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JAHILIYAH. In classical usage, the term Jahiliyah refers to the period of time and the condition of society in Arabia before the advent of Islam. Often translated as “the age of ignorance,” Jahiliyah connotes a time of paganism before men and women recognized the oneness of God or knew God’s sacred law.


In modern usage, Jahiliyah has come to refer to what is deemed as the un-Islamic state of affairs in the contemporary Muslim world. The concept of “modern Jahiliyah,” which is at the heart of the twentieth-century Islamic revival, was first formulated by the Indian scholar Sayyid Abu al-A’la Mawdfidi in 1939. For Mawdfidi, modernity was “the new barbarity,” incorporating values, lifestyles, political theories, and systems of government that were, in his view, fundamentally incompatible with Islam. Mawdudi’s ideas became known in the Arab world through his meetings with Hasan alBanna’ and Sayyid Qutb as well as through the translation of his most important works from Urdu into Arabic in the early 1950s. They attained wide popularity through the work of his student, Abulhasan `All Nadvi, whose 195o work “What Did the World Lose due to the Decline or Islam?” expounded on Mawdudi’s theory of “modern Jahiliyah,” which held Muslims accountable for the sorry state they were in because they were implementing alien, un-Islamic institutions in their countries.

In Egypt, the modern Jahiliyah theory began to be developed in the late 1940s by Sayyid Qutb, a university-educated literary critic who became active in the Muslim Brotherhood after returning from a visit to the United States in 1950. In 1953, influenced by the work of Nadvi and Mawdfidi and his own dislike of the United States, Qutb wrote a treatise, Fi zilal al-Qur’an (In the Shadow of the Qur’an), in which he first explained his concept of modern Jahiliyah. For Qutb, Jahiliyah is a state signified by the domination of man over man rather than the submission of man to God. Jahiliyah, he believes, denotes any government system based on manmade values and institutions, such as democracy, monarchy, or dictatorship. Jahiliyah is also, in his view, materialism, communism, or any other philosophical system in which there is no place for God.

For Qutb, as well as for Mawdfidi and Nadvi, a total rejection of Western values was needed to combat the new Jahiliyah. The Indian theorists had directed their concerns primarily against the external challenges of modernity from Western colonial powers; Qutb, however, focused on the challenges coming from within Egypt, especially from the secularist military regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. This new Jahiliyah was not something outside the Islamic world to be kept at bay; the most dangerous Jahiliyah has already come from the

West and is festering within Muslim society. In Ma`alim ft al-tariq (Signposts on the Road, 1964) he wrote that Muslim society is infected with a “cultural poisoning” coming from the West. Western manners and morals, art, literature, and laws permeate Islamic society. Furthermore, much of what is considered Islamic culture has actually been derived from the West.

In the face of the new Jahiliyah, humankind is confronted with a moral choice-to observe God’s laws in their entirety, or to observe laws made by humans. The choice is absolute, according to Qutb: either Islam or Jahiliyah. For Qutb, emulating the West is the Jahili option: conditions in Europe and America, he says, are parallel with those in Arabia before Islam, in that humans are under the domination of humans rather than of God. As a result the West has become the locus of unbridled individualism and moral depravity.

The solution to the modern Jahiliyah, in Qutb’s view, is that society must change. True Muslims must embrace jihad as a religious duty and wage it against forces of repression and injustice within the Muslim community. It is a duty to be carried out against westernizers and against other Muslims who foster modernity, so that the values of the shad `ah can rise to the surface and alone guide the actions of Muslim believers.

In cleansing Muslim society of the West, Qutb does not reject science and technology, which are acceptable and even desirable as long as they do not conflict with religious law. In the ideal society domination (h akimiyah) belongs to God alone, whose guidance would establish the kingdom of God on earth. Qutb, however, would not have approved of passing the reins of power to men of religion. Rather, the goal in eradicating the new Jahiliyah was that the shad `ah should reign as an all-embracing way of life.

Qutb was executed in 1966, but his ideas have been translated into action by several Islamist groups that take them quite literally. For these groups, including Takfir, Hijrah, and al-Jihad al-Islami, the Muslim world is in a state of apostasy of which it is unconscious. This is derived from Western media and the promotion of Western lifestyles by authoritarian regimes committed to the modern Jahiliyah. For true Muslims who find themselves surrounded by apostasy, jihad is both a defensive reaction and a moral imperative. Jihad, however, takes different forms. Some groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the pre-1992 Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, sought to combat the new Jahiliyah by working within the existing system, by standing for election, and by creating social reform through charitable, religious, and educational organizations. For radical fundamentalist groups, jihdd against the modern Jahiliyah has become a justification for militant action against secular regimes throughout the Arab world.

[See also Fundamentalism and the biographies of Mawdudi and Qutb]


Esposito, John L. Islam and Politics. 2d ed., rev. Syracuse, N.Y., 1987.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “Sayyid Qutb, Ideologue of Islamic Revival.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 67-98. New York and Oxford, 1983.

Mawdudi, Sayyid Abu al-A’la The Islamic Way of Life. Translated and edited by Khurshid Ahmad and Khurram Murad. Leicester, 1986.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Beirut, 1978.

Sivan, Emmanuel. Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics. New Haven, 1985.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/jahiliyah/

  • writerPosted On: July 11, 2014
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