Islamic Fundamentalism — a Misnomer



This discussion concerns the misuse of the word "fundamentalism" in reference to behavior rather than to a belief system, and which has resulted in dangerous hegemony.

©2012 Kathe Messina

It is somewhat natural to look on a belief system or practice and judge it when it is entirely different from one`s own. People of all beliefs and practices do it, and in varying levels such judgements are known as stereotyping, ethnocentrism, or hegemony. As in all practices and belief systems, there are conservatives and liberals and it is problematic at best to suggest that any belief system requires all adherents to be fundamentalists. Non-adherents automatically ascribe polarization to those who are very devout, as though they have a grasp on the trends of that practice or belief system. In the case of Islam, the non-Muslim or even the anti-Muslim thinks that the fundamentalist form of Islam is too strict to follow. This discussion concerns the misuse of fundamentalism as a behavior rather than a belief system, which has created an automatic and dangerous hegemony with two inevitable consequences; (a) stereotyping of Muslims, (b) the association of terrorism with fundamentalism.

History is full of examples of adherents to belief systems or practices who could be classified as fundamentalists, but not extremists. So it is that every Nazi is not like Adolf Hitler; every activist is not like Martin Luther King; every economist is not a Marxist; every pacifist is not like Gandhi; and, for the intents and purposes of this discussion, every Muslim is not a fundamentalist. As the examples show, there are exemplary and not-so-exemplary figures in any practice that are modelled as noble or frowned upon as notorious.

The danger lies in assigning value to the extent to which one practices a belief system and then basing judgements upon that value. This is not done when distinguishing, for example, the recreational golfer from the avid golfer or even from a Tiger Woods-caliber golfer. It follows then, that if one is not a golfer or not a Muslim, there is no entitlement to value judgements in either practice without an accurate frame of reference.

That is more easily mapped than practiced. The non-Muslim world makes value judgements on every level of practice as seen world-wide. It is difficult to explain extreme behavior when one does not even know what constitutes average behavior within that belief system or practice. What is it that moves some Muslims to make the Hajj to Mecca each year covering great distances and others to strap a car-bomb to their chests and blow up innocent civilians? A more moderate Muslim may simply face Mecca for daily prayers and shun all infidels — not be driven to kill them.

There is a difference between applying unprecedented forms of extremism to enforce one’s position and returning to historical fundamental teachings to dignify it. Realistically, though, the non-Muslim world has been shown some examples that lead to confusion on this ideal. One Islamic fundamentalist who is considered exemplary among some Muslims is the Ayatollah Khomeini. He was revered as the Grand Ayatollah and is still considered the Imam Khomeini – a rightful successor of Muhammad and possessed of divine knowledge and authority. This is controversial from a Western standpoint because of his participation in the Iran hostage crisis, among other acts considered frightening manifestations of irrationality.

Obviously, militant political forms of religion are appealing to some Muslims; otherwise, the attack of 9/11 was only a horrible nightmare. However, as Richard McGregor writes, “most Muslims do not approve of terrorism or acquiesce in it. Their typical response to terrorism is fear, stress and anxiety — fear in the face of agents of extremism who feel unconstrained by mainstream Islamic law” (2006, para. 1).

Muslim extremism seems to have its grass roots in Wahhabism, which began when the ideology of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab joined with the political power of the house of Saud. Backed up by British imperialism and the discovery of immense oil reserves, (McGregor, 2006, para. 3) it rooted itself as the state ideology of Saudi Arabia in the 1930’s and has since spread throughout the Muslim world.

The original and pure form of fundamentalist Islam included study of four important components:

  • The Qur’an 

  • Hadith (literature preserving the model of the Prophet Muhammad)

  • Shari'a (law)

  • Tasawwuf (mysticism)

As the traditional jurist class declined in the Muslim world, Wahhabism filled the void and sought to reorganize the components by eliminating mysticism, “stripping away the accumulated knowledge of centuries of Qur'an commentary, and turning Hadith into a one-dimensional source of proof texts for their revised version of Islamic law (McGregor, 2006, para. 4).

While the Western world is in fear over the extremes of Islamic fundamentalism, true fundamentalists want to save Islam from the radicals who perpetuate our fear. Nevertheless, mainstream Islamic law may be a unique perspective these days, and the use of Islamic fundamentalist is a disservice to all Muslims when it is intended to stereotype those with militant political motivation. Economist Eli Berman (2005) effectively applied the term radical to anyone belonging to a group “which distances itself from the mainstream culture by creating some sort of tension” (p. 4).

It would be much less stereotypical to refer to extremist manifestations as radical; and to reserve fundamentalism to explain religious ideologies which promote a return to the basics. In the case of Islam, this would be the version that is based purely on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which includes Qur’an recitation, Salah (Prayer), Hajj (Pilgrimage), and Zakaat (Quran Reading, 2011). The term fundamentalism obviously has a different meaning for Muslims than anti-Muslims, who automatically associate it with radical or extreme behavior. Unfortunately, there has been much unrest in the Arab world which has perpetuated false association within the related nomenclature.

However, that still would not correct the ethnocentrism of the rest of the world in their reflexive and mistaken view of Muslims, in general, as extremists – even terrorists. Traditionally, fundamentalist was used to describe Christians who believed the Bible solely as truth, even when there were conflicts with science or other societal norms. Fundamentalism soon became a derogatory term that essentially placed judgement on the depth of devotion in a Christian – a form of ethnocentrism. No one puts a spin on the term when applied to Christians in general, grouping them altogether and ascribing value judgements against them. To illustrate, when Israel bombed civilian areas in Lebanon or when Serb militia massacred innocent Muslim men, women and children in Bosnia, the term Jewish or Christian fundamentalists was never used to refer to them (Bleher, 2000).

When applied to Islam and its followers, the expression should only be used to indicate a level of devotion to the teachings of the Qur'an as the fundamental or elemental and basic truth. Whether Western notions are compatible with the teachings of the Qur’an or not, it is unacceptable to stereotype fundamentalist adherents as irrational. Such a use of language is emotional and ambiguous, as terrorism has taken on a political meaning. A terrorist is one who uses violence against the side that is using the word, as Robert Fisk so aptly summarized in his book Pity the Nation:

The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States or their allies. The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge — for they too use the word — are those opposed to the Palestinians. To adopt the word means that we have taken a side in the Middle East, not between right and wrong, good and evil, David and Goliath, but with one set of combatants against another (Bleher, 2000, para. 5).

Fisk, as a journalist, noted the danger in such value judgements, likening the stereotyping of terrorists to “carrying a gun” (2000, para. 5). Bleher (2000), in quoting Fisk, argues that failing to objectively report the news by “carrying a gun” is intensifying the prejudice against Islam “because nobody bothers to find out what Islam really means and what code of conduct the Qur'an prescribes for a Muslim” (para. 6).

Islam, when translated, is “submission to God” and the belief system may be described as “a religion of peace through submission to God.” Learning the fundamentals or basics of its teachings does not invoke fear. When acts of violence are committed by Islamist militant groups, they should be acknowledged as the acts of radicals or extremists whose cause is, perhaps, a deviation from the fundamental teachings of Islam as we understand them. As in most things we do not understand, automatically resorting to stereotypical descriptions and ethnocentrism based on ignorance are value judgements we are not entitled to make and which have only served to polarize the world from the message of peace Muhammad intended.




Berman, E. (2005). Hamas, Taliban and the Jewish underground: An economist’s view of radical religious militias. Retrieved from

Bleher, S. M. (2000). What is Islamic Fundamentalism? Retrieved from

Quran Reading. (02/28/2011) Know what radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism is? Retrieved from


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