IN DEFENCE OF ISLAM AND THE WESTERN MISINTERPRETATION OF WHAT IS PERCEIVED TO BE ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM
Initially, to gain an understanding of how the different interpretations by the ahl al-kitab (The People of the Book) effect and affect the manners by which they live and how they perceive each other religion to be - together with the stereotypical assumptions that are held on how the different cultural contexts the religions are considered to exist within - a basic start would be on assessing the calendar dates they hold.
There is presently an immense celebration and an en masse enjoyment and fascination of the year 1999, rapidly approaching the second millennium in the year 2000. However, this is solely a time-celebration within the Christianity calendar, considering that within Judaism it is presently the year 5759 and within Islam it is now 1419.
This extremely basic fact seems to be overlooked in a Western interpretation of the year it is now - let alone the concepts of extremely important aspects of the other religions of the Kitab. Vitally important aspects within Islam seem to be repeatedly misinterpreted by the West. They have to be rediscovered, as the West has lost any meaning and value of the concepts of Jihad and Sharia. This can be seen particularly apparent in how they are referred to and described as instead of being defined through the Western media. Thus, before studying the areas of Islam, Islamic History, Islamic Philosophy, Middle Eastern Politics, or any such Islamic based area of work, it is vital to gain an adequate understanding of the terms used in these topics, to be fully aware of the terms meanings, in order to recognise their genuine origin, where they derive from, together with their correct use in differing contexts. Before having a thorough debate on the concept of Islamic Fundamentalism, it is essential to gain the solid background of the reasons why such terminology is used.
The words that people in the West are aware of, when reading through articles in any average newspaper, often seem to confuse the readers. They are still unaware of any clear meaning of these words, due to the lack of any adequate definition proffered by the newspapers and the television news reports. There are a few main words that are necessary to have a fuller knowledge of, which are Islamic Fundamentalism, Jihad, Sharia, Militancy and the Islamic Fundamentalist Movements.
The misunderstanding is due to the misinterpretations of their relevant meanings, intertwined with incorrect usage within issues that cover Islam, Middle Eastern international relations, the Islamic religious belief systems and the Islamic legal system. Thus, when portraying Islam and the standards it offers for, let us say, human rights protection, it is essential for critics - especially in the West - to be constantly aware that the examples often used to attack Islam and Islamic human rights abuses are often drawn from very limited sources. Such examples include reference to Imam Ayatollah Khomeinis cultural revolution within Iran in 1979 and more importantly, the use in Western press with misinterpretations of Arabic terminology. One example here is the use of jihad, which is often stated to translate as meaning "Holy War," instead of the literal translation of its meaning, which is to struggle. The Islamic understanding of jihad will be discussed in detail below. To obtain sufficient background knowledge that will place the words in their specific context is a vital skill to grasp hold of, for a Western non-Muslim, before undertaking the studies of Islam and its various branches of topics. These initial terms which require a rather deeper understanding, together with an adequate acceptance of the culturally relative meaning of their use, will aim to help the user to gather enough thorough understanding and comprehension of the topic involved. These terms will now be covered through an Islamic perspective.
The very phrase Islamic Fundamentalism has had an immense and popular journalistic usage, and is considered to be a purely Islamic based phenomenon. However, "fundamentalism," in itself, originates as an Anglo-Saxon term, applied to those who believe that the Bible must be accepted and interpreted literally in the words and deeds described within it. There is a close French term which is similar, intégrisme, but this term compares only on a vaguely similar theme and is in no means an exactly identifiable behaviour with Roman Catholicism.
Thus, these definitions cover the understanding of fundamental belief within Christianity, a religion where obviously, several different branches exist. Equally within the belief of Islam, such different branches exist, including Sunni, Shi'a, Ahmadiyya [which is considered a heretical belief, by other devout Muslims within Islam] and Sufi which, an internecine debate, is also considered as a more
philosophical thought process, rather than devout faith. Thus, within these branches of
Islam, Sunni fundamentalists accept the Quran in a literal interpretation, with minor
qualifications. However, Shi'a fundamentalist believers are not committed to a literal interpretation of the Quran. The concept of Fundamentalism has always been present in the ahl-al-kitab [the people of the Book which represents the revealed scripture, i.e. the Quran in Islam, the Bible in Christianity and the Torah in Judaism]. Fundamentalism has always been present with the necessity to create a state over-view of a community, by implementing the practical use of the revealed teachings of Allah/God/Yahweh. The names of the same Creator differ, due to the different context of the religions origin and the language the message was revealed in - hence God within Christianity, Allah within Islam and Yahweh within Judaism.
The generalised phrase of Islamic Fundamentalism, in itself, is a term which derives from the historical rise of fundamental Christianity, and is also so broad, embracing such a vast category of differing radical, modernist and extremist branches, that it has no definitive weight to be used on its own. Abdel Salam Sidahmed and Anoushiravan Ehteshami highlight the fact that
the term was taken from a particular Christian context and deployed into
the Islamic field without due appreciation for the appropriate differences
and peculiarities of the respective religious contexts.
They elaborate this with the explanation that the term originated in the United States
of America, at the beginning of the twentieth century when, as Frederick Denny
it was applied to ultraconservative Protestant Christian biblical literalists
and inerrantists who propounded a list of fundamentals that all true
Christians should follow.
This definition suggests a tendency of believers to take the Holy Scripture in a literal
sense, in literal translation, thus implementation of how it is written, believing in absolute inerrancy in the text and the message and also adhering to several fundamental factors in the line of separating true believers and the others. How applicable these tendencies are within the Islamic Fundamentalists view on life is a vital assessment to gain an understanding of Islamic Fundamentalism as a concept.
The Holy Scripture within Islam is, obviously, the Quran which holds the central focus for belief. Denny presents the comparison between the focus of attention in Christianity and the focus in Islam :
Just as Christianity is the religion of and about Jesus, Islam is
the religion of the Quran.
Thus, one interpretation of the fundamentalists dealing with fundamental, basic levels of what is right and what is wrong defines clearly, that it is therefore imperative that all Muslims, regardless of rite, sect or piety, essentially believe in the inerrancy of the Quran as the revealed word of Allah. Hence, if one is to be judged by their attitude towards scripture, all Muslims may be classified as "fundamentalists."
However, although Muslims agree on the authenticity of the Qurans revelation, there are different interpretations of the Quranic verses and their meanings. As Sidahmed and Ehteshami state :
By its very nature, the text of the Quran is formulated in a way that is
far from self-explanatory. Accordingly, there is no way of taking the
entire text of the Quran literally. It has to be interpreted, a task
reserved for the learned jurists and ulama. The most common form
of interpretation is called tafsir, or exegesis.
On a simple explanation of its definition, fundamentalism implies the "activist affirmation of a particular faith that defines that faith in an absolutist and literalist manner"
What is placed in Western media is generally not the message of True Islam, or what moderate Islamic intellectuals would promote as the Quranic principles of Islam. Simultaneously, having made that claim and admonishment, Muslim radical fundamentalists must also be assessed in their socio-historical environments. Simply to label them as fanatics as if this would be an adequate characterisation of their behaviour, is an emotional condemnation, without any attempt to really understand the casual relations that produced the phenomenon. Ahmad Moussalli states that Fundamentalist Islamic political thought has been described and believed to be purely a fad, a passing phenomenon which is dependant on specific social and political circumstances. He believes the fundamentalist movements have been studied and academically covered by political scientists as an agenda lacking any genuine deep-
rooted principles. The movements and what is defined as the "fundamentalist belief"
has often been described as "fanaticism." Farhang concludes on this point, with his caveat, to remember that :
This, then, is an extremely strong and salient message to the West when considering the concept of fundamentalism and in trying to grasp an understanding of Islam.
Muhammad Said 'Ashmawy, the former chief judge in the High Court in Cairo, defines the broad scale of meanings of jihad in various elements, "which can be either internal, as in the struggle within oneself to live an upright life or external to defend Islam." jihad in the Quran and in the prophetic traditions means self-control and self-refinement. This meaning of the word is reported to have been described by the Prophet Mohammed himself as the great jihad. In terms of war, jihad is only to be
implemented as an act of self-defense alone. Thus, if it is interpreted as more than this
Ashmawy declares that it is then not jihad but aggression - which has been forbidden
by the verses and the very spirit of the Quran. As jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam, "the one-sided stress placed on holy wars and fighting is a historical distortion of the real concept of jihad and is due to political interests."
Further than this, the most significant and important jihad is continual in life. It is based on the ethical, moral and spiritual jihad. Ashmawy defines the elements of this aspect as :
This jihad is a strenuous effort, or series of efforts, to discipline oneself
This jihad avoids a meaningless existence and an empty, if not easy and comfortable, life.
However, a devout Muslim is mandated to live according to the guidance given by God and the Prophet and to promote the message of Islam through their words and actions. It essentially means that each individual must exert themselves in the utmost, in order to personally follow the teachings of Islam and to work for their establishment in society. Hence :
However, this concept has lent itself rather easily to the cause of fundamentalism. The theory of international proselytization of Islam is often defended by Jihad - the just or holy war. Historically, Donna Artz argues that :
Muslim jurists divided the world into "dar al-Islam "; the "abode" of,
Residents of dar al-Islam were Muslims and certain non-Muslims, or dhimmis , who paid a jizya tax. Anyone else was a non-believer with whom all Muslims were duty bound as a community to battle with perpetually. Artz claims that whether jihad was aggressive or defensive is a debatable issue - as is whether or not it meant actual military conflict, or only political, religious and a psychological propaganda tool, with just a constant readiness for war. However, she concludes quoting Shihati, that "three options were available to non-believers faced with jihad :- convert to Islam, agree to dhimma , or fight to the death". Despite this historical position,
Jihad is still very much adhered to today, by many fundamentalist Muslims, on their internal struggle.
Islamic law is similar to Hindu and Jewish law, being a branch of a religious system and not a separate body of knowledge. Artz postulates that it differs from the laws of Western countries, such as the United States of America, France and Britain, and also those of socialist or communist countries. Islam not only specifies what people must believe, but also how they must behave. Shari'a - translated variously as "the way to water", "the way to follow", "the road to follow", "the way to God" and "the divinely ordained Islamic way of life" is derived from four sources. These are the Qur'an , the sacred book of Islam; the Sunnah, or traditions, which are normative practices associated with Mohammad, and describe model behaviour; the ijma, which is the consensus of the scholars within the Muslim community; and the giyas, which is juristic reasoning by analogy. Reasoned interpretation of these sources, or the council of judges on a particular case, are termed the ijtihad.
Fundamentalists revere lawyers and theologians of medieval Islam, emphasising the broad structure of ritual, moral norms and implementation of shari'a law. The whole concept of shari'a offers what Humphreys suggests as contradictory approaches in its understanding, even within the fundamentalist ideology. Some believe that sharia has a fixed corpus of commands and prohibitions and is a basis for a complete lifestyle. It is seen as a legal setting which cannot be altered, except in rare circumstances where there are no precedent cases or directives involved in the particular issue raised. However, other fundamentalists emphasise more on the sources of sharia - and these sources are the Quran, prophetic teachings in ahadith and fiqh, (jurisprudence).
Humphreys makes a fair assessment of the value that sharia undeniable holds, but raises an acceptance of the plateau sharia has in its depth and weight as a legal format :
The sharia cannot be understood as a fixed repository of commands
Mehdi Mozaffari defines Islamic Fundamentalism - or Islamism - which he offers as an alternative term - as a militant anti-modernist movement, based on the belief that Islam is simultaneously a religion, a way of life and a form of government. Mozaffari states that fundamentalists believe in a holistic concept of Islam - which is the main characteristic that focuses as a markpoint in differences between fundamentalist perceptions of Islam with those of liberal Muslims - who promote some form of separation between Islam and politics, thus work towards conciliating Islam and modernity.
However, Mozaffari highlights the vital issues to be aware of when looking at this area of study, which include the fact that simply having a holistic perception of Islam is not a specific entity of fundamentalists alone. Therefore, the necessary questions to answer are what places Islamic fundamentalists apart from any other Muslims? and how should the separate and distinctive characteristics of Islamic fundamentalism be defined? Is it sufficient to base the definition of fundamentalism as being the three simultaneous issues listed above as a religion, a way of life and a form of government.
Mozaffari also raises another important issue while studying the very details of defining fundamentalism as a concept. One definition of its special and specific difference to other movements within Islam is the fundamentalist militancy. However, this very term is the point which needs definition. He suggests that not every militant Muslim is a fundamentalist, but every Islamic Fundamentalist is, necessarily, a militant. However, he presents the essential definition of the term,
which is in need to be aware of, to establish within which context the term is used.
Militancy is not necessarily equivalent to violence, however. In
France, for example, ordinary members of political parties are
The correct terms to be used when referring to Islamic fundamentalists is also promoted by John Voll, who states that his preference for a label or a description title for fundamentalists would be "activists" - as it is far more appropriate for the acts and behaviour of fundamentalists. He defines the term militants as covering :
Muhammad Said Ashmawy states the view of a radical, extremist, fundamental interpretation of the Quran and the consequential message :
Assessing this issue, it is vital to engage in a more complex position, based on the real understanding of revelation and the true comprehension of Islam as a path - or sharia. sharia can mean path, method or way. It is also used as a title for Islamic law, as it has been interpreted by the religious scholars belonging to one of the four main schools of fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence).
Islamic Fundamentalist Movements.
It is argued that politics and religion in Islam are inseparable. This can be interpreted as a method which will lead to attain the ideal society, via the interpretation of the Quran. However, as these interpretations differ there are two main groups or movements which can be associated with these two approaches. One group is considered Modernism and the other is Fundamentalism. Ahmad Moussalli suggests that Islamic modernism was founded and advocated by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), Muhammed Abduh (1849-1905), Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938) and Ali Shariati (1933-1977). He states that the movement Islamic Fundamentalism was founded by Mawlana Abdul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1980), Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and Ayatollah al-Khomeini (1903-1989).
The very phrase Islam means submission but can be used with relatively vague and equivocal content if placed in no specifically asserted context. It can be argued, in a very broad debate concerning ecumenical mutual respect, that every believer of revealed scripture is in submission to the same creator.
The term Islam is used by non-Muslim observers outside the role of Muslims and also by devout Muslims, in reference to issues including personal faith, theological doctrine, cultural attitudes, everyday behaviour and an endless nature of organisational structure. However, Stephen Humphreys claims that the term is never used with a clear, explicit meaning in these differing contexts. He contemplates the idea that to make the understanding of the term more concise and precise, the word Islam can be used in three formal senses : 1; to mean referring to a strictly defined religion - thus it would represent a system of theological beliefs and fixed ethical duties. 2; as an ideology and 3; as a recognisable element of a cultural identity. These three forms of Islam all interact as a socio-religio-political body.
However, he moves on to explain that Islam as a religion - just as Christianity and Judaism - has never been monolithic. Islam has always had a diversity of understanding, thus has always been a fruitful source of social and political conflict. Historically, there was a generally shared acceptance of specifically religious perceptions and interpretations of the way to lead life. Daily events, within both the individual and communal contexts where given a definite meaning and value within the framework of "tawhid", the Oneness / Unity of Allah, and the Prophethood of Mohammed. However, as Humphreys explains, since the mid-nineteenth century there has been an on-going attraction towards secularist ideologies. These include the movements of liberalism, positivism, racial nationalism, Marxism et cetera. This development of such movements within the Middle East has been due to the dominance of European, Western approaches towards life, thought-processes, philosophy and collective societys structure. The amount of such ideas - which were either imposed upon, introduced into, implemented with or accepted by the Arab world are on a disparate scale - but all can be categorised with the broad overall term of Secularism.
Humphreys defines Secularism in this context - thus, with a broad over-view - as an interpretation of life with meanings and values containing the priority of materialism, a physical nature of this-worlds criteria, while simultaneously reducing, relegating and dissolving revealed religion for it to become a peripheral role of guidance for the individuals conscience.
Amongst the devout Muslims who are secular in their thought system and appreciate the utilisation of secular beliefs - but who also preserve the traditional ambience and presence of their belief in Islam - then Humphreys claims that two formats of movements within this nature can be established :- Fundamentalists and Modernists. Taken with Secularism, these three groups are the main general orientations where the thought and behaviour of Muslims (certainly individuals of Muslim heritage) can be identified or can be placed in contemporary times.
However, it is vital to be fully aware that, within themselves, these three orientations are ideal types of description. They could be argued to be considered as a stereotypical identity for ease of use in an academic debate - when actually compared with the complexity of the reality, where the values and attitudes of any given individual are more than likely to contain a mixture of all three orientations on different levels. There will always be a tendency to lean towards one of the three in the reactions either towards or against topics on specific issues, when relevant points are raised. Humphreys also raises another necessity to be aware of, which is the point that the very words Fundamentalism, Modernism and Secularism are not the words used by Muslims themselves to describe the people involved within these categories - or the manners, behaviours and agendas of movements within these Westernised labels.
To offer a simple example of how the term Islamic Fundamentalism is understood and perceived from different perspectives which are views that may also change through time, as can be seen in a comparison of a Western approach/perception in 1979, followed by a Muslim scholars critique of such a definition, in 1993, some fourteen years later. In 1979, Humphreys description and definition of fundamentalism stated :
Ahmad Moussalli responds to this perception and definition from another perspective with a fair analytical view with insight into the points that were raised by Humphreys. Hence, Moussalli asks relevant questions to seek the specific nature of Humphreys understanding and thus the need for a further explanation of such a definition. Moussalli proclaims that :
Humphreys captures only half but not all the truth. First, what are the traditional modes of understanding and behaviour? Are they the modes
of the public, the theologians, the philosophers, the Sufis, the jurists or
understanding," but refers to the Holy Quran, "the lawyers and theologians
of medieval Islam." But, if by traditional modes of understanding is meant
the Holy Quran and the Sunnah, it is wrong because the Holy Quran and
the Sunnah are sources of and material of understanding, not modes.
Moussalli offers his own side, even further in the argument, stating that the difference between modernists and fundamentalists can be briefly summarised in a concise way. He assesses the difference of opinions and perspectives of the two movements and their leaders. Qutb and Ala Mawdudi, (founders of fundamentalism), consider the secrets of human nature to be known only by Allah, but al-Afghani, Abduh, Iqbal and Ali Shariati , (founders of modernism), consider humans as very capable of attaining some of these - if not all - of the secrets.
The Fundamentalists perceive religion as a complete system of life, including the metaphysical concept and the physical social order. Essentially, they believe that religion is not only an abstraction, a metaphysical doctrine, an emotion or a belief system - but it is simultaneously the culture and the discipline system that controls behaviour. Within this very concept, Qutb, for example, considers communism not only as :
Islam, for Fundamentalists, means an individual must live in total submission to Allah in every aspect of life, without expecting or demanding proof of any element of the Islamic belief system. For example, belief in Judgement Day should be completely accepted, whether any physical proof is provided or not. Hasan al-Banna states that whether God/Allah exists or not does not require proof per se. The fact is intuitive, which leads to his point that the very rhetorical question "Does God exist?" is a misguided question - as humans are incapable of understanding themselves, let alone God or the concept of God.
As a contrast, Moussalli suggests that modernists certainly agree that religion is intuitive, as opposed to a wishful will and desire, but they accept that human reason and religion are interactive and are harmonious. The Islamic modernist Muhammed Abduh argues that Muslims agree that most issues within Islam cannot be believed or
accepted except through reason - which relates to knowing of Allahs existence or that Allah sent forth his messengers. However, religion offers such high principles that humans cannot fully understand, but religion does not advance such principles that are opposite to reason. For example, people can prove that God exists, but reason cannot understand the essence of God. This point is related to the consideration raised earlier than humans cannot even understand themselves. Islam is the religion of tawhid (oneness) and Abduh states that reason is one of the strongest helpers.
The perspective of the oneness - tawhid - can be seen in the difference of opinions between modernists and fundamentalists in their understanding of this concept. The understanding of life for a Muslim is that it is a path en route to spiritual fulfilment. Mawdudi traces the stages of this search, the first stage being iman (faith). The second stage is itaat (obedience), meaning each individual must give up independence and be totally subservient to Allah. The subservience itself, is referred to as islam (submission). The penultimate stage is that of taqwa, (Allah consciousness) which is the practical manifestation of iman in daily life. The final stage, the highest level to attain is ihsan (Allahness/Godliness). This stage is the quintessential zenith of devotion in words, deeds and thoughts. This approach to life is considered the only real protection of human rights for all, in any context. As Mawdudi argues, this path of spiritual development is not meant for individuals alone, but for communities and nations as well.
through all its administrative machinery may become mumin (faithful),
muslim (obedient), muttaqi (God-conscious) and muhsin (Godly).
Contemporary Muslims frequently cite the historical records of both Christians and themselves, concerning the treatment of non-believers by the respective religions, arguing for the clear superiority of the Islamic approach. Mawdudi actually advocates that "the establishment of an ideological Islamic state is the greatest guarantee for non-Muslims."
Thus, although Muslims argue strongly that their faith provides a firm basis for the protection of human rights, including the rights of religious minorities and dhimmis, it is undeniable that they interpret these rights in a way that is significantly different from the contemporary Western view. Hollenbach cites the differences that are also prominent in Islamic states treatment of women and those convicted of crime, but argues that these areas have the same source of disagreement as those on religious freedom. Essentially then,
the Qurans teachings on the universality of human dignity and the
cultural political history of the Muslim people have been synthesised in
a way that could not possibly be the same as the European / Cultural Synthesis.
Nazih Ayubi describes the situation and the desires of Fundamentalists in a fascinating way, which ultimately expresses the reality compared to the wishes and hopes of the fundamentalist ideology.
It is one of the ironies of Utopia that nostalgia can indeed be aroused for things that have never really existed.
Another relevant comment is made by Fazlur Rahman, a very liberal modernist and devout Muslim, whose approach aims to endeavour in the development of the Traditionalist role of Islam, by actually embracing the West and re-viewing the modern lifestyle on a contemporary nature, with the very spirit of Islam as promoted
in the Quran. He states that :
Finally, equally on this point, a distinguished Muslim lawyer raises the vital issue of how the Quran argues the morals and ethics of how a community should develop and evolve as time passes by. Clearly then, the Traditionalist or fundamentalist view of living in exactly the style and manner that existed during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammad, some fourteen hundred years ago, together with their aim to restore and
implement the sharia legal system of such a dated time-scale, he states quite unequivocally that :
Clearly then, it is necessary to understand the definitions of the commonly used
terminology that appear in topics concerning Muslims and Islam, by an Islamic perspective. This enhances the cultural understanding thus, a mutual respect between two very different belief systems. There is a need for a compromise, accommodation and comparison of the separate priority systems that exist, both in academic study and pragmatic implementation of tafsir (exegesis). As can be seen in the assessment of the Islamic Fundamentalist Movements, differing beliefs exist by Modernists, Fundamentalists, Traditionalists and Secularists with Islam itself. Thus, if the debate is as vast and lively within Islam, through the differing interpretations of the Quran, then observation without this understanding leads to misconceptions, misinterpretation and passing on the wrong message of what is perceived as True Islam by believers themselves, as opposed to the interpretation of this concept by non-Muslims, who are raised and educated in an entirely different environment.