Dialog from political-islam list on Islamic fundamentalism

January, 1995

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Date: Sun, 08 Jan 1995 23:45:43 -0500
To: political-islam@lists.utah.edu
From: michaelv@globalx.net (Michael Voytinsky)
Subject: Re: Fundamentalism
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Bill Daunch -

Perhaps a better definition would be "who actively attempt to return a faith or philosophy to a position in which the foundational ideas and laws, AS THEY PERCEIVE THEM, are practiced". However, if we adopt this definition we may find that this definition applies to too many people.

B. Daunch:

Welcome Michael, and thanks for the quick response. Your point is well taken. You have certainly pin-pointed the transient nature of the term fundamentalism, and it this very nature which I find to be perplexing.

There is another attribute of people commonly referred to as "fundamentalists" and that is a remarkable intolerance and inability to even contemplate the viewpoints of others'. However, there is nothing in the "fundamentals" of Islam (or Christianity) that requires "fundamentalism".

It seems that one person's fundamentalist is another person's radical revisionist. From this point of view, my definition fails miserably.

Well, different brands of "fundamentalists" are quite capable of seriously disliking or even hating each other.

A confusion arises when an assumption is made that "fundamentalists" have something to do with the "fundamentals" of a religion - understandable given the same root of the two words. Perhaps some other term is neccesary - a short form for "intolerant and frequently violent individuals motivated by their own notions of their religion's fundamentals".

It is useful only when there is some sort of agreement on what it means. This general agreement tends to disappear when the search for definition starts - since the term "fundamentalist" carries many images and connotations but no clear meaning.

Regarding your mention of the UDHR and Islam, do you know which principles are irreconcilable? I would be curious to know where the two bodies diverge (I'm assuming it's not everything). I am not sure if the Sharia and the UDHR are completely irreconciliable - certainly there are Muslims who think that they are. However, there appear to be some disagreements:

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.... etc.

However, according to Dr. Abdur Rahman I. Doi in his book "Shariah: The Islamic Law" (which many Muslims seem to recommend highly as a good intro to the Sharia), "The punishment by death in the case of apostacy has been unanimously agreed upon by all the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence".

Dr. Doi supports his statement by a quote from al-Bukhari hadith "Whosoever changes his religion from Islam to anything else, bring end to his life."

Article 16

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.

However, according to the Sharia, a Muslim man may only marry a woman who is from "the people of the Book". A Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man.

But according to Article 16, a person of any religion persuation whatsoever can marry anyone of any religion persuation whatsoever.

Those are the two that I can think of at the moment. There are probably some others.

Michael Voytinsky

Date: Mon, 9 Jan 1995 02:38:15 +0001 (EST)
From: Sindebad <haddara@mcmail.cis.mcmaster.ca>
Subject: Fundamentalism
To: Political Islam List <political-islam@lists.utah.edu>
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Hello everyone !

Just to add my two pesos worth on the issue ...

There is a fascinating project called the Fundamentalism Project run by the AAAS. I am sure most people on this list are aware of it. At the introduction to their first volume Fundamentalisms Observed they discuss at length whether or not Fundamentalism is an accurate descriptot of the many movements and ideologies they describe. Their conclusion is that whereas there are obvious problems with the word, it will have to do.

My personal perspective on the use of the term relates to whether we are trying to describe a phenomenon or simply to label one. In other words, when we look at the events in the ME and attach Fundamentalism to the actions of Shi'i Iran, Hamas, Hezbullah, Muslim Brotherhood ...etc. are we lumping these movements/ideologies together and saying that since they are all fundamentalist movmts then they therefore share some characteristicss and can therefore be dealt with in a similar vein ?

Or are we simply trying to attach a label for the purposes of discussion ?

In the former case, I think fundamentalism is a poor descriptor, mainly because it is a borrowed term. (So is political islam, by the way).

If we are talking about Islam, then we should recognize that insomuch as a person is an active Muslim ie prays, he or she is committed to the fundamentals of the religion. In other words, the question of the Qur'an being the literal Word of God has never been an issue for the common Muslim. Whether the Qur'an should be taken literally was never also an issue for the common Muslim - it was left to the "fuqaha" and the "mufassireen". Ditto for hadith.

On a last note, there is a problem with the use of the term political islam. The problem is that non-political islam is a very recent phenomenon ie only from about 1924 onwards, and that even arguably so. With the abolition of the Ottoman Khilafa, the first notion of a secular Muslim country came into being. Even then, Ataturk made it clear that Turkey is to become secular, not Muslim. There wasn't a mere relegation of Islam to the individual, it was completely abolished.

In other Muslim countries, there was always an emphasis on Islam in the political sense. Thus King Farouk of Egypt was somtimes styled Al-Farouk (after the second Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab). Today, King Hassan of Moroco is styled Ameerul-Mu'mineen (The Commander of the Faithful - a title for the caliph). Sadat was "The Believing President"; King Fahd is the "Guardian of the Holy Shrines"; Saddam Hussein declared Jihad; Gamal Abdel-Nasser is buried in a mosque ...etc.

Of course, insomuch as the "fundamentalists" are concerned, these are blatant cases of Islam being used as a tool. In their own mind they wish to establish real political and socioeconomic systems based on islamic grounds.

Date: Mon, 9 Jan 1995 14:21:45 +0200 (IST)
From: Joshua Teitelbaum <teitelba@ccsg.tau.ac.il>
Subject: Fundamentalism
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Professor Roberts has opened an interesting question.

I believe the term "fundamentalism" to be a quite accurate description of the phenomenon among -- at least -- Sunni Muslims. I do not think of Protestant fundamentalism when I use the term. Muslim revivalists, radicals, etc. seek a return to the "fundamentals" of Islam -- the Qur'an and the Sunna. They support the opening of the gates of ijtihad (independent reasoning based on the fundamentals), and reject taqlid (relying solely on tradition). Through going back to the fundamentals and using independent reasoning, they seek to apply Islam to the problems of the day -- "Islam is the solution."

Among those who share this basic belief, some are more radical and politically active than others. So I would suggest that we call most of them Islamic fundamentalists, and distinguish the more radical or violent ones by terming them "radical Islamic fundamentalists."

I also reject the notion raised by some that the term fundamentalist is "Orientalist" or somehow culturally insensitive. Muslim fundamentalists often use the term themselves -- usuliyyah, so at least some of them feel that the shoe fits.


Joshua Teitelbaum Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
Tel Aviv University
Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv 69978 Israel

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Date: Mon, 9 Jan 1995 17:54:18 +0100
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From: knut.vikor@smi.uib.no (Knut S. Vikor)
Subject: Re: Fundamentalism
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It is a term full of pitfalls, and one which it is perhaps best to avoid.

The main reason that has been put forward to avoid it, is that it is borrowed from Christianity; and to use it on Islam implies that it is a common phenomenon that crosses the religious difference; i.e. that Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism is in some way two faces of the same thing, fundamentalism. This is believed to set one off in the wrong direction, because; journalistic juxtapositions apart, they are quite different phenomena, and one cannot be explained by the other. For this reason, Islamism is very often preferred.

On a journalistic level, this is also a questionable term, because it seems to make a connection between Islam and the phenomenon discussed, i.e. that Islamism is "the application of Islam". This is of course what the people themselves believe, and why the use it, but when we want to try to tell people that "Islamism is not the same as Islam, most Muslims are peaceful and friendly folk and do not shoot foreigners"; the term may be a stumbling block.

There are other pitfalls too, one of the more important ones being that we bundle into one catch-all group a number of different movements and positions which are quite different. Even if we confine ourselves to those who insist that the current order in the Muslim world is a jahili one, and that the Sharia must be implemented as the only guiding force of the society, politically and morally, we find that they are quite different. Compare the FIS movement with the military coup-makers in the Sudan with the Hamas nationalists with the Iranian 'ulama-politicians; and you need not go much beyond the rhetoric before you see that the movements are consituted differently, answering different needs and giving different answers to the different problems; only all interpret these answers as being the "application of the Sharia".

If we go beyond this, the discussion so far has shown that some people have considering the ideological position of "returning to the foundations" (Qur'an and Sunna); others look at the actions (gun-toting, political imposition of their beliefs). But, of course, these are not the same kind of people. Many Muslims will support that there is a need to return to the foundations; i.e. that the current level of piety in the Muslim world is not satisfactory; or that the interpretations of Islam given by the current ulama leadership is not correct or may have decayed from the original message; and yet be as abhorred by the political violence carried out in the name of Islam as your average American (or even be a victim of this violence).

So, we need to distinguish some categories, before we apply names to them. I would suggest to distinuish e.g. between

-1- Those Muslims who feel that the current level of piety / adherence to the religious and moral order among other Muslims is insufficient, and that a revival of the religion is required (and among these; that such a revival would redress the Islamic world's material and political inferiority to the West).

-2- Those who believe that the interpretation of Islam as officially sanctioned by the 'ulama and scholars in the mosques are inadequate, too "traditional" (i.e. coloured by developments more recent that the founding period of Islam) or convoluted, and that the correct answer is to to be found directly in the original dogma; or in a reinterpreation of it.

-3- Those who believe that return to religion should not only be done on a personal and moral level (as implied in -1-); but also to society as a whole, through the imposition of a religious orientation. Normally, this takes the form of a call for the application of the Shari'a in society.

-4- Those who, following from -3-, feel that the lack of a proper implementation of the Shari'a makes that the current state a jahili (impious) one, and that it thus has no authority or legitimacy.

-5- Those who, following for -4-, are willing to take on a political activity to bring about an Islamic revolution, the aim of which is, in one form or another, the imposition of the Shari'a.

What names we put on these categories may be haphazard; I might call group -1- for revivalists, group -2- for reformists, group -3- for Islamists, group -4- for radicals and group -5- for radical activists.

It should be emphasised, I think, that this is not only a theoretical division: all of these categories exist separate from each other, and are composed of different people (although all of the radical activists probably also are Islamists in the terminology I use here; not all of my Islamists are radicals, much less activists). And even within group 5; only one part, and probably a small minority, are those willing to take up arms and conform to the media's picture of the "Islamic hordes".

Much more can be said about this; e.g. that "fundamentalists" should strictly be used on group 2, my "reformists". However, their dissatisfaction with "traditional" interpretation may go in quite different direction than those of the Islamists; e.g. Muslim "ultra-modernist" reformers like Muhammad Taha and Abdallahi al-Naim, who are on the opposite spectrum of Islamic debate, would also be "fundamentalists" in this definition, because they too work on the basis of a direct interpretation of the dogma.

And to Steve Muhlberger's question a bit ago; no, ijtihad is not in contradiction, it is a minimal requirement of any sort of reform or fundamentalist debate (al-Naim does not think it is sufficient, and will go far beyond ijtihad). Closing the gates of i. does not mean to be restricted to the dogma, but to be restricted to interpretation by the early scholars, in particular the four founders of the Schools of Law and their immediate pupils. Thus, to "open the gates" (insofar as they were every really closed, a moment of dispute), means to be allowed to go back beyond the understanding of the 9-10th century, and base one's understanding on the sources of dogma, the Qur'an and Sunna themselves. Thus, any implementation of group -2-style reform, be it Islamist or not, must be based on opening the gates of ijithad.

It must be added to this that the theories of ijtihad (usul al-fiqh) puts fairly strong restrictions on the use of ijtihad, even when they do allow it; there is never any question of a "free-for-all" (or 'the sky's the limit', as someone said). In fact, few of the people who are now actively engaged in debate or "interpretation" on the basis of the direct texts of the Book and Sunna would be qualified to do so even by the most liberal of the (classical) theories of ijithad.

Thirdly, on the quite different debate on the Human rights declaration; the principal difference between it and the Shari'a would be that the declaration is based on the sovereignty of man, and thus that all men are equal, irrespective of belief, while the Shari'a is based on the sovereignty of God, and thus that believers and non-believers can never be equal in the eyes of God.

Knut S. Vikxr Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies,
University of Bergen, Parkv. 22A, N-5007 Bergen, Norway
Tel. +47-5521 2711, Fax +47-5531 3845 --
e-mail: knut.vikor@smi.uib.no

Date: Mon, 09 Jan 1995 15:56 +0100 (MET)
Subject: Re: Fundamentalism
To: political-islam@lists.utah.edu
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I must say that I totally disagree with all definitions of "Fundamentalism" submitted until now.

I myself don't use the term "Fundamentalism" but "Islamism", first because it is the term used by the islamists themselves, second because I find it the most suitable of all the terms proposed until now. Most of the definitions submitted focus, or at least take in account, the intolerant, fanatic, violent... character of islamist movements. I reject that notion completely. Islamism is NOT NECESSARILY violent, intolerant, etc. even if it is often the case in the practice. Islamism is RADICAL but radicalism is not a synonym of violence, as a few contributors to the discussion seem to think: the British Chartists, who struggled for the right to vote, did fight in the streets in the 1840's. Stalinism between 1934 and 1939 has probably been the most violent (peace time) political movement is the whole history, but it was ideologically much less radical than the movements it pretended to combat (trotkysm, anarchism...). I also disagree with the term "fundamentalism" when it refers to a return to the fundamentals of a religion or philosophy, because this could apply to purely religious movements aiming, for instance, at a reform of official theology or pure religious practice.

As a matter of fact, islamism is NOT a religious movement (aiming at unduly dominating society and politics). it is primarily a socio-political movement based on an islamic vision of the world. All social theories and political ideologies are based upon a certain vision of the world and some philosophical principles (even though the pragmatical, positivist philosophy underlying the present Western ideologies is usually not recognized as such, as many people have the prejudice that a philosophy always contains a certain amount of idealism and moral values, so that they easily take ideologies without ideals and morality for realism).

With the necessary reservations, it would seem to me more legitimate to compare islamism with the socialism of the 19th century than with Christian fundamentalism, and islamist leaders with Che Guevara (in some cases Pol Pot, unfortunately) than with Torquemada. Of course, islamism has a spiritual dimension which materialist ideologies could not have. Islam has been from the very beginning more than a religion. Contrarily to Christianity which spread in a social and political system - the Roman Empire - which already had pretentions to universality, Islam appeared in a tribal society which was totally incompatible with a universal, monotheist religion. The first Muslims had to found a totally new society in Medina. The murder of Uthman and the ensuing civil war were caused much more by a conflict as to what should be the social and political system of Islam, than by religious differences.

Thus, Islam was from the start also a form of society, not only a system of beliefs.

Calling islamist movements intolerant just because they want to implement an islamist political system is a bit as accusing a western opposition party intolerant because it tries to get in power, or advocating separation of religion and socialism! The fact that in the present practice the struggle for power rarely goes through peaceful, democratic means (in Algeria, they tried!) does not prove anything: they usually don't have a choice anyway and, above all, do you know many regimes, secular or not which have come to power by peaceful, democratic means in those countries?

Don't misunderstand me: I am not excusing possible violence or intolerance on the ground that other political movements are not better. I am also not so naive as to believe that most present islamist movements are on the point to deliver peaceful, tolerant political systems. What I affirm is that all these nasty aspects which Western people see as the essence of "fundamentalism" are absolutely not necessarily implied by Islamism. Just as Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao or Fidel Castro were absolutely not implied in the theories of Marx, Bakunin, Proudhon and others.

I also affirm that there are many currents in Islamism, varying from very progressive to extremely conservative. What they have in common is being primarily political movements, not religious movements.

Date: Mon, 9 Jan 1995 08:51:32 -0700 (MST)
From: AKACEM MOHAMMED <akacem@spot.Colorado.EDU>
Subject: Re: Fundamentalism
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I must say that I agree with Ms. Prat's well argued points. But I want to briefly go back to what someone said earlier about a definition based on the fact that Islam (I do not have the old message so I am hedging here) rejects anything that is modern. Well I got news for you. All other "movements" do.

Having participated at one of the conferences of the Fundamentalism project I remember the consensus was that all of the religious movements feel the modern world coming at them at full speed and one way to defend themselves is to get back to the basics (almost Martin Marty's definition). This does not, however, mean that Islamic movements (for example) reject anything that is modern. Quite the contrary. I think we tend to attribute to Islam or Islamic groups many things that are not characteristic of the larger group.


Date: Tue, 10 Jan 1995 17:56:49 +0001 (EST)
From: Sindebad <haddara@mcmail.cis.mcmaster.ca>
Subject: Re: Fundamentalism
To: "Joseph W. Roberts" <Joseph.Roberts@m.cc.utah.edu>
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On Tue, 10 Jan 1995, Joseph W. Roberts wrote:

However, the Ottoman Caliph was merely a puppet of the sultan. The caliphate effectively ended in 1258 with the sack of Baghdad. From that point on the Caliph was used only to cement the position of the political ruler.

Hello all !

That the political clout of the actual khalifa (abbasid) declined after the sack of Baghdad is beyond querstion . But you will find that this was an extremely traumatic event in the writings of contemporary Muslim historians. That the Muslims would go without a khalifa for longer than three days was considered a sign of the nearing of the Day of Judgement. Such was the extent of the crises. This in spite of the fact that people realized fully well the poverty of the institution. (This is not an illogical reaction, there are historical justifications for this).

Not only that, but other dynasties emerging did so with a full claim to the obediance of Muslims. Be it the Ayyubis (notably Salahuddin) or even the Mameluks or the Fatimids before them or the Ottomans after them, they all claimed a right of ruling from their upholding of the Islamic Law and customs.

This is a situation very different to the situation Muslim countries are in today, where ideologies other than Islam are being espoused and implemented by various regimes (The arab nationalism of Nasser, the socialism of the Baath Party, the secularism of Ataturk & successors ....etc.).

If you read classical Muslim literature you find that although there was much departure from the Islamic ideal in government, there was nominal and undeniable adherence to the principle. This is no longer the case.

It is this that makes the label of "political islam" not viable. As I said before, there is no such thing as non-poltical islam (at least before this century).

Compare the classical story of al-'Izz ibn Abdelsalam's confrontation with Al-Kamil in al-Azhar where al-'Izz laid before him the accusation that he abetted the sale of alcohol in Cairo. Al-Kamil's response was that he did not institute it, he merely inherited it. In the twentieth century , the sale of alcohol in Egypt is condoned by the judiciary.

Thus where al-'Izz was a "traditional" scholar ('alim), the one who challenges thesale of alcohol in Egypt today is a fundamentalist.

You can therfore make a strong argument that fundamentalism is a new phenomenon because non-political islam is also a new phenomenon.

I apologize if I am quoting figures or incidents that readers are not familiar with.


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Date: Tue, 10 Jan 95 18:21 EST
To: political-Islam@lists.utah.edu
From: "Mohammed.Ayoob" <22469MGR@MSU.EDU>
Subject: Fundamentalism, etc.
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I find this entire exchange very sterile, repetitive and boring. Instead of semantic hairsplitting can we get on with the task of analyzing the phenomenon variously known as militant or political Islam, Islamic reassertion (title of my book published in 1981), resurgence, etc. It will be much more worthwhile and intellecutally satisfying if we directed our collective energies toward analyzing the contexts - domestic, regional, and global - that give rise to this phenomenon or rather a collection of disparate phenomena that we tend to describe by the same umbrella term. A question: Will the events unfolding in Chechenya and Bosnia give a fillip to Islamic reassertion? Another question: What does this group think of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis? Do the events in the Balkans and the Caucasus testify to the validity of this thesis or can they be explained largely in terms of efforts directed toward ethnonational self-determination? If the Western powers act on the basis of the assumptions on which Huntington's thesis is constructed, is it likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Mohammed Ayoob
Professor of International Relations
Michigan State University

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