Islamic Fundamentalism: A Brief Survey (Part 5 of 7)

by Bruce Gourley


Whereas the fundamentalist battle against Western thought, reflective of the whole of modernity, is largely an intellectual struggle against the non-Muslim world, the battle over the status of the family is a street-level campaign to resist Western influence by conforming Muslims to the strict commands and demands of sharia law.

Within the modern Islamic world, much of the ongoing debate between fundamentalist Muslims and secular Muslims has focused on the status of women, marriage, and family law.  The Quran and hadith are explicit in addressing such issues. Fundamentalists believe the demands of Islamic law are strict, divine, unchanging, and central to the vitality of Islamic society.  Islamic faith itself is the key to Muslim social order, the term Islam literally meaning “obedience.”   A just and holy society can be achieved only when Muslims live in obedience to God’s divine revelation mandating human relationships to God and to one another.[56]

Fundamentalist Muslims, in seeking to enforce the sovereignty of God upon the entire universe, begin with the individual and the family in obedience to God and His plan for the sexes.  Only when families in a community are living according to Islamic law can the community be in harmony with God. Only when all communities in a nation are living according to Islamic law can the nation be in harmony with God. And only when all nations are living according to Islamic law can the universe be in harmony with God.[57]

In the context of attempts to interject strict sharia law upon Muslim society and government, women have been, and remain, the primary focus of attention.  Even as western influences led many Islamic states to reform the legal and political status of women in the mid-twentieth century, Islamic fundamentalists came to view the strict suppression of women’s “rights” as vital to the revitalization and purification of Islamic society.

Islamic fundamentalists see basic morality at stake in the fight over women’s rights.  Wives are morally bound to be obedient to their husbands. Social justice cannot be achieved if women are in violation of their proper sphere of existence.  In Pakistan in the 1960s, for example, Mawdudi and the Jama’at-i Islami struggled unsuccessfully to reverse the trend towards the liberalization of marriage and divorce laws in the form of legal codes which gave more rights to women.  In the 1980s, Muslims in India successfully influenced the government to retain Muslim Family Laws, despite the fact that such laws were opposed to the Uniform Civil Code.  In many countries throughout the Muslim world, fundamentalists strive to keep women out of the job market, to force women to remain fully veiled in pubic, and to keep wives in strict submission, if not virtual bondage, to their husbands.  Such efforts take the form of strict implementation of Islamic law in terms of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and succession.  Throughout the Islamic world fundamentalists have achieved varying degrees of success in subjugating women.  Among the most notable instances are Afghanistan’s Taliban (now removed from power) and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi-driven suppression of women.[58]

Although repulsive to modern Western societies, the strict suppression of women is pivotal to Islamic fundamentalists.  Disorderly women, in short, signify a society apart from the will of God.

Clashes over women’s status are now common in both Muslim and Western nations. While in 2015 women were granted the right to vote in Saudi Arabia, other reforms in that nation appear improbable. Among other Muslim nations, women’s dress, public appearances, religious participation and legal rights are often highly restricted. More liberal practices sometimes adopted by Muslim women in Western or marginally-Muslim nations are viewed with disapproval by fundamentalist Muslims.

Islamic fundamentalists also see modern economic systems as a threat to faith.  Although there are differences of opinion in terms of the specifics of market processes, Islamic fundamentalists are united in their belief that modern economic systems are at fault for inflicting “severe injustices, inefficiencies and moral failures.”  For fundamentalists, the solution is to base economic activity on the Quranic verses addressing the subject of money.  Reclaiming the ancient, pure social order replete with monetary issues is imperative; the economic changes that have taken place in the world since the seventh century are of no concern.[59]

Finally, in the larger context of perceived threats from Western society, the very concept of freedom is resisted by Islamic fundamentalists.  In the first place, the mandate of religious obedience leaves no room for individual freedoms.  Furthermore, Western ideals of self-individualism are anathema in the sense that they glorify the individual and his or her abilities and achievements apart from God.  The self is of value only within the framework of each individual having a responsibility to work for the ultimate securing of God’s sovereignty over the entire universe.  Freedom, therefore, must be resisted because it is opposed to social order predicated upon strict hierarchical structures of unswerving obedience.[60]

Continue to Part 6 — Islamic Fundamentalisms: Responses to the Secular State

(or return to Table of Contents)

[56]  Shahla Haeri, “Obedience versus Autonomy: Women and Fundamentalism in Iran and Pakistan,” in Fundamentalisms and Society, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 2, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 181-183.

[57]  Andrea B. Rugh, “Reshaping Personal Relations in Egypt,” in Fundamentalisms and Society, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 2, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 151-180.

[58]  Haeri, 181-205.  Rugh, 159, 169-173.  Kushner, 358.  Hiro, 123-124. Although Islamic fundamentalists are also virulently opposed to homosexuality, the relative dearth of a public presence of the LGBT community in Muslim nations, the result of Quranic laws demanding death for homosexuals, mutes the issue of homosexuality compared to that of women.

[59]  Timur Kuran, “The Economic Impact of Islamic Fundamentalism,” in Fundamentalisms and the State, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 3, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 304-305.

[60]  Rugh, 168-175.  Sivan, “The Enclave Culture,” 11-68.