What is Fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism literally means to stick to the fundamentals or to stick to the basic teachings of a religion. As religious terminology this term originated in the early period of the 20th century. In its initial stages it was mainly a Christian phenomenon. Modernist Christians attempted to give a liberal interpretation to some biblical teachings like the concept of the virgin birth; atonement and resurrection etc. The conservative Christians refused to accept this kind of liberal interpretation. They maintained that the Bible was a sacred book and that they were bound to take all its teachings verbally. So the term fundamentalism was applied to the conservatives as against the liberals.

Later this term in its extended meaning began to be applied to other religions also, for instance, Islamic fundamentalism or Muslim fundamentalists.

The same story was repeated here also. Muslim modernists too started to give a liberal interpretation to the traditional teachings of Islam. Again the conservative Muslims opposed such a move. These Muslim conservatives came to be known as fundamentalists.

For instance, according to the traditional concept, the Qur’an was a book of God. The modernist Muslims attempted to give this concept a new interpretation. They said that the Qur’an came into being through divine inspiration received by the Prophet and that this inspiration was expressed by the Prophet in his own words. Thus although the Qur’an is a revelation of God, it is in the words of Prophet Muhammad. Now the conservatives among the Muslims refused to accept this interpretation. They insisted that the Qur’an was the book of God both in word and meaning. This resulted in a controversy between the two groups of Muslims. One group came to be known as modernists and the other group as fundamentalists.

Nowadays fundamentalism has two meanings. To me one meaning is right, the other meaning is wrong.

One meaning of Islamic fundamentalism is to take it in the sense of sticking to the fundamentals, called ittiba‘, adhering to them in both letter and spirit.

Present age is the age of religious freedom. If someone says that he will adhere to his religion literally, there is no reason to raise an objection. Such a person is only exercising his religious freedom. But if Islamic fundamentalism is taken in the second meaning of imposing it on others by force, for instance, if some Muslims hold that they will not compromise with others in the matter of their religion, and that they have to impose the teachings of their religion on others by force, then in such a case, Islamic fundamentalism will go against the spirit of Islam as well as reason.

This second concept of Islamic fundamentalism has produced what is known in modern times as Islamic extremism or Islamic terrorism. But the truth is that the terms Islamic extremism or Islamic terrorism are self contradictory. Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace. It is defamatory to attribute the words terrorism or extremism to Islam. In fact, there is no room for terrorism or extremism in Islam. The Prophet of Islam has observed:

“The religion revealed to me is a religion of kindness and tolerance.”

There is no room for violence in Islam for any reason whatsoever. Thus Islamic fundamentalism in this second sense is not acceptable to Islam.

After the Second World War, however, some Muslims opted terrorism or extremism in the name of Islam to achieve political ends. It was their personal act. But since they carried it out in the name of Islam it was attributed by the people to Islam. The truth is that this is a misuse of Islam. It has nothing to do with Islam. Those Muslims who are engaged in terrorism or extremism in the name of Islam are certainly misusing Islam.

Islam is a scheme of spiritual development. The goal of Islam is to establish direct communion between God and man in order that man may become the recipient of divine inspiration. In such a religion it is moderation which is of the utmost importance, not extremism. It is peace which is of the utmost importance and not violence. From this we can understand what is and what is not included in Islamic fundamentalism.