Milestones claims to be a revivalist primer, to return Islam to its roots, but it is really a hybrid of traditional Islam with modern ideological organizing systems, primarily Leninism. This hybrid has proven to be a powerful combination, perhaps unsurprisingly given the power of both Leninism and modern Islamism in the 20th Century. Qutb’s contribution was to meld the two, promising the fusion will create harmonious societies with unparalleled virtues equivalent to those of the first Islamic societies. This is the core of modern, late 20th-century Islamism, of which Qutb was its primary theoretician.
Revivalism in Islam has a long history. The original revivalists were the Kharijites of the 7th century AD, who like Qutb believed that other Muslims had lost their way and were no longer Muslims, and were therefore apostates worthy of death. Kharijites believed, among other things, that any Muslim who sinned and failed to repent was no longer a Muslim (similar to certain the early Christian heresy Montanism, and to the Christian heresy of Donatism as applied to sacramental efficacy of priests).
In Marshall Hodgson’s encyclopedic The Venture Of Islam, the Kharijites are described in detail, and it’s instructive to view Qutb through that historical prism. As they say, everything old is new again—the Kharijites were primarily young, unattached men looking for transcendence and meaning in their life, which they found in a combination of an ascetic, purified version of their religion combined with the violence attractive to young men throughout history. Unsurprisingly, as with modern Islamists, the Kharijites were unpopular with both established governments, who did not appreciate being called illegitimate, and the majority of Muslims, who did not appreciate being characterized as apostates, but as with most hardcore ideological movements, a relatively small group was able to make a substantial impact before their influence died away. But, of course, variations crop up reliably, most recently with 19th-century Wahhabism, still the dominant force in Saudi Arabia today, due to its fusion with the state.
Leninism in Islam, on the other hand, has no history at all before Qutb. Milestones emphasizes the critical nature of the vanguard of Islamic believers in converting an unbelieving society. Qutb shows how the original Muslims were a vanguard in their pagan society, and rather than converting those around them with arguments from reason, or arguments about how Islam led to a better life, they instead showed by the example of their lives and their complete submission to Allah that the only way possible for human happiness is Islam. Also as with Leninism, Qutb endorses that the vanguard may use violence to achieve the objective of creating a true Muslim society—“propaganda of the deed,” in Leninist terms. It’s a commonplace that Communism is a religion, but it shows most clearly in these sorts of parallels.
Qutb rejects reforming or organizing a society around any other principle than Islam. Imperialism, economic justice, racial justice, and so forth are not relevant considerations with regard to reforming a society. Qutb would say that a Muslim society is ideal on all social measures, but the goal is not to achieve any social measure, only to be a pure Muslim society, which by definition will be perfect in all ways possible on Earth, and lead to happiness for believers in the hereafter.
Of course, as with most revival movements, but with the extra helping of dualism inherent in Islam, this is a very Manichean view. Oddly, Milestones has something in common with Roman Catholic publications like the Baltimore Catechism—it is a self-contained vision of the world, which offers its own justification without the need for internally coherent reasoning. Islam is true because it is true. It is the best because it is the best.
Qutb categorizes all modern (as of the 1960s) Muslim societies as non-Muslim, or jahiliyyah (a term originally applied to the pagans of the Arabian peninsula prior to the rise to power of Muhammad, and to the Mongols, who accepted Islam but didn’t bother to actually follow any of the rules). He also categorizes all non-Muslim societies in the same way. To him, both are just as in need of being converted to true Muslim societies, through the leadership of the vanguard.
Other than the perfection of Islam and its need for human happiness, what comes through most clearly in Milestones is an emphasis on the triumphalism, necessary superiority and required dominance of Islam. This is a mainstream Muslim belief, not Qutb’s or Islamists’ alone. For Qutb, and for most mainstream Muslims, it is not necessary that everybody be Muslim, for religion is each person’s choice (though it is absolutely necessary to be Muslim for that person to achieve Heaven). As the Qur’an is quoted, “There is no compulsion in religion.” However, it is absolutely necessary in each and every society that Muslims be in charge and that Islam be completely dominant. This dominance is defined as the equivalent of total freedom for everyone. No society is permissible that is not wholly within the daily total control of Muslims and only Muslims, for only then are all men free. “[Non-Muslim] societies do not give [Islam] any opportunity to organize its followers according to its own method, and hence it is the duty of Islam to annihilate all such systems, as they are obstacles in the way of universal freedom.” And, “wherever an Islamic community exists, it has a God-given right to step forward and take control of the political authority so it may establish the Divine system on earth, while it leaves the matter of belief to individual conscience.” This is very different, of course, from the Western idea of freedom of conscience combined with democracy.
Qutb also believes that individual Muslims should focus on their personal, individual superiority to non-Muslims. Chapter 11, “The Faith Triumphant,” has such gems as “Conditions change, the Muslim loses his physical power and is conquered, yet the consciousness does not depart from him that he is the most superior.” This is an interesting comparison to Christianity, which theologically emphasizes the need to NOT feel superior to any other human beings, the sin of pride, despite the deep human tendency toward pride. From Qutb’s vantage, though, Muslim societies had descended from their prior ascendency, and he is keen to emphasize that Islam does not need to be justified or favored because of worldly success, scientific inventions, or any other worldly evidence. It is superior because it is superior.
Milestones is a powerful book. Yes, there are howlers (The Jews “penetrate into the body politic of the whole world and then [are] free to perpetrate their evil designs”! Islam created the scientific method and Europeans stole it!) But its vision is compelling in ways that may not be fully appreciated by the closed-minded reader. Islam offers a vision of social harmony, where all people are equal—not just in the sense of no racial or economic distinctions, but where the king is actually equal to the peasant. Sure, in practice that may not be fully true, or true at all, but Muslim societies come closest to this ideal of any societies in history. Those who think of Islam as merely a violent religion offering nothing fail to appreciate the beauty of much of what Islam has created, the refined thinking of thousands of keen theologians over 1500 years, and the compelling, simple to understand theological vision Islam offers (no need to bother with paradoxes like the Christian Trinity!) And a dualistic, good/evil approach that offers a total solution to life here and life hereafter has a compelling pull to many people who seek transcendence. It’s no wonder that Qutb’s combination of this powerful vision with modern ideological organizing principles has proven so powerful.