Fundamentalists

Q231 :The basic tenets of Islam are clearly defined and they must be adopted and implemented by every Muslim. However, we often hear the adjective 'fundamentalist' attached to certain groups of Muslims whose activities are described as 'Islamic fundamentalism". Others who do not seem to fall in the same category are called 'moderates'. Could you please throw some light on these terms?


A231 : The words 'fundamentalist' and 'fundamentalism' have only recently come to be used in association with Islamic advocacy. These words made their appearance in the Western media early in the 1970s [when we had Bhutto's regime in Pakistan], when they were highly ambiguous. Only few people had any real sense of what they meant and why these terms were floated. With hindsight, we can probably trace the usage of these terms and find out why these were invented and their present significance. In the late sixties and early seventies, Western media seemed unsure of how to describe the trend of Islamic revival and its advocates in the Muslim world. The Western media, however, was keenly aware that Islam revivalism could gather strong momentum and have a great influence on the course of events in Arab countries and in the Muslim world at large. The Arabs had just emerged from a very bitter defeat which they suffered at the hands of Israelis in the 1967 war. I recall reading a main feature published in one of the main Sunday newspapers in England by Watt Montgomery, a prominent Orientalist, analyzing the situation in the Middle East and clearly pointing out that in their defeat the Arabs could easily turn to Islam and start an Islamic revival. Such early warnings highlighted the need for the Western world to choose how to deal with the forthcoming trend. It is beyond the scope of this column to analyze the relationship between the West and Islam or to outline its historical background, but there is no disputing the fact that the West is highly interested in maintaining its supremacy throughout the world and a weak and divided Muslim world. Let us be clear on one thing: Some of us appear to do much worse than any colonial power in deepening divisions in the Muslim world. In the final analysis, however, we find that these belong to one of the three groups: (1) Simple and naive people who do not realize what causes they are serving; (2) Non-believers who pretend to be Muslims; and (3) Agents who have sold themselves to forces hostile to Islam. Many reasons can be given why those who wield the greatest power on world stage are interested in maintaining the status quo but we do not need to go into that in detail. What we are saying is that after the 1967 war, the Western media realized that there was need for a change of emphasis in its approach to Islamic questions. Up to the mid-sixties, even the serious and quality papers in the West did not hesitate to describe Islamic revivalist movements in very harsh terms. This was part of the residue of the colonial past. In one Muslim area after another, the fight for liberation and independence was started by leaders who were keen to preserve the Islamic identity of their communities. While patriotic elements were ready to join the fight, it was the advocates of Islam who took the leading role, mobilized the people, marshaled the forces and provided most of the fighters and the martyrs. It was in the nature of things that the imperial power should paint a very unattractive picture of the Islamic revivalist movement which sought to oust them from their colonies. By the mid-sixties all that had changed. There were only a very few areas still in imperialist hands. The newly independent Muslim countries were now under nationalist governments. But the specter of Islamic revival continued to scare the old and the new imperialist powers. Their age-long prejudice against Islam was not expected to disappear only because they have been kicked out of their old colonies. The prejudice was still very much in the minds of Western writers, intellectuals and journalists. Some of them tried to consciously suppress it because they realized that it was contrary to their ideals of freedom. Some wanted simply to appear to be objective when they discussed the Islamic matters, though, they were not free from prejudices. To them, Islam represented a hostile force and they were not ashamed to appear to be hostile to Islam and its advocates. It is against this background that the term fundamentalism was first floated as a description of the Islamic revivalist movement. At first, it was not met with much enthusiasm. But frequent use and strong hammering meant that in a few years, every one was using it, mostly disapprovingly, in reference to Islamic advocacy. Many writers felt uneasy about the term itself because of its historical Christian associations. Nevertheless, the term stuck and it is now in vogue. Let us now have a brief look at the meaning of this word. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines fundamentalism as "Strict adherence to traditional orthodox tenets held to be fundamental to the Christian faith". It gives as an example of these tenets, "the concept of the verbal inerrancy of the Scriptures". The dictionary also states that fundamentalism is opposed to 'liberalism' and 'modernism'. Thus, to a Western Christian mind, the term 'fundamentalist' refers to a person who rigidly believes that every word in the Bible is strictly correct and must be unhesitatingly followed. This is contrary to the belief of most Christians, including churchmen, throughout the West. Thus, the main thrust of the word is rigidity and rejection of any compromise. Historically speaking, there has always been a strong conflict between those who advocated a rigid and strict understanding and application of the Scripture and those who favored a more liberal one. Except for very brief periods in European history, rigidity was mostly on the losing side. In our present age, Christian fundamentalism is often viewed as being in marked contrast to the sensible liberalism of modern civilization. When the word was used in reference to Islam and Muslims, it carried all those unfavorable connotations and combined them with others derived from the Western prejudice against Islam and the West's lack of understanding of the motives and ideals of the Islamic revivalist movements. Today, however, the word is used in a much wider sense. It includes all those who believe that it is the duty of Muslims to implement Islam in their lives at the individual and the community levels. What is even worse is that it blames all the mistakes of different Islamic movements and groupings who are active in politics on Islamic fundamentalism. Unfortunately, the media in the Muslim world are now using an equivalent of fundamentalism in reference to Islamic revival. Thus they paint the call for the revival of Islam in unfavorable colors. This is a logical result of our continued look at the West as superiors to us. We borrow anything from the West, even its prejudices against us! In Islam, the whole concept of fundamentalism is totally irrelevant. Every Muslim believes that the Qur'an is the word of Allah and that it has been preserved intact as it was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) over 1400 years ago. By definition, then, every Muslim must be a fundamentalist. I have not touched upon the question of extremism which is associated with the Islamic movement nowadays. This is a totally different question, but I can say in brief that Islam does not approve of extremism. It describes the Muslim community as a 'middle' community. Extremism is indeed alien to proper Islamic outlook.


Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )