The Roots of Islamic Fundamentalism
One of the striking characteristics of Islam is its abiding belief that the purpose of government is to implement the teachings of the faith. Theoretically, there can be no conflict between state and religion, the only reason the state exists is for the maintenance and preservation of the religion of Islam. A government which does not defend the faith, and administer justice, cannot lay the moral obligation of obedience on its subjects. The Muslim government existed so that it could maintain conditions where Islam could flourish and be seen to implement the will of Allah.
It is this close and special relationship between the functions of government and the teachings of religion that give Islam its potential to act as the focus of political opposition to any regime but this does not mean that Islam is an inherently revolutionary creed. Indeed, the emphasis in the past has been upon quietism and obedience by subjects rather than on militancy and rebellion. This makes the current climate of activism and assertion all the more remarkable.
In the first century of Islam there was rapid expansion, the course of Islamic history appeared to confirm the view that God had intended the world to be a Muslim World. Within a hundred years of the death of Muhammad the territorial rule of Islam stretched from Spain to the Sind. There was little reason for a Muslim subject in the Abbasid Empire in the late eighth century A.D. to doubt the invincibility of Islam. Temporal success was seen as a guarantee of religious truth. There was admittedly, several civil wars and revolts; but the notion that Islam was the true faith, and the government existed to defend it, were not a matter for dispute. The territorial integrity of the Islamic world may have been disrupted, and in several areas Arab rulers were replaced by Persians, and later by invading Turkish tribesmen from Central Asia; but some of those new rulers and conquerors were already Muslims, others proceeded to embrace Islam, and the concept of the supremacy of Muslim rule was thereby preserved.
While the history of the Islamic Middle East has certainly been neither tranquil nor uninterrupted, the fact that successive dynasties ruled in the name of that faith helped to reinforce the conclusion that God’s plan for the world was still being fulfilled. It was not until the nineteenth century, and even then only partially, that the notion of Islam’s invincibility appeared to come into question.
A changing world’s affect on Islam
By the end of the nineteenth century some Arabs, Persians and Turks had experience of the much greater material wealth and military power found in Europe. They had started to ask how such progress had been achieved, and in which ways the process might be repeated in their own lands. A variety of responses emerged as new, and arguably alien ideas, such as responsible and representative government became the subject of debate. The political fragmentation of the Islamic world had not given rise to any sense of loyalty to the separate territories in which Islam lived and governed because their loyalty was to the universal cause of the community of Muslim believers. The idea of nationalism was therefore a new and troublesome notion with which Muslims had to contend.
In their search for the touchstone of European success, several Muslims found an answer in the existence of parliamentary democracy. The problem occurred when constitutions were being drawn up when members of the religious classes saw conflict between the idea of government deriving from the will of the people and the traditional Islamic view. For Islam to continue in its traditional state the final control of the legislative machine should be exercised by the religious classes. If they decided that the proposed new measures were consonant with the divine will, then they could be put into effect; if they were found to be at variance with the teachings of Islam they were to be struck down.
The political map of the Middle East in 1900 shows that, with the notable exception of Egypt, the Ottoman Empire had acted as a not ineffective shield against the direct political encroachment of Europe on the heartlands of Islam. This situation was dramatically changed in the aftermath of the First World War.
The result of a combination of circumstances led to a sudden and dramatic growth in the extent of western influence throughout many parts of the Arab world. For the Arabs the First World War resulted in the welcome removal of their Ottoman political masters, but those overlords were replaced by new foreign, non-Muslim rulers. Two countries, Turkey and Persia managed in their own very different ways to retain a separate identity, and a measure of independence. In the Arabian peninsula, where foreign economic and political interests were still quite limited, the new state of Saudi Arabia was being created by an ancient and time-honoured process, that of tribal conquest. Elsewhere in the peninsula the established royal rulers continued to govern in the traditional manner. In those parts of the Arab world geographical remoteness still gave some protection against the impact of new ideas and institutions, but even there the respite was to prove temporary.
Conflicting views within Islam
The reforming governments introduction of new codes of commercial law proved the least difficult to implement this was largely due to their being very little pre-Islamic law on such matters. Although there were some general moral principles clearly established – merchants should not cheat or deceive their customers – the minutiae of trade and commerce were not regulated in the detailed manner prevalent in Europe and elsewhere.
When however, governments sought to introduce new legislation in areas of personal law – over matters relating to, for example, marriage, divorce or inheritance, there was intense opposition; for on such issues Islam had a great deal to say. The religious classes saw them as steps towards secularisation and they resisted them strenuously. The immediate question might have been concerned with whether or not a woman should have the right to seek a divorce, but the underlying issue was whether the accepted teachings of religion were still to be enshrined in the laws of the state. Those who wished to modernise society argued that equality of the sexes was a crucial aspect of that goal. For the men of religion, however, it was inconceivable that Islam had been revealed, and had then flourished for thirteen centuries, merely to give way now to such notions imported from the west. This conflict of views serves to reveal the important difference between those ‘fundamentalists’ who seek simply to re-assert traditional dogma, and other Muslims who are sure that a careful study of the principles enshrined in the Quran and the Sunna will produce teachings which are relevant to the needs of the contemporary world.
The Muslim response to many of the political changes which occurred after the First World War was, perhaps inevitably, one of dismay and distress. Those feelings were heightened by unfolding events occurring in Palestine. However, discussion on entrance of so many Jews into Palestine was interrupted by the commencement of the Second World War; by the time it ended the Middle East had once more experienced important changes.
The British economy had been devastated by the effects of the war and the need for foreign exchange was critical. The economies of Europe too had been destroyed by war, and cheap supplies of energy were essential for their re-construction. Inter-war oil exploration ventures had been successful in Iran, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula. Some of the oil fields which were discovered were huge, and their production costs were the lowest in the world. There was therefore a great incentive to expand the oil industry throughout the region, and this brought a greater foreign presence to some remote and isolated parts of it.
As the Cold War with the USSR began in 1947 those oil fields took on an added strategic significance, and western governments began to plan for their defence. Arab and Persian nationalists saw, to their chagrin, Britain maintaining its military forces in the region; even though their traditional justification of defending the British Empire in India was now no longer valid. The increase in the volume of oil trade gave greater importance to the Suez Canal as a commercial and strategic waterway, and the stationing of British troops in the Canal Zone continued. At the same time the United States which now had major oil interests in the region, began its close political and military association with the ruling house of Saudi Arabia. It was evident to many inhabitants of the Middle East that although their states were now nominally independent, their governments remained impotent to resist the wishes of external powers.
As in 1918, the ending of the Second World War had brought some political changes which were not entirely unwelcome to the Arabs. The French had been forced to terminate their political dominion of Syria and Lebanon and the days of British influence in Transjordan and Palestine were now limited. But, in the aftermath of the holocaust in Europe, it was also clear that the problem of Jewish immigration to Palestine would now have to be faced. The outcome in 1948 was the creation of Israel, and there can be no doubt that the establishment of that new state, and its later victories in 1956, 1967 and 1973, have had a profound impact on the Muslim world. The loss of part, and then the whole of Islam’s third holiest city, Jerusalem, remains a source of humiliation.
The beginnings of Islamic fundamentalism
As many Muslims looked at the political changes since 1914 the question which many Muslims asked was ‘why has so much gone wrong?’ Taken as a whole events in the twentieth century looked little short of disastrous. The Ottoman Empire had been destroyed, and while that regime may have been disliked in its latter years for the policies of ‘Turkification’ which it was then pursuing, it had remained an avowedly Islamic regime under the rule of a Caliph. The inter-war period had witnessed British and French political domination over large areas of the Middle East, and the renewed hostilities in Europe had then brought invading armies to the region yet again. After 1945 the Jews had succeeded in creating a state of their own, in a land where they had previously lived as tolerated subordinates. As the establishment of Israel received a wide degree of western approval and support, some Muslims saw it as proof of the enduring antagonism of Christianity towards Islam. Others, who had observed the shift in global political power from Europe to the United States and the Soviet Union, saw Israel as an American base in a region of growing strategic importance in the Cold War. However events were interpreted, the underlying sentiments were often those of perplexity and distress. It was in such an atmosphere that ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ has developed.
A re-assertion of the Islamic faith and its associated values was not, of course, the only response to the challenges posed by political changes in the twentieth century but it was the most vociferous. At its simplest it says that things have gone wrong for the Muslims because they have ceased to be good Muslims. They no longer adhere with sufficient rigour and devotion to the teachings of their faith. God has not, despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary, begun to desert his followers: but they have certainly deserted Him.
According to many groups who respond in this way they claim that the Muslim world is now ruled by individuals who pay only lip service to Islam. Some have been corrupted by the ways of the west to such an extent that they are now prepared to rule in the interests of the west. Such regimes do not govern with justice, neither do they seek to defend the traditional values of Islam. Those rulers who have lost their own faith are now trying to undermine that of their subjects.
In plainest terms the argument runs like this: ‘We are Muslims and that is good enough. We do not believe that God would have revealed his eternal truth to the world through Muhammad if He had not intended us to follow it. Our faith has endured for over thirteen centuries. It is the basis of our identity and it provides our goal in life. Take it away and we are nothing.’ The key to the many problems which confront Muslims today is the enduring centrality of Islam in the life of the individual.
The outworking of Islamic fundamentalism
Fundamentalism’s attempt to maintain the centrality of Islam in a changed world has not resulted in a uniform response although some view the Islamic resurgence as being more homogeneous than it actually is. The 1979 triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini showed that it was possible for an Islamic-inspired movement to topple an apparently powerful and pro-Western monarch. Some fundamentalist groups were operating even before this time, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1929 and Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Liberation Party was created in Jerusalem in 1952).
An important aspect that is sometimes overlooked is that a non-Arab achieved a position of leadership and inspiration for the Muslim community as a whole. The Iranian leaders view was that the purpose of government is the application of the divine law and that the machinery of government should be in the hands of those who are experts in such matters – the clerics. Every Shi’ite did not subscribe to that theory. The problem with the religious classes watching over the affairs of government could prove harmful for if they implemented policies that proved unsuccessful, or simply unpopular, who would be blamed? In the past there was a civil ruler who could, rightly be held responsible or a foreign power could be held accountable but if the policies of the religious classes failed then the failure could be placed on the validity of the faith itself. If Islam fails to provide solutions for the political problems of a country after it has claimed to be able to do so, will the faithful then turn to other, secular philosophies? The bland response that as God’s law is by definition without fault, then its application is assured of success, may not convince all Muslims.
Some Islamic fundamentalists reject such an approach they hold that those interpretations are derived from what are known as ‘the yellow books’ (kutub al sufra), the works of theologians who were active between the tenth and thirteenth centuries AD. These are regarded as having been relevant for the age in which they were written; but today’s problems, it is argued, require a new and direct investigation of the original sources of the faith. At its most extreme this ‘ijtihadist’ approach calls for the creation of a new ‘school of law’ (madhhab) which would stand alongside, and ultimately supplant, the four existing ones.
According to this particular argument Islam survived in the past because it was willing to change. Truth is certainly immutable, but the problems and dilemmas which occur are often new. Just as the great scholars of jurisprudence in the past drew their solutions directly from an examination of the Quran and Sunna, so Muslims today must do the same and look to the original sources, rather than rely on later commentaries and interpretations. Such a line of thought is attractive to many Muslims, particularly to those studying abroad who are often brought face-to-face with both new knowledge, and different methods of intellectual enquiry. Some come to adopt the view that their education in whatever subject it may be, is a form of mental training which they then should be able to apply to the text on which their religion is founded. The Quran was given by God to man, but his mental facilities are also a divine bequest, and the individual must use them to seek truth. The question of finding solutions to new problems becomes a source for intellectual challenge, for it no longer involves the re-examination of books which are regarded as out of date and irrelevant to the needs of contemporary Islam. The potential of such a re-interpretation of the sources of Islam is very great, and some young Muslims believe it will facilitate what they regard as a long overdue need for a ‘root and branch’ transformation of the faith.
The idea of making an entirely fresh interpretation of the sources of the faith obviously involves the rejection of much accepted teaching. This in turn means that traditional scholarship will no longer be required, and the status of those who are currently in positions of leadership will thereby be undermined; for their knowledge would no longer be regarded as relevant. Many would argue that there is no need for conventional scholastic training, if it is God’s plan, they argue, that man should follow His laws, then He will make it clear and plain so that all people can see and understand them.
These modernist fundamentalists argue that generations of religious leaders have made the teachings of Islam obscure, and that they have done so in order to retain their role and status in society.
The type of fundamentalism which has received the greatest degree of international public attention is that which is associated with terrorist organisations. Again there is a great diversity to be seen. Some groups hold to the old theory that the removal of one man – whether he be a Caliph, King, or President – will produce a great change in the political environment. The results may indeed be uncertain, but the justification can be ‘Islamic’. If political authority is truly of divine origin, then any ruler holding office can be said to do so as the result of an act of usurpation. Therefore he is illegitimate and can be removed. Members of the extremist groups are often prepared to sacrifice their own lives too in the act of assassination; and the notion of martyrdom as a personal religious duty remains a powerful one amongst some Muslims.
In contrast to this traditional ‘individualistic’ form of terrorism stand the more threatening organisations which seek to wreak revenge in a much less discriminate manner. Modern technology plays an important part in the operations of such groups, and so too does access to money. While individuals may join them out of a sense of personal religious duty, their actions are more likely to be undertaken in response to orders from a particular group, rather than out of any sense of Islamic motivation. The fact that an organisation calls itself ‘the Party of God’ (Hizbullah) does not mean that its operations are divinely inspired for religion may be used as a cloak for acts of violence which have secular aims. In some cases the impulse to action may derive from a sense of grievance against the West, and this need not be religious in origin. Fundamentalism and fanaticism may indeed overlap, but it is assumed that they are synonymous.