The Myth of Islamic Fundamentalism

Ilyas Ba-Yunus, Ph.D.*

The State University of New York College at Cortland

Increasingly these days, we hear about Islamic fundamentalism from the Western media, the policy makers and many an intellectual. The term has gained so much currency that it deserves some serious scrutiny. It needs our attention especially because it is the Western rendition of Islam, and not an expression which Muslims have anything to do with. Apparently, it seems to imply that there is what you may call fundamentalist Islam as distinct from non-fundamentalist Islam. It seems to emphasize that there are those among Muslims who believe in the basic principles of Islam and there are those who do not.

So far, there have been only two sects in Islam - Shia and Sunni. The adherents of both agree that the Qur'an is the word of the Almighty as revealed to the Prophet Muhammadp. Both share the belief that the Prophet Muhammadp was the last of all the prophets. Further, both proclaim that Islam constitutes an ideology which goes far beyond mere praying, and that it provides universal principles for all crucial aspects of social life.

Despite this broad agreement between the two, relationships between the Shias and the Sunnis have been far from easy over the centuries to say the least. Now this interjection of fundamentalist/non-fundamentalist dichotomy might create a four fold sectarianism: the Shia fundamentalists and the Shia non-fundamentalists; the Sunni fundamentalists and the Sunni non-fundamentalists. Should this differentiation be allowed to take root in modern Islam, it would be an artifact of the West and not due to any intrinsic reasons within the community of Islam itself. Naturally, a closer look at this new expression is in order. What does fundamentalism mean and why is it being used in the context of Islam by the Western media and the policy makers? We shall address ourselves to these questions in this chapter.

Fundamentalism Defined

Every ideology, whether economic, political, familial or religious, is based on certain characterizing features or the least common denominators so to speak. These features of a given ideology are its fundamental principles. Logically, then, fundamentalism would mean an attitude, an effort or a movement which adheres to or tries to promote these fundamentals. For instance, when we speak of a free market economy and private ownership of property, we describe the fundamentals of modern capitalism; and those who conduct their economic affairs accordingly may aptly be called capitalists. When we talk of the government of the people, for the people and by the people, we point out the fundamental principles of modern Western democracy; and those who practice and promote this form of polity may be called democratic people or nations. Also, when some believe in the principle of Trinity and the Gospel as the inspired word of God, they are declaring the fundamental principles of Christianity and are known as Christians. Likewise, there are certain essentials that characterize Islam and differentiate it from other systems or ideologies of the past and the present. Those who believe in these as inviolable aspects of Islam are the ones called Muslims.

Described in these terms fundamentalisms means the core of all what the adherents of an ideology believe and are expected to practice. However, what appears to be surprising is that we never hear of democratic fundamentalism, capitalist fundamentalism, socialist fundamentalism or secularist fundamentalism. The term fundamentalism is almost exclusively used in the context of religion. What is disturbing is that whenever used, fundamentalism is spoken of in a highly value laden manner almost invariably with negative connotations - some thing highly dogmatic, something that does not belong in the modern world, and something that has to be reckoned with. To the sensitive Muslim audience, then, the term Islamic fundamentalism seems to carry a message, loud and clear: Believe in Islam if you will; just so not practice it!

Christian Fundamentalism

A more general reason for this negative approach toward religion is Western secularism, which, by the way, has its own fundamentalism. More specifically, the term fundamentalism and secular negativism toward it dates back to the latter part of the 19th century. Even until the late 1850's, the dominant trend, especially in North America was to emphasize the uncritical authority of the Bible. But, soon the parishioners as well as a number of church leaders started demanding a more liberal understanding of the Bible in the light of historical and scientific information. The controversy became so acute that in 1878 a Bible conference was convened in Niagara Falls, New York. This conference was most notably attended by the leaders of the Baptist, Presbyterian and the Disciples of Christ churches. The conference laid down nine fundamental principles. The signatories of this declaration named themselves fundamentalists and called their challengers heretics. Among others, these principles included infallibility of the Bible, Trinity, eternal sinfulness of man, the atonement of Jesusp for the sin of man, and his imminent return to a reign of one thousand years. With time, the fundamentalist movement gained strength. In 1893, it ousted Charles A. Briggs, one of the most outstanding figures among the Presbyterians. A high point of the movement was reached in 1925 at the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, whereby teaching the theory of biological evolution was prohibited in the state subsidized schools1.

Because of the Great Depression and World War II, the movement declined considerably during the decade of the 1930's. It began to regain momentum in the 1940's with the formation of the American Council of Christian churches in 1941 and the much larger National Council of the Evangelists in 1942. Beginning in the 1950's and the 60's, these evangelists discovered the media and used it to their advantage. Especially very graphic pictures on the TV screen - of the blind being able to see again and the lepers being healed - were meant to impress and attract larger audience most of whom were (are) uneducated, undereducated, simple country folks. Never mind if later on some investigative reporters found these demonstrations to be dirty tricks.

Understandably, other more liberal churches do not favor fundamentalism. It is also in disfavor with the liberals of the media, the universities, and the polity in America. It is not favored for at least four major reasons.

First is the very dogmatic approach of the fundamentalists. While most Christians including the secular liberals would not question the principle of Trinity, they are more cautious when talking about the eternal sinfulness of man and the atonement of Jesusp for the sins of man; and while they entertain serious reservations about liberal application of the Bible in everyday life, most of them are wary of the fundamentalist claim regarding the imminent return of Jesusp to a reign of one thousand years.

Secondly, although frequently used, there is little room for the label of heresy in Christianity. Over the years, Christianity has left its door ajar for sectarian, even individual interpretation of its fundamental message. There is no equivalent of heresy in Islam, although Bida' may come close. But, whereas in Islam Bida' may still not be Kufr, heresy in Christianity is only a shade away from Kufr. Naturally, no Christian, no matter whatever his or her persuasion, would like to be called a heretic. These nine fundamental principles of Christianity notwithstanding, there are disputes over as to the range of what else could be added (or subtracted). For instance, the fundamentals of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jehovah's Witness and the Mormon religions have irreconcilable differences among them. Even among the fundamentalists themselves, there is scant unity. Consequently, Christianity has become, perhaps, the most sect infested religion in the world today. Christians in America in particular have thoroughly personalized their faith. In this situation, calling some one a heretic is like denying him the 1st Amendment.

Thirdly, fundamentalists, like others, raise funds in order to preach. Some of them, using the media, have mastered the art almost to perfection. However, in doing this, they seem to have confused means with ends. Preaching fundamentalism has become big business in America. Though not on Wall Street yet, Evangelism seems to have all the trappings of modern multinationals - extraordinary large capital, large investments, complex bureaucracy, large "cuts" for the senior executives, a jet set life style, large domestic and an expanding overseas clientele, and an increasing political clout. In a primarily business oriented society like America, none would call this material success of the fundamentalists heresy. However, to make questionable presentations in order to lure the clientele is like passing an adulterated product in the market. Fundamentalist preachers have not been sued in court for such acts yet, which may be because of their local and national political clout. But this does not stop the liberals from talking.

Fourthly, fundamentalism was shocked to the core and its membership plummeted in the recent past as incidences of sexual and financial scandals came to the surface in the early 90's, involving some of the most prominent fundamentalist ministers. Court convictions and a series of libel suits and counter suits that followed did not help the cause to say the least.

In short, fundamentalism in America has lately developed a serious image problem presumably even among some of its traditional followers and contributors. Liberal church leaders as well as secular opinion makers look down upon the fundamentalists as being dogmatic, conservative, arrogant and corrupt. Although weakened, fundamentalism possesses amazing resilience. It is still very much alive and has a large following, especially in the American South, where, once its dirty linen is washed, its appeal may quickly translate into political power - a nightmare of the secular institutions in American centers of power2.

The Label of Islamic Fundamentalism

Evidently, fundamentalism in America has a history and a character of its own. but, when secular media pundits and the power elites who are wary of fundamentalism in their own midst, speak of Islamic fundamentalism, it makes one wonder. A survey of the Muslim world, past and present, would show that among Muslims there is not and there has not been a group or a sect which called itself fundamentalist. We do not know of any Muslim group or sect which called some other group by this name. Nor do we know of any Muslim sect or school of thought which even remotely resembles American Christian fundamentalism. Lastly, we are not aware of any Muslim party or a movement which is in cahoot with the American fundamentalist movement.

Apparently, American secular leaders, now readily followed by the European leaders in general, have come to look at Islam or some Muslim groups in the image of their fundamentalists. It has not been necessary for some Muslim groups to congregate at some lakeside resort and pronounce themselves Islamic fundamentalists. Western secularists chose to assume this responsibility themselves. In doing this, they picked a bewildering array of a wide range of ideological, narrowly nationalistic and even revengeful groups in the disparate Muslim world suffering from a lack of communication, coordination and a sense of unity. Those who have been labelled as Islamic fundamentalists include the Sunni Ikhwan al Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) of Egypt, the Shia government of post revolution Iran, the Sunni Jamaat Islami (Islamic Party) of Pakistan, the Shia activists of southern Lebanon, and the Sunni Afghan Mujahideen. Not to mention those convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 or the rock throwing children in Palestine; even such apolitical groups as the Jamaat Tabligh of Pakistan and the Salafi factions in Saudi Arabia are not spared of this label. It seems that whosoever in the Muslim world evokes the name of Islam outside of the mosques is liable to be called Islamic fundamentalist. Consequently, whenever and wherever a Muslim group is fighting for its survival or its constitutional and basic human rights, whether in Algeria, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Kashmir, in Mindanao or in Bosnia, has been called Islamic fundamentalist - even by Radovan Karadizc, the now notoriously famous mass murderer and ethnic cleanser of Bosnia and Hertzegovina.

Why, one wonders, is there such an elevated level of concern in the West approaching paranoia about Islam? Why this excitement about Islam at this juncture in history, some of these movements being more than fifty years old or even older? It may be easier to answer the latter question, which may also at least partly explain the first.

Heightened concern in the West about the Muslim world coincides with the demise in the mid 1980's of the Soviet Union, the socialist giant which remained a bogy for the Western powers for almost fifty years in the 20th century (Wright, 1994). With the socialist specter out of the way, it seems that the Western elite must before too long find another demon to exorcise; and what could be a better target than the good old sick genie of Islam, which, far from refusing to die, shows disturbing signs of life every now and then. Before the exit of the Soviet Union from the international scene, developments in the Muslim world, such as the overthrow of the "Friendly Tyrants" in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq, and to cap all that, in Iran in 1979, did sometimes create serious concerns among Western policy makers who, however, found themselves without any well thought out or united policy to deal with these "delinquents," all their energies having been spent on containing the Soviet Union.

Not any more. Beware Muslim activists. Or, as Avineri (1993:167) put it:

A specter is haunting Europe - and the world in general: the specter of Islamic fundamentalism. All the world powers have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: the pope and the President of Russia, Helmet Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, French radicals and German police agents, and of course the CIA and right-wing Israeli politicians.

It is in the light of this observation that one may understand what looked like utter hypocrisy on the part of the European powers who, while shedding crocodile tears nonetheless allowed the events of mass murder, "strategic rape" and Muslim ethnic cleansing to go on unabated in Bosnia through four tortuous winters of 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995. This may also explain why when after their liberation from the socialist regime, people are redecorating and making new churches all over Eastern Europe as well as in Russia, such acts are hailed as being the signs of resilience of Orthodox religion; and yet when the newly independent Tadjiks, who after centuries long extremely oppressive rule of the Czars and the Soviets, now want to rebuild their old mosques, once famous centers of learning, they are labeled as Islamic fundamentalists and massacred in thousands by the heavily equipped Russian troops, who do not have any sovereignty over the region any more - an incident that not even the nosiest Western reporter cared to report. Why, one may ask, it did not make a ripple in Washington, London or Paris or Bonn after the Islamic Democratic party of Algeria was nipped by the military brass after it won the first ever nationwide democratic election by a land slide in 1992.

How is it that the Muslim genocide in Kashmir at the hands of the highly trained and very well equipped Indian army has been only whispered about but never brought to public attention by the Western elites of the media and public policy?

But, why all this Western paranoia about Islamic revival? Is it a danger to world stability and Western civilization? "And should one look under every bed for Muslim fundamentalists the way some people (sometimes the same people) used to look for communists in the good old bad days of the evil empire?" (Avineri, 1993: 167).

With millions of Muslims living in the West as citizens these days, are we about to see yet another love affair with McCarthyism?

Outside of Christianity and Judaism, Islam is the most known religion in the West. It is also, perhaps, the most misunderstood religion in the West. This is so because most Western students of Islam, with a few exceptions, have tried to understand it in terms of their own historical, moral and ideological biases. First, even if we forget about ancient problems between the Levant and Europe, there exists a deep rooted suspicion of Islam dating back to the shocks that Europe received at the hands of early Islamic armies in the 7th century; and especially to the encounters during the Crusades which generated voluminous literature about Islam and Muslims. This literature and this lore with few exceptions, has been mostly critical, often negatively biased and sometimes even obscenely against Islam. So writes Armstrong (1992:11).

Even when Europe recovered from the Dark Ages and established its own great civilization, the old fear of the ever-expanding Muslim empire remained. Europe could make no impression on this powerful and dynamic culture: the Crusading project of twelfth and thirteenth centuries eventually failed........This fear made it impossible for Western Christians to be rational or objective about the Muslim faith. At the same time that they were weaving fearful fantasies about Jews, they were also evolving a distorted image of Islam, which reflected their own buried anxieties. Western scholars denounced Islam as a blasphemous faith and its Prophet Muhammad the great pretender...In Mummers' plays he was presented as the enemy of Western civilization, who fought our own brave St George.

This inaccurate image of Islam became one of the received ideas of Europe and continues to affect our perception of the Muslim world.

Although present generations in the West hardly remember or even care about the Crusades, negative images of Islam and Muslims persist in the Western culture, many a text book, and even in the works of the Middle East "experts". Some time ago, a professor at a college run by a fundamentalist church wrote to this author that Muslims worship Hajre Aswad - the piece of the black rock in the side of the Ka'bah - and sprinkle holy water (Zam Zam) as a part of the Hajj ceremonies3. There are even more serious accusations against Islam that need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that even some pagan and animistic religions receive a much better treatment than Islam in the West today.

Secondly, the crusades also created a specter of the Muslims rallying in the name of Islam. Ever since Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladdin) defeated the forces of King Richard of England toward the end of the long fought Crusades, Islam and politics have been seen as being a wrong combination for those who would be contemplating colonizing or extending their hegemony over the Middle East region. Because politics is not beyond the pale of Islam, outsiders as well as power mongering insiders in the Muslim community generally remain hostile toward Islamic movements unless they openly disavow any political involvement.

Thirdly, although Western colonialism is fast becoming history, its legacy persists in the minds of many a Western policy maker and even the intellegentia in the form of a patronizing big brother-like attitude toward the "natives" who better listen to and follow the big brother if they want to make any progress.

Fourthly, secularism has a built-in bias against religion in general. From this perspective, not only Islam, but also religion is outdated. It does not belong in modern discourse. A sympathetic critic of this author once wrote that the very term religious or Islamic sociology may alienate Western sociologists4. Thus, as Western Christianity is fading out, Western secularism is emerging as a new enemy of Islam. It is strange that when Christianity was the major mode of thinking in the West, Islam was being attacked as being blasphemy. Now that secularism is the guiding principle, Islam is being looked at in the image of Christianity. According to Avineri, (1993:167):

The underlying assumption has always been that Islam - as a culture and not only a religious creed - was primitive, underdeveloped, retrograde, at best stuck in the memory hole of a medieval splendor out of which it could not disentangle itself without a radical transformation; and this could only be based on Western, "rational", "progressive" values. Ex Occiendente lux.

In short, men and women of influence and power in the West seem to harbor deep seated complexes and anxieties with respect to the efforts at rejuvenating Islam. In trying to achieve their modernist goals, their experience with their own dominant religion has not been very encouraging. However, looking at Islam, and all other religions for that matter, in the image of Christianity seems to create a tunnel vision, developing a "trained incapacity" to understand Islam5.

The Return to Islam

Sometimes there is a tendency, especially in the Western media, to lump acts of extremism, sabotage or even airplane hijacking on the part of some splinter groups in the Muslim world with movements of Islamic revival. Even such sympathetic writers on Islam as Armstrong (1992:12) seem to have fallen in this trap. Following this reasoning, might one point out that Gush Amunim and Rabbi Mier Kahane, or Dr. Goldstein, the murderer of scores of innocent Muslim worshippers in a Hebron mosque in the fasting month of Ramadhan of 1994, represent Zionism! Although they are a part of the general history of Zionism as it is unfolding before our eyes, are these groups or individuals to be equated with Zionism per se?

Likewise, the movement to return to Islam must not be confused with airplane hijacking, the bombing of the World Trade Center, or even the Palestinian Intifidah of rock throwing children. In fact, the two largest movements espousing a return to Islam in modern times - Ikhwan al Muslimoon (Muslim brotherhood) of Egypt and the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic party) of Pakistan - are avowed constitutionalists who, for over fifty years and much to the displeasure of other splinters with similar objectives, have made it their explicit goal to establish Islam through peaceful means. In order to highlight how these movements have functioned over the past half a century in the Muslim world, we present an excerpt from a policy speech given to his party workers by late Abul Ala Moududi (1951), the founder of the Jamat-i-Islami (Islamic Party) and "fundamentalist" par excellance in Pakistan:

We may participate in them directly or indirectly, but we can not divorce ourselves from the electoral processes, although how we would participate in them should be left up to the Shura (executive) board of the party.

In order to keep the electoral process in perspective, we should be cognizant of three major facts. First, in order to establish the Islamic way of life in this country, it is inevitable to change its political leadership.

Secondly, In this country we have a functioning constitutional democracy; and there is only one way to change its leadership - through elections.

Thirdly, it is not permissible (by the Islamic Shariah) to try to remove the existing constitutional government through unconstitutional means.

Moududi's is , perhaps, the strongest statement to date disavowing any violent action aimed at overthrowing the constitutional government. Evidently, he was of the opinion that the electoral process is basic to Islamic polity, especially in regards to bringing about political change. What is true of the Jamaat in Pakistan has been true also of the Ikhwan al Muslimoon (Muslim brotherhood) of Egypt. These parties and similar movements elsewhere in the Muslim world have in general functioned by extending basic social services like food, clothing, education and even medical help to the needy, participating in local and national elections, and quite significantly by providing the only voice of opposition. Despite their lack of success over past several decades, these movements are emulated in several distant places. The Algerian Islamic Democratic Party which was deprived of its landslide success at the polls in 1992, is an example. That these movements have been continuously given a bad coverage means that either they are confused as being "terrorists" or that their ultimate objective - a return to Islam - is not appreciated in the West. We have already discussed reasons for this Western ambivalence in the above.

Although still subscribed to by a minority in the Muslim world, if the voices of these two and similar movements are being heard more attentively and more extensively now than before, it is because, most significantly, during the past fifty years, the Muslim population has more than doubled itself, making itself much younger than before; and as more educated youth are entering the job market, they quickly develop an acute feeling of what has come to be known as "relative deprivation" (Staufer,1955) because the Muslim power elite has almost invariably failed in solving the problem of a increasingly restive society. According to Armstrong (1992), Islamic revivalism is, by far, the movement of the young, the educated and the disenchanted.

Another reason as pointed out by some (for instance, Avineri, 1993) is that the Muslim intellectuals, politicians as well as the military rulers have tried just about every Western ideology in the book - from republicanism and constitutionalism to different forms of socialism and even shades of fascism - but to no avail. With the exception of few oil rich sheikdoms, the Muslim world at large remains afflicted with widespread under nutrition, substandard positions, very low literacy and inevitable anger aimed at their elites and those powers that continue to support these elites. Those who think (O'brien, 1989) that the "Muslim society looks profoundly repulsive.....It looks repulsive because it is repulsive", and that "the [Muslim] sickness gets worse the more the [Islamic] remedy is taken", ought to be informed that, of late, the sick Muslim has tried just about every remedy in the book except Islam. Maybe he continues to remain "repulsively sick" because he has been denied the right medicine. In this sense, as Khan (1994) pointed out, the return to Islam is, in fact, a postmodern phenomenon - a response to peculiar strains and stresses of the late-twentieth-century national and global developments.

At least this is what an increasing number of Muslim intellectuals, many of them former communisants and liberal intellectuals in the Muslim world, are beginning to think these days. They are rediscovering that far from being merely a worshipping formula, Islam encompasses rules of societal institutions which may work where modern ideologies have failed them; and which have great appeal for the Muslim sense of justice, equality and compassion for all. Western secular elite do not necessarily have to agree with all things Islamic. No two culture areas are completely congruent.

"But, per contra, it is simplistic Western cultural imperialism - be it liberal or Marxist - to think that the West, with its own internal, modern and postmodern problems, can give adequate answers to Islamic societies. Two centuries of HUBRIS ought to disprove the proposition that all the Islamic East needs is an injection of Western Christian or post- Christian values and institutions...Terrorism inspired by Islamic fanatics should be fought tooth and nail...But Western intellectuals and statesmen should not mount a new crusade against Islam. Wrong enemy, wrong-headed thinking.

(Avineri, 1992: 170)

Dimensions of Islamic Ideology

All human beings have two major needs. First, they have to have food, clothing and shelter. These are known as economic needs. To these, we humans at different times and places have also added other things considered to be essential for life (means of communication and transportation, leisure and amusement, cooking and heating, etc.).

Secondly, as we grow up, we develop sexual and reproductive needs. As basic as they are, these needs can not be satisfied without us interacting with, cooperating with and living with other human beings.

However, paradoxically, these very demands also have the potential of great discord and dispute in the presence of others unless we develop some measure of normative control. Polity or the exercise of power, then, is the third major element that we humans need while living a plural life.

Lastly, but not least, we human beings have also shown a great need for the super natural and some way of communicating with Him - individually and collectively.

All societies, however primitive or modern, see to it that these four human needs are satisfied through highly regulated patterns of interaction. Sociologists call these patterns of interaction institutions - of economy, family, polity, and worship. Without first three of these human society is unthinkable. Without all four of them, human society has not existed historically. Together, norms governing these social institutions describe most essential ingredients of social life universally. As dissimilar as these institutional patterns of interaction are, ideally or from culture relativity point of view, they must be interdependent and mutually reinforcing (6).

However, in reality except for the very primitive societies, this is hardly the case. In fact, we may safely hypothesize that as a society becomes more complex, indeed with every new development, its institutions tend to exert centrifugal pressure upon one another.

Last in the succession of Divinely revealed religions of the world, Islam came at the threshold of accelerating societal complexity. Human population was increasingly becoming sedentary. As horticulture was widely replaced by irrigation based civilizations, animal husbandry and nomadism was giving way to agricultural and international commercial settlements while gold standard was already giving rise to a monetary economy almost world wide.

At this juncture in human history, Islam came with full compliment of social institutions essential for human society. We do not know of any other "ism", ideology, or religion which deals with these four indispensable aspects of human life at once - as manifestations of the same source which provides them with organic unity. A common ideological root in Islam, obviously, is meant to keep the increasingly complex society of man from coming apart at its institutional seams. This claim stands in defiance to all other ideologies of the past and the present which have failed to provide a singular design of institutional unity for human society.

When practiced in its totality, Islam aims at creating what the Qur'an calls the "Middle Nation" as against all other "oscillating cultures" which only take extreme positions(7). The centralizing tendency in Islam has the potential of negotiating ideological extremes and providing them a common ground. For instance, in its economic aspects, although Islam respects private property and favors an open mrket system, yet it discourages excessive capital accumulation by prohibiting interest, gambling, profiteering and hoarding. Far from creating a socialistic economy, it ordains transfer of substantial amount of resource from the very rich to the very poor and the needy who are encouraged to seek work and discouraged to subsist on charity. Thus, Islamic economy has a built-in motivation for the individual initiative while commanding dispersion far in excess of what capitalism would tolerate but far below the level that socialism could tolerate. In short, Islam allows capitalism minus material obsession. While defying any socialistic solutions, however, it attacks the very roots of exploitation in a free market economy.

Traditionally, human family has functioned on the basis of extended kinship. It is mainly since the advent of industrialization that the family has become increasingly marriage based. Hence the modern nuclear family. Islam does not commit itself to either form. While there may be few precious tears to be shed on the passing of tribal or clan system, Islam is aimed at creating a web of relationships in which the family of orientation (birth) plays a major role in shaping, accommodating and sustaining the family of procreation (wife and children). Even if arranged marriage is a norm among Muslims, Marriage in Islam can not be solemnized without an explicit consent on the part of the marrying partners in the presence of adult and sane Muslims. Not being a sacrament, marriage in Islam is strictly a civil contract requiring a declaration, witnessing and documentation if possible. In this respect alone, Islamic marriage has preempted modern marriage by more than thirteen hundred years.

Having rejected priesthood, Islam leaves no room for theocracy. By the Divine decree in the Qur'an and according to the Sunnah of the Prophet(p), Shura is the fundamental principle of polity in Islam. Roughly translated as consultation in English language, however, Shura does not mean an advice that could be rejected later. The structure of the Khilafah following the Sunnah of the Prophet(p) shows that Shura constitutes consultation that culminates in binding decisions . This puts Islamic polity squarely between democracy and authoritarianism. After all Shura has its roots in the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet(p). Consequently, Islamic polity may elect the rulers who institute laws, make any policies, and introduce any programs as they deem fit only so long as they do not transgress the authoritative limits as laid down in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. In short, the Qur'an and the Sunnah describe constitutional limits of Islamic polity. But, then, who is going to decide whether or not those in authority in Islam acted according to the Qur'an and the Sunnah? The answer is that the Qadi or the judge does this for you. An independent judiciary specializing in the Shariah, then, is a necessary condition of the process of Shura.

Evidently, this system is not theocracy. Obviously, it does not accommodate monarchy either.

Finally, worship in Islam has broader as well as more specific meanings. In a broader sense, worship or Ibadah in Islam literally means obedience to all the commandments as laid down in the Qur'an and the Sunnah including all institutional as well as extra-institutional rules of conduct. Thus, when a person avoids interest or extramarital involvement, preaches Islam, or participates in and promotes Islamic polity, he or she is worshipping. Likewise, when a Muslim develops his personal character according to the Qur'anic commandments, he or she is engaging worship. In a more general sense, then, worship in Islam means obedience to the Divine commandments.

In a more limited sense, as in its dictionary meanings these days, worship in Islam means observations of the "Five Pillars" - the proclamation of faith or the Shahadah, praying five times a day or the Salat, giving poor due or the Zakat, fasting from dawn to dusk for the whole lunar month of Ramadhan or Saum, and pilgrimage at Makkah at least once in life time or Hajj. These " Five Pillars of Islam" must not be considered to be mere supplications. They are duties imposed on Muslims by their Creator. They are not left at the convenience or whims and wishes of the believer. These duties are to be performed consciensciously at their proper times as practiced and instructed by the Prophet(p). What is emphasized here is that this is not God who needs man's worship and sacrifices. It is man who needs to worship Him in order to strengthen his own moral fiber and personal commitment (Taqwa) to obey the commandments of his Creator.

Because both aspects of worship in Islam belong to the same generic root i.e. the Qur'an, relationship between the two is close and reciprocal. While worship in terms of the Five Pillars is necessary for committing a Muslim personally to the practice of the Islamic institutional order, this commitment or Taqwa itself needs Islamic institutional environment in which to nourish and sustain itself. There is little doubt that without personal commitment or Taqwa, the institutional order of Islam would not last very long.

It is equally true that without an Islamic institutional environment, Taqwa would be rendered useless, goalless, and meaningless.

Personal worship in terms of the rituals, even if performed collectively or in congregations, is characteristic of all religions in which its function is to inculcate in the worshipper personal piety aimed mainly at developing a commitment to do good to others and avoid harming them. But, these religions do not generally go any further than that; and because they do not do so, they do not provide personal piety an appropriate environment which it may promote and in which it may rejuvenate itself. Indeed, in most societies these days personal piety of the worshipper is becoming increasingly irrelevant because contemporary social institutions of modern societies do not have any generic relationship with and, indeed, go against the very spirit of personal piety.

In Islam, as must be evident from the above, personal worship and abidance by the Islamic laws governing other institutions are two sides of the same coin. One can not be without the other. This broadening of the meanings of worship in Islam is unique to it. Above all, what it means is that for all or most Muslims to become pious, personal ritualistic worship at home or in the mosque must be reinforced by the Islamic economy, the Islamic family and the Islamic polity. Thus, those who are afraid of the spread of "Muslim extremism", must understand that peaceful Muslim can be found only in a functioning Islamic order. This is the message that the "Islamic fundamentalists" are trying to convey to their rulers, and to those who are leading the non-Muslim world.

Summary and Conclusion

In this paper we have tried to show that expression Islamic fundamentalism which is increasingly gaining currency especially among Western policy makers, intellectuals and the media, is not only misleading, it may also be counterproductive.

The term is misleading because its vocabulary and its imagery is borrowed primarily from Christian fundamentalist movement of the American South. American fundamentalists proclaim a number of dogmas which are not welcome among American liberal church leaders as well as secular elites in the media, politics and the universities.

But, to be scared of the fundamentalist movement in their back yard is one thing. It is quite another to look at Islam in the image of their garden variety. There is no and there has never been any fundamentalist/nonfundamentalist differentiation in Islam during the past fourteen centuries.

As used by American, and now increasingly also by other Western elites, the expression Islamic fundamentalism, and the very negative connotations that go with it, may also be counter-productive. This is because to many a sensitive Muslim ear, it may sound like a deliberate effort to create a new rift in the already fractionated world of Islam. May be most Western elites do not even know that they are victims of the medieval anti-Islamic biases of their forefathers. May be they are falsely afraid of something which may surprise them only if they set their ethnocentrism aside. Even so, during these closing years of the 20th century, the world is waking up to the fact that one does not have to harbor Western values in order to outperform the West (8).

Every ideology, whether religious, economic, political or otherwise, is based on certain fundamental principles. So does Islam. The question is, are Islamic fundamentals dogmatic in the same sense as those of Christianity? A closer look shows Islam to be a surprisingly integrated ideology which has pre-empted modern socioeconomic ideologies by quite a few centuries. Only, Islam does not leave its institutions at the mercy of self-centered and materialistic pragmatism.

More seriously, it must not be overlooked that the primary responsibility of the misperception of Islam in the West and among other non-Muslims lies on none other than the Muslim elites - political, educational, economic and those in the media - of the past and the present.

No teachings of Islam can be equal to experiencing Islam as a living society. However, since deviance from Islam has increasingly become a norm among those who have taken upon themselves to lead the Muslim masses, Islamic norms are becoming deviant in Muslim societies. Consequently, those who call for and are active in trying to reestablish the Islamic institutional order, draw the wrath of the Muslim elites in several different ways - ridiculed in media presentations, criticized in academic and educational publications, ignored in national and international business dealings, and often severely punished by those in control of political power. Compared to the treatment that Islamic activists receive from leaders of their own societies, being labeled as Islamic fundamentalists by the Western elites, may look awfully benign indeed.

However, in the long run existing Western attitude toward Islam is definitely more harmful than any atrocities committed by the Muslim elites. Existing Muslim elites, with a few exceptions, are either dependent on the West for their own claim to power; or they are superficially Westernized to one degree or another, perhaps, less in their convictions than in their action. In either case, most Muslim leaders these days tow the Western line voluntarily or otherwise. Thus, as long as the Muslim elites are able to keep the Islamic activists under control, say, in Algeria, in Egypt, in Pakistan and in the oil rich sheikdoms, Western powers do not have to intervene with force directly. However, sustained Islamic revivalist activity or assumption of power by the Islamic activists (like in Iran in 1978 or in the Sudan in 1992) apparently gives rise to an ancient anti-Western specter in the minds of the Western elites. Now that the Soviet Union, the arch rival of the West for the most part in the 20th century, is gone for good, full attention is being given to Islam - the fallen "enemy" that is trying to resurrect itself. "Islamic fundamentalism" is only relatively a milder expression, which betrays the same old Western antipathy toward Islam.

It must be noted here that any direct Western intervention in the Muslim countries - even at the behest of the government in power - invariably creates an hostile reaction among the masses boosting the appeal of the Islamic revivalist movements - most often the only voice of political dissent in the Muslim world. This is how the West has been contributing to the appeal of the call for return to Islam. There is hardly any empirical data available on the subject, but it is quite plausible to believe that the Western posture toward revolutionary Shia Iran has contributed tremendously to the Islamic call in Sunni Muslim countries. Likewise, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas eve in 1979, created an anti-socialist backlash even among leftist intellectuals in Pakistan, in Algeria and even in such avowedly Marxist countries like Southern Yemen (Ahmed, 1981). Besides, the chronic problem of Palestine, and now Bosnia and the Muslim states under former Soviet Union (Tadjikistan, Chachnia) have undoubtedly been tremendous contributing factors in this direction.

But, under the setting sun of the 20th century two momentous developments are taking place, one of them in the Muslim world and the other in the West. First, the Islamic revivalism is fast taking root in the newly independent Muslim countries especially among the intellegentia many of whom received their higher education in some of the most renowned seats of learning in North America and Europe. Toward the end of the first half of the 20th century, there was only one visible Islamic revivalist movement in the Muslim world - Jamaate Islami of Pakistan. The Ikhwan al Muslimoon of Egypt were already in ruins and scattered at the behest of the British in 1948. At that time undoubtedly there were many in the Muslim world who would subscribe to the views of these two movements. However, by 1950, Jamaaat was the only organized movement of its kind left in the Muslim world.

But, toward the end of the second half of the 20th century, today nearly all major Muslim countries from Indonesia and Malaysia to Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and nearly all of North African countries have active Islamic movements. Additionally, Iran (a Shia state) and Sudan (a Sunni state) are already functioning Islamic states. Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen seem to be next in line. Should this happen, other Muslim states may not necessarily fall like the dominoes. Which and how many other Muslim states will adopt Islamic polity shall to a great extent depend upon how already Islamicized states behave and are allowed to survive. In any case, in as much as the West stricken Muslim political elites have so far spectacularly failed in seeking solutions to the chronic problems of their respective societies, Islamic revivalists armed with most advanced education and training that the modern world can offer, seem to be the most formidable and able adversaries to their brittle regimes. Last forty years saw the emergence of two Islamic states (Sudan and Iran), and two (Algeria and Afghanistan) nearly succeeded in doing so. Next forty years may see the emergence of four or five more such states. It means that by the 2030's, there may be six or seven functioning Islamic states in the world.

Two patterns of international relations may be predicated regarding this development. First, provided Western ambivalence toward Islam is not abated, these Islamic states, like Shia Iran and Sunni Sudan today, would go out of their way to cooperate among themselves and support one another politically, economically and otherwise, notwithstanding their sectarian differences. Secondly, despite Iran's hostility toward the West which is more situational than ideological, these Islamic states would love to create a happy symbiosis with the West (as well as with others) i.e. unless others continue to attack and subverse Islamic revivalism. None of the Islamic revivalist movements, not even the hated Ikhwan of Egypt and the Jamaat of Pakistan have been inherently anti-Western in the same sense as the socialist ideology or the Soviet Union was.

Second event of great significance that is going on at the time of this writing is the transformation of the Western religious landscape. With a world wide migratory movement from technologically less developed countries of the so-called Third World toward industrially developed nations of the West, both Europe and North America are homes not merely to the Christians and the Jews. They are also now hosting Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and scores of other large and small belief systems. Of these, Islam undoubtedly is the fastest growing community. This growth of Islam in the West is not due to immigration alone. In significant respects, it is also because of DAWAH (invitation to Islam) and conversion to Islam (see Ba-Yunus and Siddiqui, 1994). Future of this community in the West on the one hand, and quite significantly, the nature of the relationship between the West and the future Islamic states on the other hand, shall to one degree or the other depend on the resourcefulness, organization and political and social savy with which Muslims in the West compose themselves. With their high level of education, professionalism, and income especially in America and Canada what is needed is unity in organization, resource mobilization and social and political policy before they would be perceived as "model minorities" recreating the correct image of Islam, making their presence felt and wisely exercising their political clout.

In short, given the disgraceful attitude toward Islam and Muslims especially on the part of many a Western policy and opinion maker, some one has to take an initiative to correct the situation. While Islamic revivalists are doing their share in the Muslim world, Muslims in the West especially those in North America have to do their share in this endeavor. That their potential to do so is increasing by the day, there is little doubt about it.


* Ilyas Ba-Yunus, Ph.D., currently retired, is a Professor of Sociology having last held the position of full Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he taught criminology, society and law, sociology, demographics and other courses from 1972-2003. He has published numerous articles and books, including two books to be published between 2006 and 2008 ("The American Muslim Experience" and "Idiological Dimensions of Islam"), and has been living in the United States since 1960. He obtained his two M.S. degrees in Sociology and Geography from the University of Minnesota and his Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He has been an active member of the national Muslim community in the United States, serving as one of the founding members of and later the president of the Muslim Students Association of the US & Canada in 1969 as well as the first president of the Islamic Society of North America from 1982-1984, receiving ISNA's Mehboob Khan Award for Community Service in 2005. Dr. Ba-Yunus retired from teaching in 2003 but remains active with the Muslim communities in Florida, New York, Chicago and nationwide, and currently serves as the President of the Islamic Media Foundation, an affiliate of ISNA, as well as a member of the ISNA Majlis Shura.

1. In their speeches, rhetorics and behind the scene activities of their leaders, the fundamentalists often appear to have been quite militant, trying to impose their ideology on other churches. For details see Cole (1937:71), Firnis (1963), and Marsden (1980).

2. The power of the fundamentalists is visible at various levels. Apart from the people power that they have been able to achieve over time, they became politically active and visible. For instance, Pat Robertson, although publicly embarrassed by the liberals, ran a strong campaign for President in the 1987 Republican Primaries.

3. My correspondence with Jimmy Swaggart in the fall of 1980 regarding his misrepresentation of Islam on television resulted in my communicating with one of the professors at his Bible College. While the professor prefers to remain anonymous, he was quite frank about his reading of Islam from various Christian church sources.

4. See Bryan Turner (1986:716-719).

5. Reference is here to Veblen (1921) who is regarded as the first sociological critic of American "narcissism".

6. In his critique of sociological research on individual modernity, Portes (1973:15-44) discusses Japanese values in their industrial and economic development.

  1. See Mona Abul-Fadl (1991) and her characterization of Western tendencies to react and take extreme positions.


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Copyright (c) 1997 Ilyas Ba-Yunus

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