This essay introduces the civil war within Islam. To understand the battle between Israel and Hamas, it is necessary to see the central rift that defines this civil war. It is overly simplistic to refer to “the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Hamas belongs to the Islamist “resistance” camp, whose ideology began to leave its stamp on the Islamic world in general, and Palestinian society in particular, during the first half of the 20th century.
There is a tolerant camp in the Islamic world that opposes the Islamists. This diverse camp is constituted by future-minded regimes, traditionalist scholars and state-sponsored clerics who want a pluralistic future for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Peace with Israel fits into this vision. The tolerant camp drew a line in the sand with the 2020 Abraham Accords.
We will begin our examination of this civil war by exploring the thought of the most influential Islamist writer of the 20th century, Sayyid Qutb. The essay’s second sub-section traces the connection between Qutb and the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the third sub-section highlights the main initiatives and perspectives of the tolerant camp. We conclude by emphasizing the necessity of thoroughly defeating Hamas.
Hamas’ October 7th attack on Israel was more than an opening salvo in a war between Israel and the terror organization that has ruled Gaza since 2007. Hamas is a self-declared member of the “Islamist resistance” camp. Through the October 7th attack, this camp reasserted one of its main principles with barbaric clarity, namely, the refusal to ever make peace with Israel.
“Islamism,” or as it is also known, “Political Islam,” refers to a revolutionary interpretation of Islam whose roots go back to the beginning of the 20th century. This interpretation needs to be distinguished from Islam, simply.
Hamas notes its link to the Islamist camp in its 1988 Charter. According to Charter’s seventh article, the war against Israel was launched nine years before the founding of the State in 1948:
[Hamas] is one of the links in the chain of the struggle against the Zionist invaders. It goes back to 1939, to the emergence of the martyr Izz al-Din al Kissam and his brethren the fighters, members of Muslim Brotherhood. It goes on to reach out and become one with another chain that includes the struggle of the Palestinians and Muslim Brotherhood in the 1948 war and the Jihad operations of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1968 and after.
The Muslim Brotherhood is mentioned three times in Article 7. The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational religious and social movement founded in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century that has served as an incubator for some of the most revolutionary and violent forms of Islamism that have appeared during the 20th and 21st centuries, from Al-Qaeda to ISIS to Hamas.
Prominent 20th century thinkers and leaders of the Islamist camp include the father of Islamism in colonial India, Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi (1903-79); the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hasan al-Banna (1906-49); and the West Bank born and Muslim Brotherhood educated mentor to Osama bin Laden who was present at the founding of Hamas, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (1941-89). The most consequential Islamist thinker of the 20th century, however, was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66).
An Egyptian-born intellectual heavyweight, during his career Qutb migrated from Cairo’s literati (he was an early champion of novelist Nagib Mahfouz) to the revolutionary vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood. The author of literary criticism, novels, poetry, travelogues, an influential call to action entitled Milestones, and a thirty-volume commentary on the Quran, Qutb’s interpretation of Islam remains a potent spiritual-political stimulant for Islamists around the world today.
A large part of Qutb’s intense influence comes from his conceptualization of the battle against “Jahiliya.” What is the import of this Arabic term? Many Muslim sources refer to Jahaliya as the period of ignorance preceding the revelation of the Quran. Qutb, however, accepted the interpretation that Jahiliya doesn’t refer to a historical period but to a state of being, a spiritual condition that is possible at any time and in any place. He then took that idea to new extremes. Jahaliya, for Qutb, doesn’t just refer to the capitalist West or to the communist East; Jahaliya refers to any society that doesn’t live by the Shari’a (the Law of Islam). Even a country whose leader publicly proclaims belief in God and whose educational system is infused with Islamic texts will remain a Jahili society if the Shari’a is not implemented. Without the Shari’a, all that remains is “the rule of humans by humans,” i.e., oppression. Is there a more fundamental violation of God’s sovereignty than this?
The consequences to Qutb’s interpretation are extreme. Since in Qutb’s time there wasn’t a single “Muslim” state that ruled according to the Shari’a, then by his standard, all of the so-called Muslim states were also Jahili and, as such, illegitimate. According to Qutb the fitting response of “true” Muslims remains what it was at the time of the Prophet Muhammad: resistance.
It’s worthwhile meditating on Qutb’s understanding of Jahiliya in order to appreciate the way in which it has entranced, and through his books and myriad followers, continues to entrance the minds of many Muslims.
Imagine a young Muslim wondering at the weakness of many Muslim states and communities, whether in the MENA region or around the globe. According to the Quran:
You are the best nation raised up for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and you believe in Allah.
The reality, however, is that so-called Muslim states and individuals imitate aspects of Western politics and culture while the West remains politically ascendant and culturally dominant. What’s going on?
Qutb explains that the West, armed with science and technology and claiming to be the height of cultural and political progress, has created the most comprehensive Jahaliya ever to cover the face of the earth. The West doesn’t just colonize lands, it colonizes minds. The states and kingdoms that call themselves Islamic are not Islamic at all, for God’s rule through the Shari’a must be viscerally manifest. The Quran, Qutb argues, is clear, “It is He Who is sovereign in heavens and Sovereign in the earth.”
As for the masses of so-called “Muslims,” they’re blind to their condition. Thus, said Qutb:
We call for the restoration of Islamic life in an Islamic society governed by the Islamic creed and the Islamic conception as well as by the Islamic Shari’a and the Islamic order. We know that Islamic life – in this sense – stopped a long time ago in all parts of the world and that the “existence” of Islam itself has therefore stopped. And we state this last fact openly, in spite of the shock, alarm, and loss of hope it may cause to many who like to think of themselves as ‘Muslims’!(Trans. in “Sayyid Qutb’s Doctrine of “Jāhiliyya.” William E. Shepard. International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Nov., 2003), pp. 521-545)
In Qutb’s hands, the concept of Jahiliya is the red pill that you take to see through the Matrix-like character of contemporary life, a world of deceiving surfaces in which Modernity is Jahaliya—just like in the Prophet’s time, but deeper—and Islam, in practice, no longer exists.
In examining the various factors that shaped Qutb’s thinking, one of the curious aspects of his biography is that he was radicalized shortly after spending 1948-50 in the United States on an Egyptian Ministry of Education scholarship to study American pedagogical methods. In a story that reveals Qutb’s deep, Islamically-informed social conservatism, Qutb was scandalized by what he encountered at a dance in Greeley, Colorado (population 20,000):
The dance floor was lit with red and yellow and blue lights… Arms embraced hips, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests.
The ultra-conservative and critical-minded Egyptian guest-student noted one of the songs that was playing that night, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”:
A famous American song… composed of a dialogue between a boy and a girl returning from their evening date. The boy took the girl to his home and kept her from leaving. She entreated him to let her return home, for it was getting late, and her mother was waiting but every time she would make an excuse, he would reply to her with this line: but baby, it’s cold outside!
It is easy to laugh. Fraenk Loesser originally wrote “Baby It’s Cold Outside” as party shtick that he sang with his wife.
To be fair, Qutb would respond by asking our opinion regarding some of the more vulgar acts, manners and mores on today’s scene. His followers think he saw it all coming. Upon returning to Egypt, Qutb published a three-part essay, ““The America I Have Seen”: In the Scale of Human Values,” in which he declared the Americans to be the real primitives.
The goal and the path for Qutb are clear, Shari’a. So too is the price. The world being as it is, i.e., Jahaliya, anyone who aims to please God must be willing to lose his or her life. Qutb was hanged by Nasser in 1966. We can imagine him in court holding an open Quran in one hand, signalling victory with the other and smiling, “We love death more than you love life.”
Qutb’s influence, it’s important to note, isn’t restricted to the Sunni world. His works also inspired Islamist revolutionaries in Iran. A little known but astounding fact is that Ali Khamenei, the “supreme leader” of the Iranian regime since 1989, translated four of Qutb’s books into Persian. Khamenei didn’t translate four books by anyone else.
There is an overlooked but very consequential line of influence that transcends the traditional Sunni-Shi’a divide and connects Sayyid Qutb to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Qutb met with and encouraged Iranian revolutionaries and his writings played an important role in the Iranian Islamist revolution. One scholar recently summed up the issue concisely:
The influence of Sayyid Quṭb on the Islamist movement and the revolutionaries of Iran is still not acknowledged sufficiently and remains largely unknown in the West.(“Sayyid Quṭb in Iran: Translating the Islamist Ideologue in the Islamic Republic” Yusuf Ünal, Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (November 2016), pp. 35-50).
Qutb’s connection to Shi’ite activists dates back to the early 50s, when Iranian cleric Navvab Safavi, leader of the Iranian “Fedayeen of Islam,” visited him in Egypt. Safavi was impressed by Qutb, imported his ideology back to Iran, and then promoted the vision of an Islamic state among Iranian revolutionaries. Translations of Quṭb’s works soon followed. In many cases, the Persian-language translators were also activists who went on to play important roles in the Iranian revolution, the most prominent being Safavi’s student, Khamenei. Among the books that Khamenei translated was The Future of This Religion, a work in which Quṭb:
…argues for the political supremacy of Islam, which will lead to the future submission of all humanity to Islamic ideology, and calls upon all Muslims to fight against the imperialist powers.
To honor Qutb’s thought and influence, in 1985 the Iranian regime’s postal service issued a stamp showing him behind bars during his 1966 trial in Egypt. That’s the same trial that ended in Qutb’s hanging.
Why isn’t the Qutb-Iran connection more well-known among Western observers of the MENA region? Perhaps the answer is connected to a related question: why isn’t there a single English-language biography of the man who translated four of Qutb’s books into Persian, Khamenei? Sometimes written off as “the chief apparatchik backed by the Iranian deep state,” Ali Khamenei has ruled Iran for 34 years. That is a long time in a very unstable region. It is reasonable to wonder if Khamenei is more competent than often perceived, and in what way his grand strategy is connected to Qutb’s influence.
At first glance, the Islamic Republic of Iran appears to be a state participating in the global order of sovereign states. However, from Qutb’s perspective, the entire order is illegitimate. It would thus be more accurate to say that under Khamenei’s leadership and Qutb’s influence, the sovereign state of Iran has been hijacked by Islamist ideologues who are happy to play the global game of states when it’s convenient and who parasitically exploit others states and their resources (see: Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza) to promote their revolutionary political designs.
In conscious opposition to the excesses of the Islamist camp, political and religious leaders from the Gulf to Morocco are cultivating and advancing a tolerant form of Islam that accepts a wide range of Muslim practices as legitimately Islamic, respects non-Muslims across the region, recognizes minority rights based upon Islamic principles and requires Muslims to be good citizens of the state in which they reside.
A 2016 conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, signalled that Arab-Muslim leaders were interested in cultivating an alternative theological-political path. Hosted by Mohammed VI’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs and co-sponsored by The Forum for the Promotion of Peace in Muslim Societies, a UAE-based think tank led by Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Bayyah, over 300 Muslim scholars, activists, and politicians came together to affirm a tolerant vision of Islam. In a thinly veiled critique of the Islamists, the conference’s centerpiece, “The Marrakesh Declaration” (MD), criticized “criminal groups” that “issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals.” Indeed, “the gravity of this situation (afflicts) Muslims as well as peoples of other faiths throughout the world.”
In response, the signatories to the MD urged:
… Muslim educational institutions and authorities to conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addresses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism.
The MD wasn’t the only important development in 2016. That same year Sheikh Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa was appointed to the position of Secretary General of the Makkah-based Muslim World League (MWL), an international Islamic organization that:
… aims to present the true Islam and its tolerant principles… extend bridges of dialogue and cooperation with all… follow the path of centrism and moderation to realize the message of Islam and ward off movements calling for extremism, violence and exclusion…
Under Al-Issa’s leadership, in 2019 the MWL brought together 4,500 senior Muslim scholars and 1,200 influential Muftis and thought leaders for a conference that culminated in “The Charter of Makkah.” The same Sheikh Bin Bayyah offered the keynote address and, together with Sheikh Al-Issa, presented the Charter to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
The Charter of Makkah (CM), like the Marrakesh Declaration before it, articulates a pluralistic, tolerant vision of Islam, “Differences among people in their beliefs, cultures and natures are part of God’s will and wisdom.”
The CM advocates for harmonious coexistence in both Islamic and Western states. It even explicitly notes the obligation of Muslims in Western societies to observe the law of the land. In so doing, the document implicitly takes aim at the destabilizing, revolutionary impulse of Political Islam across the globe:
We must combat intellectual extremism along with militancy, violence or terrorism, by helping raise awareness among youth and guiding them according to the Islamic values of tolerance, peace and harmonious coexistence. These values teach… observation of the national laws of which one resides.
Sheikh Al-Issa explicitly criticized the revolutionary character of Islamism in a March 4, 2020, interview on France24 TV’s Arabic-language channel:
There is no place for political Islam in France or anywhere else, because it does not abide by the values of our religion or by the national values of any country. [Political Islam] does not respect the laws and constitutions of countries… It does not represent Islam.
At its most basic, the Charter of Makkah clarifies that if your Islam generates hatred and violence against Jews, Christians, and fellow Muslims, and also denigrates the laws of the country in which you live, then you are practicing a false form of Islam.
In line with the Charter of Makkah and as head of the MWL, Al-Issa initiated contacts with non-Muslim organizations. In May, 2019, one month before officially submitting the Charter, Al-Issa and the Muslim World League joined forces with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Sephardi Federation to sign the “It Stops Now Agreement Against Hate, Bigotry, and Fanaticism.” In a June, 2020, interview with the Saudi Al-Arabiya network, Al-Issa justified these contacts on religious grounds:
Humanity stems from the same source, which makes it a brotherhood, even if it has split to different faiths. Allah says: ‘Oh mankind, We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.’ This is the source of the term ‘brothers in humanity.’
A little less than a week after the interview, Al-Issa publicly led a delegation of senior Islamic scholars and members of the American Jewish Committee to Auschwitz and Srebrenica. Two months later, the Abraham Accords were announced. On Sept. 15th the normalization agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain was signed on the White House lawn, and the Israeli-Moroccan normalization agreement followed in December.
The tolerant camp’s anti-Islamist strategy is not limited, however, to the theological plane. The UAE is betting on a tough-minded pursuit of national self-interest marked by good governance, an advanced, tolerant educational system, and a pluralistic society that attracts talent from around the world to best demonstrate to good-natured Muslim youth that it is possible for Muslims to be, in the words of Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE’s Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs, “strong successful men and women who have done great things and at the same time are open.”
Ghobash delineated how the UAE is taking “a more hands-on approach to the ideological battles taking place in our region” during his online 2021 S R Nathan Distinguished Lecture at Singapore’s Middle East Institute. With only a handful of Jews and Israelis in attendance, Ghobash notably asserted that “the true litmus test of tolerance in the Arab and the Islamic world is how we deal with the Jewish community.”
I was in the digital audience, and during the Q&A section following his remarks, I asked Minister Ghobash his thoughts on the Marrakesh Declaration and the Charter of Makkah. He answered by pointing to a more basic human level:
The documents are valuable but I think for me, personal examples have a much more powerful effect… It’s important that senior theologians come together and… provide theological arguments but… it’s the personal example of leadership, particularly in the Emirates — how do they treat people, what signals do they give? That’s where for me, personally, the real inspiration comes from.
To shield his own children from Islamist ideology and to show them that it is possible for a Muslim to celebrate life, Ghobash published Letters to a Young Muslim in 2016. Consciously choosing not to fight the Islamists on textual grounds, Letters to a Young Muslim does not feature a single reference to the Quran. Instead, Ghobash built a bypass road straight to human flourishing. From that healthy point of departure, one then goes and interprets the text.
The depth of this civil war needs to be seen clearly. The challenges facing the tolerant camp are immense. In some places, masses of students have received an intolerant, Islamist education of one kind or another for generations. For instance, even though Egypt has officially banned the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian liberal and scholar of Islamism, Tarek Heggy, explained in a 2022 interview that Egypt’s al-Azhar University dominates the country’s internal religious discourse and
advocates what could be described as an alloy of Islamist contexts: Wahhabi… Salafi and… Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood)… For the sake of perspective, you must remember, nearly a quarter of all Egyptian students receive an Islamic education in schools managed by al-Azhar.
To win this civil war, the tolerant camp will need to develop a capacity that the Islamists possess in abundance: patience.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but in March 2022, the foreign ministers of Israel, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, aka “The Anti-Islamist League,” met in Sde Boqer, a small town by the edge of a stark canyon cliff one hour south of the Biblical city of Be’er Sheva, deep in the Negev desert. They came together to project a strong and united front against Islamist extremism.
Today, as Israel seeks out Hamas fighters hiding in Gaza’s labyrinth underworld, Islamist forces remain in their positions. Hizbullah exploits Lebanon like Hamas exploits Gaza, carving out tunnels, nesting within civilian populations and aiming more than 150,000 missiles at Israel. To the south, the Houthis use Yemen to disrupt shipping along the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and fire missiles at the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. On Israel’s east side, Hamas is deeply integrated into the West Bank, but the IDF is integrated as well, watching, listening and capable of responding to problems when they arise.
The Israeli military presence is part of what, in pre-October 7th times, was called “The Occupation.” Today many Westerners (and Israelis) realize that, as the Islamists clearly said from the start, “The Occupation” means “from the river to the sea.” And beyond the Jordan River further to the east, beyond even the Land of Two Rivers, the revolutionaries ruling Iran are plotting to transform Sayyid Qutb’s dreams into practical schemes of death and destruction of existing regimes. All the while, the post-colonial left runs interference for the Islamists around the globe under the fruitfully ambiguous banner of “Resistance.”
For the foreseeable future, the tolerant camp faces its own internal fissures and challenges. In Morocco, the left and the Islamists are marching for Gaza and publicly embarrassing the monarchy. In the UAE, ties to Israel were conditioned from the beginning on the appearance of a Palestinian diplomatic horizon, while Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, is known to have Islamist sympathies. Bahrain’s Prince Salman publicly condemned Hamas’ barbarism on two occasions, but memories remain from the 2011 Islamist Winter when demonstrators from the country’s Shi’ite majority demanded the downfall of the monarchy. As for Egypt, refugees are massing at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing, and Cairo has been clear that their flight into Northern Sinai will lead to a disruption of relations with Israel.
One thing can be said with confidence in this dynamic geopolitical mix. It is forbidden for the Islamists to appear victorious. A Hamas victory, which in the present case means holding on to control of Gaza no matter the material and human price, i.e., resistance, will inspire Islamists (and post-colonialists) around the world and attract new recruits to the cause. Israel’s victory, however, will demonstrate that resistance is futile. For the sake of its own survival, and for the sake of a humane, pluralist future in the Middle East and North Africa, Israel must annihilate Hamas.
This essay was simultaneously published at Sephardi Ideas Monthly.
Additional Reading and Viewing:
“2021 S R Nathan Distinguished Lecture”
Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE’s Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs, delineates his vision of tolerant Islam.
“From Sayyid Qutb to Seyyed Khamenei: The Islamist Challenge of Modernity”
Stanford Prof. Abbas Milani argues that Sayyid Qutb is the most consequential Islamist thinker and Ali Khamenei the most consequential Islamist practitioner of the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Understanding and Extending the Marrakesh Declaration in Policy and Practice”
Director of Religion and Inclusive Societies at the United States Institute of Peace and Harvard Divinity School doctoral candidate, Susan Hayward, provides background on and thorough analysis of the Marrakesh Declaration.
““The America I Have Seen”: In the Scale of Human Values”
Sayyid Qutb offers his severe judgment after spending two years in the United States.