The Mythic Foundations of Radical Islam

Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice, not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head—this being just a symptom and not the real disease—but because humanity is devoid of those vital values for its healthy development and real progress. Even Western scholars realize that their civilization is unable to present healthy values for the guidance of mankind and does not possess anything to satisfy its own conscience or justify its existence.

These are the words of the Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), taken from his 1964 treatise Maalim fi al-Tariq (‘‘Milestones’’), which is to the Islamist movement what Lenin’s ‘‘What is to be Done?’’ was to Marxism. In this passage Qutb expresses one of the most enduring themes in radical Islamist discourse: that the Western-dominated world order is in the grip of spiritual decline and decadence. He goes on to explain why only Islam, properly understood, is in a position to remedy this. According to Qutb, the crass materialism and selfish individualism of the current age are features not only of Western secular societies, but also of ostensibly Muslim nations such as Egypt. True Muslims, he writes, have an obligation to challenge this global decadence and restore the full sovereignty of God over every area of life. Qutb argued for a vanguard of believers to spearhead a revolt against the powers that be, thus releasing man from servitude so that he could serve God alone.

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