Fundamentalism - A Look at the F-word

by Khaleel Mohammed

There is a fiqh maxim which may be functionally translated as: "The criteria of speech lie in its usage and context, not in lexicality and structure." Let me explain this by the use of Ebonics as an example. If someone were to come to my house, and I were to treat him to some of my cooking, he may remark, "Br. Khaleel, you can really burn this food!" Now to someone familiar with Ebonics, my guest has just paid me the highest of compliments, for he has stated that I am an excellent cook. However, someone who is not familiar with such usage may assume that my guest is stating that I have overcooked the food, for if the verb "burn" is taken in its literal form, this certainly is the only logical deduction. But the usage was not literal, and the meaning therefore had to be deciphered with due consideration to the intent of the person uttering the statement (which is also why the fiqh maxim comes under the major maxim of "Actions are by intention").

Another example may be seen in the case of a person who is unfamiliar with modern usage of English, and instead relies on a pre-1980 lexicon to form his vocabulary. He may remark that I am quite a gay person, upon which some of my colleagues might start having doubts about my sexual orientation. For what has happened is that they have taken "gay" in its later, sexual connotation, rather than its older literal meaning of "happy." A rather interesting scenario can take place when the user of the word in its arcane usage, if told that Islam does not condone gay relations, angrily states that the religion has strayed from its pristine purity, for certainly the Prophet Muhammad was known to have on occasion, expressed gaiety!

The foregoing examples should, by now, illustrate what can happen when words are used without due consideration being given to the factors that influence vocabulary change. What, one may ask, does the foregoing have to do with the provocative title of this article? The fact of the matter is that such elucidation is a vital part of what I need to express. For I propose to show that Muslim acceptance and usage of a particular word has been done without proper understanding of its connotation, and the result has been nothing short of catastrophic. When one uses the term "f-word," the reference is usually to the well-known four-letter term denoting the basest opprobrium. For our purposes, we refer to another F-word: Fundamentalism. Indeed, this one is arguably more odious than the famous four-letter word, but alas, Muslims have accepted it as part of Islamic vocabulary and indeed, some even use it with pride!

What in fact has happened is this: the word connotes one meaning to the non-Muslim North American native speaker of English, and something else to the average Muslim, regardless of whether s/he is a North American anglophone. The reason can be summed up in one word -- heedlessness. And one can only remember and wish that Ibn Taimiyyah’s advice were better followed, that when we hear someone say something, we should not agree or disagree until we completely understand what that person means. Now agreeably, the word fundamentalism is problematic, for, as we have already mentioned and will provide elucidation shortly, it means one thing in North American parlance, and something else in the average Muslim understanding. And what adds to this problem is that in the former case, it is seen as more negative than positive, and in the latter case, a matter of great pride. This begs the obvious question: what are these meanings?

The term Fundamentalism came to be widely used at the latter part of the last century, and by the 1920’s, as the Encyclopedia of Religion explains, had come to connote an uncompromising opposition to "modernist" theology and certain trends. It also came to oppose modern science, and the changing conceptions regarding the Bible and tradition. In fact, as explained in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term came to denote a specific conservative movement, which has a definite doctrinal stand as to what it terms indispensable elements of the Christian faith. These tenets are:

  1. The plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the scripture.
  2. The deity of Jesus.
  3. The virgin birth of Jesus.
  4. Substitutionary blood atonement.
  5. Bodily resurrection and the pre-millenial second coming of Jesus Christ.

Even though the term has evolved somewhat, it still carries certain very strong implications: among other things, a stand against modern scientific theories, a necessary result since if the Bible is infallible, and it contains several things that contradict modern science, then obviously science must be wrong. Logic has very little place in fundamentalism since one has to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved -- antinomianism -- to use the technical term. Since the word came into being in a Christian environment, and evolved as part of Christian terminology, and since the majority of Christians cannot fail to perceive the truth of science and error of the scripture, the term has come largely to indicate everything negative: fanaticism, intractability, narrow-mindedness, and simple stupidity.

When Muslims hear the term "fundamentalism" they (especially the Arabic-speaking ones) immediately think of the "Usul" of Islam -- the Qur'an and the Hadith. They think of the science of "usul al din" and figure that since "usul" (singular: asl) may be translated as "fundamental", and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims believe in the Qur'an and Hadith, then, ipso facto, they adhere to fundamentalism. And so, with great pride, they declare their "fundamentalism", to the great astonishment of the non-Muslims. They have failed to apply the fiqh maxim quoted at the beginning of this article, and that "fundamentalism" in Arabic is different to "fundamentalism" in the North American English parlance. Even though there may be certain similarities, the two terms do not mean the same thing. All Muslims certainly believe in the Qur'an and its truth, but the exegesis of the Qur'an has evolved as our epistemological methodology has evolved. And there is certainly no Muslim scholar who holds that the Hadith collections are without error.

This brings us back to the true asl of Islam: the Qur'an. This book, on several occasions, exhorts us to use our brains -- to think, to reflect -- in stark contrast to the other scripture(s) which asks its followers to simply believe. There are those who in reading the Qur'anic verses see no problem between certain aspects of the evolution theory and creation. This is something no Christian fundamentalist can do. But the Muslim -- and whether s/he is correct is not the issue here -- can use some Qur'anic verses to buttress his/her argument. A Muslim like Amina Abdul Wadud Muhsin can use the Qur'an to question certain traditional concepts of man-woman relationship. In doing this, she is being very much a lexical fundamentalist, but according to the term in its North American non-Muslim usage, she is doing everything opposite to fundamentalism, she is applying a "modern" approach to the Book of Allah. So is she, or is she not, a fundamentalist?

Maurice Bucaille can use the Qur'an to show that the origin of the universe, in the Qur'anic imagery, does not contradict the findings of science. Since he has used the fundamental document of Islam, can it be said that he has followed fundamentalism, or that he has followed modern science? One may then state that the word obviously means one thing to non-Muslims and another to Muslims, and that being the case, then to each his own. I submit that the matter is not as simple. Non-Muslim North Americans do not understand the Muslim usage, and therefore are justifiably surprised when Muslims claim fundamentalism with pride. And most Muslims, unfamiliar with Church history, remain painfully aware of the negativity that the term implies, and when they hear of Christian fundamentalism, assume that all this expresses is an adherence to the scripture.

To add to that problem there is the malice of stereotyping. In certain sources, scholars inimical to Islam, while aware of the different understandings of the term, may seek to tell the North American public of "Muslim fundamentalist" to foment hatred and prejudice against Muslims. This is why whenever a Muslim group commits some act of terrorism or extremism, it is almost invariably described in the Western Press as "fundamentalist." It may be argued that the term, with certain adjustments for the major doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam, can be applied to some of our extremist interpreters of Islam. But the irony is that those extremists are not "fundamentalists" in the understanding among the Muslims, for it can always be proven that they are misinterpreting the Qur’an and selectively choosing and manipulating hadith. They are, in exhibiting intractability, ignorance, and rejection of proven fact, being very much in line with the image of Christian fundamentalism. But in light of the Qur'anic focus on tolerance and belief in which there is no doubt, they are definitely rejecting the ultimate Muslim fundamental.

Given the regrettable lack on the part of many Muslim scholars to make themselves familiar with Christian terminology, they have facilitated the erroneous use of the term by widespread use, sometimes in its (Arabic) lexical sense. As we have explained at great length above, it is different to its English meaning, or to (negatively) describe certain trends of thought in the Muslim community. I have pointed out the problem, but that, in and of itself is a useless undertaking, since without a proposed solution, my address would be an exercise in futility. What then is the solution? In the first place, the term is logically inconsistent with Islamic belief. For there is no room within the collective Muslim weltanschauung for any claim against the inerrancy of the Qur'an. And since there is none, there is no room for a term that would denote a Muslim who goes against this belief. The problems with hadith, not to mention the difference between the Sunni and Shia collections, make that genre of literature as consideration for fundamentalist labeling academically untenable, given that every Muslim will agree that if something can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to have come from the Prophet, in the form of doctrine or command, then we would have to accept it.

Given the fact too that many hadith are definitely against the spirit of the Qur'an, and that at the extreme end of this consideration is the Ahl al-Qur'an madhab, one can immediately see problems even for those who wish to say that they are fundamentalist in an Islamic sense. For, by the definition of the Ahl al-Qur'an madhab, the hadith is not really a fundamental. Even if one were to attempt to create a new vocabulary then, putting the F-word in a new meaning, the sectarian debates within Islam rule against the possibility. We need to realize then that the term given to us by Allah is good enough to describe ourselves, i.e. Muslims. This business of categorizations into "lukewarm", "observant" and "non-observant" Muslim, inter alia, are all formations of imported thought, and reeks of the holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness and prejudice that lead to division and enmity. Either one is a Muslim or not. Labeling connoting orthodoxy and orthopraxy, etc., should be restricted to the argot of religionwissenschaft and not be part of everyday speech.

This also brings us to another point: rather than import terminology, we should seek to make those around us familiar with Islamic terms, as is the trend in Western studies on Islam. One now hears of "hadith" instead of "tradition", "qiyas" instead of "analogy", "Qur'an" instead of Koran. If one must use the f-word, then s/he must make sure to clearly spell out what is meant by it, or better yet, stay away from f-words and those in that category.

Posted December 20, 1999