qutb returned to Egypt and developed a radical new vision of Islam. A formidable scholar, he worked out a literary and aesthetic approach to interpreting the Qur’an and over many years produced a 30 volume commentary on it entitled, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (trans. “In the Shade of the Qur’an”). His fully developed views of Islam culminated in his most noteworthy book Ma’alim fi’l-Tariq ( Milestones Along the Way). In this book, Qutb presented his full vision of Islam combined with a scathing critique (sometimes, fair!) of western and specifically American decadence and cultural vacuity.
Qutb altered dramatically the way Muslims saw the non-muslim world. In place of the subtle Qur’anic distinctions among pagans, apostates, enemies of Islam, and “people of the book,” etc. Qutb argued for only Islam and Jahiliyya, the term for pre-islamic paganism. By reducing all contemporary non-muslims to Jahili, Qutb opened the way to seeing them all as worthy of Islam’s harshest judgment.
On top of that, Qutb also asserted something inherent in Islamic thought, but often forgotten: the integral unity of politics and religion. At the heart of Islam is the Umma, the community of all Muslims united under divine Sharia law and existing as the dominant culture and power in the world. Islam is not a religion that finds grace in social marginalization or “sojourner” status as Christianity does. Qutb pursued these ideas to their logical conclusions and argued for what we could call “imperial Islam.” Combined with the consignment of the whole non-Muslim world to Jahiliyya status, and you have his next point: Jihad. Preaching alone cannot bring world-wide conversion to Islam. Force will be necessary. Believe it or not, this was actually rather novel despite some of our stereotypes.
Qutb spent a decade in jail for alleged complicity in a plot to assassinate Nasser. Many believe his years in prison provided the catalyst for his religious views. On Qutb’s view, Nasser and any other Muslim leader who accommodated the west was apostate, essentially Jahili, and deserving of death. Less than two years after his release, he was re-arrested, tried, and and on August 29, 1966, Sayyid Qutb was hanged at Nasser’s direct order.
Who cares? We all should.
The same year that Qutb died a martyr to the new 20th century jihad, another young man organized his first terror cell: his name was Al-Zawahiri. Qutb’s brother became a university professor in Saudi Arabia and promoted Qutb’s ideas, profoundly inspiring a wealthy young man named Usama bin Laden. Among the effects of Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 conspiracy, were well thumbed and worn copies of Qutb’s works. Qutb’s writings are a driving force in Sunni fundamentalism and form the heart of the curriculum in most Madrassas.
So…what’s the point?
This man spent formative years in a typical, decent small town in the American heartland. Did Christians around him only reinforce his jaded views? Did any Christians befriend him? Did he ever see a Christlike life? Certainly, he might have, so perhaps he was so blinded by his hate that he couldn’t see authentic faith even if it was there. We can’t judge. We’ll never know.
One thing I do know:
We need to pay attention to the strangers in our midst. We know not the full reach of their impact. Weighing the impact of Qutb on our lives, and realizing how probably nobody in Greeley thought he was of much consequence, puts me in mind of the hymn-like concluding words of C. S. Lewis’ essay The Weight of Glory:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. …there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. … it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. …Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.–C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, pp. 45-46.
I will leave the moral of the story to you!