Islamic Fundamentalism: Ideals and Reality

Bärbel Debus

Completely veiled women surrounded by swarms of children, faces entirely covered, except for a couple of slits for the eyes, hands hidden by gloves, even in the summer. Men with bushy beards, brandishing copies of the Koran, and shouting “Allahu akbar”. (“God is great”) Young men who are prepared to go to war, and die as martyrs for Islam. Are these perhaps images which come to mind when we hear the expression “Islamic fundamentalism”? Do these images reflect reality, or are they stereotypes created by the media?

How are we to define Islamic fundamentalism? (or “political Islam”) What personal disappointments, and what hopes, cause a Muslim to embrace fundamentalism, and attempt, within his sphere of influence, to help Islam become the predominant influence? It would be wrong to assume that all fundamentalists support violent methods. Not all politically oriented Muslims are extremists, by any means, and extremism represents only a small spectrum within fundamentalism. The Palestinian Hamas movement, and the Lebanese Hisbollah, are two groups who do, in part, advocate armed struggle, as well as parts of the Muslim brotherhood in Arabian countries, and the Islamic communities in Pakistan. With all of their differences, these groups do, however, have one common goal, namely, to establish a state, and a legal system within that state, that is based thoroughly on Islam, on all levels of society, such as Muhammed and his followers achieved in Medina. This period is seen as the “golden age” of Islam, in which God sent his laws to mankind, via revelations, to Muhammed. The Iranian intellectual, Ali Shariati, (died 1977) has said that through work, engaging in society, struggle, and the promulgation of Islam, this “golden age”, that is, the society of Medina in the 7th century AD, is to be re-established, so that universal peace and justice can rule. So far the ideal.

The goal of fundamentalism is the removal of all national borders between individual Islamic countries and peoples.The Koran, the words and deeds of Muhammed, acording to tradition (Arabic: “Sunna”) and the Islamic law on which it is based (sharia) should become the sole basis for the legal system and ordering of society.

Leading principles of fundamentalism

  1. An Islamic state should be a unified Islamic society, not split into differing schools of thought (law or theology) or sects, each with it’s own special emphasis.
  2. The true Islamic state should be led by a leader who represents the state to the rest of the world, and is called to be leader in the tradition of the early Islamic caliphs.
  3. The Koran, the traditions handed down from Muhammed, (Arabic: “sunna”) and Islamic law, (sharia) should be the legal basis for state and society. They must, however, be interpreted anew by Islamic scholars, so as to be appropriate to modern times.
  4. Islam must be a fixed element in all areas of life. Life, in its entirety, in state and society, must receive its legitimacy from Islam. Islam must, therefore, stamp its mark clearly on the social, economic and political life of Muslims.
  5. Some fundamentalists reject all reform and modernising as “Un-Islamic”.
  6. Islam, as generally lived nowadays, is seen as a compromise with the unbelieving world.
  7. The lack of unity among Islamic law scholars is critiscised. Most current Islamic statesmen are accused of compromise and corruption.

Present suffering

Members of fundamentalist groups suffer from social injustice, the economic crises in their own countries, and have been hit by unemployment and poverty. Their suffering is seen as a direct consequence of the colonial era, which has led to a lack of self – identity amongst Muslims, as well as increased secularisation in Islamic countries. Fundamentalists feel helpless in the face of the influence of western culture, and suffer from their own technological backwardness. They are convinced that these negative factors can be overcome only by a return to Islam in its original form.

Zeal for God

Muslim fundamentalists, filled with idealistic zeal, are commited to the establishing of a state which is influenced only by Islam. They are prepared for great sacrifice – even their own lives – to work for this goal. Their life – perspective is to assist in the building of an Islamic state. Their aversion to all things western, and non – Islamic society, is expressed by clothing which emphasises an Islamic identity, as well as strict adherence to an Islamic moral code.

The strength and attraction of fundamentalist groups lies in their ability to give a perspective and hope to people otherwise trapped in difficult living – circumstances. They are able to give individual people an identity, and new sense of self – respect. It has to be asked, however, whether the idealistic programmes which these groups intend to cary out can really stand the reality test, and whether economic and social problems (poor education, unemployment, underdevelopment and over-population) can really be solved by a strict observance of Islam.

Why does a Muslim become a fundamentalist? Often it has to do with a lack of perspective, and personal disappointment. Why has Islam, the “best and ultimate religion” failed to deliver the expected improvements in society? Many fundamentalists have very high moral and ethical goals, and wish to improve the lot of individuals in their personal sphere. Some of the social – welfare projects which fundamentalist groups have set up are exemplary, such as orphan’s and widow’s pensions, the building of hospitals and schools etc.. Tragically, there are people who believe they are folowing Muhammed’s example by inflicting terror and violence on innocent people, and imagine that this can somehow bring about “peace”.

The non – political rule of Jesus Christ

Muhammed was not only a religious, but also a political leader. In contrast, Jesus Christ emphasised to the Jewish people who were hoping that he would bring an end to the cruel yoke of Roman occupation, (Acts 1, 6) that he had not come to bring about a political revolution, (John 18, 36) even though he himself suffered under the injustice of the times. Moved to tears by the suffering and plight of his fellow human beings, he cared for the sick, the weak and despised, out of love for his Father. Jesus did not only improve the social conditions of the people around him, but also brought hope into a world without hope. Jesus very clearly rejected violence as a means of advancing the Kingdom of God – even when threatened with death himself. (Matthew 5, 9; 26, 52)