Scholar’s corner: where does Islamic fundamentalism stem from?

An example of ISIS graffiti in France. Credit: Thierry Ehrmann

Dr. Imam Mamadou Bocoum is a holder of two Masters and a PhD from The Muslim College, and Heythrop College, University of London. He is a lecturer in Islamic Studies; a Board member of the Muslim Law Council UK and an interfaith consultant. He is currently a consultant at Faith Matters and Tell Mama.

Mamadou has authored a number of written works which have included: The Position of Jews and Christians in the Qur’an; Faith and Citizenship in Islam; The status of Women in Islam; Islamic Fundamentalism and the Qur’an. He can be reached at;

While delivering a talk on ‘extremism in the religion of Islam’, an audience member shouted: “Bush, Blair and Bin Laden are all f——s”. I pretended that I had not heard but this was to no avail as the same individual shouted again – but this time in a louder tone – “All of them are f——s”.  The heckler’s pronunciation was rather difficult to interpret (like mine!) and I thought that he meant the offensive six-letter designation. It proved a great relief when someone clarified that the ‘f word’ was fundamentalist. I then responded that besides sharing initial ‘B’ in their respective family names, they also appear to like using the word ‘hate’.

I was referring to the fact that according to Tony Blair, Muslim fundamentalists “Both hate our way of life, our freedom, our democracy”. George W. Bush held a similar view when he was questioned during a press conference. Of course anyone following the news would not have missed Osama Bin Laden’s infamous ‘letter to America’. All three are quite strong in what they believe and a clash is inevitable – not Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ but rather what Tariq Ali calls the ‘Clash of Fundamentalisms’. Many attending the talk nodded their heads in agreement about the existence of Muslims fundamentalists; some agreed; but considered western foreign policy ‘the breeding ground’.

Western foreign policy does to a certain extent explain the current rise in violent Islamic fundamentalism. A denial of this amounts to ignorance. Yet, the willingness and determination to take one’s own life and that of many innocents in such a barbaric fashion including James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Lee Rigby (and countless others), cannot be attributed solely to western foreign policy.

The fact that the perpetrators expect an abundant reward should not be ignored. Sadly, that belief derives from reading the Qur’an through the lens of fundamentalism. The reading of the Qur’an and its tradition, I said in my talk, are at the heart of the matter. I was not surprised to witness angry reactions and denial on the part of those who sought to oppose the view that the Qur’an and its traditions could inspire violent fundamentalists. From the background of this denial – shared by many Muslims – which I wish to explore in order to show that literal and selective readings of the Qur’an can result in devastating misinterpretation of the scripture.

A word about fundamentalism 

It is quite remarkable to note that fundamentalism, in a religious sense, did not enter the lexicon until the early part of the twentieth century. One may find it astonishing to learn that the word originated from the United States of America.

We are reminded by Malise Ruthven that the concept of fundamentalism was first coined by two devoted Christian brothers, Milton and Lyman Stewart, who in 1910 ‘embarked on a five-year programme of sponsorship for a series of pamphlets which were sent free of charge to English-speaking Protestant pastors, evangelists, missionaries, theological professors, theological students, YMCA secretaries, Sunday School superintendents, religious lay workers, and editors of religious publications throughout the world’. The title of this booklet was ‘The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth’ and one of its aims was to preach the ‘inerrancy of the Bible’. Ruthven admits that there may not be one single definition of the word which ‘will never be uncontested’; but agrees that the word ‘originated in the unique context of American religious pluralism and the separation of church and state’. According to Jay M. Harris, ‘The word fundamentalism has come to imply an orientation to the world that is anti-intellectual, bigoted, and intolerant’. Harris went on to say that fundamentalism is also ‘applied to those whose life-style and politics are unacceptable to modern, Western eyes and, most particularly to those who would break down the barrier we have erected [in America] between church and state’.

Hence in the context of today’s theological polarisations, it may be salutary to find that neither the word nor the concept of fundamentalism emerged from Islam but rather from literalist Christians in the United States.  These superficial polarisations sometimes give rise to distorted extremist views such as those of a Christian group in Florida called the ‘New Testament Church’ who sought to burn copies of the Qur’an.

Islamic fundamentalism

In Arabic, fundamentalist translates as ‘usuli’ – someone ‘who relies on the fundamentals or basics of something’. If one is to apply this definition to Islam, then all Muslims are by definition fundamentalists, because all Muslims believe in the fundamental teaching of the Qur’an. Similarly, there are some Christian groups in the U.S. and elsewhere who are ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense of believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. But if this ‘fundamentalism’ extends towards violence, the concept acquires a more sinister significance; and we can say that there are many Muslim groups who can justifiably fall under this umbrella.

Many scholars label the Wahhabi movement of the eighteenth century as the first strain of fundamentalism but this is a bit unfair on the moment. Islamic groups who interpreted the Qur’an literally and employed violence go back as far as the seventh century. A few decades the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Khawarij (or the Kharijites) emerged with an extreme approach to the Qur’an. Fazlur Rahman argues that the Kharijites were responsible for the ‘first active schism in Islam’ and their interpretation of the Qur’an was ‘extremely strict’.

The Kharijites considered if any Muslim who ‘commits a grave wrong, without due repentance, he/she ceases to have faith and becomes an infidel and shall burn eternally in the hell fire’. The Kharijites went further in their extreme interpretation of the Qur’an by arguing that anyone who does not adhere to their doctrines is the infidel who must be fought. It is interesting to note here that the Kharijites were not fighting non-Muslims but other Muslims; and they found the justification from the Qur’an.  Not only that, the Kharijites added jihad to the pillars of Islam, making six instead of five. Richard Bonney noted ‘Many of them were Qur’anic fundamentalists. They used an expurgated Qur’an without chapter 12; they were also exclusivists, who believed that they were the only true Muslims’. It would prove hypocritical to disassociate their actions from their direct reading and understanding of the Qur’an. Many modern militant Islamic groups (including ISIS) adopted and advocated the same ‘procedure’ as the one adapted by the Kharijites.

A word about the Qur’an

In his acclaimed work, ‘Anthology of Islamic Literature’, James Kritzeck highlights the way in which intelligent people can hold different opinions about the Qur’an.[23] Kritzeck quotes M. Pickthall, who described the Qur’an as a book that moves men to tears and ecstasy; while Thomas Carlyle for his part considered the same Qur’an as ‘As tedious a piece of reading [and] a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite’.[24]  Both descriptions can be justified, of course, depending on the reader’s interpretation.

One fact, however, is certain: the lives of over a billion Muslims are guided by the Qur’an. The Qur’an for Muslims, as Abdullah Saeed puts it, is ‘The Word of God and remains the prime source of authority for Islam’s ethical and legal systems. Muslims make consistent efforts to relate it to their contemporary concerns and needs”.[25] The Qur’an states on several occasions that it is the source of guidance and the light, and that Muslims ought to act according to its teaching.  Moreover, Muslims consider the Qur’an to be the literal word of God. That literal meaning is at the heart of the Islamic faith.  To this, Farid Esack noted: “For Muslims the Qur’an as the compilation of the ‘Speech of God’ does not refer to a book inspired or influenced by Him or written under the guidance of His spirit. Rather, it is viewed as His direct speech’.

In the ninth century, the Mutazilites, a Muslim group known to the West as the ‘rationalists’, argued that the Qur’an was not the word of God but rather a part of God’s creation. Supported by the state at the time, they gained a considerable number of adherents and sadly persecuted those who refused to support their view. Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, the founder of one of the four most famous Islamic schools of thought, earned his fame during this time because of his refusal to adhere to the Mutazilites’ doctrine and his subsequent imprisonment. In his refusal he argued that the Qur’an was not created or part of God’s creation but rather the very literal word of God – ‘kalamu al- Allah’.

This period occupied a central point in the history of Islamic theology and played a vital part in shaping the minds of many Muslim exegeses over the coming generations.  It is interesting to note that this debate took place among Muslims and the very nature of the Qur’an was at the centre of the debate. The Qur’an was questioned rigorously and yet no person labeled his opponent an ‘infidel’.

Sadly though, today any Muslim who attempts to question the nature of the Qur’an is denigrated and the non-Muslim is seen as anti-Islam. I personally believe that this episode and the heated debates it generated need to be revisited if Muslims are to find a practical and meaningful interpretation of the Qur’an.

Qur’anic Interpretation

The Qur’an refers to itself as ‘kitab’ (Book) and sometimes as a ‘kalimah’ or ‘kalimat’ (word or words). To some Muslim scholars this indicates that the Qur’an is a spoken word coming from God to the Prophet Muhammad. The spoken words were in Arabic because Muhammad himself spoke Arabic. This was not a new aspect of the process of revelation because the Qur’an itself reports that God spoke to people in their own language (Q.14:4). Hence if Muhammad was English, God would address him in English.

Muhammad did not interpret all the words of the Qur’an to his companions before his death; and this opens the door for Muslims to grasp the meaning of the Qur’an. There are two terms that are used in the process of the interpretation: ‘tafsir’ and ‘t’awil’. ‘Tafsir’ is commonly agreed amongst the vast majority of the Muslim scholars to mean literally the science of the interpretation of Qur’anic verses. ‘T’awil’ linguistically speaking means ‘return’ – going back to the source or returning to the origin of something. Edward Lane further interprets the meaning as ‘discovering, detecting, revealing, developing, disclosing, explaining, expounding or interpreting; that to which a thing is, or may be, reduced, or that which it comes, or may come, to be”. Both tafsir and t’awil, according to Seed, are synonymous with explanations of Qur’anic verses. Beside tafsir and t’awil there are two widely advocated approaches when commentating on the Qur’an. The first is a ‘tafsir bi al-ma’thur’ interpretation, based on traditions or text. In other words, this form of interpretation means that any verse should be interpreted solely on the basis of other Qur’anic verses or traditions. The second approach is the ‘tafsir bi al ray’ interpretation based on reason – or what Neal Robinson calls “exegesis on the basis of informed opinion”.

Today, Muslim communities rely upon traditional interpretations of the Qur’an.  This arguably amounts to nothing but ‘taglid’, which means blind following. Adopting this interpretation without questioning the circumstances in which these interpretations were made is a dangerous approach.

The Qur’an, as Professor A. Haleem reminds us, “alludes to events without giving their historical background. Those who heard the Qur’an at the time of its revelation were fully aware of the circumstances”. Not every companion of Muhammad truly understood the meaning of some Qur’anic verses. Instead, many companions came to Muhammad to seek explanation.  To understand the occasions of the revelation was vital not only during the time of Muhammad as ‘later generations of Muslims had [also] to rely on the body of literature explaining the circumstances of revelations (asbab al-nuzul’) in order to be able to interpret any verse’.

Otherwise it would be a grotesque mistake for any Muslim to apply a Qur’anic verse without knowing the circumstances in which these verses were revealed, for the content and style of the Qur’anic verses are frequently complex.

The Qur’anic verses most used by fundamentalists

It would be helpful to quote Milan Rai at length. A fundamentalist group, the latter said, ‘invites converts to undertake their own personal, literal reading of holy texts. As many scholars have noted ‘‘fundamentalists are rebels against their religious establishments’’. Previous authorities, theologians, and clerics can be set aside, and what is claimed to be a ‘pure’ version of the faith can be directly gleaned from the Holy Book. However, the ‘traditions’ that fundamentalists appeal to ‘‘are no more self-evident and uncontested than their scriptures’’.

Muslim fundamentalists have a unique and alarming way of reading Qur’anic scripture, which can be summarised as follows:  Islam is the only true religion; only the teachings of the Qur’an ought to be followed; anyone who refuses to follow Islam should be fought; Muslims should not take Jews and Christians as friends; the whole world should convert to Islam and any Muslim, wherever he/she is, has a religious obligation to participate in this cause.

Exclusiveness of Islam  

There are a few Qur’anic verses which, if interpreted literally, lend support beyond any reasonable doubt to fundamentalists. Some popular choices include: ‘The only true religion with God is Islam’ (Q.3:19). The Qur’an reads further: ‘Whoever seeks any religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers’ (Q.3:86). ‘This day, I have perfected your religion for you, and completed my favour upon you, and chosen for you Islam as your religion’ (Q. 5:4).

Muslim fundamentalists see the above-quoted verses as instructions to reject anyone who is non-Muslim. They also hold the belief that both Christians and Jews have religious obligations to convert to Islam. A refusal to do so puts them among the losers.

Jews and Christians as ‘enemies of Islam’

In the Qur’an, both Jews and Christians are referred to as ‘ahl al-kitab’ (People of the Book). By referring to them as ‘People of the Book,’ the Qur’an indicates their divinity. For Muslim fundamentalists, however, Muslims should disassociate from Christians and Jews. Jews and Christians ‘are enemies of Islam’ and Muslims should not take them as friends. In contrast, the Qur’an reads:

‘O you, who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, God guides not the wrongdoing people’ (Q.5:51).

For the Muslim fundamentalist, there is no difference between Jews, Christians and the ‘mushrikun’ (polytheists) because none of them would want to see anything good happening to Muslims. They quote the Qur’an: ‘neither those who disbelieve among the people of the Scripture: Jews and Christians, nor ‘mushrikun’ like that there should be sent down to you any good from your Lord’ (Q. 2:105).

‘Fight and kill them’

The most worrying aspect of this fundamentalist reading is the belief that whoever rejects Islam ought to be a target. Here again they quote the Qur’an selectively without taking into consideration the occasions of the revelation. A Qur’anic verse reads: “Kill them whenever you find them”. And the Qur’an went on to say in the same chapter frequently quoted by fundamentalists: ‘And fight them until there is no more ‘fitnah’ (disbelief) and worship is for God alone’ (Q. 2:193). ‘And fight them until there is no more fitnah and until the religion will all be for Allah alone’ (Q. 8:39).

One particular chapter both fundamentalists and those who seek to vilify Islam are fond of is the so-called ‘sword chapter’, which is chapter 9 of the Qur’an. From this chapter the following verses are most frequently quoted: ‘Then when the Sacred Months have passed, then kill the mushrikun wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every ambush’(Q. 9:5). The same chapter goes on to say: ‘Fight against those who believe not in God, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by God and His Messenger [Muhammad] and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth among the people of the Scripture, until they pay Jizyah[tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued’ (Q. 9:29).

The Qur’an also reads, ‘And those who disbelieve are allies of one another, (and) if you (Muslims) do not ally to make victorious God’s religion [Islam], there will be fitnah (polytheism) and oppression on the earth, and great mischief and corruption’ (Q. 8:73).  Moreover, fundamentalists consider any Muslim who attempts to disunite the Muslims or to prevent them from achieving unity as an enemy of Islam who ought to be killed.

“The problem of Islam is nothing but a lack of authority.  Had you Muslims had a pontiff as we Christians do, many problems would not have occurred”, my devoted friend once told me. The tone of his voice – which was accompanied by both sadness and a sense of guilt – still resonates. Sadness because we were just attending a commemoration of the victims of the London 7/7 bombings; guilt because he felt that many good Muslims who are law-abiding citizens are being treated as terrorists.

In fairness, only those who are ill-informed put all Muslims in one basket. But concerning Islam’s lack of central authority, my friend is not the only one in his views. Many people, including Muslim scholars, consider Islam’s lack of authority to be the root cause of the problems within the Islamic faith.

However, I neither accede to this argument nor do I believe the institution of a pontiff corrected the problems facing Christianity. In Islam, God is the sole and divine authority; whose absence is represented by texts. Every knowledgeable person can interpret the texts if a range of principles are met. The spirit and the wisdom of the texts are at the heart of these principles and need to be held at maximum by anyone seeking to interpret them correctly.

In his remarkable book, Abdullah Saeed reminds us of the three levels of the message of the Qur’an: (1) language and utterance (2) letters and writing (3) spirit and meaning. The spirit of the Qur’an is nothing but God who is mentioned 2,692 times in the Quran. The characteristic of the God of the Qur’an is nothing but of mercy. Hence why it is not by coincidence that all Qur’anic chapters (except one) begin with: ‘In the name of God the most Merciful and the Compassionate’ (Q.1:1). The Qur’an also informs us that the mercy of God ‘embraces all things’ (Q.7: 155).

Far away from both its spirit or wisdom, Muslim fundamentalists focus on the language of the Qur’an, paying no attention to the circumstances in which these words were mentioned and focusing on ‘fighting’, ‘killing’ and ‘jihad’ or ‘holy war’. So eager to pursue violence they ignore the fact that the concept of ‘holy war’ does not appear in the Qur’an.

In Islam, a war is either just or unjust but never ‘holy’ as it was known in medieval Christendom. So eager are they to convert people to Islam (by force or otherwise) that Muslim fundamentalists ignore the Qur’anic statement that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (Q. 2:256). Furthermore, they are ignorant of the fact that throughout the history of Islam, Muhammad never forced or fought any war with the aim of converting people to Islam. Muhammad repeatedly said that his duty was to convey the message and that it was up to the person to decide; and conversion is God’s responsibility (Q. 10:99).

In spite of the above, does the Qur’an still provide the ‘breeding ground’ for Islamic fundamentalism? The answer is not straightforward. However, western Muslims can play an important part in restoring the revealed truth of the Qur’an through careful and thorough interpretation of the verses. An example of such a contribution would be investment in the production of a new printed Qur’ans – and here I must emphasise that I am not asking for a ‘new Qur’an’ but rather a new form of printing and formatting that would reflect universal values.

In this newly printed Qur’an, accompanying footnotes for verses dealing with the issues highlighted would help clarify both the context and circumstances in which these verses were revealed. It is to be hoped that once this newly printed Qur’an was in full circulation, the position of the fundamentalists would not only be weakened, but those verses that they employ to cause mayhem would in turn be reinterpreted to restore the spiritual and peaceful message of the Qur’an.