Islamic fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon. While studying it we must first of all understand that the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ has not been derived from the Islamic scriptures, nor does any group of Muslims approve of being given the appellation of ‘Islamic fundamentalists.’ This term is somewhat similar to that of ‘Uncle Sam’ as applied to Americans by non-Americans. Americans do not identify themselves with this term. Though this term was given to Muslims by non-Muslims, the phenomenon for which the term Islamic fundamentalism is used is indeed a reality. There is a considerable number of Muslims in the world of today whose thinking and actions add up to what is meant by the term fundamentalism.
That is why a detailed study of its principles and practices must be made in order to evaluate this way of thinking and the movements spawned by it, which are highly active all over the world under one name or another.
Let us first of all find out what is commonly meant by fundamentalism. It is preferable to call this phenomenon ‘Islamic extremism,’ rather than ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ although those engaged in extremist activities would, like the fundamentalists, prefer not to be called extremists. However, what is important in this connection is that the phenomenon of Islamic extremism can be explained from a Quranic verse. It says: “Do not transgress the bounds of your religion (4:17).” One modern form of transgression, as forbidden in the Quran, is what is now called Islamic fundamentalism.
There are certain Muslims who say: “Yes, we are fundamentalists. And what is wrong with being fundamentalists?” They take the word “fundamentalist” in its literal sense of laying emphasis on the basic teachings of Islam. Thus, attaching importance to the basic teachings of Islam is to fulfil the very demand of Islam. So why should anyone have any objection on this score? But herein lies a fallacy. That is, if one takes fundamentalism in its literal sense, then it should be the same basic teachings of Islam as are emphasized in the Islamic scriptures themselves. This cannot mean that any individual may declare, through personal interpretation, some self-styled teachings to be the basic teachings or the fundamentals of Islam, and then launch a violent movement aimed at establishing these so-called Islamic fundamentals. Unfortunately this is what these fundamentalists are doing.
Now what are the basic teachings of Islam? The principle concern of Islam is monotheism. According to an Orientalist, “the central focus of Islam is Allah. That is to believe in one God; associating all one’s feelings of love and fear with Him; and worshipping Him alone. Then adhering strictly to justice in one’s dealings with other human beings, returning good for evil, and so on.
In Islam, according to a Hadith, actions are judged by their intentions. That is why Islam lays the greatest of stress on the subjection of human beings to greater and greater degrees of purification. According to a Hadith the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, observed: “Listen, there is a part made of flesh in the human body. If that is purified and therefore in good order, the whole body is in good order. And if rot sets in in this part, the whole body is defiled. Listen, this piece of flesh is the heart.” (Al-Bukhari, Muslim).
Through this symbol of the body, the example of Islamic reform has been expressed. This means that just as through the reform of the heart the human body is reformed, similarly, if a man’s thinking and his intentions are virtuous, in respect of his whole existence, he will acquire that character of virtue which is seen as desirable by Islamic standards.
What is Fundamentalism?
Fundamentalism is the laying of emphasis on strict adherence to the fundamental principles of any set of beliefs. The term was originally applied to a particular group of Christian theologians who gained prominence in the United States in the nineteenth Century. They published a series of booklets between 1909 and 1915 called The Fundamentals: Testimony to the Truth. In these booklets they defined what they believed to be the absolutely fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The core of these doctrines was the literal inerrancy of every word of the Bible. Those who supported these beliefs during the debate of the 1920s came to be called fundamentalists.
The term “fundamentalism” began to be applied to Islamic resurgence by the final quarter of the twentieth century. However this term was not used for Muslims in exactly the same sense as it was applied to Christians. There is also some difference of opinion on this point among scholars. However, without going into the details of this, I would like to say that the term Islamic fundamentalism is applied to two different kinds of movements. One is like that of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwanul Muslimun) which rose to bring about a political revolution. The other is the type which advocates a return to the pristine fundamentals of the faith, for instance, those defined by Ibn Taimiya in the fourteenth century. This latter aim is still the driving force behind the Salafia and Wahabiya movements.
Now the aim of the second form of the Islamic fundamentalism, that of Ibn Taimya is to put an end to additions and innovations (bid‘a) in religious matters and to replace them with the Sunnah, the original form of the Islamic Shari’ah. The aim of the other form of fundamentalism is to put an end to non-Islamic political set up and replace that with an Islamic political set-up. Both the forms of fundamentalism are totally different from one another. The sphere of the struggle against innovation (bid’a) is confined only to matters of belief and worship.
Violence does not, of necessity, accompany movements of this nature. Furthermore, it is aimed at and concerned with the internal reform of Muslims. Thus, in the relevant activities, there is no possibility of coming into conflict with non-Muslims. But so far as fundamentalism of the other kind is concerned, it has been directed from the very outset against political rulers, and whether the inevitable confrontations have been with Muslim or non-Muslim rulers, by its very nature such a movement has demanded the use of violence.
This is where the principle of jihad has been distorted and bent to political ends. It must be stressed that the word “jihad” has nowhere been used in the Quran to mean the waging of war. The Quran is imbued with the spirit of peace and tolerance. Its culture is not that of war but of mercy.
The Challenge of Fundamentalism:
With reference to the Muslims of the present day, the news most highlighted in the media relates to Muslim fundamentalism. Experience has shown that there is nothing more destructive than fanaticism—the driving force of Muslim fundamentalism. However, it is not generally appreciated that Islamic fundamentalism, launched in the name of Islam, has been dealing a death blow to the image of Islam as a religion of peace and mercy. For it is this Muslim fundamentalism which, today, has converted the image of Islam into one tarnished by violence.
Let us place this form of extremism in a historical perspective. At the time of the emergence of modern western civilization, the greater part of the world was politically dominated by Muslims. The Ottoman empire at the western extremity and the Mughal empire on the eastern border had become symbols of glory for the Muslim Ummah. These Muslim empires came into direct conflict with the western empires and, in the long run, the Muslim empires were vanquished. This brought to an end 1000 years of their political supremacy. People in general tend to accept what they see on the surface, so that Muslims all over the world came to hold that, in the break-up of their empires, the upholders of western civilization were the oppressors, while the Muslims were the oppressed. However, in actual fact, the internal degeneration of these Muslim empires had reduced them to the state of wood infested with white ants. It would only have been a matter of time before they collapsed on their own. It was only by a fortuitous concatenation of events that the military might of western civilization was ostensibly the cause of their fall.
Be that as it may, the upshot of this was that the entire Muslim world became averse to western nations. At an earlier period this aversion had already manifested itself towards the British and the French, and then somewhat later towards the U.S.A., for, in actuality, it is the Americans who have been leading the western since the end of the second world war.
Let’s identify and analyse the origin of the present extremist aspect of Islamic fundamentalism, which has made such a rapid descent into violence. The principal reason for it having come into being in this virulent form has its roots in a certain defeatist mentality which has, unfortunately, been developing in the Muslims since the loss of their empires. A defeatist, or a besieged mentality inevitably opts for a negative course of action. The possessors of such a mentality consider themselves as the oppressed, and those whom they see as setting themselves up against them as the oppressors. With this bent of mind, they are willing to engage themselves in any activity whatsoever, no matter how damaging to humanity or contrary to religion it might be.
What made matters worse—as a direct result of this negative psychology—was the emergence of certain Muslim leaders in the first half of the twentieth century, who expounded their own political interpretation of Islam, according to which Islam was a complete system of State and Muslims had been appointed by God to fulfil the mission of establishing this Islamic state throughout the world. Some well-known names associated with this interpretation are the following: Syed Qutub in Egypt, Ayatullah Khomeini in Iran and Syed Abul Ala Maududi in Pakistan.
This political view of Islam, in spite of being a grave misinterpretation, spread rapidly among Muslims. The only reason for this was that Muslims, owing to their defeatist mentality, saw nothing incongruous in its negativity. Given the circumstances of their past history, this political interpretation was in total consonance with their psychological condition. Thus, due to their negative mindset and not due to Islamic reasoning this false interpretation soon gained currency among them, and the activities which were an offshoot from this—paradoxical as this may seem—were backed by funding from America in a bid to stem the rising tide of Communism.
Prior to 1991, when the Soviet Union had assumed the position of a super power, and posed a continuing threat to America, one of the strategies adopted by America was to set off the Muslim fundamentalists against the Communists, because these fundamentalists were persistently writing and speaking against Communism as being the enemy of Islam. America also gave all kinds of help, to the fundamentalists. It provided them with weapons to set themselves up against the Soviet Union and assisted in the dissemination of their literature all over the world. But this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-a-friend formula ultimately proved counter-productive, in that it virtually amounted to replacing one enemy with another. The waging of this proxy war turned out to be only very temporary in its benefits.
Those who at a later stage felt the impact of extremist fundamentalism, took this to be a case of violence against them. So they opted for a policy of gun versus gun. But subsequent events proved this policy to be a total failure, the reason being that the issue was not that of conducting a purely physical struggle, but of exposing and scotching the fallacies of a flawed ideology. You can win a fight with arms, but to defeat an ideology, a counter-ideology is a sine qua non. Without that nothing can be achieved.
There is no doubt about it that Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to peace, for, due to their fanaticism, its proponents do not stop short of resorting to destructive activity, even if it should prove suicidal. Now the task we must undertake is to make use of the media on all fronts in order to make people aware of the fact that this political interpretation of Islam is totally without basis either in the Quran or in the examples set by the Prophet in thought, word and deed. As opposed to this erroneous interpretation, the true values of Islam, based on peace, brotherhood and well-wishing should be presented to the public. If this correct interpretation of Islam could be brought to people’s attention, I should have high hopes that the majority of the people who have been misguided would abandon the path of hatred and violence and come back to Islam—“to the home of peace” to which God calls us in the Quran.
It is true that in these violent activities only a small group is involved. But this small group has the indirect support of the majority, who are no less swayed by the political interpretation of Islam. According to Khalil Gibran, “not a single leaf falls from the tree without the silent consent of the whole tree.” If then the majority were to withdraw its indirect support and condemn Islamic militancy, these fringe groups would lose their moral courage. That would be the first step. Then the time would come when the fundamentalists who are directly involved in violent activities would abandon the path of violence altogether.
[Excerpt from “Islam Rediscovered” by Molana Wahiduddin Khan
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