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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.

Exemplary figures of Islamic fundamentalism who are also termed Islamists are Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Mawdudi.


According to American academic John Esposito, one of its most defining features of Islamic fundamentalism is belief in the "reopening" of the gates of Ijtihad.Graham Fuller describes Islamic fundamentalism 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 observer, 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."

American historian Ira Lapidus calls Islamic fundamentalism "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." He distinguishes between mainstream Islamists and Fundamentalists, saying a fundamentalist is "a political individual" in search of a "more original Islam," while the Islamist is pursuing a political agenda.

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 Chicagomarker, backed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciencesmarker, launched "the Fundamentalism Project", devoted to researching fundamentalism in the worlds major religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It defined fundamentalism as "approach, 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, they hold that 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”.

The immediate political goal of fundamentalists in the Indian sub-continent are the implementation of Sharia and in a larger time-frame, the creation of a Nation of Islam.

A study by Freedom House found that Wahhabi publications in a number of mosques in the United Statesmarker preach that Muslims should not only "always oppose" infidels "in every way", but "hate them for their religion ... for Allah's sake", that democracy "is responsible for all the horrible wars of the 20th century", and that Shia and other non-Wahhabi Muslims were infidels.

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:

Human rights controversy

Many secularist, human rights, and leading organisations have lampooned the Islamic world's stance on human rights and the associated Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, declaring, "We are deeply concerned with the changes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by a coalition of Islamic states within the United Nations that wishes to prohibit any criticism of religion and would thus Islam's limited view of human rights. In view of the conditions inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Syria, Bangdalesh, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we should expect that at the top of their human rights agenda would be to rectify the legal inequality of women, the suppression of political dissent, the curtailment of free expression, the persecution of ethnic minorities and religious dissenters-in short, protecting their citizens from egregious human rights violations. Instead, they are worrying about 'protecting' Islam. (Free Inquiry, February/March 2009, Vol. 29, No. 2)"

Human rights groups are also worried by the disdain Islam has had for human rights and its rejection of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1984, Iran’s U.N. representative, Said Raja’i Khorasani, said the following amid allegations of human rights violations, "[Iran] recognized no authority ... apart from Islamic law ... conventions, declarations and resolutions or decisions of international organizations, which were contrary to Islam, had no validity in the Islamic Republic of Iran. . . . The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented secular understanding of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran; this country would therefore not hesitate to violate its provisions." This attitude of the Iranian government was discernible in the incident of Mona Mahmudnizhad wherein ten Bahá'í women were sentenced to death and hanged in Shirazmarker, Iranmarker because of their membership in the Bahá'í Faith.

There have been many instances of human rights violations in countries where the Sharia has been fully or partially implemented, and also in countries where the majority leader of the government openly subscribes the superiority of the Islamic faith over others.

See also


  1. Bernard, Lewis, Islam and the West, New York : Oxford University Press, c1993.
  2. " 'The Green Peril': Creating the Islamic Fundamentalist Threat," Leon T. Hadar, Policy Analysis, Cato Institute, August 27, 1992.
  3. Esposito, Voices of Resurgent Islam ISBN: 019503340X
  4. Esposito, John, Voices of Resurgent Islam ISBN: 019503340X
  5. Fuller, Graham E., The Future of Political Islam, Palgrave MacMillan, (2003), p.48
  6. Remarks by Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr., Middle East Policy Council, May 26, 1994, "Symposium: Resurgent Islam in the Middle East," Middle East Policy, Fall 1994, p. 2.
  7. Coming to Terms, Fundamentalists or Islamists? Martin Kramer originally in Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2003), pp. 65-77.
  8. Lapidus, Ira, Islam, Politics, and Social Movements, p.823?
  9. Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press, 1994. p.82-3, 215
  10. Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press, 1994. p.59
  11. Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press, 1994. p.p.38, 59
  12. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p.117, n.3.
  13. John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 8.
  14. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, "Introduction," in Martin and Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 3.
  15. Sadik J. al-Azm, "Islamic Fundamentalism Reconsidered: A Critical Outline of Problems, Ideas and Approaches," South Asia Bulletin, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 1 and 2 (1993), pp. 95-7.
  16. Quoted by Bassam Tibi, "The Worldview of Sunni Arab Fundamentalists: Attitudes toward Modern Science and Technology," in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 85.
  17. Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press, 1994. p.31
  18. Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Updated Edition. Los Angeles, University of California Press: 2002. Excerpt available online as The Islamic Fundamentalist Ideology: Context and the Textual Sources at Middle East Information Center.
  19. Douglas Pratt, Terrorism and Religious Fundamentalism: Prospects for a Predictive Paradigm, Marburg Journal of Religion, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Volume 11, No. 1 (June 2006)
  20. Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology
  21. quotes from a study "based on a year-long study of over two hundred original documents, all disseminated, published or otherwise generated by the government of Saudi Arabia and collected from more than a dozen mosques in the United States". New Report on Saudi Government Publications at the Internet Archive
  22. "Murtadd", Encyclopedia of Islam
  23. Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri: "Not Every Conversion is Apostasy", by Mahdi Jami, In Persian, BBC Persian, February 2, 2005, retrieved April 25, 2006
  24. What Islam says on religious freedom, by Magdi Abdelhadi, BBC Arab affairs analyst, 27 March 2006, retrieved April 25, 2006
  25. Fatwa on Intellectual Apostasy, Text of the fatwa by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi
  26. S. A. Rahman in "Punishment of Apostasy in Islam", Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, l972, pp. 10-13
  27. The punishment of apostasy in Islam, View of Dr. Ahmad Shafaat on apostasy.

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

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