John Hervé examines Islamic Fundamentalism

Islamic State, jihad, Taliban – Islamic Fundamentalism is rarely far from the thoughts of most people these days. But what is it? Indeed, what really is Islam? In looking at this it is essential to grasp two basic concepts. Firstly, the term ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ refers to the movement for a revised and political Islam, offering practical solutions to cultural, social, economic and structural problems of the modern world. Thus, importantly, therefore it is not theological or philosophical in essence – it is an ideology! That is, ideas or thoughts which are socially determined and in turn determine reality. Some sociologists (Aron, Shils, Bell, etc.) define ideology as ‘secular religion’.

Secondly, Islamic Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. The attempts to return to fundamental religious tenets have been spasmodic throughout Islamic history, but this modern emergence differs in the significant respect that it is concerned with politics, cultural issues and forms and, most importantly, relations with the West. The diversity of active Muslim groups in this regard is immense, ranging from egalitarian to ultra-conservative. Some will go to any lengths to deny legitimate government and appeal is often made to ‘jihad’ – a term originally meaning ‘effort’ but now ‘Holy War’.

Common premise

So then, in general terms, on the platform of these two basic concepts, Islamic Fundamentalism refers to a varied and wide-ranging set of ideological and political movements in different Muslim societies, from ‘conservative’ to ‘extremist’ (i.e. characterized by immoderate methods and actions). But they all share one common premise – that the Western ‘world-view’ and lifestyle has a negative and detrimental effect on the Muslim way of life.

An indication of the presence of Islamic Fundamentalism in a government, faction or social-grouping is the extent of the incorporation of Islamic (Shari’a) Law. Other hallmarks are the attitude towards modernization – see below – and the identification within the lifestyle of major particular significant ideological and cultural attitudes, such as diversity, the role of women, style of dress, etc.


However, one mistake (often made) is to assume that ‘fundamentalist’ is a synonym for ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’. For as we have seen above, social and political change is of the ‘esse’ of the definition. In general (the Taliban in Afghanistan being a major exception), rather than totally negating modernity, Islamic Fundamentalism has attempted to selectively embrace it. Thus it should come as no surprise that it demonstrates skill in manipulating mass media, innovative technology, modern imagery and genres, and in some cases, parliamentary politics. But it must be stressed that this is at best selective and at worst totally superficial; the adoption of modernistic forms occurring without the appropriate philosophical foundations. But it cannot be denied that some process is at work to identify with modernity, to partially recognize its usefulness, and mutual advantage.

So we now have some picture of the nature of Islamic Fundamentalism. But it may be useful (while we are here) to rehearse our knowledge of Islam itself.

The pillars of Islam

Islam (the word means ‘surrender’ or ‘submission’) is the religion founded by the Prophet Muhammad (c.570–632) in Mecca and Medina in eastern Arabia. It has five ‘pillars’: the ‘Shahada’ (Profession of Faith: ‘There is no God but God (Allah) and Muhammad is the Prophet of God’); prayer five times a day; the giving of alms (‘zakat’); fasting (from dawn to dusk in the holy month of Ramadan); and pilgrimage to Mecca (the ‘hajj’) at least once.

The Koran ( or Quran – ‘recitation’) is the scripture of Islam, the belief being it is literally the word of God as revealed through Muhammad and thus the most perfect revelation of God to Humanity. Great stress is laid on God’s omnipotence and unity, the rewards of eternal life. It embodies the basic principles of Islamic Law (‘Shari’a’), and ethics; it contains homiletic material from the Prophet and his early companions (the ‘hadith’) and some also from Jewish and Christian sources. All activist Muslim groups look for a return to the full implementation of Shari’a Law; its weakness being that it lacks rules to govern modern political and economic organizations. The centrality of these scriptures in Islam cannot be overemphasized. This is not to say that mysticism has no place for many pious Muslims (Sufis) and the pursuit of this by forming religious ‘orders’.


Within 50 years of the Prophets death, the most important sectarian division occurred and concerned the succession to the leadership and its nature. The majority (Sunnis) hold the leadership devolved to the first four ‘orthodox’ caliphs and thence to the Omayyad and Abbasid Caliphates (all of which exercised only temporal power). Shi’is (currently about 90 of 750 million) hold that the fourth ‘orthodox’ caliph and the Prophet’s son-in-law (Ali) was the Prophet’s direct successor. In Sunnis, this has spawned an enduring suspicion of political power. They are the majority in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran (in which it is the official religion). Conflict between the two major sects stem from national and communal attitudes, not theological differences. ND