Islamic Fundamentalism: A Brief Survey (Part 2 of 7)

By Bruce Gourley


“The most prolific rhetoric of fundamentalism … is reserved for Islam, and especially for the depiction of contemporary events in the Middle East.”[9]

It should be noted up front that many Muslims reject usage of the Western terms “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist,” instead preferring the terms “Islamism” and “Islamists” when speaking of groups advocating Islamic political law.  Both the Western roots of “fundamentalist” terminology and the extremist perception associated with the term are reason to resist usage of the term.[10]  Nonetheless, “fundamentalism” is now a commonly-used term in describing the ultra-conservative expressions of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faith groups, among others.  This terminology is useful in that it recognizes, as noted previously, that similarities do exist among ultra-conservative expressions of various faith groups.  In addition, the term is employed across faith groups by a growing number of religious scholars worldwide, scholars who note the differences among faith groups while also recognizing that opposition to modernity is an instrumental, shared element of certain ultra-conservative expressions within a variety of faith groups.[11]  Accordingly, for the purposes of this paper, “fundamentalist” terminology will be employed, although with the understanding that it is, in some respects, a contested terminology.

Although Islamic fundamentalism is indeed a modern phenomenon, it cannot be properly understood apart from the larger context of Islamic faith and Muslim history.  Ultimately, Islamic fundamentalism is religious in nature, and in approaching the subject one must examine “the dynamics of the expansion of Islam as a world religion of salvation.”[12]

Fundamentalist Islamic ideology is based upon two “pillars”:  the conviction that Islamic law (the sharia) is the only valid system for regulating human life (individual, social and political), and the conviction that a true and faithful Muslim society can only be achieved through an Islamic state.[13]

The Prophet Muhammad is the founder and central figure of the Islamic faith.  In 610 C. E. Muhammad received his first revelation from God.  Over time, the Prophet received a number of revelations which were transcribed into the text of the Quran.  Received and recorded as God’s direct revelation (or Word), the Quran became the written text of Islam and the authoritative source of law.  Over the course of ensuing generations, statements and actions attributed to Muhammad and transmitted orally by his followers were compiled and written down into the accepted hadith (many sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad were disputed).  The hadith revealed the sunna (or path) that Muslims should follow in the daily living of their lives.  Taken together with the Quran and the consensus of learned scholars within the Muslim community, they eventually formed the sharia, Islam’s sacred law.

Muhammad developed a small following in his hometown of Mecca, but his new religious views eventually put him at odds with city leaders.  Forced to flee, Muhammad and his followers settled in the nearby city of Medina in 622.  He soon rose to political and military prominence, negotiating a treaty with Mecca in 628, then breaking the treaty and capturing Mecca in 630.  For the next two years, Muhammad expanded his power throughout the region of Arabia.[14]

After Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., his followers were left with the task of trying to determine who should succeed the Prophet (Muhammad had left no instructions in terms of successors).  Initially, the struggle was of a political nature.  Abu Bakr, an early convert to Islam and trusted advisor and close friend of Muhammad, was selected as the first caliph (successor to Muhammad).  His selection was controversial and came at a time when the Muslim state was expanding into southern Syria and Iraq.  Tribes throughout Arabia openly revolted against Abu Bakr, while proclaiming loyalty to Muhammad.  Near death, Abu Bakr appointed Umar b. al-Khattab as his successor.  Umar successfully expanded the Muslim empire, quickly conquering Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine, Armenia and Egypt.  The conquered peoples were given the status of dhimi (“protected peoples”) and were treated well.  Umar utilized local administrators under the rule of Muslim governors.

Umar’s assassination in 644 led to the appointment of Uthman b. Affan as the third caliph.  Uthman continued Umar’s expansionist policies in the midst of growing opposition, at the same time hiring many of his own kin as administrators, to the point of straining the treasury.  In addition, he took religious authority upon himself, burning all copies of the Quran other than the one version he deemed the official version.  Uthman was also assassinated, and civil war broke out under his successor Ali b. Abi Talib.  Ali, who had been part of the opposition to Uthman, refused to punish Uthman’s murderers, in the process alienating supporters of the first three caliphs.  In the meantime, Syria appointed a rival caliph, Muawiya, who went to war against Ali and became caliph of the entire empire following Ali’s murder, thus ending the original reign of caliphs (all four of whom had been related to Muhammad in some manner) and beginning the reign of the Umayyad dynasty.

Supporters of Ali were Shiite Muslims, who devoted themselves to preserving the house of Ali and seeking to amend the wrong done to him.  To the Shiite, the first three caliphs were not legitimate, and the caliphate ended with Ali, as testified by both the end of Muhammad’s lineage and the evil acts which took place among the Umayyad dynasty.

On the other hand, Sunni Muslims embraced all four caliphs as orthodox, viewing their collective reign as the golden age of Islam, while also recognizing that all the descendants of the Arabian Quraysh tribe (which included the Umayyad clan), despite being marked by some periods of evil, were nonetheless legitimate caliphs.[15]

Shortly after Ali’s death, as Arab Muslims sought political organization following decades of expansion, two rebellious movements, the puritanical (Sunni) Kharijism and millenarian Shi’ism, arose advocating Islam as a universal religion of salvation.  The Shi’ite millenarian rebellion of the 680s proclaimed a coming messiah (the Mahdi), a belief later incorporated into popular Sufism.  Kharijism, on the other hand, rejected the present world by separating itself and advocating a rigid application of Islamic law as espoused in the Quran, proclaiming that nominal Muslims were infidels.[16]

The tension between Sunnis and Shiites has remained to the present time.  Although the Shiites showed the earliest orthodox tendencies, the vast majority of Muslims today are Sunni, and fundamentalism is more common among Sunnis than Shiites.[17]

By the end of the ninth century, Islamic law was in the process of expanding to include not only the Quran, but also the hadith.  Together, the Quran and the accepted hadith came to comprise the authoritative Scripture for the faith community.  The establishment of the Sunni Hanbali school of law in the same century, a reaction against rational theology, provided the medieval archetype of later Islamic revivalism.  The Hanbalites held to the Quran as the literal, unquestioned, and uncreated Word of God, while affirming the Tradition (or customs) of Muhammad (Sunna, and hence Sunni) and the consensus of the Muslim community (jama’a).[18]

The Hanbalite tradition, in turn, produced the strict Wahhabi tradition in Arabia in the late eighteenth century.  The founder of the Wahhabi tradition was Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, a religious scholar who formed an alliance with Muhammad bin Saud, the first ruler of what would become Saudia Arabia, and who traveled throughout the Muslim world and journeyed to Medina and Mecca.  Distraught by the compromises the Islamic faith had made with popular religious practices (as expressed in the mystical faith of Sufism), Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, seeking to revive the Islamic faith, taught the transcendent unity of God (tawhid) and strict obedience to the Quran.[19]

The Wahhabis, believing that modern Islam had become corrupted and polluted from within, were a revivalist movement which sought to return Islam to its pure roots.  In 1766, Wahhab’s doctrinal views won recognition among the scholars of Mecca.  The Wahhabi movement became very influential, leading to the founding of other similar movements.  Properly speaking, the Wahhabi movement was a revivalist movement based on orthodox Islamic law.[20]  Ironically, the Wahhabis ideological opposites (the more liberal Sufi expression of the Islamic faith, based on popular spirituality) provided the organizational model for Islamic revivalism.[21]  The Wahhabi movement was one of a number of Islamic revival and reform movements in the eighteenth century.[22]  In the twentieth century, Wahhabi Islam would provide the theological foundation for a political fundamentalist state.[23]

The 1857 Sepoy uprising in India, in which both Muslims and Hindus revolted against British rule, provided the impetus for the next ideological stepping stone in the history of Islamic fundamentalism.   The British reacted to the uprising by persecuting Muslims. In an attempt to prevent suspected Muslim disloyalty from getting out of hand, the British destroyed Muslim holy sites in Delhi.  The persecution, in turn, led Muslim ulama (theologians) to found private madrasas (colleges) over which the British state would have no control.  The first such school was located in the town of Deobandi, about 90 miles northeast of Delhi. The Deobandi schools taught adherence to strict interpretations of Islamic law, based on the Quran and the hadith.  Intellectually, via publications and debates, the Deobandi scholars sought to establish Islam as the one true faith.  Socially, the Deobandi school of thought rejected the shrine elements of Islamic mysticism (Sufism) which had developed in the ninth century as Islam sought to accommodate the faiths of conquered lands.  In the place of mysticism, the Deobandis taught careful personal adherence to morality and piety as spelled out in the Quran and hadith.  The Deobandi tradition thus served to provide a highly intellectual, socially structured, and overtly evangelical scriptural foundation for an Islamic faith which was facing growing pressure from Western influences.[24]

The shift from revivalism to fundamentalism initially took place through the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (“The Society of Muslim Brothers”) movement in the 1930s.  Although originally based in Egypt, the movement has exercised formidable influence throughout the Arab world.  The Muslim Brotherhood, as R. Hrair Dekmejian notes, “more than any other organization, has been the ideological and institutional epicenter of fundamentalism in the Arab sphere and the Islamic world … it is impossible to comprehend contemporary Sunni Islamism and its Arab manifestations without a firm understanding of the origins and evolution of the brotherhood.”[25]

Founded in 1929 by Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood tapped into popular unrest against British rule, local political turmoil, and the corrupting influence of the West.  Banna, a Sufi spiritualist, Islamic scholar, and activist leader, was the “avatar” of modern Sunni revivalism.  His movement, which was more successful than previous revivalist movements, possessed an activist ideology, an organizational structure, charismatic leadership, mass following and a pragmatic orientation.  The movement was based on the Quran and the hadith, and translated doctrine into social action at a time when Egypt was in social unrest.[26]

Initially espousing non-violence, the Brotherhood quickly became one of Egypt’s most powerful organizations.  The group was effectively organized, made extensive use of propaganda, and appealed to a cross-section of Egyptian society.  However, Banna’s efforts to use politics to enact Islamic law in Egypt led to state persecution of the group by the late 1940s, which in turn led to the assassination of the Egyptian monarch by a Muslim Brother, for which Banna was assassinated in reprisal.

The following decades witnessed escalating clashes between the increasingly violent Brotherhood (as well as the many new fundamentalist groups it spawned) and Islamic secular states.  Israel’s victory in the 1967 war was a crucial event.  Islamic fundamentalists proclaimed that the Arab world lost the war because of a lack of religious faith, and fundamentalist calls for the imposition of shariah (Islamic) law found even greater reception in the Arab world.  Anwar al-Sadat, who ascended to the Egyptian presidency in 1970, sought to co-opt the rising fundamentalist tide through the 1971 establishment of Islam as the official religion of the Egyptian state, and sharia law as a source of legislation (in 1980, sharia law was made the main source of legislation).  Nonetheless, Sadat’s openness to the West and Israel, as evidenced by the 1979 Camp David Accord with United States President Carter Israeli Prime Minister Begin, resulting in peace with Israel, was scorned by the multiplying Islamic fundamentalist organizations.  In September 1981, realizing that he had underestimated Islamic fundamentalists, Sadat led the government in taking direct control of all mosques and arresting thousands of militants.  One month later he was dead, assassinated by members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Tanzim al-Jihad.  Since Sadat’s assassination, a variety of Islamic fundamentalist movements in Egypt have increasingly turned to violence against the state, unacceptable social conduct, and even one another.[27]

A parallel transition from scriptural fundamentalism to political fundamentalism took place in South Asia via the Jama’at-i Islami (Islamic Party), founded by the Deobandi-trained Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) in 1941.  Concerned with the decline of Muslim power in India in the early twentieth century, Mawdudi determined that diversity, in the form of interfaith mixing and a growing liberalization of Muslim faith, had weakened Islam.  The answer was to sever social and political ties with Hindus and other non-Muslims and take up arms against non-Muslims.

Mawdudi looked to the Quran for a scriptural rationale for his militant views:

“Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors.  And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the sacred mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them.  Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.  But if they cease, God is Oft-forgiving, most Merciful.  And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” (s. 2:190-193)

Mawdudi also found parallel justification in the hadith.

The Jama’at-i Islami was thus formed as a political movement to transform society via strict Islamic ideology, considering itself as the “vanguard” of an Islamic revolution.  Yet within two decades of its founding, the party became more pragmatic in approach, advocating a constitution for Pakistan that included a commitment to democracy and individual rights.  However, faced with Communist encroachments in Pakistan in the late 1960s, the Jama’at-i Islami eventually abandoned cooperative efforts and sought to establish a strict Islamic state identity in opposition to the Bhutto regime.  Ultimately failing in this regard, and losing significant grassroots political support in the process, the party fell back to trying to accommodate both ideology and pragmatism.  The rebirth of democracy in Pakistan in 1988 has since forced the Jama’at-i Islami to recognize the importance of further compromise if the party is to have a meaningful voice in the political structure of Pakistan.[28]

In short, by the 1980s the legacy of Islamic revivalism, as expressed in Wahabbi Islam and the Deobandi madrasa tradition, had found firm fruition in a milieu of political fundamentalist organizations which were actively seeking to impose sharia law in states throughout the Arab world and beyond, a subject which will command our later attention.

The proliferation of Islamic political fundamentalism, in turn, has been characterized by certain behavioral characteristics, ranging from passive to militant.  The following characteristics are indicative of modern Islamic fundamentalism:

Characteristics of Individualistic Passive Fundamentalism

  1. Regular mosque attendance (five times a day).
  2. Strict Observance of the Five Pillars of Islam:
    1. Profession of faith (shahadah)
    2. Prayers (salat)
    3. Fasting (sawm)
    4. Almsgiving (sakat)
    5. Pilgrimage (hajj)
  3. Strict adherence to Quranic prohibitions (such as abstaining from alcohol and sexual immorality)
  4. Regular religious meditation, reading of the Quran, and reading of other Islamic literature.
  5. Participation in religious group activities within and without the mosque.
  6. Participation in neighborhood self-help and mutual assistance societies
  7. Growing full beards (lihya) and thin moustaches as a sign of devotion and piety.
  8. Wearing distinctive clothing (including a facial and head veil for women)

Characteristics of Individualistic Activist Fundamentalism

  1. Pursuit of passive characteristics listed above with great rigor.
  2. Tendency to live together in specific neighborhoods, sometimes in physical and social isolation from passive fundamentalists.
  3. Frequenting of specific mosques that cater to activist agendas.
  4. Engagement in acts of “purifying” violence directed against “sinful” institutions and individuals, including nightclubs, movie theaters, symbolic structures, and governments.

Manifestations of Collective Islamic Fundamentalism

  1. Mosque building (both private and government sponsored).
  2. Radio-television programming (provides religious instruction).
  3. Observance of holidays (observed with great religious fervor).
  4. Mosque attendance (faithful devotion).
  5. The press (increase in religious instruction in newspapers).
  6. Illumination of mosques (elaborate lighting at nighttime).
  7. Religious literature (an unprecedented increase in printing copies of the Quran and books on Islamic history and religion.
  8. Displays of copies of the Quran (in public places).
  9. Religious slogans (increasingly displayed in public places).[29]

Finally, terrorist activity against Western government and society in particular has become a vivid expression of Islamic political fundamentalism in recent years. When committing such acts, terrorists are oftentimes indiscriminate in terms of the actual individuals whom they target.[30]

Continue to Part 3 — Islamic Fundamentalisms: Some Major Expressions

(or return to Table of Contents)


[9]   Bassam Tibi, “The Worldview of Sunni Arab Fundamentalists: Attitudes toward Modern Science and Technology,” in Fundamentalisms and Society, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 2, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 73.

[10]  Gabriel Ben-Dor, “The Uniqueness of Islamic Fundamentalism,” in Religious Radicalism in the Greater Middle East, eds. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Efraim Inbar (London and Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass, 1997), 241.

[11]  In recent decades, scholarly literature on religious fundamentalisms has mushroomed.  Although the purpose of this paper is neither to survey nor list such literature, the massive The Fundamentalism Project, referenced throughout this essay, is indicative of the understanding by scholars of the appropriateness of fundamentalist terminology.

[12]  Arjomand, 179.

[13]  Guazzone, Laura, ed., The Islamist Dilemma: The Political Role of Islamist Movements in the Contemporary Arab World (Berkshire, UK: Ithaca Press, 1995), 10.

[14]  Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (New York: Random House Modern Library, 2002).  Daniel Pipes, In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1983), 36-37, 72-74.

[15]  Armstrong, Islam.  Emmanuel Sivan and Menachem Friedman, eds., Religious Radicalism in the Middle East (Albany, New York: State University of New York, 1990), 39-47.  P.M. Holt, Ann K.S. Lambton and Bernard Lewis, The Cambridge History of Islam (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1970). Fred M. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981).

[16]  Arjomand, 179.  Dilip Hiro, Holy Wars: The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1989), 2-25.

[17]  John O. Voll, “Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World,” in Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 1, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 345-402.

[18]  Arjomand, 179-180.

[19]  Voll, 349-352.  The Saudi Arabian Information Resource website (authored by the Saudi Minister of Information), (accessed 04/25/03).

[20]  Arjomand, 180-186.

[21]  Ibid., 181.

[22]  John O. Voll, Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 24-83.

[23]  R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islamic Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 130-151.

[24]  Barbara D. Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: 1860-1900 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982), 87-260.  Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 99-114.

[25]  Dekmejian, 73-74.

[26]  Ibid., 74-76.

[27]  Ibid., 77-84.  Hiro, 60-107.  Gehad Auda, “The ‘Normalization’ of the Islamic Movement in Egypt from the 1970s to the Early 1980s,” in Accounting for Fundamentalisms, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 4, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 374-412.

[28] Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama’at i-Islami of Pakistan (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1994) and Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).  T. N. Madan, “From Orthodoxy to Fundamentalism: A Thousand Years of Islam in South Asia,” in Fundamentalisms Comprehended, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 5, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 288-320.

[29]  Dekmejian, 51-53.

[30]  Harvey W. Kushner, Encyclopedia of Terrorism (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2003).