Islamic fundamentalism

The philosophical roots of Islamic fundamentalism are largely the result of a conscious attempt to revive and restate the theoretical relevance of Islam in the modern world. The writings of three twentieth-century Muslim thinkers and activists - Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khumayni and Abu al-'Ala al-Mawdudi - provide authoritative guidelines delineating the philosophical discourse of Islamic fundamentalism. However, whereas al-Khumayni and al-Mawdudi made original contributions towards formulating a new Islamic political theory, it was Qutb who offered a coherent exposition of Islam as a philosophical system.

Qutb's philosophical system postulated a qualitative contradiction between Western culture and the religion of Islam. Its emphasis on Islam as a sui generis and transcendental set of beliefs excluded the validity of all other values and concepts. It also marked the differences between the doctrinal foundations of Islam and modern philosophical currents. Consequently Islamic fundamentalism is opposed to the Enlightenment, secularism, democracy, nationalism, Marxism and relativism. Its most original contribution resides in the formulation of the concept of God's sovereignty or lordship. This concept is the keystone of its philosophical structure.

The premises of Islamic fundamentalism are rooted in an essentialist world view whereby innate qualities and attributes apply to individuals and human societies, irrespective of time, historical change or political circumstances. Hence, an immutable substance governs human existence and determines its outward movement.

  1. Essentialism and dualism
  2. The fundamental principles of Islam
  3. Islam's attributes
  4. Knowledge, causation and faith

1. Essentialism and dualism

Paganism (jahiliyya) is the generic designation given to all systems of thought other than Islam, both ancient and modern. According to Islamic fundamentalism, since the dawn of history human society has been a battleground between belief and unbelief, right and wrong, religious faith and idolatry. Individuals and their beliefs may carry different names in different ages, but this duality remains essentially the same.

The definition of paganism is thus stretched to encompass Greek philosophy in the ancient world as well as utilitarianism and existentialism in the modern age. To Sayyid Qutb, for example, paganism is deemed to be present wherever 'people's hearts are devoid of a divine doctrine that governs their thought and concomitant legal rules to regulate their lives' (Qutb 1982: 510). Moreover, although outward manifestations may differ from age to age, the nature and attributes of paganism remain permanent. On the other hand, religion operates throughout the ages within constant perimeters, rotating around a fixed axis. Furthermore, religion and the cosmic order reflect God's will in its harmonious design (see Cosmology).

In this scheme of things, human nature and the cosmos are substances which retain their identities while undergoing change. A substance generates properties and assigns them a function peculiar to their qualities. Properties inhere in substances and are dependent for their existence and persistence on them. Such properties are not incidental, but form an identifiable structure quite distinct from other structures. These properties are therefore not transferable, in that once transferred they lose their function or significance (see Substance).

According to Islamic fundamentalism, the essential nature of human beings is religious and atheism is an aberration. Throughout human history there have been only two methods of organizing human life: one that declares God to be the sole sovereign and source of legislation, and another that rejects God, either as a force in the universe or as the lord and administrator of society. These two methods are irreconcilable: the first denotes Islam, the second paganism. Once human beings accept legislation to be dependent on the will of an individual, a minority or a majority, and not as the prerogative of God alone, they lapse into a type of paganism, be it a dictatorship, capitalism, theocracy or communism.

However, human history is an emanation of a doctrinal concept that is implanted by God in human beings in their capacity as his designated lieutenants on this earth. The lieutenancy (khilafa) of a human being is to carry out the commands of God. According to this line of reasoning, most human societies in the twentieth century resemble in their way of life the state of affairs that existed before the rise of Islam. In order to re-establish Islam as a system of government, it is thus of primary importance to discover anew the fundamental constituents of its doctrine. Such an honourable task falls to a well-disciplined group of believers. These pioneers, dubbed 'the vanguard' by Qutb, 'the Revolutionary Party' by Abu al-'Ala al-Mawdudi and 'the holy warriors' by Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khumayni, are called upon to undertake the reinstatement of Islam in both its doctrinal and political dimensions. The method of struggle is often referred to as jihad, or holy war launched in the path of God.

2. The fundamental principles of Islam

The fundamental principles of Islam and the injunctions of its laws are one seamless garment woven by God for his creatures. Whereas Greek thought, particularly Aristotelian thought, asserted that we are political animals by nature, Islamic fundamentalism contends that the basic instinct of human beings is intrinsically religious. Religion is understood in this context to be Islam itself (see Islamic theology).

Islam has its own constant, immutable and clearly defined nature. Its underlying aim is to change the process of history and create a new human being, unfettered by subservience to other human beings or institutions. To be a Muslim is to believe in the fundamental principles of Islam in their entirety. Moreover, the doctrinal principles of Islam are not to be studied theologically, metaphysically or philosophically. Their study is primarily a practical endeavour aimed at discovering the base on which an all-embracing system is to be erected for the benefit of humanity. Theory and praxis go hand in hand; knowledge is simply a prelude to social action and political engagement.

For Qutb, al-Mawdudi and al-Khumayni, the doctrine of Islam forms an organic unity. A description of its constituent parts is therefore a mere analytical device, which should under all circumstances indicate the interdependence and complementarity of these parts. Once a part is detached and treated on its own it loses its significance, depriving the harmonious totality of its beauty and truth. The true nature of divinity, for example, cannot be understood apart from its direct efficacy in regulating the movement of the universe and in all its physical and spiritual connotations. Thus God's divinity ensures the harmonious essence of cosmic laws: God sustains, guards and regulates the universe according to fixed laws. Nevertheless, his absolute will fashions every movement or event without being bound by them. These laws are not self-regulatory in that they persist as a result of the immediate act of God, and are thus created anew every moment. The world was created in time, a fact denoting a temporal beginning rather than an eternal existence.

In classical Islam, God's attributes were enumerated and discussed by a number of theologians and philosophers, but his essence was deemed to lie beyond human knowledge. Islamic fundamentalism, as represented by Qutb's system, shifted the debate to Islam's essence and attributes. Hence the fundamental principles of Islam were considered by Qutb to consist in their delineation of God's divinity as well as human servitude in carrying out the tenets of the message as handed down to the seal of the prophets, Muhammad. These fundamentals spell out God's divinity (uluhiyya) and the servitude of animate and inanimate objects to God ('ubudiyya), in addition to the true essence of the cosmos, life and humanity (see God, concepts of). Moreover, the visible and invisible worlds are both an integral part of this doctrine and should be present in treating the vicissitudes of human existence.

These fundamentals are not the result of an exertion by the human mind. Rather, the human mind receives them in their entirety once it is freed of its a priori conceptions. One does so by adhering to the sound linguistic or conventional meaning of the text in which such principles are propounded. The human mind has no function other than to understand the exact meaning of the text, irrespective of its conformity to the axioms of reason. Hence, one must accept the existence of angels, jinns, resurrection, hell and paradise without equivocation.

According to Qutb, the principle of divinity is the primary and most efficacious essence in the formation of the Islamic doctrine. The existence of such an essence, being absolute and eternal, does not stand in need of external evidence. The innate nature of human beings recognizes this existence, unless it is encumbered by corrupt beliefs that render it incapable of receiving this single fact. Furthermore, the methodology of the Qur'an itself is not concerned with affirming the existence of divine power. Rather, it concentrates on describing its true quality in order to rectify the distorted views of other creeds. This rectification is not confined to distortions which prevailed before the rise of Islam; its scope covers all deviant beliefs down to the present. It thus shows the aberrance or the negativity of Aristotle's God (see Aristotle §16), that of Plato's Forms and their adoption in Schopenhauer's unconscious will (see Plato; Schopenhauer, A.), and the series of emanations elaborated by Plotinus and taken over by so-called Islamic philosophy (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy). It also rectifies the dualism of Descartes as well as Bergson's vital power (see Bergson, H.-L. §7), in addition to the materialism of Parmenides in the ancient world and that of Karl Marx in our modern period (see Materialism). The Qur'anic methodology is first and foremost concerned with the question of monotheism rather than existence (see Monotheism). Its main aim is to show the simple, indivisible and unique essence of God; it also asserts the attributes of God in their utter uniqueness and splendour.

3. Islam's attributes

Whereas orthodox Islamic philosophy and theology ('ilm al-kalam) were largely concerned with defining and elaborating God's attributes, Islamic fundamentalism shifted its focus to the attributes of Islam itself. In other words, Islam became a substantive quality with certain characteristics which could rival in their structures and functions other modern ideologies, such as fascism and Marxism. This is not to say that the divine attributes were ignored, but their significance was made a function of the predicative characteristics of a new Islamic theory.

It is well known that in mainstream Islamic theology, as propounded in the tenth century ad by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, only those attributes denoting God's acts are considered to lie within human knowledge (see Islamic theology §§2-3; Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila §1). These acts were held by al-Ash'ari to be seven in number. It is in this context that Qutb's doctrinal work, Khasa'is al-tasawwur al-islami (The Characteristics of the Islamic Conception), gains in significance. Although Qutb contended that Islamic theology and philosophy were outdated modes of knowledge, tainted by their reliance on categories derived from classical Greek thought, he aspired to inaugurate a new Islamic vision using an amalgamation of ancient and modern ideas. He claimed, for example, that his new interpretation consisted of a direct act of understanding the Qur'an. This receptivity is said to be unmediated and based on an immediate grasp of Qur'anic verses.

However, Qutb's binary division of Islam into 'characteristics' and 'fundamentals' is reminiscent of orthodox debates on the essence and attributes of God. It is also worth mentioning that in enumerating the characteristics of Islam, Qutb devised a new list which nevertheless, in a manner reminiscent of al-Ash'ari, included seven attributes: lordship, constancy, comprehensiveness, balance, positivity, realism and absolute unity or monotheism. These attributes of Islam emanate from God's will and specify certain rules and modes of behaviour incumbent on all believers.

4. Knowledge, causation and faith

In Islamic fundamentalism, the affinity between philosophy and natural science, an axiom of classical and medieval thought (see Natural philosophy, medieval), is ruptured and deemed to be unwarranted. Scientific knowledge is then confined to technical details and superficial alterations, a fact that renders its concepts temporary, relative and liable to change. Science is linked with experimental knowledge rather than the discovery of underlying principles.

Islam continues to be credited with stimulating the promotion of experimental methodologies that were appropriated by European scholars after the Renaissance. Nevertheless, Islamic fundamentalism, while placing the Qur'an outside the scope of modern science and philosophical debates, persists in alluding to the shortcomings of Western theories and trends of thought. Qutb, for example, highlights the fact that life itself is not inherent in the nature of matter or the universe (see Life, origin of); rather, it was infused by God into dead substances. This statement allows him to refute Darwin's theory of evolution in so far as it leaves aside supernatural factors in explaining the emergence of living beings (See Darwin, C.R.). He also calls Karl Marx's interpretation of social progress by means of purely economic laws an arbitrary idea; so also is Bergson's concept of life as a willed or vital creation (see Marx, K. §8; Bergson, H-L. §7).

While Islamic fundamentalism rejects the atomist theory of orthodox Muslim theologians, it retains the idea of God as the real cause of events (see Islamic theology). Thus the connection between a cause and its effect is assumed to be the result of God's action. The metaphor used by al-Ghazali to show that combustibility, in the case of a flame coming into contact with a piece of cotton, has no other cause but God, is reiterated by Qutb. A piece of cotton is not set alight because of an act performed by a flame, but as a result of God's will to render the piece of cotton combustible. Moreover, God may decide to suspend the common course of nature, and miracles occur as an indication of the divine interruption of fixed laws. Such a miracle, Qutb points out, is mentioned in the Qur'an in relation to Abraham when a burning flame failed to set him alight. It is for this reason that the use of empirical evidence in order to demonstrate causality becomes an arbitrary human construct.

See also: Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila; Causality and necessity in Islamic thought; al-Ghazali; Islamic philosophy, modern; Islamic theology; Monotheism

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Choueiri, Y.M. (1990) Islamic Fundamentalism, London: Pinter Publishers; 2nd revised edn, London and Washington, DC: Cassell-Pinter, 1997. (An essential guide to the philosophical and political discourse of al-Mawdudi, al-Khumayni and Qutb.)

al-Khumayni, Imam R. (1981) Islam and Revolution, trans. and annotated H. Algar, Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press. (An essential collection of articles, essays and speeches outlining the theoretical and political background to Khumayni's contribution.)

al-Mawdudi, S. (1932) Towards Understanding Islam, Beirut: The Holy Koran Publishing House, 1980. (A succinct exposition of the theoretical foundations of Islamic fundamentalism. The work was originally published in Urdu under the title Risala-e-Diniyat.)

Qutb, S. (1978) Ma'alim fi al-tariq (Milestones), Beirut: The Holy Koran Publishing House. (One of the most powerful accounts of the doctrine of Islamic fundamentalism.)

* em2;__ (1980) Khasa'is al-tasawwur al-islami (The Characteristics of the Islamic Conception), Beirut: Dar al-Shuruq. (One of the most comprehensive accounts of the theoretical assumptions of Islamic fundamentalism.)

* em2;__ (1982) Fi zilal al-Qur'an (Under the Aegis of the Qur'an), Beirut: Dar al-Shuruq, vol. 1: 510. (This work forms part of a multi-volume exegesis that is considered the essential theoretical work on modern Islamic fundamentalism.)

em2;__ (1986) Muqawimat al-tasawwur al-islami (Foundations of the Islamic Conception), Beirut: Dar al-Shuruq. (An indispensable work on the philosophy of Islamic fundamentalism.)

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