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FUNDAMENTALISM. The activist affirmation of a particular faith that defines that faith in an absolutist and literalist manner is termed fundamentalism. It involves the effort to purify or reform the beliefs and practices of adherents in accord with the self-defined fundamentals of the faith. Fundamentalist interpretation entails a self-conscious effort to avoid compromise, adaptation, or critical reinterpretation of the basic texts and sources of belief. Fundamentalism is a distinctive way of defining and implementing a particular worldview, and fundamentalisms are most frequently presented as styles of religious experience within broader religious traditions.

Originally, fundamentalism was the name applied to a specific Christian experience that emerged as a response to the development of Christian “modernism” in the nineteenth century. While modernism elicited reaction in many areas, it was most vehement in the United States. Between 19o9 and 1915 a group of American theologians wrote and published a series of booklets called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, in which they defined what they believed to be the absolutely fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The core of these doctrines was the literal inerrancy of the Bible in all its statements and affirmations. During the debates of the 1920s, the supporters of this position came to be called Fundamentalists.

For many years the term “fundamentalism” was applied almost exclusively to this particular Christian tradition. By the 1970s, as scholars and the general public became increasingly aware of the resurgence of religion in many different societies, the term began to be applied to movements of religious revival in a wide variety of contexts. People spoke of Hindu and Jewish fundamentalism and, in the context of the ideological debates of the 1990s, it was even possible for a major scholar such as Ernest Gellner to speak of “Enlightenment Secular Fundamentalism” when describing the position that both rejected relativism and denied the possibility of revelation (Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, London, 1992). When applied to non-Christians, the term most denoted individuals and movements in the Islamic resurgence of the final quarter of the twentieth century. By the 1990s the phrase “Muslim fundamentalism” (or “Islamic fundamentalism”) was widely used in both scholarly and journalistic literature.

The application of the term “fundamentalism” to Muslims is controversial. Much of the debate starts from the pejorative implications of the term, even when used to describe Christians. It is said by some that the term has connotations of ignorance and backwardness and thus is insulting to movements of legitimate Islamic revival. Others have argued that there is no exactly cognate term in Arabic or other major languages of Muslims, and that this indicates that there is no cognate phenomenon in Muslim societies to which the term might apply.

Despite this, there is general recognition that activist movements of Muslim revival are increasingly important and reference must be made to them. Among the many terms used for this purpose are Islamism, integrism, neo-normative Islam, neo-traditional Islam, Islamic revivalism, and Islamic nativism. However, “fundamentalism” remains the most commonly utilized identification of the various revivalist impulses among Muslims. More technically accurate terms and neologisms have not gained wide acceptance.

The description and analysis of Islamic fundamentalism in the modern era gives rise to many debates. Among the most important of these is whether Islamic fundamentalism is a distinctively modern phenomenon. Such scholars as Fazlur Rahman, R. Hrair Dekmejian, and John O. Voll argue that throughout Islamic history it is possible to see activist movements advocating a return to the pristine fundamentals of the faith. From this perspective, the Hanbali tradition, especially as defined by Ibn Taymiyah in the fourteenth century, and reformers in South Asia such as Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1625), and possibly even early Islamic radicals like the Khariji sect, represent premodern expressions of a fundamentalist style of Islamic affirmation. In this view, the fundamentalist movements of the eighteenth century in many parts of the Islamic world, most notably the Wahhabi movement in the Arabian Peninsula and jihad efforts organized by Sufi tariqahs in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and elsewhere provide an important foundation for Islamic fundamentalism in the modern era.

In contrast, the scholars Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (who direct the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), as well as Bruce Lawrence, argue that fundamentalisms are distinctively the products of the modern era, even though they may have some historical antecedents. In this view, the conditions of modernity are unique, and fundamentalisms are distinctive responses to the religious challenges of modernity. The major examples of Islamic fundamentalist movements are, from this perspective, not the traditionalist movements or nativist revolts of the nineteenth century nor the puritanical holy warriors of premodern times. They are those movements-for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, that developed in the twentieth century and became most visible in the Islamic resurgence of the last quarter of that century.

Among Muslims there is also a broad spectrum both in the use of the term “fundamentalism” and in evaluation of the phenomenon. In the nineteenth century most Muslims were aware of the power of Western societies and the relative weakness of Muslim communities. One of the major themes of Muslim history in the modern era is the interaction of Muslims with the West and the efforts to revive and/or reform the world of Islam. The first modern response was to adapt to the new world conditions and utilize Western models in reforming Muslim societies. By the second half of the twentieth century, it became clear that the results of these reform programs were not satisfactory, and new, more revolutionary efforts were undertaken. Among these efforts are the major Islamic fundamentalist movements, which adopt positions rejecting the simple copying of Western methods and affirming the comprehensive and effective nature of the Islamic message.

In the 1970s most Muslim analysts rejected the term “fundamentalism” as an identifying label for the movements of Islamic affirmation. By the 1990s, however, Muslim critics of fundamentalism began to use the term in political and scholarly debates, and some supporters also accepted the term, recognizing its wide use and visibility. Writers in Arabic by the 1980s began to use the term usuliyah, an Arabic neologism that is a direct translation of “fundamentalism” based on usul, the Arabic word for “fundamentals.” In this way, “fundamentalism” became a part of the vocabulary of the Islamic resurgence itself as well as of the study of that resurgence.

[See also Muslim Brotherhood; Revival and Renewal; Salafiyah; Shi`i Islam, article on Modern Shi’i Thought; Sunni Islam, article on Modern Sunni Thought; Wahhabiyah; and the biographies of Ibn Taymiyah, Rahman, and Sirhindi.]


Akhtar, Karm B., and Ahmad H. Sakr. Islamic Fundamentalism. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1982. Analysis by two American Muslims showing that, in contrast to Christian fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism is beneficial to humanity.

Choueiri, Youssef M. Islamic Fundamentalism. Boston, 1990. Historical account by a Lebanese scholar who presents Islamic fundamentalism as a contemporary right-wing radicalism working to establish a totalitarian state.

Dekmejian, R. Hrair. Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World. Syracuse, N.Y., 1985. Systematic analysis of fundamentalist movements that notes continuities with premodern movements.

Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? New York, 1992. Clear delineation of the political issues involved in Western perceptions of Islamic fundamentalism.

Lawrence, Bruce B. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age. New York, 1989. Analysis of fundamentalisms in many different religious traditions, viewing them as distinctively modern phenomena.

Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms Observed. Chicago, 1991. The first volume of studies from the AAAS Fundamentalism Project, which includes discussions of many different fundamentalisms as well as comparative, methodological essays by Marty and Appleby.

Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby. The Glory and the Power: The Fundamentalist Challenge to the Modern World. Boston, 1992. Companion volume to Public Broadcasting System documentaries on fundamentalisms, with an important presentation of fundamentalism in Egypt and clear theoretical discussions of fundamentalisms as modem phenomena.

Mohaddessin, Mohammad. Islamic Fundamentalism: The New Global Threat. Washington, D.C., 1993. Forceful attack on contemporary Islamic fundamentalist movements by a leader in the Iranian opposition movement in exile.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Traditional Islam in the Modern World. London and New York, 1987. Sympathetic presentation of traditional Islam by an influential Iranian scholar, distinguishing among modernist, traditional, and fundamentalist forms of Islam.

Rahman, Fazlur. “Revival and Reform in Islam.” In The Cambridge History of Islam, edited by P. M. Holt et al., vol. 2, pp. 632-656. Cambridge, 1970. Important analysis of the historical tradition of revivalism in Islam by an influential Islamic modernist scholar.

Voll, John Obert. Islam, Continuity, and Change in the Modern World. Boulder, 1982. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y., 1994. Broad survey of Islamic movements in the modern world that defines fundamentalism in terms of continuity and as a style of Islamic experience.


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

  • writerPosted On: March 10, 2013
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