roots of fundamentalism:
religious or cultural
Fundamentalism is a cultural phenomenon, though it dons
religious garbs. It is a mode of consciousness shaped by cultural values,
not religious principles. Thus we can understand it only if we examine it in
its cultural context as a sociological rather than a theological question.
So, I will begin by taking a close look at the social incubators most likely
to hatch fundamentalism.
understand by fundamentalism strong adherence to an archetypal point of view
and a fierce conviction of its fundamental truth, to the exclusion of any
other alternate idea. Any alternative is resisted by a fundamentalist and
treated not as a licit substitute stemming from a rational free choice, but
as a detrimental antithesis of the fundamental truth of the archetype. The
archetype is a model to be emulated and reproduced, not dissected or
Fundamentalism is an emotional, collective phenomenon in
that it gives room neither for rational choice nor for individual freedom.
No matter what your mind tells you, you are not allowed to leave the fold or
swerve from the right path followed by the community of the faithful. Such
mode of thinking and behaving is typically characteristic of archaic, rural
and peasant societies, which are generally small, isolated and homogeneous.
In such societies, collective sentiments embrace the greater part of the
individual sentiments and they have an extreme force as manifested in the
severity of the punishment inflected on those who violate them. Violation of
the social imperative arouses strong indignation. To insure conformity and
avoid violation, social acts, especially sacred rituals, are characterized
by particularization and extreme precision.
Repressive laws, which stress punishment, reveal the force and extent of
common sentiments, as well as the particularization of such sentiments. The
stronger and more widespread and particularized the collective sentiments,
the more crimes there will be, crime being defined simply as the violation
of social norms. A crime is viewed as an offense committed by an individual
against the collective sentiments, which must be avenged. It is a breach
that demands reparation, and the punishment of the guilty is the reparation
offered to the feelings of all. This is in contrast to restitutive laws,
which aim to restore order rather than avenge the deed.
pre-industrial, pre-scientific societies, or what anthropologists and
sociologists call folk societies, the predominant mode of thinking and
behaving is traditional and conservative. The society is held together not
so much by complimentary associations and mutual interdependence, but by
binding sentiments and common beliefs. It is based not on utilitarian and
expedient considerations, but on shared moral principles, on the
organization of human sentiments into implicit convictions and judgments as
to what is right and wrong.
Submergence of individual personality in the group in
traditional societies limits the possibility of free choice and individual
preference. Variation is suppressed and any deviation from social norms is
condemned. All persons in the community are supposed to be exact replicas of
one another, not only in feelings, beliefs and values but also in dress and
personal appearance. If any one ever makes the slightest attempt to assert
his uniqueness or individuality, he will be subject to censor and derision.
This unitarian view is manifested not only in the ethical and religious
sphere but also in the social, political and economic spheres.
Traditional societies are characterized by a unitarian and static conception
of the universe. Not only do they censure individual variation but they also
do not tolerate temporal change. Social change is equated with personal
aging. It is not progress and evolution. It is decay and degeneration,
always for the worst. According to this conception, the further we go back
in time the closer we get to the ideal golden age of pure innocence. It is
this nostalgic view of history, which gave rise to the worship of ancestors
in religion, as well as the romantic movement in literature.
have to keep in mind that the idea of cultural evolution and social
progress, as well as the idea of individual liberty, are late discoveries in
the intellectual development of mankind. The Greeks had their golden age;
the Hebrew prophets from Amos to Hosea decried the lavish civilization of
David and Solomon; and the Rechabite movement sought to return to the rustic
simplicity of nomadism and life in tents. Until two centuries ago, Europeans
were still debating merits of the ancients versus merits of the moderns.
Individual liberty and freedom of choice are the products of the principle
of laissez-faire, which is concomitant with capitalism and market economy,
themselves products of the industrial revolution, itself a product of the
If we take a close look at the Muslim World, where
fundamentalist thinking predominates, we find that this World consists
mostly of pre-industrial, pre-scientific countries, which, until recently
were mostly rural, illiterate communities with traditional cultures and
conservative values. Fundamentalists in these countries confuse their
pre-scientific, peasant modes of thinking and behaving and propagate them as
Islamic dogmas. They want to stop the march of history at the time of the
prophet and his companions and force everybody to live as if we were still
riding donkeys and living in mud huts. They do not realize that had the
prophet and his companions enjoyed all the modern amenities and conveniences
we have at our disposals today they would have made full use of them.
of the prejudices and insular ideologies of the fundamentalists are the
products of their peasant mentality and rural values, not Islamic teachings.
They express their subordination to the past and their frustration with and
rejection of present urbanism and modern civilization, with which they
cannot cope, through religious discourse.
fundamentalist, the real purpose of religion is not to deal with earthly
concerns or achieve success and happiness in this world, but to turn away
from the transitory world and turn to God to worship Him and please Him and
maintain good relations with Him in order to deserve His grace and guarantee
a safe passage to heaven after death, which will compensate the devotee for
all the self-denials he imposed on himself in this life. Fundamentalists lay
undue stress on the minute details of rituals and overlook the humanitarian
and philanthropic message, which had given Islam its universal appeal.
According to the fundamentalist, all events in this world, no matter how
small or big, are destined by God. No human effort, no matter how great,
could change the course of destiny or exercise any control over this
material world. The only thing one can do is to submit completely to the
will of God and put one’s full trust and faith in His providence. Life on
earth has no meaning or value except as a testing ground for religious
virtue. One should turn away from the material snares of this evil world and
devote oneself completely to the worship of God. The only mission worth
pursuing in this worldly existence, for which one could get great dividends
in the hereafter, is to bring the lost sheep of the Lord back to the fold,
by hook or crook. You rarely hear fundamentalists talk about programs to
relieve human suffering or to improve health or education or the economic
and material conditions of people’s life. They justify human suffering in
this life and explain it away either as testing of faith or as punishment
for sins. Their sole purpose for aspiring to rule the world is to stone
adulterers and cut the hands of thieves.
Fundamentalism is a form of socio-cultural maladjustment, which, sometimes,
becomes a compulsive obsession and may take bizarre manifestations. For an
extreme fundamentalist, a difference of one or two inches in the length of
your beard or the lower hem of your garment could be the critical criterion
that would decide your fate in the hereafter, whether to go to hell or to
heaven. This reduces fundamentalism to an aberrant social, rather than
many cases, what fundamentalists need in order to readjust is social
rehabilitation, not to engage them in theological dialogue. The way to deal
with fundamentalism is not to kill fundamentalists or throw them in jail.
Fundamentalism is like grass, mowing encourages it to grow quicker and
thicker. Only through giving them hope and a fair chance to succeed and to
realize their ambitions and fulfill their aspirations in this world can we
turn fundamentalists into worldly creatures. The means to achieving this
objective is through equality before the law, justice in courts, equity in
the distribution of wealth, improving health and education, and other
amenities in this life, which would make it worth living for everybody, not
just the privileged few.
has relapsed into a backward state in our times because the whole Muslim
World had regressed into backwardness within the last few centuries. During
the zenith of the Muslim Civilization, Islam was much more tolerant and
accommodating, with much room for intellectual pursuits and material
progress. Religion is a social product and a social institution; it must be
in tune with its social milieu and address the needs of the time, otherwise,
it looses its force and becomes an obstacle to human happiness and
wellbeing. Islam will regain its vitality and universal appeal only when the
Muslim World regains its lost role as a leader in historical progress and a
builder of civilization.