Islamic fundamentalism

Islamic fundamentalism

Islamic fundamentalism Arabic: usul (from usul, the "fundamentals")], is a term used to describe religious ideologies seen as advocating a return to the "fundamentals" of Islam: the Quran and the Sunnah. Definitions of the term vary. It is deemed problematic by those who suggest that Islamic belief requires all Muslims to be fundamentalists, and by others as a term used by outsiders to describe perceived trends within Islam.

One of its most defining features is the "reopening" of the gates of Ijtihad. This distinguishes it as distinct from (but sometimes overlapping with) Islamism, which is the term for a political ideology of Islam, but which may use one of the four preexisting schools of the Shari'ah. Exemplary figures of Islamic fundamentalism who are also termed Islamists are Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Mawdudi.


The definition offered by American historian Ira Lapedis distinguishes between mainstream Islamists and Fundamentalists. Although a fundamentalist may also be an Islamist, a Fundamentalist is "a political individual" in search of a "more original Islam," while the Islamist is pursuing a political agenda. He notes that Islamic fundamentalism "is at best only an umbrella designation for a very wide variety of movements, some intolerant and exclusivist, some pluralistic; some favourable to science, some anti-scientific; some primarily devotional and some primarily political; some democratic, some authoritarian; some pacific, some violent."

Graham Fuller describes it not as distinct from Islamism but as a subset, "the most conservative element among Islamists." Its "strictest form" includes "Wahhabism, sometimes also referred to as salafiyya. ... For fundamentalists the law is the most essential component of Islam, leading to an overwhelming emphasis upon jurisprudence, usually narrowly conceived."

Another American, Robert Pelletreau, Jr., assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, believes it the other way around, Islamism being the subset of Muslims "with political goals ... within" the "broader fundamentalist revival". Still another, Martin Kramer, sees little difference between the two terms: "To all intents and purposes, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism have become synonyms in contemporary American usage."

Author Olivier Roy distinguishes between fundamentalists (or neo-fundamentalists) and Islamists in describing fundamentalists as more passionate in their opposition to the perceived "corrupting influence of Western culture," avoiding Western dress, "neckties, laughter, the use of Western forms of salutation, handshakes, applause." While Islamists like

"Maududi didn't hesitate to attend Hindu ceremonies. Khomeini never proposed the status of dhimmi (protected) for Iranian Christians or Jews, as provided for in the sharia: the Armenians in Iran have remained Iranian citizens, are required to perform military service and to pay the same taxes as Muslims, and have the right to vote (with separate electoral colleges). Similarly, the Afghan Jamaat, in its statutes, has declared it legal in the eyes of Islam to employ non-Muslims as experts."

Other distinctions are in

  • Politics and economics. Islamists often talk of "revolution" and believe "that the society will be Islamized only through social and political action: it is necessary to leave the mosque ..." Fundamentalists are uninterested in revolution, less interested in "modernity or by Western models in politics or economics," and less willing to associate with non-Muslims.
  • Sharia. While both Islamists and fundamentalists are committed to implementing Sharia law, Islamists "tend to consider it more a project than a corpus.
  • Issue of women. "Islamists generally tend to favour the education of women and their participation in social and political life: the Islamist woman militates, studies, and has the right to work, but in a chador. Islamist groups include women's associations." While the fundamentalist preaches for women to return to the home, Islamism believes it is sufficient that "the sexes be separated in public."


The term Islamic fundamentalism is often criticized. Bernard Lewis, a leading historian of Islam, has had this to say against it:

The use of this term is established and must be accepted, but it remains unfortunate and can be misleading. "Fundamentalist" is a Christian term. It seems to have come into use in the early years of this century, and denotes certain Protestant churches and organizations, more particularly those that maintain the literal divine origin and inerrancy of the Bible. In this they oppose the liberal and modernist theologians, who tend to a more critical, historical view of Scripture. Among Muslim theologians there is as yet no such liberal or modernist approach to the Qur'an, and all Muslims, in their attitude to the text of the Qur'an, are in principle at least fundamentalists. Where the so-called Muslim fundamentalists differ from other Muslims and indeed from Christian fundamentalists is in their scholasticism and their legalism. They base themselves not only on the Qur'an, but also on the Traditions of the Prophet, and on the corpus of transmitted theological and legal learning.
John Esposito has attacked the term for its association "with political activism, extremism, fanaticism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism," saying "I prefer to speak of Islamic revivalism and Islamic activism.

However in 1988, the University of Chicago, backed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, launched "the Fundamentalism Project", devoted to researching fundamentalism in the worlds major religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It defined fundamentalism as "a strategy, or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group ... by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past.

At least two Muslim academics have defended the use of the phrase. Syrian philosopher Sadik J. al-Azm, and Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi. Surveying the doctrines of the new Islamic movements, Al-Azm found them to consist of "an immediate return to Islamic ‘basics' and ‘fundamentals.' .... It seems to me quite reasonable that calling these Islamic movements ‘Fundamentalist' (and in the strong sense of the term) is adequate, accurate, and correct. Hasan Hanafi reached the same conclusion: "It is difficult to find a more appropriate term than the one recently used in the West, ‘fundamentalism,' to cover the meaning of what we name Islamic awakening or revival.

Interpretation of texts

Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the unadulterated word of God as revealed to Muhammad through the angel Jibril (Archangel Gabriel).

Islamic fundamentalists, or at least "reformist" fundamentalists, believe that Islam is based on the Qur'an, Hadith and Sunnah and "criticize the tradition, the commentaries, popular religious practices (maraboutism, the cult of saints), deviations, and superstitions. They aim to return to the founding texts." Examples of groups that adhere to this tendency are the 18th century Shah Waliullah in India and Abd al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula. This view is commonly associated with Salafism today.

Social and political goals

As with adherents of other fundamentalist movements, Islamic fundamentalists hold that the problems of the world stem from secular influences. Further, the path to peace and justice lies in a return to the original message of Islam, combined with a scrupulous rejection of all Bid'ah ("religious innovation") and perceived anti-Islamic traditions.

Some scholars of Islam, such as Bassam Tibi, believe that, contrary to their own message, Islamic fundamentalists are not actually traditionalists. He refers to fatwahs issued by fundamentalists such as “every Muslim who pleads for the suspension of the shari‘a is an apostate and can be killed. The killing of those apostates cannot be prosecuted under Islamic law because this killing is justified” as going beyond, and unsupported by, the Qur’an. Tibi asserts; “The command to slay reasoning Muslims is un-Islamic, an invention of Islamic fundamentalists”.

Conflicts with the secular state

Islamic fundamentalism's push for Sharia and an Islamic State has come into conflict with conceptions of the secular, democratic state, such as the internationally supported Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among human rights disputed by fundamentalist Muslims are:

  • freedom from religious police
  • the equality between men and women.
  • the separation of religion and state;
  • Freedom of religion. Muslims who leave Islam, or criticise it, "should be executed" while the right of non-Muslims to convert to Islam is celebrated.

As a result of this sharp conflict, some say that fundamentalist Islam is incompatible with modern liberal democratic states.

See also


Further reading

  • Sikand, Yoginder Origins and Development of the Tablighi-Jama'at (1920-2000): A Cross-Country Comparative Study, ISBN 81-250-2298-8
  • Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press, 1994
  • Shepard, William. "What is 'Islamic Fundamentalism'?" Studies in Religion. Winter 1988.

External links

Opposing views

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