Islamic Fundamentalism Essay

Islamic Fundamentalism


The return of the religious factor to politics in the form of fundamentalism is a theme that is particularly relevant today, in policy decisions as in scholarly discussions and literature. The problems are especially acute and alarming when fundamentalism (to be more precise, its militarized extremist wing) causes suffering and death. (Tapper, 24) Then this phenomenon is identified in the public mind with terrorism, medieval obscurantism, and fanaticism.


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The specific nature of Islamic fundamentalism is determined by the very tight links between Islam and the political and social organization, as well as the solidarity, of the Muslim community. Its rise was caused by the crisis of nationalism as an ideology of liberation and by the mobilization stimulated by “ineffective” revolutionary development programs and was aggravated by extreme social stratification. It was also based on the failure of borrowed ideologies, the declining legitimacy of the authorities, the use of religious motives and symbols as auxiliary elements in the contest among the political elite, and the foreign activity of Muslim organizations. (Kudriashova, 49) Although there are many differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites but intrinsically they are the same. Both sects have the same views about Islamic fundamentalism. This paper discusses the differences and the similarities between these two sects proving that as far as Islamic fundamentalism is concerned they are intrinsically the same.


There are two branches of the religion Islam; and they are Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Shi’ites make up about 10% of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. Relationships between the Shias and the Sunnis have been far from easy over the centuries to say the least. Now this interjection of fundamentalist/non-fundamentalist dichotomy might create a four fold sectarianism: the Shia fundamentalists and the Shia non-fundamentalists; the Sunni fundamentalists and the Sunni non-fundamentalists. Should this differentiation be allowed to take root in modern Islam, it would be an artifact of the West and not due to any intrinsic reasons within the community of Islam itself. Those who have been labelled as Islamic fundamentalists include the Sunni Ikhwan al Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) of Egypt, the Shia government of post revolution Iran, the Sunni Jamaat Islami (Islamic Party) of Pakistan, the Shia activists of southern Lebanon, and the Sunni Afghan Mujahideen. (Burrell, 86) Not to mention those convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 or the rock throwing children in Palestine; even such apolitical groups as the Jamaat Tabligh of Pakistan and the Salafi factions in Saudi Arabia are not spared of this label. It seems that whosoever in the Muslim world evokes the name of Islam outside of the mosques is liable to be called Islamic fundamentalist. Consequently, whenever and wherever a Muslim group is fighting for its survival or its constitutional and basic human rights, whether in Algeria, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Kashmir, in Mindanao or in Bosnia, has been called Islamic fundamentalist – even by Radovan Karadizc, the now notoriously famous mass murderer and ethnic cleanser of Bosnia and Hertzegovina.

There is little difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites when it comes to basic rituals like prayer and fasting. But fundamentalist Sunnis, like the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia, label Shi’ite practices such as treating dead religious figures like saints as blasphemous. The Sunni branch believes that the first four caliphs–Mohammed’s successors–rightfully took his place as the leaders of Muslims. They recognize the heirs of the four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. (Safwat, 36) These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War. Shiites, in contrast, believe that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. In 931 the Twelfth Imam disappeared. This was a seminal event in the history of Shiite Muslims. According to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, “Shiite Muslims, who are concentrated in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, [believe they] had suffered the loss of divinely guided political leadership” at the time of the Imam’s disappearance. Not “until the ascendancy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1978” did they believe that they had once again begun to live under the authority of a legitimate religious figure.

Representatives of the radical wing of Sunni “early fundamentalism” (the most outstanding among them were ibn Hanbal, ibn Hazm, ibn Taymayah, and ‘Abd al-Wahhaab) created the prototype of active Islamic political behavior. The following features should be regarded as the main parameters of this model: militancy and jihad in protecting Islam; the combination of the fundamentalist idea with an active political position; the willingness to challenge religious and political power and to make sacrifices in the name of Islam. For their part, the reformers (Jamal ad-Din al-Afghaani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, ‘Abd ar-Rahman al-Kawakibi, and others) prepared Muslim minds to perceive Islam’s sociopolitical dynamism and strengthened their faith in its capacity to overcome its temporary decline and to resist foreign domination. (Norman, 121) Thus, the emergence of modern Islamic fundamentalism was caused by a combination of several historical, ideological, and cultural factors, although the erosion of traditions and the emergence of new expectations connected with independence and nationalism served as a catalyst. The key tenets of Sunni fundamentalist doctrine were developed in the 1950s–60s by an Egyptian, Syed Kutb (1906–1966), who relied on certain theoretical principles formulated by a Pakistani, Abul A’la al-Maududi (1903–1979). Since the second half of the 1970s a massive penetration of fundamentalist ideas into collective political practice has begun, and the most important goal of the Islamic ideal’s adherents has become not saving Muslims from stagnation, but rather restoring Islam as the basis of national identity.   (George, 47)

The age of the great empires (Ottoman, Safavid, Mongol) was extended in the Islamic world from the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries. During that period problems involving the coexistence of various trends and political loyalty within Islam were solved in different ways depending on the specific political situation. When a nation-state was formed, the new interpretation of Islam came to be perceived as a lack of political loyalty, while official Islam was turned into a powerful means to defend the nation-state. Sunni fundamentalists responded to this by accusing both the ruling elite and the official clergy of corruption. The Shiite forces opposed to the shah declared that he did not guarantee the right of the clergy to represent Islam and had therefore lost his legitimacy. In both cases, the borrowing of religious resources strengthened opposition to the government. (Choueiri, 178) The paradox is that the fundamentalists themselves could succeed only by using the modern government apparatus to achieve their goals. The Shiite mullahs who came to power in Iran in 1979 were fundamentalists and modernists at the same time.

The example of Iran, as an indirect manifestation of fundamentalist consciousness in political discourse, shows its capacity for theoretical reflection, development, and mastery of new types of political interaction at the national and world levels. Economic and financial changes naturally play a certain role here, as does mastery of modern communications and technologies (for example, the nuclear project in Bushehr), which change behavior by supplying new motivations.

The fundamentalist idea plays an ambivalent role. Especially in its radical form, this idea contains both constructive and destructive aspects. Fundamentalists often do not distinguish between the personal and the social, between the individual and the community, and between the rational and the irrational, but they can contrast these elements in such a way that the individual and the private do not disappear completely, so that politics preserves a certain autonomy with regard to the religious sphere (or the religious sphere with regard to the political one).  (Zubaida, 192) They often control the nature of the discourse or activity in the public sphere, and in the process they can develop reformist tendencies or even modernize (which, as noted above, usually happens in response to a new national area of responsibility). The results of implementing what at first seemed to be utopian projects significantly differ from the ideal. Moreover, the greater a project’s scope and the longer its practical life, the more obvious are such deviations; if a project survives, it is capable of evolution.

Therefore, it is legitimate to regard legal fundamentalism as one element in national development. The fundamentalist model is more than a utopia, because it objectively influences the search for a rational path of development and the creation of normative models for humanity’s future. It is possible to realize the scale of this function of fundamentalist models only within the framework of a different worldview, in which the world is perceived not as a multitude of objects and contradictions between them but rather as an integral system. (Burrell, 90)

To interpret various political spaces and traditional and transient societies correctly, one clearly needs a broader application of categories of political consciousness and political culture and an introduction into political analysis of concepts of justice and equality, which, according to Immanuel Wallerstein, determine the vector of human development. Talking about the existence of the next world does not mean only that in addition to earthly life there is another world as well. It means to evaluate life by applying not only everyday criteria (status or wealth) but also the criteria of eternal life. The fundamentalist idea is also, however, no less important as a utopia. It gives life a different existential meaning and helps us understand the interests and problems of the type of mind it represents while linking it to a different chronotope.


Despite all the differences between Shi’ite and Sunni fundamentalism, all fundamentalists share certain common features. These features include a sense of being the “only righteous men left,” adherence to traditional (usually minority) interpretations of sacred texts and values, membership in a special ideological community that relies on a language unique to the initiated (a special vocabulary that strengthens the identity of the group). (Norman, 124) Often such groups set themselves up in opposition to the ruling ethical system and include members and supporters of peripheral elites. The overwhelming majority of those who join fundamentalist movements are men (women are co-opted as “preservers of the domestic hearth”).  Pure, abstract fundamentalism is unlikely to win a political victory in the long term: either it will be replaced or it will change. But fundamentalism can succeed even if it is defeated in the political sphere. In the postindustrial area it is capable of challenging modernism on the basis of its spiritual mandate, which reflects the tendency to revive an authentic moral and cultural legacy and without which it is not possible to move forward. If one is to make a contribution to a new vision of the world, it is probably necessary to find oneself first.

Looking at the above discussed definitions and details of Islamic fundamentalism it shows that Sunni and Shi’ite, both are intrinsically the same however, they have some beliefs which are different.

Works Cited

Burrell. R M Islamic Fundamentalism: Royal Asiatic Society Seminar Papers (1) London: Royal Asiatic Society. 1989. pg 86-91..

Choueiri, Youssef M. Islamic Fundamentalism. London: Pinter Publishers. 178.

George, L. Fundamentalism nd American Culture. 2000 (New York, Oxford University Press). Pg 45-49.

Kudriashova, Irina V. Fundamentalism in the Modern World. Russian Social Science Review, vol. 44, no. 3, 2003,  ISSN 1061–1428, pp. 41–62.

Norman, K. The Fundamentalist Controversy. 2003 (Hamden, Connecticut. Archeon Books). Pg 121-124.

Safwat, Safia. Islamic Fundamentalism: a debate on the role of Islam today London: Institute for African Alternatives.1989. pg 36.

Tapper, Richard,. Islamic Fundamentalism: Royal Asiatic Society Seminar Papers/ Islamic Fundamentalism: a debate on the role of Islam today/ Islamic Fundamentalism.  Third World Quarterly, 01436597, 2002, Vol. 13, Issue 1, pg 23-29.

Zubaida, Sami. Islam, the People and the State: essays on political ideas and movements in the Middle East London: Routledge. 1998. pg 192.