Readings on Muslim Fundamentalism

Greater Kashmir

All ideologies are exclusive and could lead to violently excluding the right to disagree. Islam is not an ideology but fundamentalism is.

Fundamentalism doesn’t know, as Wahidudin Khan often emphasizes, that we live in a different world, that we no longer understand the language of legalism that uses fatwas instead of communicative dialogue, that sectarianism is against both spiritual humanism and basic ethos of a globalized world.
All ideologies are exclusive and could lead to violently excluding the right to disagree. Islam is not an ideology but fundamentalism is. It is vain to appropriate such terms as fundamentalism  (see this in some popular preachers) and give it an Islamic dress as implying firm belief in fundamentals of religion. Historically literalism has been both exclusive and violent. In the history of Islam exclusivist ideological battles have given us some heinous wars and killings and we can trace them to Kharjite mind set if not even farther in the past. And the battle was pitched against one of the greatest sons of Islam, Hazrat Ali.
Muslim fundamentalism (to which Peshawar has been ostensibly attributed) has been a subject of many works, mostly by Orientalists and certain modernists. I think this is well known. But it has been thoroughly studied and questioned from what is little known perspective of traditional Islam. I am more interested in this approach as it can’t be accused of using imported western methodology or assumptions or prejudices against fundamentalism. It can’t be accused of inauthenticity or diluting Islam’s letter and spirit. This traditional perspective situates itself in the Quran and the Sunnah, launches a strong critique of modernism and from its critique of modernism it is able to critique fundamentalism as a pseudo-tradition that appropriates certain modernist ideas like ideology, political salvationism, utopianism, idea of progress, Enlightenment narrative of man vs. nature and embracing of technological culture, ignorance of metaphysical, mystical, philosophical and artistic aspects of Islamic tradition, a very shallow interpretation that is neither aware of depths of Islam nor of key thinkers that have questioned modernity and almost everything that goes with it. This fundamentalism is only a few decades old, it can’t be identified with the position of revered Ulama belonging to different traditionally recognized schools. Nasr’s Traditional Islam in the Modern World is one such work that analyzes and faults fundamentalism from integral traditional perspective rooted in the Quran and Sunnah.
What the various movements described as ‘fundamentalist’ have in common, as Nast points out, is a cultural and religious frustration before the onslaught of Western culture and the desire to reassert themselves in the name of  Islam….in trying to achieve their ends some have had recourse to revolutionary jargon drawn from the West, others to a puritanical and rationalistic interpretation of Islam which would do away with the whole Islamic intellectual and spiritual tradition in the name of a primordial purity no longer attainable.”  Against “the peace, tranquility, harmony, and objectivity which have usually charaeterized authentic manifestations of Islam in the beginning” it is “hatred, a sense of revenge, constant agitation and blind fury” that have come to characterize fundamentalists.
 Fundamentalism doesn’t understand that events in early Islamic history  and reports in texts can’t be taken in isolation from the vast corpus of literature that has grown around them to put them in perspective. In fact the whole discourse of what has been called political Islam, of jihad, of acid attacks against “indecently” dressed women and hundreds of fatwas on a host of issues that range from disallowing television or mike or pantaloons and almost all forms of artistic expression is premised on certain hermeneutical assumptions – that can be and have been dismissed by great number of traditional scholars – that legalist literalist ahistorical fundamentalism upholds.
We need to understand a few points about fundamentalism against the backdrop of traditional Islam. I can’t list them all but today only focus on key point viz. literalism.  Fundamentalism is literalist and assumes that literal meaning is the absolute or final meaning. It has not heard of tawil employed by great masters in Islamic tradition. It has not heard of analogical, anagogical and other such categories employed by traditional authorities. It has not heard of symbolism and thus becomes hostage to indefensibly dry legalism and intellectually myopic and spiritually suffocating narrative that can never attract the best minds. It writes off Sufism and thus throws away all the giants of Islamic spirituality from Rabia Basri to Jafir-i- Sadiq to Ghazzali to Rumi to Hazrat Abdul Qadir Jeelani to Ibn Arabi to Sirhindhi to Shah Waliullah to Shaikh Alawi. Even the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah  was initiated in Qadri order and the import of penetrating studies of Ibn Hazm and like minded scholars on spiritual aspect of Islam is ignored. It rejects key dimension of personalities of such stalwarts as Iqbal and Shariati who were deeply influenced by Sufism. It would dismiss Deoband and Berelvi school’s debt to such figures as Ibn Arabi and  their  commitment to Sufism. Fundamentalists have no room for philosophy and thus many great names Muslims today are proud of would be disowned. Rejecting philosophy in the name of simple creed would mean dawah work is restricted to those who have not heard of philosophy and let us not forget that modern  mind is shaped by philosophy and from literary criticism to social sciences or humanities philosophy is everywhere. Fundamentalism has not heard of such epoch making thinkers as Wittgenstein and Derrida or linguistic and deconstructive turns in modern understanding of scriptural text and thus it can’t write a tafseer that addresses modern or postmodern audience.  Fundamentalism has not understood contemporary social or political thought and that is why it indulges in strange contradictions like embracing democratic and other ideological thought currents while rejecting medieval Muslim thinkers’ political thought that itself can’t be understood except in reference to ancient or traditional thought and culture. It also has no hesitation in indulging in violence against what it construes as ideological other.
Fundamentalism asserts, and doesn’t argue. It seems to advocate certain rational pleas but they are simply opinions that we can contest. That is why reading Plato is so important. Plato asks his interlocutors questions on what they uphold and refuses to give his view. He questions views others uphold. Now can fundamentalism entertain thorough questioning of its position  without issuing fatwas against the interlocutor? Let us have dialogue and we can solve the problems. And in this dialogue we would have giants of Islamic tradition sharing their understanding rather than debating to win their arguments. Let us note none knows the Truth. All of us can only claim partial truths to our views. The Truth – the Absolute – transcends all views, all beliefs, all philosophical constructions. We receive truth to the extent we rise above personal prejudices, conditionings, ego traps.
Fundamentalists stick to a scriptural literalism against which common sense and reason and verified discoveries in science have scores of objections. Even our primary class students can argue against literalist view. It is esotericism/metaphysics based on illumined reason or intellect that makes literal truth comprehensible.
Fundamentalism is a tendency to absolutize one’s creed (as distinguished from faith that is individual existential discovery or commitment) or community, to act as God’s advocate, to judge where we are first required to understand, to reduce religion or science to ideology, to commit oneself to a particular interpretation and call it the Only Interpretation.