Islamic Fundamentalism: A Brief Survey (Part 4 of 7)

by Bruce Gourley


Modern Islamic political fundamentalism is the product of a desire by some Muslims to return to a pure faith in order to counter and overcome growing pressure from an increasingly westernized world.  Identifying and analyzing these pressure points is essential to understanding the rationale behind the often violent expressions of Islamic political fundamentalism whose ultimate purpose is to bring individual, country and world under the sovereign reign of Allah.

Islamists view the non-Muslim world, as well as the non-pure Muslim world, as morally evil, a perversion of the one true faith, and an affront to the one true God.  Modernity can be understood in terms of both morality and science.  On the one hand, the West, the embodiment of modern morality, is representative of that which is unholy in the world.  On the other hand, modernity as symbolized by science and technology is willingly embraced by Islamists.  Accordingly, despite the hatred which Islamic fundamentalists harbor towards the West’s modern morality, they have displayed a notable tendency to employ scientific instruments and technologies of modernity in their attempts to defeat Westernization and “reclaim” society. [45]

Underlying Islamic fundamentalist attitudes towards science are two differing traditions of knowledge:  religious sciences and rational sciences (i.e., philosophy and natural sciences).  The former has long been viewed as ultimate truth, while the later has been considered as inferior, foreign, or secular.[46]

In short, all Islamic fundamentalists ultimately subordinate the scientific realm to the authority of a sovereign God as revealed in sacred text.  In other words, human reason is in the service of revelation.  In this context, fundamentalist attitudes toward science are a mixture of both acceptance and rejection, predicated on the religious context of the issue at hand.  Sayyid Qutb, considered by many to be the foremost ideological authority among Sunni Muslims, wrote of the concept of a world “split between the domain of the jahiliyya (‘ignorant’) and a domain in which God’s method prevails.”[47]

Whereas Max Weber determined science to be a product of human reason, Qutb speaks for Islamic fundamentalists in locating science and technology in the Quran.[48]  Fundamentalists turn to the Quran for scientific guidance in reaction to nineteenth century Islamic accommodation of Western culture, an integration of faith and Western secularism viewed as a compromise detrimental to true Islam.  Ironically, both Islamic modernists (borrowing from Western methodologies) and later fundamentalists (refuting Western influence) have sounded identical themes of Islam rising to repel the West while effecting internal reforms.[49]

In daily practice, Islamic fundamentalist opposition to Westernization has been expressed pragmatically.  Whereas modern Western morality is viewed as an evil to be avoided, modern science and technology originating in the West has been absorbed and utilized in politics and society.  Accordingly, many products derived from Western science and technology are readily adopted, while the worldview related to these products is rejected.[50]

In essence, in Islamic fundamentalist circles the overarching debate between science and religion is in the determination of “truth,” rather than in the usage of products. Not surprisingly, the most common place of contention is in the realm of education.[51]

Modern Islamist fundamentalism is characterized by competing claims for the orientation of Islamic education.  One position argues that knowledge comes only from God, and that science and technology are neutral, and thus may be adopted from the non-Muslim world and utilized to benefit Muslims.  According to this line of reasoning, the Quran is a “book of orientation” (kitah hidaya), including references to science, but not strictly a science textbook itself.  Accordingly, adopted innovations must be consistent with the truth of the Quran and its revelations.[52]

A second approach to orienting Islamic education posits that the Quran includes all sciences.  Everything from natural sciences to modern medicine must be derived directly from the Quran.  Every legitimate scientific achievement is understood to come from the Quran.  Little distinction is often made between religious sciences and rational sciences in Islamic history, while European enlightenment (i.e., Descartes and Bacon) is considered to have been influenced by the Quran.  As such, by embracing science and technology through the prism of the Quran, contemporary Muslims are reclaiming their rightful heritage.[53]

A third grouping of fundamentalists asserts the concept of the “Islamization of science.”  This position affirms the exclusivity of the Quran in terms of science, yet goes further by insisting that Islam is the religion of science, and that to separate the two is a crime.  Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalists support this line of reasoning, and have been using their financial resources to teach it throughout the Arab world.[54]

Generally speaking, fundamentalist Islam views the world through a pre-Enlightenment mindset of religious faith over human reason. The teaching of an Islamic-centric scientific worldview is imperative in order to conquer and subdue that part of the world (the jahiliyya, or ignorant) which is not living under the authority of God and His revelation.  To this end, holy war (jihad) violence against Western modernity is not merely acceptable, but is in fact necessary.  Yet the weapons utilized in this holy war – guns, bombs, dynamite, airplanes, etc. – are themselves the products of western technology.[55]

In the end, Islamic fundamentalists’ only viable option for resisting the inevitable progression of Western modernity, whether within or without Islamic states, is to appropriate the very fruit of Western modernity, a tension seemingly unrecognized by many adherents.

Continue to Part 5 — Islamic Fundamentalisms: Responses to Western Society

(or return to Table of Contents)



[45] Evertt Mendelsohn, “Religious Fundamentalism and the Sciences,” in Fundamentalisms and Society, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 2, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 23.

[46]  Tibi, “The Worldview of Sunni Arab Fundamentalists,” 73-102.

[47]  Ibid.,, 76.

[48]  Ibid., 77.

[49]  Ibid., 74-83.

[50]  Ibid., 84.

[51]  Mendelsohn, 24-38.

[52]  Tibi, 85-87.

[53]  Ibid., 87-88.

[54]  Ibid., 88-90.

[55]  Ibid., 90-94.