“Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism” William R. Polk


The Arabic word used of Fundamentalist – now usually thought of as revolution-friendly — Islam is salafiyah. Even native Arabic speakers usually translate it as “reactionary.”  But the concept is far more complex.  The word salafi in classical Arabicmeans a person who stands both in the rearguard and in the vanguard — Arabic delights in such contrasts.  The logic of the apparent paradox was brought out by the teachings of jurisconsults from the beginning of the “impact of the West.”  In the Eighteenth century they began to search for means to protect their civilization.   Some argued that  “real” strength was not gained by copying the practices of the West but had to be derived from fundamentals as laid out in the Quran and elucidated in the practices of the Prophet and his intimate circle (the Hadith).  Weakness, they believed, came from the innovations and perversions that encrusted Islamic thought and Islamic society in the long dark ages of decline of  its power and civilization."  WR Polk

Download Appendix A


From time to time some of you ask for instruction about Islam.  pl

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35 Responses to “Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism” William R. Polk

  1. toto says:

    IIUC, the broad movements that are called “Salafi” are actually reactionary revolutionaries. It is a mistake to just classify them as “ultra-conservatives”, because they very much want to change the current state of affairs radically – to replace it with a re-imagined version of the past (a point that Razib Khan has been making several times:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/07/still-not-understanding-the-nature-of-affairs/ )
    For all his philosophy, I’m wondering how much of Qutub’s views of the West can simply be explained by the well-known “W-curve” phenomenon of foreign students coming into a new culture :
    Looks like he just left the West while at the bottom of the second “V”.

  2. Kunuri says:

    This is a chilling article, if I did not actually know people who think like this Qutub guy, I would think its bunk, but alas, it puts things in clear perspective.
    Surely Qutub must not be the norm among billions of Muslims around the world. In my humble opinion, his drivel is more of a danger to peaceful, common sense Muslims than the West. How can anyone in his right mind urge the faithful with so much venom for perpetual war against the rest of the world?
    Mao and Ho Chi-minh may have used similar tactics for their wars of independence, but they were not fighting the rest of the world, and both were nationalists and communists, so they were rational men. Qutub?
    And about the use of modern management techniques and know how to be borrowed until the aims are achieved…Just not possible, unless they are Machievelli’s management techniques. Modern and fundamentalist just don’t mix, no matter what the subject, or the aim is. Can one imagine a CEO who ignores modern credit system based upon interest and capital, or steel cold cause and effect analysis required for complex business decisions, and still stick to the principles established by Qutub? And if we assume that war making is a modern science, and perhaps art, good luck to these guys winning any war.

  3. turcopolier says:

    as I have said many times there are as many varieties of Islam as there are ijma’ groups and each one thinks itself to be uniquely expressive of God’s will. pl

  4. Is there any way to identify Islam and its many sects priorities for “reforming” “others” than its worshipers [infidels generally or Christians or Jews first?]?

  5. nick b says:

    “This is a chilling article, if I did not actually know people who think like this Qutub guy, I would think its bunk, but alas, it puts things in clear perspective.”
    I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I found this article to be both fascinating and very sobering. It wasn’t so much Qutub, but Naji that chilled and confounded me. Reading his ‘plan’ was like some bizarre exercise in Poe’s Law.
    I appreciate the education, Colonel. And I must say the Dr. Polk has a gift for clear, concise explanation. I look forward to the final installment of this paper.

  6. turcopolier says:

    nick b
    All of this is well known. Polk has done people a favor by assembling it nicely. pl

  7. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Qutb and others like him were a particular response to Western Modernity and Western political dominance of Islamdom.
    Ayatollah Khomeini was another response and Ataturk yet another one.
    This has a long historical pedigree, from Muhammad Ali of Egypt, to Sultan Abdul Hamid, to Mirza Taqi Khan, to Seyyed Jamal Al Din Assad-abadi.
    An adequate response to Western Modernity does not exist anywhere in the world – in my opinion; not in China, not in Viet Nam, not in Japan, not in Russia, and certainly not among Muslims.
    So we have all sorts of oscillations among such things like Boxer Rebellion in China, to Russo-Japanese War, to Maoism, to Islamic Revolution in Iran.

  8. nick b says:

    You said in a response on another post, in regard to Muslims:
    “Try listening to them without dismissing what they say as deluded and futile.”
    I’ve taken the quote out of context, but it resonated with me, because I have been guilty of doing this most of my life. When you start looking things from that perspective it all seems quite new, at least to me.
    If you’d indulge me in a bit of skeptical fantasy, I couldn’t help thinking as I read about Abu Bakr Naji, that if you wanted write false document that would discredit a religion or movement and horrify westerners, this would be a great example. Dr. Polk mentions in his appendix that nobody knows Naji, and he could be a group of people. In his footnotes he mentions the copy of Naji’s “Management of Savagery” that he cites is a translation, and he has been unable to secure the original Arabic text. (I wouldn’t want to be scouring the internet for it either!) Anyway, my skeptical side ran away with me and I wondered if could be a brilliant hoax. With apologies to A. Clarke: any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a real crazy.

  9. I think the published appendix is both accurate and an important analysis that all should read carefully and to some degree answers the question previous posted by me as comment on this post. Thanks to PL and the author for the clarity and if accurate then I would argue US policy as currently constructed will continue to fail as it largely has since 9/11!

  10. turcopolier says:

    nick b
    “If you’d indulge me in a bit of skeptical fantasy, I couldn’t help thinking as I read about Abu Bakr Naji, that if you wanted write false document that would discredit a religion or movement and horrify westerners, this would be a great example” You have learned nothing about this and still cannot accept real difference in thought, but that is fine most of the US government has learned nothing about this in the last ten years, pl

  11. nick b says:

    I assure you, I have learned, I am learning I admit fully that it is very hard for me to grasp. The confines of my western education and a life of privilege make the concepts of Naji so foreign to me that it’s easier for me to conceive of them as a hoax than possibly being real. I’m trying, and I did describe my thoughts as fantasy.

  12. abusinan says:

    I dont think you can even talk about the Salafiya as a singular group. Tariq Ramadan breaks them down into multiple groups, six as I remember from one of his books. They are not all of the same, some completely reject involvement in politics, violence and the like.

  13. Bandolero says:

    I find it a strange way how William R. Polk puzzles history together, in a direct line from Sayed Qutb to Abu Bakr Naji. I appreciate his likening of Sayed Qutb to Martin Luther, especially not only in Luther being a positive revolutionary, but also, what Polk didn’t say, in regard to Luther being the fanatic sectarian jew-hater as he was, but I don’t think “Abu Bakr Naji” was similar to Sayed Qutb.
    As I read his text I waited for an explanation why Obama didn’t outreach to “Abu Bakr Naji” when he could have been his ally in his fight against the lobby but instead simply vowed to kill him at a great price of blood, just as if he thought “Abu Bakr Naji’s” teachings would be out of the world when he is dead.
    I’m simply sad for that missed opportunity, and the scores of dead that were the cost of that ignorant policy.

  14. turcopolier says:

    Your positions are damaged by the level of your bile against the US and the western scholarship that you so detest. I have studied Islam in its many forms for a long time. Polk’s paper is flawless however much you may wish to denigrate it. pl

  15. turcopolier says:

    It remains an emblem of my failure as a teacher, that so many of you still cannot accept the reality of other mindsets than those of the West. pl

  16. Bandolero says:

    Your assessment of my bile may be correct. I simply don’t believe that the US doesn’t have any idea of who is “Abu Bakr Naji” while I do have a clear idea of that.
    Do you really think the US intel community has no idea of who is the theoretician behind the nom de guerre Abu Bakr Naji?
    I do think the US intel does know. And I do not think it was that difficult. Is it?

  17. turcopolier says:

    I have had this discussion for so long… In general Americans are as ignorant of foreign cultures as could be and do not wish to know more. The reason is that we believe our society to be an evolved form. The IC is no exception. It is filled with the intellectual garbage of PS/IR relations. I was so successful (until destroyed by the Zionists)because I was a creature of the humanities and had a certain talent. The US IC understands little of foreign cultures. and is unlikely to do better. I understand that you will not understand or accept this. pl

  18. Fred says:

    Remember the last line of Mr. Polk’s? “Nothing quite like it has been on the world stage since the great wars of religion some four hundred years ago. ”
    To me this explains why so few Westerners are willing to open their eyes to what is happening. As to ‘management’ principles, well so the manage savagery and an economy. That later is just not ‘efficient’ in a theoretical sense. The savagery certainly seems ‘efficient’.

  19. Fred says:

    Very very interesting. Doesn’t this point out the influence of Saudi money given all of the Madrases they have set up over the last few decades? Aren’t their leaders (like Prince Bandar) the ones so influenced by the writings of Qutub?

  20. Fred says:

    Haven’t you met a single true believer of any faith? This is not written as a theory for graduate students. Those who believe are not looking for a phd and a tenure track job but to save the soul of their faith.

  21. Fred says:

    When reading this, especially the idea of the ‘management of savagery’, the first thought that came to mind was that this was exactly what Abimael Guzmán initiated in Peru with Sendero Luminoso. Cleanse the society to purity by way of savagery (pure of communism, as interpreted by Abimael Guzmán).

  22. Eliot says:

    Once upon a time I attended a talk Howard Hart gave at UVa. He bemoaned what had become of his CIA. Where once upon a time they recruited the best, now they recruited the available – these were men and women with limited experiences, limited horizons. Men and women who had little exposure to the outside world. Men and women who could only imagine the world they grew up in.
    James Bowman has made a career writing about honor. I’m reluctant to prescribe too much to any academic but I think he has a point in his writings – in this age, in this modern era, we’ve lost touch with the idea of service. We no longer believe in sacrifice. The men and women with imagination, the individuals that can imagine other futures – other possibilities. They’ve pursued more lucrative paths, they’ve prostrated themselves for lucre.
    I’ve met too many dull souls in the IR department here. Men and women who spout the dogma, without thinking, without questioning. It’s such drivel, it’s such obvious drivel – yet no one seems interested in calling it out. We’ve learned to believe whatever we’re told. The answer isn’t ‘what’s right’ it’s ‘whatever I was taught to believe’.
    What happened to intellectual discourse in this country? I think we an do better than this. We can do more than drinking the cool aid and spout the party line.

  23. steve g says:

    Col Lang:
    Thank you for posting this. Very informative.
    Especially liked his glossary of terms in
    Arabic to the relavent material. Still digesting
    the complexity. Better understand now how it
    would take a lifetime of study if you just
    viewed Islam from the written word with all its
    nuances and sometimes multiple meanings and phrases
    without living in the culture.

  24. Eliot,
    I think part of the problem has to do with an epistemological mistake. Quite late in life, I came across the short ‘Autobiography’ which the British philosopher/archeologist/historian R.G. Collingwood published in 1939. It related his own philosophical concerns not only to his own bitter opposition to ‘appeasement’, but also to his deeply critical view of the Versailles Treaty – he had been involved in the preparations for the post-war peace in Admiralty Intelligence during the First World War.
    The book helped me to make sense of a range of puzzles I had come up against working as a journalist.
    The art of politics, in Collingwood’s view, had to do with the handling of specific situations. His view that all history is the ‘history of thought’ is relevant here. Nothing could be further from the truth than to see this as an intellectual’s fantasy.
    His point was simply that a very great deal of human action is purposive and problem-solving, and to understand it is necessary to understand what the problem is people are trying to solve, which requires an understanding of context. It also requires, above all, the imagination to enter into the heads of others. But this does not make the process unscientific. Once one can formulate hypotheses, one can generate testable propositions.
    Another central argument Collingwood made had to with the notion that we carry around the past ‘encapsulated’ in us – and that not uncommonly it survives in different layers, which may be in tension.
    An example of how important it is, in navigating specific situations, to try to understand the problems people see themselves as solving comes from recent discussions on SST of Israel. A central assumption underlying belief in the possibility of a ‘two-state’ solution has been that the problem that the Israelis were trying to solve must be to preserve a Jewish majority in the face of unfavourable demographic trends, so that if sufficiently reassured they could be persuaded to relinquish the West Bank.
    The Colonel’s interpretation has been that Israeli Zionists never had any intention of relinquishing key parts of ‘Eretz Israel’, a conception which is clearly related to their vision of the country as the ‘national home of the Jewish people’, and a safe haven for Jews everywhere. It now seems quite clear that the Colonel’s view was right all along. A failure of imagination, and a consequent incorrect definition of the problem people saw themselves as trying to solve, has lead to decades of catastrophically misconceived policies.
    As to layers in tension, it is fascinating to see read interviews by Ari Shavit with Avraham Burg and Amos Elon. What we are seeing here is a Polish Jew who is evidently comfortable in a somewhat liberalized version of the old Eastern European ghetto confronting two ‘yekkes’ – German Jews – whose fundamental sympathies are with the integrationist enthusiasms of their forbears. Both moreover, quite patently think the view that the Holocaust teaches timeless truths about the attitude of the ‘goyim’ to Jews nonsense. Last but not least, both clearly find the ghetto mentality of contemporary Israeli society intolerably constricting.
    Putting the same point another way, when Helmut Ostermann became Uri Avnery, and attempted to put his European past behind him, he was, in the end, engaged in a quixotic endeavour.
    (See http://peacepalestine.blogspot.co.uk/2007/06/complete-abraham-burg-interview-leaving.html
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2004/12/27/an-interview-with-amos-elon/ )

  25. Babak Makkinejad says:

    In other words; to the unthinking man with a hammer, all problems are nails.

  26. Babak Makkinejad,
    That certainly tends to be the effect. The problem is I think illuminated by some remarks of Richard Ned Lebow in a critique of Thomas Schelling, entitled ‘Reason Divorced from Reality: Thomas Schelling and Strategic Bargaining’, which he published in 2006:
    “His work is emblematic of a more general American approach to the world that seeks, when possible, to substitute a combination of technical fixes and military muscle for political insight and diplomatic finesse. Schelling may be ‘the best and brightest’ representative of a tradition that continues to shape American thinking about strategy and coercive bargaining. He is also an important representative of a broader intellectual development: the colonization by microeconomics of international relations and the social sciences more generally. The Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence represent crucial imperial outposts in this process. They are fair game for those of us who question the value of framing the study of international relations in this manner.
    “For different reasons, both the theory and practice of international relations are dominated by the search for technical fixes. In the world of theory, this is motivated by the desire for parsimonious theory and reinforced by general ignorance of history, language and diverse cultures. Study of history, foreign languages and cultures are on the whole discouraged by top-ranked American graduate programs in international relations. Their narrowness reflects arrogance, but also recognition that any acknowledgment of the relevance of this kind of knowledge would significantly reduce the claims of pure theorists of any orientation for status and resources.”

  27. Eliot! Did you mean Howard Hunt?
    The recruitment of “employees” by the CIA can in part only reflect America. Have you read “The Closing of the American Mind” by Harold Bloom?

  28. Anyone? Does Islam derive in anyway from the Civilization of Ancient Greece and did the “pagan” philosophers of Greece impact Islam?
    Am I correct in labeling Islam a Western” religion?

  29. Fred says:

    David, this is the stake through the the heart of IR theory:
    “…Their narrowness reflects arrogance, but also recognition that any acknowledgment of the relevance of this kind of knowledge would significantly reduce the claims of pure theorists of any orientation for status and resources.”…”
    Of course none of the graduates of IR programs can expand their own knowledge after obtaining that phd, that would be a repudiation of themselves, who they spent 21 years in academia creating. They would never get a job recommendation, much less a job. It is conformity of the worst kind.

  30. Jane says:

    You can add the Khmer Rouge to that category.

  31. Jane says:

    ‘Abu Bakr Naji’ is in error if he believes that the West is much interested in either revenge or reconciliation. We are much more short-sightedly utilitarian than that.

  32. David Habakkuk says:

    If my memory serves me right, you quoted some time back from a poem by Yeats – ‘All think what other people think;/ All know the man their neighbour knows.’ It seemed apt.
    I also suspect that the kind of education people get in International Relations/Political Science programmes may actually serve to discourage the development of imagination.

  33. turcopolier says:

    David Habakkuk
    In my experience a background in poly sci or international relations can easily be an intellect killer. pl

  34. Fred says:

    Yes, to both your points.

  35. Kunuri says:

    I studied Art and Art History in college so there may be hope for me as far as my intelligence may not have been killed, yet.
    Art school messed me up. Things started to fall into place for me however, in graduate school I took up Architectural Design and Set Design, both disciplines firmly based on ground, utilizing imagination and creativity still, but with heavy emphasis on reality of actually making things stand up.
    What would be the equivelant of my experience for someone who studied political science or international relations, with a “killed” intelligence, but to follow up with a subject that puts things in perspective and validate their previous education? In other words, how can they “unkill” their intellect?

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