Philosophical Presuppositions of Islamist Totalitarianism

Christopher Hurtado —  May 18, 2012
Philosophical Presuppositions of Islamist Totalitarianism | Christopher Hurtado


Totalitarian political movements – and the violence leading to mass death that is inherent in them – have emerged in the name of religion and nihilism, in the Global North and in the Global South, in the East and in the West, and from the left and right extremes of the political spectrum. Is there a unifying theory that can explain this phenomenon? The answer lies in philosophy.


Philosophy gives man an integrated view of the world and of his place in it. This, in turn, gives man a sense of what goals or values he ought to pursue. Man can consciously and conscientiously form his worldview by integrating basic presuppositions and their corollaries based on logic, or he can evade this action and default to a worldview formed by subconscious integration of random presuppositions. What he cannot do is escape his need to integrate his concrete experiences into abstract principles upon which to base his actions.

Philosophy is a systematic study of the basic nature of reality (metaphysics) and of man’s cognitive relationship to it (epistemology) in order to determine a moral code to guide man’s life (ethics). This, in turn, determines the principles upon which a proper social system is based (politics) and the nature of what is considered beautiful or artistic, that can satisfy the cravings of man’s consciousness (aesthetics).

Philosophy, as a system, consists of five branches. (1) The branch of metaphysics deals with what is real. (2) The branch of epistemology deals with what is true and how man knows it. These two are the theoretical branches of philosophy. (3) Ethics, the central branch of philosophy and its raison d’être, deals with what is good (for man). (4) Politics, a derivate branch of ethics, deals with what is just. (5) Aesthetics, also a derivate branch of ethics, deals with what is beautiful.

At the foundation of a philosophical system are the basic presuppositions in each of these five branches of philosophy and the corollaries of those presuppositions. At the heart of these basic presuppositions are primacy issues. Given two principles, oftentimes one has primacy over the other. That is, one principle is “‘prime’ or first in order, rank, importance, or authority; [has] the first or chief place; pre-eminence, precedence, superiority” (Oxford Dictionary). Based on the presuppositions at their foundation, there are two traditions in philosophy, broadly speaking: (1) the Platonic tradition and (2) the Aristotelian tradition. The Platonic tradition is based on the primacy of consciousness, mysticism, altruism, and collectivism. The Aristotelian tradition is based on the primacy of existence, reason, rational egoism, and individualism.

Plato argued that universals have primacy over particulars, positing a supernatural world more real than the natural world, and authored the first totalitarian political treatise, his Republic. Following in the Platonic tradition are Neo-Platonist, Plotinus, al-Ghazali (who dealt a deathblow to reason in Islamic thought), Augustine (who introduced Neo-Platonism into Catholic theology), the German Idealists – Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Fichte – (who influenced Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler), the Existentialists – Heidegger, Sartre, Fanon, et. al. – (whose ideas brought about Third World Socialism), and the Islamist ideologues – Maududi, al-Banna, Qutb, Shariati, and Khomeini.

Aristotle argued contra Plato that particulars have primacy over universals and focused on undestanding the natural world. Aristotle’s method shaped medieval scholarship and the Renaissance. Following in the Aristotelian tradition are Ibn Sinna (who struggled in vain to defend reason against al-Ghazali), Aquinas (who introduced Aristotelianism into Catholic theology), the Enlightenment philosophers – Montesquieu, Locke, and Voltaire – (whose ideas brought about the American Revolution), and the Objectivists – Rand, Peikoff, and Kelley (who struggle against Platonic thought in contemporary philosophy).

All totalitarian ideologies share the following nine Platonic philosophical presuppositions: (1) The primacy of consciousness over existence in metaphysics, (2) the primacy of faith over reason and (3) heart over mind in epistemology, and (4) the primacy of love over life as the standard of value, (5) others over self as the beneficiary, (6) right over good as the moral code, and (7) duty over happiness as the purpose in ethics, and (8) the state over the individual and (9) equality over justice in politics. At the heart of all totalitarian ideologies is a primacy of consciousness metaphysics, followed by an epistemology of mysticism, an ethics of altruism, and a politics of collectivism.

These nine philosophical presuppositions, consistently applied, have repeatedly and seemingly inexorably led to totalitarian politics with its accompanying aesthetic of revolutionary violence and mass death. Only reversing or mixing these presuppositions, or failing consistently to apply them has led to an alternate conclusion. They are the key to understanding the origin of totalitarianism in all of its diverse manifestations.

This paper will examine the seminal works of South Asian Islamist ideologue, Jamaat-e-Islami founder and godfather of Islamism, Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, Towards Understanding Islam and Jihad in Islam. It will also examine the seminal works of Egyptian Islamist ideologue, Muslim Brotherhood luminary and “Philosopher of Islamic Terror” (Berman), Sayyid Qutb, Milestones and Social Justice in Islam. It will demonstrate that the above mentioned nine Platonic philosophical presuppositions of all totalitarian ideologies are present in Maududi and Qutb’s thought as exposed in these works.

Towards Understanding Islam was first published in 1928 (Jackson 41) and originally intended and adopted as a theology textbook for Indo-Pakistani sub-continent schools and colleges and has since become “a popular Islamic reader” that has been translated into a number of Eastern and Western languages (Maududi, Towards x). First published in 1930, Jihad in Islam, consists of a collection of essays first serialized in 1927 in Al-Jam’iat, a Delhi paper edited by Maududi, and exposes Maududi’s idea of Islamic revolution (Jackson 28, 41, 128).

Maududi founded the Jamaat-i-Islami (the “Islamic Party”) in Pakistan in 1941. The party is still active in Pakistan today and has active sister organizations in India, Bangladesh, Kashmir and Sri Lanka as well (Jackson 1). The Jamaat has also been hugely influential on a large number of Islamic movements and parties throughout the wider Islamic world (Jackson i). One of these movements, the Islami Jami’at-i Tulabah (IJT), a student union founded in Lahore in 1947 by 25 sons of Jamaat members, has been hugely influential due to its recruiting of young Muslims. After its founding, the IJT quickly spread throughout Pakistan and turned violent. At first, Maududi and the Jamaat tried to reign in the IJT, but later, as he became more political, he encouraged the IJT’s radicalization (Jackson 78-9). In 1972, the IJT managed to push through a resolution demanding the Islamization of Pakistan’s educational system (Jackson 163). The influence of the IJT has only grown since Maududi stepped down as its amir. It’s membership has grown more revolutionary in character and eventually rose to power in Pakistan (Jackson 164).

Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1951 and quickly rose to leadership within the organization (Rubenstein). The Muslim Brotherhood is still active in Egypt today and has active sister organizations in Israel, Jordan, Syria and – under the guise of charitable organizations – the United States as well. The Brotherhood has also been hugely influential on a large number of Islamic movements and parties throughout the wider Islamic world. One of these movements, Hamas, has been hugely influential due to its coming to power in democratic elections in Gaza in 2006. Just as the National Socialist Party’s rise to power via democratic elections brought the program of its ideologue, Adolf Hitler, to fruition, so Hamas’ rise to power promises to bring its Qutbian program of  “true freedom” through the sharia to fruition (Roy).

Milestones was originally circulated as prison letters to Qutb’s brothers and sisters and was first published in 1964. The Egyptian government banned it, yet it disseminated internationally and became “the most influential Islamist document of the twentieth century” (Rubenstein). Social Justice in Islam was first published in Arabic in 1949, according to the introduction to the English translation, and has also been translated into Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Malay/Indonesia and has become one of the most influential books on its subject (12).

1. Metaphysics

The basic metaphysical question at the foundation of any philosophical system is the question of whether existence – or reality – exists independent of consciousness (any consciousness) or whether consciousness (be it God’s, man’s, or both) creates reality (Philosophy). The answer, according to the Platonic tradition, is that consciousness has primacy over existence. In this tradition, it is usually God’s consciousness (which most believers hold created existence) that has primacy over consciousness. However, the same presupposition holds among nonbelievers as well. In their case, it is the individual’s or collective consciousness that has primacy over existence. Reality, they hold, is subjective to persons or peoples. In the case of Marxist-Leninist thought, classes of people determine reality. In the case of Fascism, a nation does, in the case of Nazism, a race.

The Aristotelian tradition correctly recognizes that existence must have primacy over consciousness since, epistemologically speaking, consciousness consists in perceiving reality, or that which exists. To say that there exists a consciousness from which all of existence emanates is a contradiction in terms. There cannot be a consciousness without there first being something of which to be conscious. Therefore, the Aristotelian recognizes that man must look outward to reality to obtain knowledge. The Platonist looks for knowledge through revelation from God or from a collective will.

The Platonist presupposition of the primacy of consciousness is clearly expressed at the outset in Maududi’s book. In explaining the very meaning of Islam, Maududi points to the laws of the universe to make the point that “ours is a law-governed universe and everything in it is following the course that has been ordained for it” (Towards 2-3) and that “This powerful, all-pervasive law, which governs all that comprises the universe, from the tiniest specks of dust to the magnificent galaxies of the heavens, is the law of God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe” (3). And lest we should think that by the “universe” Maududi means something other than “all existing matter and space considered as a whole” (Oxford Dictionary), he later proclaims in no uncertain terms that “[t]he universe is an indivisible whole” (Towards 95).

As do most believers, Sayyid Qutb, embraces the primacy of consciousness in the form of a “Creator of the universe” (Milestones 8). Qutb scoffs at communist society (among other jahili societies) “because it denies the existence of God Most High and believes that the universe was created by ‘matter’ or by ‘nature’” (Milestones 53) and at Darwinism because it “goes beyond the scope of its observations, without any rhyme or reason and only for the sake of expressing an opinion, in making the assumption that to explain the beginning of life and its evolution there is no need to assume a power outside the physical world” (77-8). He asserts in contradiction to communism that “According to the Islamic concept, the whole universe has been created by God” He then repeats himself for emphasis: “The universe came into existence when God willed it” and explains that God “ordained certain natural laws which [the universe] follows and according to which all its various parts operate harmoniously” (Milestones 58).

Qutb’s Metaphysics, of course, will have bearing on his epistemology, which relies on the revelation of “truth . . . from the divine source-beyond the sphere of mankind and beyond the sphere of the physical universe” (Milestones 73) for knowledge of how to achieve such harmony. His epistemology, in turn will have a bearing on his ethics, which are based on the duty to strive for such harmony, since in his view, the “rules and regulations which order human life . . . are related to [a Muslim’s] faith, and . . . to seek guidance from God in these matters is a necessary consequence of the faith in the Oneness of God and the risalah of Muhammad” (Milestones 77). Qutb’s politics will also be subject to his metaphysics since “to organize its followers according to its own method . . . it is the duty of Islam to annihilate all [other political] systems, as they are obstacles in the way of universal freedom” (Milestones 48).

2. Epistemology

2.1 Evidence

The first primacy issue in epistemology deals with the role of evidence in cognition. What is at issue is whether faith should be based on evidence or precede it. According to the Platonic tradition, and in keeping with its metaphysical presupposition of the primacy of existence over consciousness, faith precedes evidence. Thus, it is anti-reason. The believing Platonist looks to revelation from his unembodied God for knowledge, subordinating reason to faith. The nonbelieving Platonist looks to the unembodied collective will for knowledge, subordinating reason to his faith in that will. This epistemological presupposition leads to ethical altruism and moral relativism.

According to the Aristotelian tradition, faith is the ability of a rational being to visualize the future and act in the present for the sake of that future. Since rational beings are not limited to instinctive behavior as are the lower animals, they must act in the present for the sake of the future in order to survive. Reason is an inferential capacity. It is through this capacity that man infers the future results of his present actions. Faith is thus subordinated to reason. This epistemological presupposition leads to value-based ethics – a value being that which man seeks to gain or keep for the sake of survival. This ethic demands respect for man’s right to liberty to act as he sees fit for the sake of preserving and furthering his own life. Corollary to man’s right to liberty to act to preserve his own life is his right to property, or the fruit of such action.

For Maududi, faith clearly has primacy over reason. Shortly after declaring the primacy of God over the universe (i.e. consciousness over existence) he argues that “knowledge that fails to reveal its own Creator can reveal no truth” declaring that reason always runs afoul of faith “for reason which errs about its own Creator cannot illumine the paths of life” (Towards 10). He later explains, “even if a man is equipped with the highest faculties of reason and intellect and possesses matchless wisdom and experience, the chances of his formulating the correct views on existence are slight” (Towards 27). Fortunately for man, God has “raised for mankind men from among themselves to whom He imparted the true knowledge of His attributes, revealed to them His Law and the Right Code of Living” (Maududi, Towards 27-28). “The test of man’s wisdom and intellect therefore lies in this: does he recognise God’s Messengers after observing their pure and pious lives and carefully studying their noble and flawless teachings” (Maududi, Towards 28)?

Given Qutb’s adherence to the primacy of consciousness (i.e. God) over all of existence (i.e. the Universe), his epistemology relies on the revelation of “truth . . . from the divine source-beyond the sphere of mankind and beyond the sphere of the physical universe” (Milestones 73). According to Qutbian epistemology,

We must return to [the Qur’an], the source which is free from any mixing or pollution . . . 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 (Milestones 6).

Reason is no match for faith in Qutbian epistemology. Man’s reason is incapable of understanding and meeting his own needs, yet alone of understanding the complexity of the universe and harmonizing with it. Only God, who created and controls man and the universe can (Qutb, Milestones 60). A true “concept of the universe, of life of human history, of values and purposes . . . does not come from human minds, nor from the physical world, but . . . from outside the earth and outside the human sphere” (Qutb, Milestones 71). It comes “from the divine source-beyond the sphere of mankind and beyond the sphere of the physical universe” (Milestones 73). A Muslim should learn  metaphysics from “a God-fearing and pious Muslim, who knows that guidance in these matters comes from God” as “all these affairs are related to his faith, and . . . to seek guidance from God in these matters is a necessary consequence of the faith in the Oneness of God and the risalah of Muhammad (Milestones 77).

Faith transcends reason in Qutbian epistemology. The Qur’an reveals to man “the nature of the things which he can touch and see and the things which he can sense and conceive but which he cannot see” (Milestones 8). Scientists and others who neglect God in favor of worldliness know “only what is apparent, and this is not the type of knowledge, for which a Muslim can rely completely on its possessor” (Qutb, Milestones 81). Secularists “say that they do not believe in the ‘Unseen’ and want to construct their social system on the basis of ‘science’, as science and the Unseen are contradictory! This claim of theirs is mere ignorance, and only ignorant people can talk like this” (Qutb, Milestones 55).

2.2 Emotions

The second primacy issue in epistemology deals with the cognitive role of emotions. What is at issue is whether emotions have cognitive content or whether they are a response to cognitive content or to judgment. The Platonic answer is that human emotions have primacy over the human mind. This tradition recognizes that emotions have cognitive content, but fails to recognize the nature of such content. Emotions are correctly identified by the Platonic tradition as giving automatic answers to questions that arise in the realm of ethics. What the Platonic tradition fails to correctly identify is the source of the answers emotions automatically give.

The Aristotelian tradition recognizes that man’s emotions have cognitive content, but that this content is not about reality. It is rather about the value judgments he imposes on reality. The source, therefore, of the content of emotions is man’s mind. He determines his values through rational deliberation and his emotions automatically measure the situations he encounters against the values he has chosen for himself. Man’s emotions can change with his value system while reality remains constant because he is not necessarily correct in choosing his values. He must distinguish, therefore, between real values and apparent values. An apparent or perceived value is one he thinks will make his life better. A real or actual value is one that actually will make his life better.

If Maududi allows any room at all for evidence in his theory of knowledge, it is evidence based on feelings. The prophets, he asserts, are “persons whose sincerity, integrity, trustworthiness, godliness and absolute purity stand as irrevocable witnesses to the truth of their claim to knowledge” and “the wisdom and force of their message makes you admit that they speak the truth and deserve to be believed and followed” (Towards 29-30). He later concludes, in a clear subjection of reason to emotion or feelings: “Reason accepts whatever [a prophet] says; the heart feels its truth; [emphasis added] and experience of the world testifies to every word that flows from his mouth” (Maududi, Towards 35).

Maududi’s metaphysics and epistemology point the way to his ethics both implicitly and explicitly. His assertion that one must follow the prophet “unconditionally” although not “able fully to grasp the wisdom and usefulness of this or that order” (Towards 36) indicates not only an epistemological presupposition of faith over reason, but an ethical presupposition of duty over happiness. Maududi reemphasizes his epistemological presupposition of faith over reason by explaining how man should deal with any doubt regarding an injunction given by a prophet: “Your inability to understand it is no reason for its having flaw or defect.” After invalidating reason (i.e. man’s mind), Maududi leaves him with his heart to “use utmost care, discernment, and sagacity” (emphasis added) in searching for “a true Prophet” and to “trust him completely and obey all his instructions faithfully” once he has “decide[d] [emphasis added] definitely that a certain person is really God’s Prophet” (Towards 38).

In addition to revelation from God, Qutbian epistemology accepts intuition as a valid source of knowledge. “Human nature in its depths has full awareness of . . . truth. Man’s form and body, and the organization of the vast universe around him, reminds him that this universe is based on truth, and truth is its essence, and it is related to a central law which sustains it” (Qutb, Milestones 62). “One who is attracted to this basic Islam . . . will not require any persuasion through showing its beauty and superiority. This is one of the realities of the faith” (Qutb, Milestones 18). Qutb enjoins Muslims “to return to the guidance of God in order to learn the Islamic concept of life- [sic] on [their] own, if possible, or otherwise to seek knowledge from a God-fearing Muslim whose piety and faith are reliable (Milestones 79). Since Qutb does not explain how to detect a reliably pious and faithful Muslim from who to learn, one can only assume this is to be intuited. Qutb does claim elsewhere in Milestones that Islam addresses human intuition (47).

In Qutbian epistemology, “belief ought to be imprinted on hearts and rule over consciences” (Qutb, Milestones 17).  Qutb claims any convert to Islam in Muhammad’s day, “would immediately cut himself off from Jahiliyyah [pre-Islamic ignorance]” and “start a new life, separating himself completely from his past life under ignorance of the divine Law.” He explains that the early Muslim’s feelings would then indicate to him to “look upon the deeds during his life of ignorance with mistrust and fear” and that “he would become restless with a sense of guilt and would feel the need to purify himself . . . and would turn to the Qur’an to mold himself according to its guidance” anytime he felt overpowered by temptations or felt the pull of the past (Milestones 5). As for Qutb, he, much like an early follower of Muhammad “came to feel” that all of the knowledge he had acquired in forty years of “reading books and in research in almost all aspects of human knowledge . . . was as nothing in comparison to what he found [in the Qur’an] (Qutb, Milestones 79).

3. Ethics

3.1 The Standard of Value of Ethics

What ought to be the standard of moral value? In order to answer this question, we must first define “value.” A value is something one acts to obtain or keep (Rand, Virtue 15). Value, as defined, must be understood only to apply to living things. In the realm of inanimate objects there are no values. Inanimate objects act in accordance with their nature, but their action is not purposeful. Only living things purposefully act to preserve their lives. However, not all living things deliberate about the actions they take.

Plants grow roots and leaves to sustain themselves, but they do not deliberate in so doing. They simply physiologically respond to their environment. If there is not enough water, leaves shrivel and fall so that the roots and stem can be preserved. Plants act this way instinctively. Human beings do not act on instinct; they have to deliberate. They are, therefore, the only living beings with moral values – values that are chosen. Ethics, therefore, only deals with the purposeful action of human beings.

The primacy issue at hand is whether love or life is the ultimate standard of value in ethics. Given that values are those things that human beings act to obtain or keep, the ultimate standard of value is human life. Love cannot be the standard of value, contrary to what many (including all of the totalitarian ideologues) hold. Love must properly be understood as an emotion, which is not a value, but a response to value. Love does not create value, it responds to it. Values must logically precede all responses to values, including love.

It is clear from Maududi’s writings that love has primacy over life in his view of Islam. Man belongs to God (Maududi, Towards 5) and man’s purpose is to obey God and seek his pleasure (Maududi, Towards 30). The standard of value in Maududi’s ethics is not life per se, but a life of “steadfast obedience to [God’s] ways” (Maududi, Towards 85) lived for the sake of God’s pleasure, a life of “trials and sacrifices and [avoidance of] worldly pleasures” (Maududi, Towards 118) lived for the sake of life after death, not for “success or failure in this world alone” (Maududi, Towards 117-18).

At the core of Maududi’s exposition of Islam’s primacy of love over life is the doctrine of jihad. Maududi explains, “A man who exerts himself physically or mentally or spends his wealth in the way of Allah is indeed engaged in Jihad” and jihad entails the “supreme sacrifice” of man’s life for the sake of his love of God (Maududi, Towards 141). In a separate treatise on the subject, Jihad in Islam, Maududi wrote, “the sole purpose of human life is to win the favour of the Creator of the universe” (Maududi, Jihad 8). He later adds, “the most important, nay, the fundamental ideal among . . . ‘Muslims’ is to expend all the powers of body and soul, your life [emphasis added] and goods in the fight against the evil forces of the world” (Jihad 10).

In keeping with Qutb’s primacy-of-consciousness metaphysics and his faith-over-reason epistemology, God determines the standard of value of his ethics. Qutb explains that Muhammad could have reformed the morality of his time by gathering a group of likeminded people dissatisfied with that morality, thereby avoiding the difficulty of convincing others by reason to join his movement. “But God Most High knew that . . . this way is not the way. He knew that morality can only be built on faith, a faith which provides criteria, creates values, defines the authority from which these criteria and values are to be derived” (emphasis added) (Milestones 13). There is no need for any deliberation. There can be “no doubt the Shari`ah is best since it comes from God.” As quoted above, “One who is attracted to this basic Islam . . . will not require any persuasion through showing its beauty and superiority. This is one of the realities of the faith” (Qutb, Milestones 18).

Submission to God (i.e. love of God) over life is the standard of value of Qutbian ethics. “The love of the divine Law al-Shari`ah should be a consequence of pure submission to God and of freedom from servitude to anyone else, and not because it is superior to other systems in such and such details” (Qutb, Milestones 18). The purpose of Islam is to free men from “man-made laws, value systems and traditions so that they will acknowledge the sovereignty and authority of the One True God and follow His law in all spheres of life” (Qutb, Milestones 25). Naturally, love of God over life may entail death. Qutb quotes form the Qur’an to make this point: “whoever fights in the way of God and is killed . . . to him shall We give a great reward” (qtd. in Milestones 43). Qutb emphasizes the fundamental nature of the standard of value of his ethics in his assertion that “the first part of the first pillar of Islam is the dedication of one’s life to God alone” (Milestones 75).

3.2 The Beneficiary of Ethics

The question of who should be the beneficiary in ethics is a question of whether others should have primacy over the self or the self over others. In order to answer this question, it is key to understand that all interest is the interest of an individual since it is the individual who is alive and has needs and whose needs have to be satisfied in order to sustain his life. A code of values, therefore, must be based on the interest of the individual. And by interest, what is meant is rational interest, not emotional interests, since the individual might be interested in something that is not good for him.

Rational self-interest seeks that which is good for man in the long term to promote his life. However, the ultimate goal is not life as such, but the good life. To live in a prison camp and be tortured daily without any possibility of escape is not a life worth living. It would be better to die. Man’s ultimate goal is properly understood as the good life. Therefore, it is that which benefits the individual in pursuit of the good life that sets the standard of what values ought to be pursued or maintained.

Many think of obligations toward others when they think about morality. In the Aristotelian tradition, morality is about how the individual should live in order to achieve the good life. Thinking of morality only in terms of obligations to others confuses ethics with politics. Ethics, in the Aristotelian tradition applies to individuals regardless of whether they are in society with other individuals. Even a castaway needs ethics to survive. Though he has no need to cooperate or negotiate with others (politics), there are still things he must do and not do in order to survive and thrive.

Also, when a person enters into society with others, there are conditions others have to satisfy before he has any moral obligations toward them. If they are enemies intent on enslaving him, he has no obligation to tell them the truth or respect them in their actions. Only when other people become an asset to him because of the values they can offer him does he enter into society and the realm of politics. Only in society does man contract obligations toward others.

Even in society, the Aristotelian tradition values the virtue of independence. According to this tradition, one should not depend on others for one’s opinions and beliefs. One should instead make one’s own determinations about what is good. The Aristotelian tradition tends to reject religion on the grounds that it creates a group mentality whereby believers believe what they believe not because they know it to be true, but because others believe it too. If they offer any evidence at all for their beliefs, it is inevitably mystical – such as communication with the Divine will. Other ideologies present the same problem, with proponents claiming to speak for the general will.

Maududi praises the prophet Muhammad for being a “diamond in a heap of stones” (Towards 56) for his willingness to put others over self: “Neither his words nor his deeds are prompted by self-interest. He suffers for the good of others” (Towards 36). “Can anyone imagine a higher example of self-sacrifice, fellow-feeling and humanity than that a man may ruin his own happiness for the good of others,” asks Maududi (Towards 62). “In the cavalcade of world history the sublime figure of this wonderful person towers so high above all others that they appear to be dwarfs when contrasted with him,” he later adds (Towards 72-73).

Maududi enjoins Muhammad’s followers to follow his example of altruism. “For there could be no greater cruelty than to fill one’s own coffers while others die of hunger or suffer the agonies of unemployment. Islam is a sworn enemy of selfishness, greed and acquisitiveness (Maududi, Towards 138-9). “What Islam totally disapproves of,” explains Maududi,

is conceited self-centeredness, which neglects the welfare and well-being of others and gives birth to an exaggerated individualism. It wants society as a whole to prosper, and not merely a few individuals. It instills in the minds of its followers social consciousness and suggests that they live a simple and frugal life, that they avoid excesses and, while fulfilling their own needs, keep in mind the needs and requirements of their kith and kin, their near and distant relatives, their friends and associates, their neighbours and fellow-citizens. (Towards 169-170)

While the above quote could be construed as putting self over others, it must be taken in the context of Maududi’s claim that “resources [i.e. wealth] have been conferred so that they may be used for the good of others” (Towards 149). This paper deals with this claim later in discussing the origin of wealth under the political presupposistion on justice and equality.

While Qutbian ethics does give primacy to others over self in Social Justice in Islam, the emphasis in Milestones is on an other (i.e. God) over self. In Social Justice in Islam, Qutb asserts that “Islam makes the zakat [almsgiving] an obligatory claim on the property of the wealthy in favor of the poor” (97), for example. However, it is clear from Milestones that social justice is only a means to an end. The end is God’s pleasure. In Milestones, Qutb argues that the height of civilization is reached “by adopting the values and standards of morality which are pleasing to God” (emphasis added) (69). Social justice is but one of the means employed to attain God’s pleasure. The difference between jahili (pre-Islamic) ethics and Qutbian ethics lies in their aims.

The aim of Qutbian ethics is submission to God’s will and pleasure. It is not “material comforts . . . at the expense of ‘human’ characteristics—freedom and honor, family and its obligations, morals and values, and so on—as is the case in jahili societies” (Qutb, Milestones 67). Qutb explains that once early Muslims raised the banner of social justice (i.e. Islam),

Morals were elevated, hearts and souls were purified, and with the exception of a very few cases, there was no occasion even to enforce the limits and punishments which God has prescribed; for now conscience was the law-enforcer, and the pleasure of God, the hope of divine reward, and the fear of God’s anger took the place of police and punishments (Qutb, Milestones 13-14).

3.3 The Moral Code of Ethics

The question of what should be the moral code of ethics is the question of whether what is right should have primacy over what is good or what is good over what is right. The idea of doing what is right is the idea of doing your duty. The towering figure in ethics in the Platonic tradition of the last two centuries has been Immanuel Kant (Rand, Return 174). Kant holds that duties are based on a rational principle, his categorical imperative, in accordance with which all must act.  Kant reasons that one must act in such a way that one’s action can be universalized. After all, argued Kant, if there are moral duties, they must be universal (i.e., they must equally apply to all men).

Doing one’s duty, in Kantian terms, means doing what is right independent of the consequences of one’s actions. But where do duties come from? For those, like Kant, who want to give primacy to the right over the good, duties just are, and we must simply accept this and conform or we are immoral. But if this is the case, and we choose to be immoral, of what consequence is it? For Kant, morality is not a means to an end but an end in itself. This sounds noble, but it means there is no reward for being moral, and no real consequence for being immoral. Of course, Kant would argue that being moral is its own reward and being immoral is its own punishment.

The good is that which gives rise to values (i.e., that which one seeks to obtain or keep). However, we must distinguish between what is apparently good and what is actually good. What is actually good is good whether we think it is or not. It can be objectively identified. For example, sufficient food and water are good because we need them to live and to live well. The Aristotelian ethic holds that the good life has real objective requirements: the actually good. Not everything we think of as good is actually good. We may err in identifying what is good. What we perceive as good may or may not actually be good.

Now that we have established an objective standard for what is good, we can say what is right. The right thing to do is that which is good to do, and good for man means that which promotes the good life. Objectively speaking, there are no duties that are incumbent upon man regardless of consequence. It is the consequences of actions that make them good or bad. Therefore, the good has primacy over the right. What is right to do must be interpreted in terms of what is good to do.

Nevertheless, the Kantian tradition holds that there are things that are right to do regardless of whether they are good to do and that one must do them anyway for the sake of duty. This implies obligations toward others withoug regard to self interest. This leads to the primacy of others over self as the beneficiary in ethics. Kant’s interpretation of “right” is the result of what Ayn Rand calls “the fallacy of the stolen concept” (Philosophy 22). One cannot actually make sense of knowing what is the right thing to do unless one can say in what sense it is right. What is right is right because it is required for the good life. The good life is the only thing that can impose ethical requirements.

As mentioned above in the section on the standard of value of ethics, Maududi believes Muslims “should live righteous [emphasis added] lives in accordance with God’s pleasure” (Towards 42). A Muslim “knows that his life and his property and everything else really belong to God, and he becomes ready to sacrifice his all for His pleasure” (Towards 102). Maududi criticizes those whose

idea of a good act is limited to whether in this brief temporary life it will bring gain in the shape of money, property, public applause and similar other things which give him position, power, reputation and worldly happiness. Such things become his objectives in life. Fulfillment of his own wishes and self-aggrandizement become the be-all and end-all of his life (Towards 119-20).

and whose “conception of a wrong act is one, which may involve a risk or injury to his interests in this world such as loss of property and life, harming of health, blackening of reputation or some other unpleasant consequence” (Towards 120). His conception of what is right is clearly divorced from what is good.

According to Qutbian ethics, in keeping with his primacy-of-consciousness metaphysics and faith-over-reason epistemology, man cannot look to the good to discover the right; he must look instead to revelation from God. He must look to the Qur’an “to find out what kind of person it asks us to be, and then be like that” (Qutb, Milestones 6). Since he “cannot change the practice of God in the laws prevailing in the universe. It is therefore desirable that he should also follow Islam in those aspects of his life in which he is given a choice and should make the divine Law the arbiter in all matters of life so that there may be harmony between man and the rest of the universe” (Qutb, Milestones 26). In Qutb’s view, man cannot determine for himself what is good. “Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings by designating others than God as lords over men,” a usurpation of God’s authority (Qutb, Milestones 34).

3.4 The Purpose of Ethics

The question of the purpose of ethics is a question of whether duty should have primacy over happiness or happiness over duty. Man needs to think in terms of purpose because his needs are long-term. In the Aristotelian tradition, the ultimate purpose of morality is happiness. For Kant it is to fulfill one’s duty. The fundamental question about morality is the question of its purpose. That is, why bother with morality in the first place? Suppose one were simply to ignore it and do whatever one lists? What would be at stake? For Kant the answer is one’s status as a moral human being. But, so what? Given Kant’s ethics, one can still be happy by manipulating others to one’s advantage.

Kant equates happiness with satisfying desires, with pleasure. But failing to fulfil one’s duty does not necessarily lead to unhappiness. One may amass wealth through criminal actions and still live a happy life. In Kant’s view, there has to be an afterlife in which God makes the lives of those who are immoral in this life miserable in order for man to be motivated to do his duty. On the other hand, for Kant it is an immature mind that thinks one must obtain something in exchange for being moral. A mature mind recognizes that being moral is its own reward.

According to Kant, man cannot control his feelings. He can only choose to act contrary to his feelings and in accordance with moral duty regardless of his feelings. In this view, an individual should never act according to his feelings. He cannot trust them since he has no control over them. So, we must simply do our duty whether we feel like doing it or not. In contrast, Aristotle teaches that we are in control of our feelings. Our feelings are the result of habit. The Aristotelian tradition recognizes that it requires practice and virtue to become a moral person. In this view, man can change his inclination and his feelings by persistence in changing his actions.

According to Aristotle, it takes time to be happy, to become a good person. It is not just a question of whether actions are right or wrong. There are two fundamental questions: (1) Why be moral? (2) What are the bearers of moral value? According to Kant’s philosophy, if we choose to ignore morality, we do not really miss out on anything; according to Aristotle, we miss out on the good life. As for the bearers of moral value, in Kantian philosophy the answer is actions. For Kant some actions are simply wrong and others right, regardless of circumstance, or who performs them, since action must always be in accordance with principle. It is one’s intentions that determine whether an action is right or wrong. For Aristotle it is not the action itself that is right or wrong but the consequences the action brings about.

Aristotle taught that one cannot look at an action and determine whether it is right or wrong on the face of it. If we were to ask Aristotle whether watching an hour of TV is good or bad, he would say it depends on the context. If the watcher works all day, then watches TV for an hour before bed to relax, Aristotle would not object. But if the watcher is unemployed and instead of looking for work and has already watched TV for ten hours, then Aristotle would object to him watching yet another hour of TV. He would argue that one cannot formulate an absolute principle devoid of context. It is not actions per se, but patterns of action (i.e., habits) that are good or bad.

Kant, on the other hand, agues that it is actions in and of themselves, regardless of context or consequences that are good or bad. There is the famous counterexample to Kant’s categorical imperative. According to Kant’s categorical imperative, it is always wrong to lie. Thus, if the Nazis were to knock on our door and ask if we are hiding Jews, we should answer truthfully even if we know it will lead to the death of the Jewish family we are hiding. Using this logic, if the Nazis arrest the Jews and kill them, that is their problem. Even if we know in advance that they will, we are not excused in lying. According to Kant, we cannot claim that telling a lie is not as bad as killing a whole family of people.

Like Kant, Maududi believes the “denial of life after death . . . destroys the very sanction for a good life” (Towards 117-18). He holds that man’s incentive to live “a respectable and honourable life on this earth” is to be able to “return to his Creator Who will shower on him the choicest of His blessings” having “discharged his duty [emphasis added] ably” (Towards 19). Man’s duty, of course, is to obey God and his prophets (Maududi, Towards 6, 19, 31, 40, 103, 130, 133, 136-7, 141, 151-2, 154, 157, 164, 168).

The purpose of Qutbian ethics is also for man to fulfill his duty to God. This is in keeping with the standard of value of Qutbian ethics – God’s pleasure. As in Kantian ethics, “[Faith] prescribes the reward of the one who accepts this authority and the punishment of those who deviate or oppose. Without this kind of belief or the concept of a higher authority, all valued [sic] remain unstable, and similarly morals based on them remain unstable” (Qutb, Milestones 13). However, according to Qutbian ethics,

the establishment of God’s law on earth is not merely for the sake of the next world. This world and the next world are not two separate entities, but are stages complementary to each other. The law given by God not only harmonizes these    two stages but also harmonizes human life with the general law of the universe. Thus, when harmony between human life and the universe ensues, its results are not postponed for the next world but are operative even in this world (Qutb, Milestones 62)

4. Politics

4.1 The Individual and the State

One of the primacy issues in politics is whether the state has primacy over the individual or the individual over the state. In the Aristotelian view, individuals have the right to live for themselves because it is the individual that has need of pursuit of values to survive and thrive. A rational individual would only join a society in which his life and liberty were protected and in which he could pursue his own happiness. Otherwise, he would be better off alone.

What are the conditions of cooperation? The answer is mutual acknowledgement of each individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. An individual uses his freedom to decide to be part of a society if that society is based on justice. If, on the other hand, the society were based on the use of force, then a rational individual would avoid that society. And if he were to find himself in such a society by no choice of his own, he would do what he could to fight against that society. If he were to lack the means to do so because the society or state had a monopoly on weapons, then he could only suffer, and hang on to see what he could do to start a revolution.

Maududi does not directly deal with the relationship between the individual and the state in Towards Understanding Islam. He does, however, praise Muhammad as a “great political reformer and statesman” who “brought together [the Arabs] under one banner, one law, one religion, one culture, one civilisation and one form of government” (Towards 65-6). “He accomplished this feat,” Maududi claims,

not through any worldly lure, oppression or cruelty, but by his humanity, his moral personality and his teaching. With his noble and gentle behaviour he befriended even his enemies. He captured the hearts of the people with his unbounded sympathy and the milk of human kindness. He ruled justly. He did not deviate from truth and righteousness. He did not oppress even his deadly enemies who were after his life, who had stoned him, who had turned him out of his native place, who had set the whole of Arabia against him . . . He forgave them all when he triumphed over them. He never took revenge on anyone for his personal grievances or the wrongs perpetrated on his person (Towards 67-8).

One marvels at Maududi’s account of Muhammad’s rise to power. As for his rule, Maududi claims that

In spite of the fact that he became the ruler of his country, he was so selfless and modest that he remained very simple and sparing in his habits. He lived poorly, as before, in his humble mud-cottage. He slept on a mattress, wore coarse clothes, ate either the simplest food of the poor or went without food at all (Towards 68).

For Maududi’s view of the state vis-à-vis the individual, we turn again to his treatise on jihad, Jihad in Islam: “Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam” and “to set up a state on the basis of its own ideology and programme” (Jihad 6) since “no state can put her ideology into full operation until the same ideology comes into force in the neighbouring states” (Jihad 23).

Maududi claims that “Islamic ‘Jihad’ does not seek to interfere with the faith, ideology, rituals of worship or social customs of the [non-believers]” and that “it allows them perfect freedom of religious belief and permits them to act according to their creed.” However, he immediately qualifies this statement by asserting, “Islamic ‘Jihad’ does not recognize their right to administer state affairs according to a system which, in the view of Islam, is evil.” He then adds that “Islamic ‘Jihad’ also refuses to admit their right to continue with such practices under an Islamic government which fatally affect the public interest from the viewpoint of Islam” (Jihad 27). He then goes on to enumerate examples of individual freedoms that would be eliminated following the rise of an Islamic government: all business based on usury or interest, gambling, prostitution, the freedom of women to “go about displaying their beauty like the days of ignorance,” and “such cultural activities as may be permissible in non-Muslim creeds, but which, from the viewpoint of Islam are corrosive of moral fibres and fatal” He also mentions the “clamp[ing of] censorship on the Cinema” (Jihad 27-28).

An Islamic state, being ordained of God, has primacy over the individual in Qutbian politics. This is the main thrust of Milestones. As their creator, God is sovereign over man and the universe (Qutb, Milestones 25). As part of the same creation, man and the universe must harmonize by submitting to God’s law. Since man “cannot change the practice of God in the laws prevailing in the universe,” he must “follow Islam in those aspects of his life in which he is given a choice and should make the divine Law the arbiter in all matters of life” (Qutb, Milestones 26). Thus, Islam “frees” man “from servitude to his own desires, which is also a form of human servitude; it is a declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone and that He is the Lord of all the worlds.” As quoted above, “Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings,” usurping God’s authority (Qutb, Milestones 34).

4.2 Justice and Equality

Another primacy issue in politics is whether equality has primacy over justice or justice over equality. At issue is the question of how wealth comes into being. Does one simply presuppose wealth and then decide how to distribute it, or does one consider the origin of wealth, then make a determination as to what policy to adopt. If one presupposses wealth, as is often the case in the Platonist tradition, then one might consider equality the highest political virtue. After all, given whatever wealth there simply is, it should be equally distributed. In other words, equality has primacy over liberty.

What if, on the other hand, one considers that wealth is not simply a given? If one considers that wealth has be created, and that it is created through the actions of individuals seeking to further and enhance their lives, then a new question arises. And that question is, what is the supreme value that makes the creation of wealth possible? The answer, of course, is the freedom of the individual to use his mind and channel his actions to create wealth. In other words, liberty has primacy over equality. This is the Aristotelian view.

Maududi’s view of wealth is that God confers it (Towards 149). “The believer,” explains Maududi,

understands that wealth is in God’s hands, and He apportions it out, as He likes; that honour, power, reputation and authority — everything — is subjected to His will and He bestows them as He will; and that man’s duty is only to endeavour and to struggle fairly. He knows that success and failure depend on God’s grace: if He wills to give, no power in the world can prevent Him from so doing: and if He does not will it, no power can force Him to (Towards 103).

“On the other hand,” he continues, the unbelievers “consider success and failure as dependent on their own efforts and the help or opposition of earthly powers” (Towards 103).

Qutbian politics also presupposes wealth as God-given. In Qutb’s view, as “[God’s] vicegerent on earth, [man] unearths the treasures and resources of food and raw materials for industries” and, if he is “a God-fearing person” and understands that he is only to act as “a representative of God” he develops these industries with an “attitude toward the material and moral aspects of life . . . infused with this spirit (Milestones 69). As quoted above, from Qutb’s Social Justice in Islam, “Islam makes the zakat an obligatory claim on the property of the wealthy in favor of the poor.” Furthermore, “It is a due which the government can exact by the authority of the law and by the power of its administration” (97). However, Qutb explains in Milestones, “true social justice can come to a society only after all affairs have been submitted to the laws of God and the society as a whole is willing to accept the just division of wealth prescribed by Him” (11).


The Islamist totalitarian ideology of Maududi and Qutb contains all nine of the Platonic philosphical presuppositions of the totalitarian ideologues who preceded them and has influenced the thought of the Islamist totalitarian ideologues who have followed them. Maududi and Qutb were undoubtedly influenced by Lenin. In fact, Qutb’s Milestones has been compared with Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (Al-Houdaiby) Maududi and Qutb were also influenced by all of the philosophers in the Platonic tradition (e.g. Plato, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx) who influenced the totalarian ideologues (Jackson 22). Their Islamist totalitarian thought also influenced other Islamist thinkers in a totalitarian direction. Maududi influenced Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His ideas can even be traced to Osama bin Laden through Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who taught bin Laden, and Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Muhammad Qutb, who also taught bin Laden (Jackson 2). Qutb’s Islamist totalitarian thought also influenced other Islamist thinkers in a totalitarian direction (e.g. Ayman al-Zawahiri). His ideas can also be traced to Osama bin Laden through his brother, Muhammad Qutb, who was bin Laden’s teacher (Jackson 2).

At the heart of all totalitarian ideologies is a primacy of consciousness metaphysics, followed by an epistemology of mysticism, an ethics of altruism, and a politics of collectivism. This paper has examined the thought of South Asian Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi as exposed in his seminal works, Towards Understanding Islam and Jihad in Islam, and Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb as exposed in his seminal works, Milestones and Social Justice in Islam against nine Platonic philosophical presuppositions present in all totalitarian ideologies. This examination has demonstrated conclusively that Maududi’s and Qutb’s thought, as exposed in their principal works, fit the totalitarian philosophical pattern of thought.


Works Cited

Al-Houdaiby, Ibrahim. “Four Decades After Sayyid Qutb’s Execution.” Daily News Egypt [Giza] 28 Aug 2008. Print. <>.
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Maududi, Sayyid Abul A’la. Jihad in Islam. Beirut: The Holy Koran Publishing House. 1980. Print.
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Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Seattle: CreateSpace. 2005. Print.
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Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.