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Problems With The Fundamentalist Paradigm

Fundamentalism proved a popular and important idea because it held out the promise of accounting for perceived patterns of thinking and behavior in diverse societies with differing religious and political cultures. Critics of the fundamentalist paradigm, however, saw in the patterns an inherent Western bias that created problems for meaningful comparison. For example, Protestant fundamentalists in the United States defined themselves over and against liberal trends by highlighting their scripturalist views. In the Muslim world, by contrast, the vast majority of Muslims expressed literalist attitudes toward the Koran. In fact, some scholars claimed that Muslim societies were dominated by scripturalist fundamentalism, and that their successful modernization depended on the development of a more liberal interpretive strand in Islam. Hence a supposed comparative characteristic that serves to identify and analyze a faction of the religious population in one context, the United States, loses this capacity in another, the Muslim world.


Founded in Egypt in 1928, some fifty years prior to the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood is considered the premier Sunni Islamist organization in the Muslim world. The writings of its founder, Hassan al-Banna (1905–1949), and its main ideologue, Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), have become standard reading for Muslim activists. Both figures were martyrs to the Islamist cause, killed by an authoritarian state that eliminated sources of authority that it could not easily control. The preaching and activism of the Brotherhood set the stage for a new kind of Muslim reformer, one who engaged society and confronted the state on a broad spectrum of issues. Indeed, through its array of clinics, schools, businesses, and mosques, the Brotherhood tried to create a mini-society that modeled the power of the Islamic alternative to Western-style modernization. This alternative included the rejection of the nation-state as a legitimate form of Muslim political organization, though some scholars believe that the Brotherhood's ultimate goal was to replace secular nationalism with religious nationalism. In either case, the Brotherhood's proposed "Islamic order"—the notion of a society and polity integrated according to Islamic cultural values and ideas—served, and continues to serve, as a challenge to the Western-leaning policies of the Egyptian government.

A similar problem arose with the pattern of a totalizing worldview. Unlike their more civic-minded and secularized fellow citizens, American Protestant fundamentalists may indeed see the private and public spheres as indivisible and necessarily religiously ordered. To speak of the same phenomenon in Muslim societies, however, is to miss the overarching role that religion has come to play in the political process. Certain groups in Muslim societies may be totalizing in their worldview, but the search for cultural authenticity has also led to a basic pattern of politicized religion among all factions. Fundamentalism, then, even if it were deemed to exist in the form of Islamism, is just a small portion of the public Islam that dominates the lives of modern Muslims. And with Islamic ideas and symbols being deployed by so many Muslim citizens with differing political agendas, how can one reasonably highlight a single faction as blending religion and politics in a distinctively different manner? For this reason, some scholars of the Muslim world avoid the term "fundamentalism," preferring instead terms like "Islamic resurgence" (Dessouki) or "Muslim politics" (Eickelman and Piscatori) to capture the multipurpose political ends to which the Islamic tradition has been put.

The above-mentioned descriptors of fundamentalism clearly contained proscriptive judgments about its rational viability. When applied to American Protestantism, totalism and scripturalism often implied that fundamentalists were out of step with modern, mainstream thinking about both Christianity and the place of religion in American public life, thus isolating the group as an aberrant form of religiosity. By contrast, when applied to entire Muslim societies, as they often were, these same descriptors leveled a more far-reaching social critique. Here fundamentalism served as a warning sign of a failure in the process of modernization, for totalism and scripturalism were thought to interfere with the kind of progressive politics and progressive religion that developing societies needed to achieve. Here too the notion of progress is clearly borrowed from a Western model, where political modernization and secularization are viewed as one, and where religions have presumably made peace with this arrangement. Not all interpretations of fundamentalism suffer from the same cultural bias, but the term has been shadowed by the uses to which it has been put.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Formate to GastropodaFundamentalism - Origins, Political And Cultural Developments, Gush Emunim In Israel, Islamic Revolution In Iran, Bharatiya Janata Party In India