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Is There an Islamic Fundamentalism?

by William Shepard

William Shepard is a former associate professor of religious studies at Canterbury University, New Zealand. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 28, 1987, p. 85. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It has become common to use the term "fundamentalism" to refer to certain tendencies and groups in the Muslim world that have been regularly making headlines during the past decade. As a teacher of Islamic studies, I have been extremely ambivalent about this term. My first reaction in the late 1970s was to reject it on the grounds that it would seriously mislead us about events such as the Iranian revolution. Later I began to use the term, partly bowing to what seemed the inevitable, and partly because I saw some shock value in statements such as "Islamic fundamentalism is very modern." More recently, however, I have devoted some effort to a systematic comparison of the Christian and Islamic phenomena in question, and this research, along with increasing distress at the way the term is used in the media, has led me back to my original position, only with greater conviction. I am increasingly convinced that to use the term "fundamentalism" for both the Christian and the Islamic realities is to perpetrate one of those half-truths that is more dangerous than an outright lie.

Scripturalism. Both Christian and Islamic "fundamentalists" are greatly concerned about the authority of their respective Scriptures. "Back to the Bible" might be taken as the slogan of the one, and "back to the Qur’an and the Sunnah" the slogan of the other. (The fact that Muslims include the Sunnah -- the authoritative example of the prophet Muhammad, and, for Shi‘ites, the 12 Imams -- introduces complications that are interesting and significant, but beyond the scope of this article.) Other than this bare generalization, however, it is the differences between the two that are striking. The Bible is so central to Christian fundamentalism that a good case can be made for defining the movement by its insistence on the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture. Such a criterion is utterly irrelevant in the Islamic case, since virtually all Muslims, "fundamentalists" or otherwise, hold the Qur’an to be the verbatim word of God in a sense that goes further than what even the most extreme Christian fundamentalists claim for the Bible.

Social and Political Orientation. What distinguishes Islamic "fundamentalists" from other Muslims is a particularly strong claim that from the Qur’an and Sunnah can be derived rules for all aspects of social, political and economic life. These people may be contrasted to "secularists," who would restrict the authority of the Qur’an and Sunnah to public and private worship, personal ethics and possibly family law, leaving the rest of social life to be guided by secular ideologies such as nationalism or socialism. For "fundamentalists," Islam in effect provides the ideology for society, and they commonly speak of Islam as offering a "comprehensive system" for all areas of life. By contrast, Christian fundamentalists have varied considerably in degree and type of political involvement. Moreover, the most prominent manifestations of politicized Christian fundamentalism in America today, such as Jerry Falwell’s "Moral Majority," or the more recent "Liberty Federation," must technically be called "secularist" as that term is used in discussions of the Islamic world, insofar as these Christians claim to accept politically and morally like-minded adherents of other religious persuasions.

Distinctiveness. Islamic "fundamentalists" may also be contrasted with "Islamic modernists," who likewise claim that Islam applies to all areas of life, but who tend to interpret its social application in terms of ideas and practices derived from the West, so that "true Islam" may be seen as the ideal form of democracy or socialism, for example. "Fundamentalists" very consciously reject any tendency to Westernize Islam in this manner and insist that Muslim beliefs provide a system that is different from all others. For these people, Islam provides not only a comprehensive system but a comprehensive and independent system for all of life. One of the more striking examples of this truth was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s refusal to include the word "democratic" in the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In one sense, this concern with distinctiveness in paralleled by Christian fundamentalists. In stressing not only the authority of the Christian Scriptures but also such doctrines as the deity of Christ and the substitutionary atonement, they are stressing those elements that most obviously distinguish Christianity (and in particular certain forms of Protestant Christianity) from other religions. Likewise, in emphasizing the social and, particularly, the political dimension, Islamic "fundamentalists" emphasize a factor that particularly distinguishes Islam, which may fairly be called the most explicitly political of the major religions (for example, the Islamic calendar dates from the time when Muhammad began to build the first Islamic state, and the main sectarian division, Sunni versus Shi’ite, is rooted in the political struggles following Muhammad’s death)

Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, this formal similarity between the two "fundamentalisms" leads to considerable difference in content. Muslim "fundamentalists" vehemently reject such doctrines as atonement and incarnation, while Christian fundamentalists can be apolitical.

Modernity. Both "fundamentalisms" are distinctively modern in some very important respects, and this goes beyond the mere (but important) fact that they are both reactions to modem developments. Both embrace modern technology and modern methods of communication and mass mobilization without reserve. The fundamentalist predominance in the American "electronic church" is an obvious example on the Christian side. The role of the cassette tape recorder in the Iranian revolution and the success of the "fundamentalist" Islamic Republican Party in attaining and holding power in Iran provides examples from Islam.

Moreover, Islamic "fundamentalists" have adopted modem, Western structures of thought in subtle but significant ways. For example, Mawdudi, probably the most important Indo-Pakistani "fundamentalist," once described Muslims as an "International Revolutionary Party," language which no doubt owes something to Western ways of thinking. Islamic "fundamentalists" must be distinguished from "traditionalists" or "conservatives," whom they generally view as too bound to traditional practices and "superstitions" that cannot be justified by the Qur’an and Sunnah, and sometimes as too inclined to compromise with the secularist powers that be. (Media reports sometimes use the term "fundamentalist" for such conservatives, confusing our understanding even further.)

In fact, this particular similarity between the Christians and Muslims is probably more of an argument against the fundamentalist label than for it. The fact that fundamentalism is commonly identified with obscurantism and reaction tends to obscure these important modern aspects in both the Christian and Islamic cases.

Oppositional Stance. Both "fundamentalisms" loudly proclaim their opposition to the religious and moral threats they perceive in the society around them; this stance would have to be considered one of the defining characteristics in both cases. It is this tendency that gains them the label "fanatic" But the cultural contexts of the two faiths are significantly different. The "modernists,"’ ‘liberals" or "secular humanists" whom the Christian fundamentalists attack are products of the same Western culture and civilization which the fundamentalists share. From a certain global perspective, the quarrel might be described as a family fight.

The main enemy for Islamic "fundamentalists" comes from outside their Islamic culture and civilization, although today it is massively abetted by many Muslims as well. This enemy is the political, economic and, above all, cultural imperialism of the West. The Muslims, therefore, share many of the goals of more secularist Third World anti-imperialists, frequently adopt much of the same rhetoric, and can cooperate with them during certain stages of an anti-imperialist revolution, as in Iran in 1978-79. The parting of the ways comes in due time, however, because the "fundamentalists" view themselves as the only thoroughgoing anti-imperialists. In their view, others may claim to fight Western imperialism but have, in fact, been seduced by essentially Western ideologies such as nationalism or Marxism, especially the former. While most American Christian fundamentalists are quite nationalistic ("superpatriots") , Islamic "fundamentalists" violently reject nationalism as a Western virus designed to divide Muslims from each other and pervert their minds.

Thus, Christian and Islamic "fundamentalisms" have some important features in common. Both represent a certain kind of reaction to modernity that might perhaps be labeled "radical neo-traditionalism" (which is found not only among Muslims and Protestant Christians but also, in distinctive forms, among Jews, Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus and others). But their differences are particularly important, especially because if we do not understand them there is no way we will understand important aspects of the larger world in which we live, and we will very likely suffer more unpleasant surprises of the sort that have confronted us in Iran and Lebanon in recent years.

Is there a suitable alternative to the term "fundamentalism" in the Muslim case? I believe there is and would recommend "Islamic radicalism" (a suggestion I owe to Eric Davis, in an article titled "Ideology, Social Class and Islamic Radicalism in Modern Egypt," in From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam [edited by Said Arjomand, Macmillan 1984, since the Muslims in question insist on being Islamic in a particularly thorough and radical way.

Scholar R. Hrair Dekmejian (in Islam in Revolution [Syracuse University Press, 1985]) has created an Arabic term for "fundamentalism" (usuliyyah), since such a word did not heretofore exist. I do not know if this word will catch on in Arabic usage, but if it does, and if I were an Islamic "fundamentalist," I am sure I would view it was a particularly subtle and dangerous example of the Western colonization of Muslim minds.


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