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HomeCulturalHistory’s Most Misunderstood Concept in Religious Discourse is Fundamentalism

History’s Most Misunderstood Concept in Religious Discourse is Fundamentalism

According to UK-based writer and academic Ayesha Naseem, many people think they understand the term fundamentalism; however, when asked to define it, they are unable to do so. A century after it was first used, there is still not one agreed universal definition of fundamentalism.

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According to UK-based writer and academic Ayesha Naseem, many people think they understand the term fundamentalism; however, when asked to define it, they are unable to do so. A century after it was first used, there is still not one agreed universal definition of fundamentalism.

By Ayesha Naseem

According to Academic Malise Ruthven’s definition of fundamentalism, it is “a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities as individuals or groups in the face of modernity and secularization,” (Ruthven, 2007).

When we turn to Academic David Harrington Watt, he suggests that fundamentalism has a defining characteristic of resisting modernity, and it tends to “read texts literally, a predilection for getting involved in politics, and a proclivity for militant rhetoric and action,” (Watt, 2014).

The same concept is much broader for Simon Wood who speaks of fundamentalism as an idea that can be understood in “terms of resistance to modern ‘threats’ or opposition to modern secularism,” (Wood, 2014).

All three of these definitions give fundamentalism a religious connotation while also associating it with the idea that it resists and confronts modernity. However, despite having similar descriptions, the term still has ambiguities to its applicability and one definitive categorisation of the concept does not do it justice.

Fundamentalism – The term and its origins

The concept of fundamentalism has its origins in Protestant scholarship, and it did not always have negative implications. Broadly, revival and reform movements in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have been associated with the idea of fundamentalism because they tend to stress the need to return to the basic roots of the religion and its scripture. For this research piece, the religion of Islam is the focus.

Through a study and analysis of the beliefs of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, the aim is to explain whether fundamentalism supposedly always carries the risk of inspiring extremism because it is based on the revival of a religion’s teaching. Islam Ahmadiyyat is, of course, also a revival movement, but it is one that actively refutes the widely known view that returning to the original scripture and its teaching incites extremism, oppression, or serves as a resistance to civilisation.

In 1910, two Christian brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, with a successful oil business in the United States, sponsored a five-year programm for the publication and distribution of free-of-cost pamphlets about Protestant Christianity. The pamphlets were to be distributed to English-speaking Protestant pastors, evangelists, missionaries, theological professors, theological students, and other Protestant Christians etc. The booklets were a collection of essays authored by several Christian writers and were edited by three evangelists: A.C.  Dixon, Louis Meyer and Reuben Torrey. Titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, the pamphlets were a reformatory programme to stop the erosion of Protestant Christianity’s fundamental beliefs, (Ruthven, 2007).

Those fundamental beliefs were the “inerrancy of the Bible; the direct creation of the world, and humanity; the authenticity of miracles; the virgin birth of Jesus, his Crucifixion and bodily resurrection; the substitutionary atonement; and his imminent return to judge and rule over the world.”

More than three million copies of the booklets were circulated and were spread and shared on both sides of the Atlantic. For the authors of The Fundamentals, the booklets were a form of reformation for the “sizeable portion of Christendom” who had fallen into “grievous error.” Moreover, the publication of these pamphlets was to remove the doubts and mistrust of those Christians who had any “uneasy or distrustful feeling” regarding the Bible.

Scholars writing on the origins of fundamentalism also agree that the term did not always have negative connotations nor was it a term of abuse when Christians were making efforts to preserve their original teachings, (Ruthven, 2007).

In the case of Islam; it may be argued that the same understanding is not demonstrated owing to the representation given to the religion and its followers by politicians, media and even academics. If one were to study the reformist and revival movements of Islam, mostly established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost all argue for a return to the basic teachings of the Holy Quran. Without an awareness of the origins of the concept, and with the constantly changing nature of how it is viewed at present, it may be easy to conclude that fundamentalism is a negative idea that challenges and confronts Western values and modernity. Of course, the cases of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam do not help this misunderstanding and stereotypical view of Muslims in the West.

Reformist movements in Islam

If Christian fundamentalism in the early twentieth century and Islamic fundamentalism share the same definition of what they intend to preserve – that is their original teachings – then it is important to distinguish and explain why the revival movements in Islam became the supposed inspiration for extremism. The reformist movement of Wahhabism in Islam founded in the eighteenth century places a significant emphasis on following the Holy Quran word-for-word, (Choksy, 2015).

However, some argue that literal interpretation of the Holy Quran is not always possible:

“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book; in it there are verses that are decisive in meaning—they are the basis of the Book—and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking [wrong] interpretation of it. And none knows its [right] interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; they say, ‘We believe in it; the whole is from our Lord.’—And none heed except those gifted with understanding,” (Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, Ch.3: V.8).

In the Five-Volume English Commentary of the Holy Quran, it has been explained:

“According to the verse, the Quran has two sets of verses. Some are محکم (decisive in meaning) and others متشابه (capable of different interpretations). The right way to interpret a متشابه verse is that only such interpretation of it should be accepted as agrees with the verses that are محکم and all other interpretations should be dismissed as incorrect.

“It is on record that one day the Holy Prophetsa, on hearing people disputing about the interpretation of certain verses of the Quran, angrily said: ‘Thus were ruined those who have gone before you. They interpreted certain parts of their scriptures in such a manner as to make them contradict other parts. But the Quran has been so revealed that different parts of it should corroborate one another. So do not reject any truth by making one part contradict the other. Act on what you understand thereof and refer that which you do not understand to those who know and understand it.’ (Musnad)

“The above hadith may refute the theory of abrogation, for it speaks of the Holy Quran as a Book of which all parts corroborate one another and condemns those who think that some of its verses contradict others.” (Five Volume English Commentary, Vol. II, pp. 455-456)

The Ahmadiyya Movement

A revival movement by nature, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community claims that its main objective is to instill the belief and love of Allah Almighty in people, to serve humanity irrespective of backgrounds.

Islam Ahmadiyyat also emphasises the importance of returning to the ultimate teachings of the Holy Quran – but encourages the use of reason and interpretation where commandments are complex or require context, – followed by the ahadith (narrations) of the Holy Prophets of Islam. Contrary to how some people understand the movement as a “liberal” form of Islam, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community claims that it avoids wearing a term that defines its movement. Ahmadiyyat considers itself to be an Islamic movement only with the sole purpose and objective of practising and propagating Islam. In doing so, it directly challenges the common understanding that religious fundamentalism always connotes coercion and creates fears of modernity and Western values.

Western fear of sharia and Islamic leadership

One of the biggest issues that keeps recurring in the debate around Islam and fundamentalism is the fear of Islam being spread by force with the establishment of a repressive Islamic leadership in the West. Although other systems of Islamic government have widely used the term “Khalifah” and many political ones have existed (Spain, Turkey etc), many Muslims generally accept only one religious Khilafat, which was established, on the precepts of prophethood, after the demise of the Prophet of Islam.

In contrast to what many non-Muslims fear and what Western historians allege, just as the first, this second era of Khilafat is also free of any worldly aspirations and would continue till the end of times.

Change in the understanding of the term fundamentalism

There is widespread agreement among scholars that the change in the understanding of fundamentalism and its close association with Islam was due to the Iranian Revolution and the Gulf crisis in the aftermath. Peter Antes argues that the case study of Iran shocked the Western governments and analysts alike as for the “first time in modern history, a revolution was successful based on a religion that […] had its roots not in Western thoughts but in a religious setting that seemed to reject modernisation,” (Peter Antes, 2021).

Here is a classic example of “Othering” once again; this problematic terminology around revolutions suddenly changes if the experiences of those places do not go according to the typical Western playbook, and if their revolutions are of a religious nature. Even at present, where Ukrainians confronting the Russian invasion is a struggle for liberation and freedom from illegal and unjust occupation, Palestinian resistance demanding liberation from Israel’s occupation (recognised to be in breach of international law by the United Nations) is considered militant.

The use of violence and coercion and one’s views on it can obviously be debated and deconstructed elsewhere – for example Islam does not permit that harm be inflicted on civilians including non-combatant men, women, children, and the elderly – but it is certainly interesting that the standards to the struggle for liberation change depending on the nations involved.

Conflict resolution in Islam – the guidance to Muslims in the Holy Quran

The Holy Quran states in Surah al-Hujurat: “And if two parties of believers fight each other, make peace between them,” (Surah Al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.10).

Then in verse 11 of the same chapter, it says, “Surely [all] believers are brothers. So, make peace between your brothers,” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.11).

During the heightened tensions between Muslim nations during the Gulf Crisis, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IVrh emphasised that “the Islamic world has not followed the guidelines as enunciated by these verses of the Holy Quran”.

What has been described above is just based on two verses of the Holy Quran that advocate for the need to put aside conflicts by placing unity and mutual dialogue at the centre. If fundamentalism is going back to the scripture’s word-for-word teachings, then this is one example rarely found in academic research as evidence.

Jihad – the literal meaning

With their rise, influence and then decline in the last decade or so, the narrative from ISIS was one on the precepts of their understanding of Jihad – the struggle that was for “defeating” the West and establishing the dominance of Islam by force.

However, on its own, Jihad means “struggle” or “to strive”. (The Essence of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 319).

The Jihad of the early Islamic history was fought to defend, not just the religion of Islam after years of intensive persecution that was aimed at early Muslims and the Holy Prophets, but also the very existence of belief in God and religion itself –

“There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.257)

Despite such a profound and beautiful injunction of Islam to not use force or compulsion, some Muslim scholars still believe that just like in the period of early Islam, wars are necessary.

The argument that Islamic “fundamentalism” increases the risk of militancy against Western modernisation and civilisation is directly challenged by Ahmadiyyat not just in words but also in practice because its ideas trace back to the original teachings of the religion – which instils the values of compassion, peace, and freedom at the centre of belief.

Does Islam resist modernity and civilisation?

The idea of resisting modernity because of a potential clash between Western civilisation and Islam is another aspect often contested against it for having extremist tendencies. Samuel Huntington infamously argues in Clash of Civilisations that Islam absolutely opposes modernisation, and it is the complete opposite of what the West represents. For Huntington, other world religions still stand on a moderate scale between Islam on one end, and the secular West on the other. This, at its simplest, is another obvious sense of ‘othering’ implied by Huntington for while other religions may still stand a chance in the West, Islam never will.

If for a moment, we take away the religious element and just focus on the view that Islam has no place in the West, don’t we see just another form of fundamentalism? If, supposedly, taking religious commandments and teachings literally is extreme and fundamental then isn’t believing a religion can never be welcomed in a specific part of the world or society extreme and fundamental too?

It is fair to make the case that a religious group can be fundamentalist and can be so by practically challenging the commonly known negative connotations attached to the term. But language and its meaning constantly change so, the term fundamentalism is no different.

Note from the Editor: this essay has been edited from its original publication here.

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