Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi is professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary (Hartford, Connecticut). He is also co-editor of The Muslim World. Among his publications : Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1995), which is mainly devoted to an examination of the thought of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966).

RELIGIOSCOPE – Before we deal with specific thinkers of the Islamic resurgence, some clarifications regarding the use of descriptive labels. Islamism ? Islamic resurgence ? Islamic fundamentalism ? Islamic revival ? Which labels do you consider appropriate, which ones are not, which ones are the most adequate to describe the whole of these movements ?

IA-R – In my book I have used the term Islamic revivalism, not Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamic resurgence, because if one goes back to the19th century, to the origins of Islamic resurgence, we find it was much wider, broader than political resurgence. As a matter of fact, many Muslims in the 19th century did not call for the implementation of the sharia but they wanted to revive Islamic values and Islamic ways of life, especially those that have been challenged by colonial presence in the Muslim world, what is often referred to as modernity.

But it was not modernity pure and simple. It was the imposition of Western ideas through a well-founded political and economic system of domination on the Muslim world. And that’s why there was a broad reaction by Muslim institutions, Muslim states and Muslim intelligentsia to that system of domination. For example that process of Islamic response, at the level of the State in the Ottoman Empire, was called tanzimat, reorganization. Tanzimat means that modernization of Turkish-Ottoman society, which did not stop the disintegration of the empire, because it disintegrated after World War I. Therefore, I would use the term Islamic revival, or Islamic resurgence.

RELIGIOSCOPE – To a lesser extent, we might describe the spread of Islamic resurgence as a consequence of the failure of Arab nationalism. But since Islamic resurgence was not confined to the Arab world, what do you see as the more general causes of the surge of Islamic resurgence. Is it basically the encounter with modernity ?

IA-R – I think one has to distinguish between three different phases of Islamic resurgence.

1) The first one is what I would call pre-colonial, like the Wahhabi movement in Arabia, that did not react to foreign European ideas. It was an internal movement and pre-colonial in this sense.

2) And then there is the second Islamic resurgence, the colonial phase, which began roughly at the beginning of the 19th century until around the middle of the 20th century and responded to different forms of European domination in the Muslim world. The Muslim Brotherhood movement, originating in Egypt, is one major example. The second example, the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, was established by Mawdudi in 1941-42, before the partition of India and Pakistan. So, these are two broad, major Islamic organizations that emerged in the context of the colonial presence.

3) Now other Islamic movements emerged after the post-colonial ones. Let’s say the Taliban is a post-colonial one. The Egyptian Jihad is a post-colonial one. So, therefore, one can distinguish, as I said, between the pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial phases.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Can we consider the abolition of the Califate after the fall of the Ottoman empire as a key event – not merely the abolition of the Califate, but some passages of your book seem to imply clearly that the secularizing enterprise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was perceived by contemporary Muslim thinkers in the Arab world as ominous, a warning sign of things to come ?

IA-R – Yes, there is no doubt that the disintegration of the Ottoman state – officially in 1923 – has had major consequences on Islamic revival, because when Muslim revivalists look at the Ottoman Empire, although it was weak and corrupt, it was a symbol of Islamic unity, not just political unity but theological unity. But there has been a feeling that, since 1924, that unity has disappeared, the Muslim world has had no centre, so to speak. And that, of course, has ushered us into the era of the nation-states in the Muslim world, that are not unified, but as a matter of fact there are different conflicts between them. So, this is one major reason. You know the response of the Muslims in India in the 1910s was to create the Al-Khilafa movement. They collected donations and sent them to Turkey as a means to preserve the integrity of the Ottoman state. That was popular, both popular and organisational in the sense that Muslims are scared of the idea of the loss of the Khilafat. There is one Islamic party, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, that speaks now in the name of Khilafat, whose major intention has been to revive the Khilafat, which I doubt will be revived although Hiz-ut-Tahrir are pretty vocal people. They are a small minority, but they are pretty vocal in different cities in Europe.

RELIGIOSCOPE – In the last chapter of your book, you describe one of the thinkers of contempory Islam as “post-Qutbian”. So actually Qutb emerges in your book in a pivotal role Can we really say that the work of Qutb represents a turning point in contemporary Islamic resurgence and why ?

IA-R – I think Qutb is one of the most significant thinkers in modern and contemporary Arab Islamic resurgence Sometimes, he is more important than Hassan al Banna, if not often, although Hassan al Banna was the founder of the movement. Sayyid Qutb was not. Initially Sayyid Qutb was a secular man of letters in Egypt, before he converted fully to Islamic ideas in the 1940s.

But Qutb had a unique personality. First he spent quite a large number of years of his life in prison. And he wrote a large portion of his writings, especially the exegesis of the Quran, while he was in prison. And that is why his writings became the ideological cornerstone of many other revivalist movements emerging in the Arab and Muslim world after the 1960s, after he was executed. The fact that he was executed means that he has been made a martyr in the eyes of all these many people. So Qutb has given that inspiration to so many people.

Nowadays in the Arab world, there are a number of islamic thinkers, but I think one major Islamic thinker, who is exerting so much power on the young Arab intelligentsia, is a Lebanese Shiite, Mohammad Husayn Fadlallah. And I have written a whole chapter on him. Mohammed Husayn Fadlallah seems to continue the legacy of Sayyid Qutb in so many different ways. He does not advocate violence, but he is very critical of Israel and the United States. And you may have read the press report about him a few weeks ago, where he condemned the assault on the USA. But he also condemned the American attack in Afghanistan, because that would not be very helpful.

RELIGIOSCOPE – In your book you mentioned an author, a man called Nadwi, an Indian by birth, whose book was introduced in the Arabic translation by Sayyid Qutb in 1951. This is interesting : upon that Muslim-Arab resurgence, there were also influences from Muslim thinkers outside the Arab world. Were those people in India and in Egypt in touch with each other ?

IA-R – The two most famous people from South Asia who influenced Arabs have been Nadwi and Mawdudi. These two people have been very influential. But Nadwi, who died only two years ago at avery old age, is somewhat different from Mawdudi. Nadwi refused to go to Pakistan after partition, whereas Mawdudi went. So that is one major difference Both of them, of course have called for the implementation of the sharia and for the revival of justice in Islamic society. Yes, these people have had a major impact on the young Arab intelligentsia.

Sayyid Qutb

RELIGIOSCOPE – Qutb could not have become what he became without the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was born in Egypt, but very soon spread beyond Egypt, which indicates that it was answering not just questions widespread among Egyptian intellectuals, but also in the Arab world generally. Could you briefly summarize how the Muslim Brotherhood spread outside of Egypt already before the Second World War ?

IA-R – That is a very interesting question. Let me just say Qutb joined the movement at the end of the 1940s. No one exactly knows the date when he joined the movement, but my feeling is that he did after the assassination of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the movement. This is a major factor to have in mind. But the second major factor that led perhaps to an increase in the charisma of Sayyid Qutb is the Nasserite revolution of 1952, because now, after 1952, we are dealing with a fundamentally different situation than had been current in Egypt before that time. And Qutb did not adjust himself fully. Initially the Ikhwan assumed or thought that the young officers would take an Islamic road, an Islamic path. But they were disappointed a few years later, because that was not the case.

In terms of the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, I think it began in the 1940s and the 1950s. In the Arab world, it was spread mainly by different Arab Muslim students who had gone to Cairo to study, especially at Al-Azhar, and who had come in contact with the different Muslim Brothers. Egypt its a major Arab country. It’s the major intellectual Arab country. So when you are an Arab born in Syria, in Palestine or Morocco and you go to Egypt, you come in touch with different intellectual currents in Egypt. If you are a Muslim or of Islamic leaning, you would come in touch personally with the leaders of the movement. Then these people went back. This was very clear in terms of the Sudan (Hassan al-Turabi) or in terms of Syria with Yusuf al-Sibai’, the founder of the Ikhwan in Syria. He had studied in Egypt in the 1940s. In addition we should not forget that the Ikhwan sent an army regiment to fight against Zionists in Palestine. So all these factors led to the promotion of the Ikhwan’s ideas.

RELIGIOSCOPE – The key person in the early Muslim Brotherhood was Hassan al-Banna. What was most important with him was a system of ideas which he developed, much more than his political activities. Could you please tell us more about that system of ideas which Hassan al-Banna introduced and which had not been present before him ?

IA-R – If you look at his own writings, he is a very interesting man. Richard Mitchell had written a book on Hassan al-Banna, but I think we still need a whole book devoted to Hassan al-Banna himself, about his own life, education, background, ideas, and so on and so forth.

Hassan al-Banna basically was from the countryside. He had been very much influenced by Sufi ideas. Then later on, when he went to Ismailia and Cairo, he began to be influenced by the ideas of such people as Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani, Rashid Rida. So in the 1930s he was trying to create a synthesis of all these ideas in his own system. So he was saying, “We are a Sufi brotherhood, but we are a disciplined organisation as well. We are an intellectual movement that teaches to reform Islam.” Although he did not say that clearly, he had assumed that all intellectual leaders of Islamic reform in the 19th century, especially Abduh, Afghani and Rida, had failed to create mass-oriented movements. They were speaking wonderful ideas but they did not put these ideas to a test. His function was to embody all of these ideas in a mass-oriented movement that would create a major power in Egyptian society. And this is one reason he was murdered by the Egyptian secret police, because the Egyptian state had become aware of the kind of threat he was posing to the monarchy in Egypt in the late 1940s.

RELIGIOSCOPE – You mentioned in the career of Hassan al-Banna the importance of Sufism for him. Today, however, Islamic revivalist groups are usually quite opposed to Sufism. Is that a kind of perception from outside ?

IA-R – Many of them are, although this was not the case in the career of Hassan al-Banna. But someone like Muhammad Abduh was anti-Sufi in his pronouncements. But most of the leaders of Islamic resurgence have come from urban centres, from the cities where there is no association with Sufi ideas, and they have looked down on Sufi ideas as a perversion of Islamic ideas.

RELIGIOSCOPE – In the work of Hassan al-Banna as well as the works of later Muslim modern thinkers, there is a criticism not just of colonialism, of Western secularism, but apparently of Christianity too, which is understandable due to the fact that missionary enterprises were quite often mingled with colonial enterprises. You mentioned that Hassan al-Banna also observed that the Egyptian Coptic community was an indigenous community, not compromised with Western Christian imperialism. Could you please elaborate and tell us how later Islamist thinkers as well dealt with the reality of Eastern Christianity ?

IA-R – Hassan al-Banna was very critical of Westernized ideas, especially at the level of education and philosophy. He was not open to accept these ideas, because of their corrupting presence. But he was not critical of the Coptic community. On the contrary, he called for dialogue. But that was normal in the Egyptian political environment in the 1930s and the 1940s. We must not forget the role of the Wafd party and Sa’d Zaghloul in cementing relations between Copts and Muslims in the face of the British.

By and large, there has to be a research in terms of the position of the different Islamic movements throughout the Arab world on the Christian community in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood has said that Christians are our brothers. We must dialogue with them. This is very clear. And most conspicuous in the ideas and practice of Sheikh Mohammed Husayn Fadlallah in Lebanon : he always has meetings with the bishops and different religious leaders in Lebanon. He has said several times that “it is not our intention to create an Iislamic state, because we live in Lebanon, where we have a large Christian community”. It is not fair to create an Islamic state or to implement the sharia. “But we have to create a pluralistic Lebanese state, where religions are respected as religions.” So that is a new discourse that has to be analyzed further – and it has not been analyzed in a major way, as of yet.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Your book explains in detail how Qutb developed a radical Islamic agenda even before becoming a member of the Brotherhood. Of course, you described his intellectual route in great detail in your book, but could you summarize in a few words the main phases of Qutb’s biography ?

IA-R – Basically, in the 1930s Qutb, a man of letters, was very much influenced by two major personalities, Taha Hussain and Al-Aqqad . Although they wrote about Islamic themes, they had not come from the ranks of Islamic reform so to speak. In the 1940s or so, Sayyid Qutb began to be more and more aware of the importance of the Quran in the Islamic life. So he began to take the Quran as the only document, only criteria of analysis and truth. He said in his exegesis “I spent thirty or forty years of my life, wasting my life, studying European philosophy before I turned back to the Quran and understood the secrets of the Quran.” So there was a major shift in his career, his intellectual life, from a secular man of letters to a religious person.

Then at the end of the 1940s, there was another shift. He began to apply his own Islamic theology of the Quran to social issues in Egyptian society. But somebody else, Sheikh Mohammad al-Ghazali, who in 1945 wrote a major book on Islam and economic justice that influenced the thought of Sayyid Qutb, had begun this. And that thought was very clear in his book, Social Justice in Islam.

Then there was another shift, especially after 1952, when the Egyptian revolution took place. What position should we take as Muslim Brothers vis-à-vis the Egyptian revolution ? It was hoped that the young Egyptian officers would accept to implement Islam, but that was not the case. And that led to the imprisonment of Sayyid Qutb and later on his execution in 1966.

RELIGIOSCOPE – In the Muslim Brotherhood, what was his organizational position ?

IA-R – He was in charge of different publications by the Ikhwan and he was seen to be the top ideologue of the Ikhwan.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Qutb advocated what could be described as a third way, neither communism nor capitalism. If we understand him correctly, what shocked him first in both instances were the basic materialistic premises in both capitalism and communism. Those are materialistic worldviews.

IA-R – Of course, he talks about this, but he is not the only one who talks about it in modern Islamic thought. He talks about the Islamic system and its characteristics. You feel in speaking about the Islamic system, he was speaking about an ideal Islamic system that was not practiced anywhere in the world at least at that time. But that was his hope that some day the Muslims would be able to implement the ideal Islamic system that would achieve a balance between materialism and spirituality, between this life and the after-life.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Qutb was not only aware of the West from reading books, but he also had a direct experience of the West. He studied in America in 1949 and 50. Do we know more about his experiences during this time ?

IA-R – He wrote a book about his life in America, that I was not able to find, because it became banned in Egypt. But somebody wrote a dissertation with long quotations from that book He came to study English in Maryland. He was in his forties when he came here, a mature man, a well-known man of letters in the Egyptian society.

We still do not know about his reaction to American society. I remember one day he went to a church and he discovered that people in church played music and even conducted dances. This was very much disliked by him. He began to feel bad for Christianity, that Christianity has become material, but above all Christianity has become highly secularised and corrupted by these elements.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Qutb was also an avid reader as you observed. It seems however that you think the influence of other authors was not as strong as a number of scholars claim. You consider that the main influences upon him were his reading of the Quran and the historic situation in Egypt.

IA-R – Yes. After the 1940s. But before that he had been influenced by a great number of authors. Even after the 1940s, this French medical doctor, Alexis Carrel, influenced him.

RELIGIOSCOPE – In the eyes of Qutb, the foundation of the State must be identical to that of religion, and of course this would be to most Western secularists anathema. Is there a way to explain to Western secularists that Islamic movements, founded upon such ideas, however should be entitled to free space in the political arena of Muslim countries ? How do Muslim Islamic thinkers deal today with that issue, to reconcile the pluralist political system with the Islamic foundations of the state ?

IA-R – Unfortunately in some Arab and Muslim countries, the Islamic movement has not been allowed to function in a democratic atmosphere, because there is simply a lack of that democratic atmosphere. One prime example is Algeria. Another is Turkey. This has led to a collision, especially in the Algerian case, between the Islamist forces and the government or the army. We see more and more the space of civil society is disappearing from many Muslim countries, whereby some of these people resort to violence as their only option. I think we should work on restoring civil liberties and democratic space in the Arab and Muslim world. I think the Islamic movements have to be allowed to function normally in those societies. If the people want to elect an Islamic movement, why not ? Just put them in power. If they fail, then the people will decide. They would make up their minds. Very often they would fail, because many of them do not have the experience of leading a sophisticated state or a big country. But they must be allowed to be part of the political process.

RELIGIOSCOPE – A key word in Qutb’s works is aqidah. Would you please explain the meaning of the word aqidah ?

IA-R – You know aqidah is not a new term in Islam. It simply means Islamic doctrine, Islamic ideas, belief in God. Qutb gave it a new, dynamic character. Aqidah is that ideological spiritual bond that cements the young Muslim forces in a highly changing society. Aqidah would give you stability, fixity, form as well as power to withstand all the different changes around you. And that is why I say Qutb was speaking about this marriage, this meshing between aqidah and youngster, pioneers who would be the hope in building a new Islamic society. He talks a lot about the characteristics of the aqidah, but he goes back to the early Islam, especially to the Medina phase of Islam, when Muslims were still young in their religion but they were able to withstand different changes in Arabic society at that time.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Another key concept in Qutb’s work is the concept of jahiliyya. Could you please explain its traditional meaning and the meaning Qutb gives to it ?

IA-R – Jahiliyya is a term used by the Quran for describing the pre-Islamic conditions in Arabia. Roughly, it means ignorance or the phase of ignorance. Islam was supposed to supplant all the different traditions, practices, and ideas of jahiliyya with a new Islamic system that is far different from jahiliyya. Qutb, especially when he was in prison, used the term jahiliyya to refer to the Muslim world in the 20th century, that refused to implement the sharia or establish an Islamic state. That was full of jahiliyya according to him. But it seems to me that he did that under extreme circumstances, and this is the part the Jihad people in prison picked that up in the 1960s and the 1970s, and that became a dominant part of the Islamist discourse especially, in Egypt in the 1970s, 1980s. Many of these people who had that kind of discourse went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets, and now they are a part of the Qaeda. Somebody like Qutb must have had a major impact on somebody like Bin Laden, for example, or Ayman al-Zawahri, or others.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Continuing on that line, we see the rather pessimistic conclusions of Qutb about the current state of the Muslim world. Do you see in Qutb’s works some millenarian dimensions, the idea of endtimes ? It seems so pessimistic it could easily lead to an apocalyptic thinking.

IA-R – No, I could not see that in his thought. He was still hoping a new Muslim generation would arise and rebuild the Islamic world and Islamic state. Until the end of his life, he believed in the power of the young Muslim pioneers and intelligentsia, a power that would be cemented by aqidah or doctrine in the revival of Islam. He did still believe in that all the way to the end.

RELIGIOSCOPE – You have described Qutb’s influence upon radical Islam already, but can we elaborate briefly about his influence today for instance even upon Western Muslims ? I see his books published in Western countries. How do you think that Qutb’s thinking can apply to conditions of Muslims living in the West ?

IA-R – Let me just say Qutb has been translated, not too widely into English but into different Islamic languages. For example his major book, The Battle between Islam and Capitalism, has not been translated into English. The young Muslims who are born in the Western environment are very much impressed by Sayyid Qutb. Students in my classes find him to be very relevant in their Western environment. So he must still exert a major impact on the minds of the young Muslims in Europe as well as the States.

RELIGIOSCOPE – Regarding his influence outside the Muslim Arab world, what can we say about it ?

IA-R – He is very influential in South Asia and South East Asia, but mostly in Indonesia where there is a large Muslim party by the name of Al-Ikhwan, who have, I heard, two million followers, and Qutb is their major ideologue still.

RELIGIOSCOPE – And the name Al-Ikhwan doesn’t relate them to the Muslim Brotherhood ?

IA-R – It’s an offshoot of the Egyptian Ikhwan.

RELIGIOSCOPE – And within the Brotherhood today, how far is Qutb being read, or is he seen by some people with some distance ?

IA-R – I would like to equate Qutb to Malcolm X and Hassan al-Banna to Elijah Muhammad. Many people speak about the tradition of Elijah Muhammad while reading Malcolm X or listening to his tapes, in the same vein that many people speak of tradition of Hassan al-Banna while listening to the ideas of Sayyid Qutb.

The interview with Prof. Abu-Rabi took place in Hartford on 8 November 2001. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke.