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Bitter Fruit of Religious Fundamentalism

Any religious group’s inability to deviate from established ‘fundamentals’ risks its devolution to archaic, tribal norms

by Khaled Ahmed

Historian Karen Armstrong, writing in The Lost Art of Scripture: Reviewing the Scared Texts (Deckle Edge 2019), thinks fundamentalism usually indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. However, fundamentalism has come to be applied to a tendency among certain groups—mainly, though not exclusively, in religion—that is characterized by a markedly strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining distinctions, leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which advocates believe members have strayed. Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established “fundamentals” and their accepted interpretation within the group often results from this.

Islamic legalism is not only restricted to the utopian period of Madina under its Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) and the Rashideen caliphs (632-661 A.D.), but to the period of expansion under the Umayyad (661-750 A.D.) and the Abbasid (750-1258 A.D.) dynasties. While the first utopian period was politically based on the Quran and Sunnah, the two later periods were non-Islamic in the sense that they were dynastic. It is during the Abbasids that the great Islamic jurists made their contributions: Imam Shafei (767-820 A.D.), Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 798 A.D.), and Imam Hanbal (780-855 A.D.) lived in this period and constructed the legal framework that the fundamentalists of today insist upon without reinterpretation.

Early literalism of scriptures

What the new Islamists ignore is the relationship which the great jurists enjoyed with the caliphs who were, in fact, political rulers with religious authority. The jurists did not contest the morality of the politics of the caliph as long as he enforced shariah. That he was exempt from the application of the shariah was accepted by the jurists. In the case of Imam Hanbal, the author argues, the conflict with the caliph arose out of the imposed official view that Quran was “created” by Allah.

The Imam refused to move from his view that Quran was the breath and voice of Allah. In the first view, the Quran became subject to interpretation and construction; in the later view, the Quran remained a literalist authority because it was the direct speech of Allah. Imam Hanbal suffered at the hands of the caliph, just as the other group suffered once the Abbasid political support was removed from the side of those who believed in the “createdness” of the Quran. It is to be noted that Imam Hanbal did not question the political authority of the Abbasids on the basis of principles now applied by the Islamists.

From Ibn Taimiya to Imam Khomeini

The career of Ibn Taimiya (1263-1328 A.D.) highlights the jurist’s abstention from judging the caliph on the yardstick of the shariah although on his opposition to philosophy and the Sufi tradition he did suffer at the hands of the Mameluke rulers. However, when he was asked to rule whether the Muslim Mongol rulers in neighboring Turkey were really Muslims he ruled them non-Muslim on the basis of the argument that they mixed shariah with yasa, the Mongol tribal code. This is an interesting fatwa because this is the trend of the Islamists today. Ibn Taimiyya did not judge the Mamluke caliph with the same severe yardstick. In fact his fatwa could have pleased the Mamlukes because they saw the Muslim Mongol rulers as a political challenge. But then this kind of fatwa of takfeer was not the norm in the medieval period.

The fundamentalism of Imam Khomeini was also a modern view because of the idea of the ‘republic’ contained in his view of the state. It was the ‘people’ on whose behalf he sought to set up the domain of the faqih (jurist). The Safavids moved to the shariah norm after a long period of Imami mysticism. When Imam Khomeini came on the scene, the Shia way was different from that of the Sunnis. The shariah for the latter was the Prophet (PBUH) plus the Rashideen caliphs, the hadith and the jurists; for the Shia, it started with the fourth caliph Ali and then developed on the basis of a long period of ‘separation’ of tradition. The idea of the Imam became highly developed but it presented difficulties when read together with the idea of the Imam in occultation. Khomeini then developed his idea of the domain of the faqih while in exile in Najaf in Iraq. The valayat-e-faqih then formed the crux of the constitution he gave to Iran. The faqih of Khomeini was able to sense the real shariah and had the power to implement it.

Linking scriptures with modernism

The other aspect of fundamentalism the author discusses is the merger of the modernist Muslim thinker with the conservative ulema among the Sunni Muslims. He traces this trend with Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905 A.D.) who accepted the modern state but linked it with enforcement of shariah. In the Middle East today, much violent killing of innocent Muslims is being carried out by radical fundamentalists. On the other hand, no such merger took place in Iran between the modernist intellectual and the highly institutionalized Shia clergy. Ali Shariati as a modern thinker was never accepted by the powerful clergy, and Imam Khomeini never really accepted his powerful anti-imperialists stance. On the other hand, the power of the Iranian faqih to suspend the shariah or any part thereof could not be acceptable to the Sunni fundamentalists.

There is very little intellectual content to the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world. Lack of intellectual content has led directly to conversion to terrorism, a trend that most Muslims are not aware of. Perhaps the biggest threat from fundamentalism today is the death of the intellect in the Islamic world. This is quite in contrast to Ibn Taimiyya’s forceful defense of literalism in the face of rationalists and the sufis. It is true that Ibn Taimiyya may be leaned upon to provide support to an anti-rational construct about the state today, but the essence of his example lies in thinking afresh about the challenges the Muslims face in statecraft and economic theory.

Islam and the West

The biggest irritant between the West and the world of Islam is the way the West chooses to define the phenomenon of return to Islam among Muslim societies. The West harks back to Christian fundamentalism, European and American, to find the vocabulary for a brand of Islam that it fears. On the side of Muslims, there is also an inability to understand what the West really wants to say. At the level of cultural experience all Muslims are not yet ready to see why religion must be separated from the functioning of the state. Almost no Muslim, liberal or conservative, is willing to concede that secularism is a valid political concept. (Confusion prevails because a Western secularist may be rationalist without believing in religion; in Muslim societies, all secularists are believers). The liberal Muslim is under pressure from the fanatic with whom he has not yet learnt to disagree at the level of ideas. He is offended at the West calling the world of Islam fundamentalist.

It is often declared that the West is too inward-looking and too convinced of its experience of the past to see how the Muslim mind works, to differentiate between the modernist-liberal Muslim and the seminary-bred revolutionary who believes that the time has come to use violence. It is often thought that the West’s application of the term fundamentalism is more reflective of its own fear than the reality of the Muslim world. There is also a problem with clubbing the Hassidic Jews, the Hezbollah and the Indian VHP together while applying the term because the nature of extremism in the three categories is different. The extremism of Islam, according to Muslim scholar Fouad Ajami, has come of out of a long experience of the people with secular elites who allied themselves with the West and then failed to deliver good governance. According to Nikki Keddie, it is the rise of the petty bourgeoisie in Muslim societies that has given rise to this extremism. Theda Skocpol thinks that lack of participation has caused the Muslim masses to look to the radical-violent solutions offered by the fundamentalists.

The phenomenon of Attaturk

It is also thought that petrodollars and uneven development have caused Muslim societies to become restive; and that the erosion of culture in the face of the market has caused Muslims to feel deprived. The critique of Edward Said finds that it is insufficient as an explanation. While it is true that Western perceptions are formed by “orientalism,” it is difficult to find the “real Islam” that would exist without orientalism. It is also thought that the abolition of Khilafat by Kemal Attaturk took the authority of defining Islam away from a central Islamic institution to Western scholars observing Islam from the periphery: “The abolition of the caliphate had the effect of unfixing the sedimented link between the state and Islam. The effect of this was to reactivate Islam as a political discourse. The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire—both territorially by the European powers and ideologically by Kemal and his followers—produced the political terrain with which we are now familiar: a Muslim fragmented between different nation states, ruled by modernizing elites, which see Islam as being peripheral to the concerns of the state.”

The rise of Islamism

The Islamists came upon the scene after the secular elites had allowed the nation state to decline to a point where it was not able to maintain its social contract. The entire Islamist phenomenon seems a post-structuralist vocabulary. Islamists use Islamic metaphors in their narratives of political projects. They create a moral order out of the dream of Islam and are as valid in the given situation as the elites using the Western vocabulary. He looks at the responses within the Islamic societies to the Islamist-fundamentalist enterprise: the stereotype of “they don’t know how to run the modern state” and “their vocabulary is hypocritical covering business as usual.” But the discourse of the Islamists is anything but agreed although much of the rhetoric against secularism is the same across the Islamic world. It is more useful to see Islamism as the new discourse in the space vacated by the West in the lives of the Muslims. It would be wrong to dismiss this discourse as so many political movements aiming to grab power.

The point made about the removal of the Ottoman caliphate as the uncorking of the disparate discourse is significant. The Empire held the defining authority and this authority was gradually secularizing itself within the Islamic world-view because Muslims and non-Muslims living under it had to be treated equally. The dislocation of the Empire took the task of defining to the West. Then, as the West receded from its empire in the Orient, the Islamists produced their own discourse which is now being misunderstood by the West. But one must state here that lack of consensus over this discourse has caused as much confusion among Muslims who feel inclined to stand up against the West. The secular-liberal Muslim, while fearing the violence of the Islamists, is not willing to find comfort in the secularism of the West. He is convinced that the label of fundamentalism bestowed by the West also applies to him; in fact, he stands together with the Islamist while opposing the Western epithet as an unfair definition. Later when he his targeted by the Islamist as an agent of the West, he feels alone and betrayed.

Islam and the liberal Muslim

One reason why the Muslim liberal feels betrayed is that he never really comes in contact with the Islamist project. He is usually upper- and upper-middle class while the draconian Islamic laws target only the poor who remain convinced of its validity and seek comfort in the prospect of having more and more of it till it becomes right. The Muslim liberal may disagree with the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law but he ignores it as the application of this law is directed against the minorities (including women) he doesn’t belong to. The final solution to his confusion comes at the completion of the Islamist project when he is either forced to leave and live in the West he hates or is exterminated as an agent of the West, opposed or passively resistant to the new order.

In addition to Islam, Armstrong also narrates the unfolding of fundamentalism in Judaism and Christianity, explaining that the word was coined by Protestants in the United States in the early 20th century to distinguish themselves from liberal Christians. The declared objective was to return to the “fundamentals” of their faith, which they believed to be the literal interpretation of scripture together with a select group of core doctrines. Similar movements, although with very different foci, have developed in other faith traditions. Indeed, wherever a secular government has separated religion and politics, a counterculture has developed alongside it which is determined to push religion back to center stage.

Fundamentalism, Christian and Islamic

The 1990s, at the outset of their monumental six-volume Fundamentalist Project that examined this phenomenon, Martin E. Marty explained that fundamentalisms—be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Confucian—all follow a similar trajectory. They are embattled spiritualties that have developed in response to a perceived crisis; engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.

They fear annihilation, and try to mortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. Feeling profoundly threatened, they often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture: in American Protestant Fundamentalism, the Bible Institutes were in the bastion of these separatist communities. But fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers. They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity and, under the guidance of charismatic leaders, they refine these fundamentals to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually they fight back in an attempt to re-sacralize an increasingly skeptical world; this does not usually mean violence—only a tiny percentage of fundamentalists use terror tactics—but it usually takes the form of a cultural, ritualized or scholarly riposte.

Stasis of Judaism

In Judaism, fundamentalists either support or oppose secular Israel. In Islam, the last of the three monotheisms to develop the fundamentalist strain, it has always been sparked by an attack—ideological or physical—on the ummah, the Muslim community. Scripture has played a part in such movements, usually in the use of ‘proof texts’ to justify a course of action. But it is neither the starting point nor the principal means of expression—fundamentalists often use ritual to make their point. Yet, as we have seen, scripture was the focus of Protestant fundamentalism from the very beginning. This, perhaps, is not surprising. The Protestant Reformation had insisted on sola scriptura. Scripture was, therefore, the life and soul of Protestant Christianity; it was all they had, and when it was attacked, fundamentalists felt that their very selves were violated. Hence the extremity of their fear of the Higher Criticism.

Fundamentalisms usually begin with what is experienced as an assault by a secularist majority. Protestants established their Fundamentalist Movement but it was the famous Scopes Trial which led to their retreat from the mainstream and the creation of a counterculture. The state legislatures of Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana had passed laws to prohibit the teaching of evolution in the public schools. To strike a blow for free speech, a young teacher confessed that he had broken the law when he had substituted for the school principal in a biology class. He was brought to trial in July 1925, defended by the new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), headed by nationalist campaigner Clarence Darrow. The statesman William Jenning Bryan agreed to defend the anti-evolution law and the trial became a contest between religion and science. As is well known, Darrow emerged as the hero of lucid rational thought and Bryan a bumbling, incompetent anarchist. Scopes was convicted, but the ACLU paid his fine and Darrow and the sciences were the real victors.

Nietzsche and God

The press had a field day and the fundamentalists were denounced as the scourge of the nation, enemies of science and freedom, who had no place in the modern world. After this vicious media assault, the fundamentalists withdrew, creating an enclave of godliness in their own churches, broadcasting stations, publishing houses, schools, universities and Bible colleges. In the late 1970s, when their movement had gained sufficient strength, they would return to public life, launching a Biblically inspired offensive to convert the nation.

Friedrich Nietzsche was convinced that unless a new absolute could be found to take the place of God, the scientific civilization of the West would become unhinged. Not only was there no God, he argued, there was now no ordering principle. Where is the earth moving now? The Jewish communities were probably the first to experience the effects of the Enlightenment. The Hasidim (the Pious Ones) emerged in Poland at about the same time as the First Great Awakening gripped North America, when the poor were struggling with excessive taxation and felt abandoned by the rabbis, who had retreated into arid discussions of Torah minutiae.

Guru Nanak, then and now

Guru Nanak had no interest in scripture, but Sikhs have now developed a deep and visceral protectiveness towards the Guru Granth Sahib. The Christian fundamentalists denounce the Higher Criticism; Sikh fundamentalists have zero tolerance for any historical-critical interpretation their scripture. Any Sikh who dares to practice such scholarship is likely to come under fire, not only metaphorically but also literally. Sumeet Singh, editor of Punjab’s oldest literary journal, was shot outside Amritsar for his independent reading of Sikh ideology. Singh Bhindranwale (1947—84), a major figure in Sikh fundamentalism, insistently reminded audiences to tolerate no insult to the scriptures, claiming a moral obligation to kill anyone who showed the slightest disrespect for Guru Granth Sahib.

In 1989, five years after the murder of Sumeet, the Iranian government issued a fatwa against British Indian author Salman Rushdie, who in his novel The Satanic Verses had created what many Muslims regarded as a blasphemous portrait of Islam’s Prophet, and most dangerously suggested that the Quran had been tainted by satanic influence. The Iranian fatwa was condemned as un-Islamic by 44 of the 45-member countries at the Islamic Conference the following month, but there were riots in Pakistan and in Bradford, England, where the novel was ceremonially burned. Years of suppression and denigration scarred Muslim sensibilities. Zaki Badawi, one of Britain’s most intense Muslims, explained that the assault on the Quran was “like a knife being dug into you or being raped.”

Legacy of Syed Qutb

It was Sayyid Qutb (1906—66) who introduced a new militancy into modern Islamic discourse. He was one of the Muslim brothers who were imprisoned by Egypt’s Nasser after a failed assassination attempt but for doing nothing more incriminating than handing out leaflets. A scholarly, sensitive man, Qutb was radicalized by the brutality of the Egyptian jail where he wrote Milestones, which has been called the basis of Muslim extremism. Qutb was a distinguished Quranic scholar yet the ideology of Milestones is based on the Sunnah, the practice of Islam’s Prophet and the “pious ancestors” (salaf) the first generation of Muslims, rather than the Quran. In the ‘milestones’ (the major turning points) of the Prophet (PBUH)’s life, God, Qutb believed, had shown human beings how to build a properly ordered society.

Milestones has inspired much of the Islamic militancy that has since erupted in the Muslim world. In the past, Sunni Muslims had emphasized the triumphant achievements of the salaf, the first Muslims. But now that the ummah was powerless and endangered, Salafists focused on their vulnerability during the terrifying war between Mecca and Medina. Like the beleaguered Muslim world today, the salaf had been surrounded by powerful enemies bent on their destruction. During the siege of Medina, they had faced the prospect of annihilation. When modern jihadis studied Iran, it was not the jihad verses that inspired them. They knew that most Muslims would condemn their militant activities, but drew comfort from the fact that the salaf had also been opposed by their fellow Muslims, who had been reluctant to fight against their kinsfolk and fellow tribesmen in Mecca. The Quran has harsh words for those who “lagged behind the fighters, accusing them of apathy and cowardice and even equating them with the kufar, the enemies of Islam.”

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