Islam and Modernism V – the myth of the inevitability of fundamentalism

By Mohammad Reza Shalguni

Is fundamentalism an inevitable development of Islam?

The fifth part of a eight-part series Mohammad Reza Shalguni refutes the notion that whenever confronted by modernity, Islam not only “shuns secularism”, but in fact lapses into fundamentalism, a view propagated by Ernest Gellner, among others. the general public has come to identify Islam with fundamentalism.
The unique spread of the Islamist movement in the recent past has encouraged an extraordinary and unprecedented expression of essentialist thinking on Islam. In the confusion that reigns to day, Islam has come to be identified with fundamentalism at the level of the general public. At the so-called academic level, fundamentalism is presented as one of the inherent characteristics of Islam.
One of the more fashionable versions of this essentialism asserts that whenever confronted by modernity, Islam not only “rejects secularism”, but in fact lapses into fundamentalism. Ernest Gellner, one of this thesis’s most ardent and outspoken exponents, claims that the spread of urbanisation has strengthened scripturalism in Islam. Scripturalism in turn encourages puritanism and social inflexibility. Gellner who is one of the most influential defenders of the Weberian tradition, justifies his claims by referring to the views of David Hume and Ibn Khaldun.
Hume believed that the worship of a unitary god generally leads to religious dogma [GEIRAT], while polytheism encourages superstition. Therefore monotheism sustains social and political inflexibility, while polytheism created conditions for restraint and civic moderation. Hume saw the most significant examples of monotheism in Islam, Judaism and to some extent Christian Protestantism. At the same time he believed that those religions that give rise to religious dogma, [qeirat] even if initially showing and greater fury and ruggedness than superstitious religions, later soften and moderate. He even goes so far as to claim “superstition is the enemy of civic freedoms and religious dogma its friend”. 1
Gellener, bases his thesis on the views of Hume, but rejects the latter’s account of the subsequent adjustments of monotheist religions. He believes that monotheism can only in exceptional conditions create conditions for the establishment of civil liberties. Such exceptional circumstances were created in North West Europe and North America, as Max Weber had shown, precisely through Protestant dogma and not through the softening and simplification of religion. 2
As to Ibn Khaldun, Gellner interprets his views in a particular way to claim that in Islamic lands the towns have always been the centres of the most strict monotheic scripturalism. In our time the massive urban growth through waves of peasant immigrants pouring into cities and undergoing the process of urbanisation provides a fertile ground for the growth of scripturalism. The newly arrived city dwellers fuel the furnace of scripturalism, thereby fulfilling the same role that was previously played by nomadic invaders [see iran bulletin no 13, Summer 1996]. If previously the new ruling class rose from among nomadic tribes, today it rises out of the lower urban classes. In cities scipturalism and puritanism flourish through the activities of a combination of new “Mamelukes” and new “ulema”. 3

Pict by Ardeshir Mohasses

Pict by Ardeshir Mohasses

Gellner claims that Islam creates a society which works perfectly well without individualism and pluralism. 4 His main explanation is that Europe moved from community towards society and therefore the confrontation between the two in Europe was a confrontation between the past and the present. In Islam, however, these two co-exist side by side, with community at the margins of the scene and society at its centre. This is the factor that makes Islam resistant to secularism.5
In the final analysis, a form of historic idealism lies at the heart of Gellner’s argument, like that of others who consider Islam as resistant to modernity. It is a belief that intellectual factors, and in particular religion, are determinate in historic developments. In order to defend, and to some extent disguise their historic idealism, they try to cobble together a series of sociological arguments for their assumptions, not unlike Max Weber and the Weberites.
Their sociology, however, is usually there to serve their historic idealism, and for this reason, wherever they deem it expedient is simply retouched. I will leave a discussion of this self-justifying sociology to another occasion. Here I will try to show that neither in the Qur’an, nor in Islamic religious teaching, is there anything inherently different form other religions that could turn Islamic scripturalism into an insurmountable barrier against modernity.

Scripturalism and fundamentalism

Scripturalism is based, in the first instance, on the premise that the scriptures – that is the text believed to directly echo the designs of God – is the main document and source of divine guidance. However, with every reference to the scripture the question immediately arises as to whether the person who refers to the text can understand the scripture without earthly or heavenly intermediaries? The scripturalists answer to this is in the affirmative and is normally put thus: if the scripture was sent down in order to express divine wishes and to explain these to the faithful; and if those first believers could understand God’s message directly and clearly through them, then there is no reason for us not to understand them.
With this argument scripturalists reject any questioning of the intelligibility of the scriptures as tantamount to questioning their very reason for existence. They insist on the necessity and importance of a direct relation between the faithful and God. The immediate and inescapable consequence of this way of thinking is to belittle, or even reject, the role of the clergy. Herein lies the social and political importance of scripturalism.
Scripturalism as a religious movement usually takes shape in opposition to the power of the clergy. The more powerful and grandiose the clergy, and the greater their privileges, the more radically militant the scripturalism which rises against them is usually. This basic characteristic of scripturalism can best be seen in the Reformation in Europe, and especially in Luther’s famous theses in 1517 in protest at the Papacy.
In fact the importance of Luther’s work was in his declaration that justification is only possible through personal faith. By translating the Holy Book he made “God’s words” accessible to all. Access to the scripture not only diminishes the power of the priest but, as Voltaire pointed out, 6 opens his hand and makes it possible to judge him. This can have an important role in changing the structure of the religious establishment and as Engels said, 7 replace of the monarchical church with the “republican church”.

The past as they see it

There is inevitably another side to scripturalism: a return to the past. A return to the scriptures is a return to a text belonging to an obsolete world, and its world view and values. Therefore at the heart of every scripturalist movement lies a form of fundamentalism, puritanism and usually religious strictness. For this reason we could consider scripturalism synonymous with fundamentalism if we examine it outside its social setting.
We must, however, not forget that this “if” is a highly restrictive obstacle which only a mind addicted to historic idealism can jump over. It is obvious that in the reading of any text, its actual content aside, the mentality of the reader plays an important role. This is particularly true of any text that incorporates a value judgement, where the mentality of the reader usually has a defining role. The problem is that the mentality of a reader is a personal phenomenon which is formed in a particular historic and social setting.
Thus in investigating a particular religious scripturalism, the basic question is not what the holy text really says, but what are the conditions that gave rise to this scripturalist movement, and what does this movement seek in these scriptures. In short, a scripturalist religious movement should be examined not on the actual content of the holy text, but on the movement’s interpretations of that text.

Open to modernity

Yet what often makes religious scripturalist movements favourably disposed to modernity, or at least open to influence by the latter, more than the content of the scriptures or even the their interpretations of these, is their attention to the relations between God and man. Religious scripturalist movements are in general characterised by their emphasis on the intelligibility of the word of God for the faithful, without the necessity for clerical intermediaries. Their emphasis on the individual basis of faith is their common clause with modernity.
Undoubtedly the stress on the individual basis for faith does not in itself lead automatically to modernity, nor to secularism. Indeed the Qur’an clearly and unequivocally emphasises the individual foundation of faith, 8 without possessing an image of individualism as it is understood today. In the Qur’an individualism and equality in faith not only survive alongside various social inequalities and restrictions, but indeed provide divine blessing and sanctions for the latter. 9
Even the Reformation, despite all its emphasis on the individual basis for belief, showed little trace of secularism and even caused a considerable upturn in religious zeal and dogmatism. 10 In other words, the individualisation of faith is a tool for the formation of modern individualism, not its cause.
Therefore when the necessary social conditions for the shaping of modernism and secularism are present, the presence of a religious movement which emphasises individual nature of faith would normally speed up and aid this process, or at least not place spokes in its wheel.

To be continued


1 Gellener turns mainly to two of Hume’s books: Natural History of Religion and Superstition and enthusiasm. See E Gellner, Muslim Society, Cambridge 1989 Chapter1.
2 ibib pp 14-16
3 ibid pp 66-7
4 E Gellner: Conditions of Liberty. London, 1996, p29
5 ibid p 51
6 Voltaire speaks through Candide who in answer to a priest who asks him to confess replies that if the Holy Book is the basis the priest too need to confess his sins to Candide, since they should be confessing their sins to one another.
7 Frederick Engels: Introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. In Marx and Engels on Religion, Moscow 1981, p262
8 See Qur’an Sura 2:186; 3:19; 49:13; 50:16; 99:7 and 8
9 For example while the Qur’an measures the value of the faithful in the eyes of God with their degree of belief and good behaviour, and not with gender, ethnicity or social position, it reminds the believer again and again that neither is the slave the equal to the free-person, nor man with woman. This inequality is presented, at least in this world, as a natural phenomenon, a consequence of God’s will.
10 Engels reminds us that the Protestants acted even more savagely than Catholics in suppressing free thinkers. Miguel Serveto was burnt at the orders of Calvin for two hours until he was totally roasted; a savagery not seen when the Inquisition ordered the immolation of Giordano Bruno. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Moscow 1976. Towney reminds us that “However, Catholics, Anglicans, Luther and Calvin, Latimer and Laud, John Knox and the Pilgrim Fathers are agreed that social morality is the province of the church, and are prepared both to teach it, and to enforce it, when necessary by suitable discipline.” RH Towney: Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, London 1987, p23.


Islam and Modernism by Mohammad Reza Shalguni – overview

Part I Discusses how Islam is no more incompatible with modernisation or even modern culture than other religions.

Part II continues with a critique of Ibn-Khaldun’s influential historic views:
q Islamic civilisation is not principally that of desert tribes.
q The steppe or the desert was not the birthplace of many radical Islamic revolts.
q Many nomadic uprisings were non-Islamic, and many in fact came to the aid of monarchies in wealthy urban lands.
n The historical materialist perspective on Ibn-Khaldun’s and related views on history
Part III Examines Islamic teachings and compares them to other religions to demonstrate they are no more, or less, rigid and immutable.
Part IV Uses the issue of women in Islam to argue that the mechanisms through which modernisation was introduced to Islamic lands caused the current crisis rather than the innate resistance of Islam as a religion.
Part V Reviews racist-imperialist, anti-democratic and radical ways of confronting the question of modernisation in Muslim lands.
Part VI Argues that despite some views Islam is open to modernity.
Part VII Is a discussion of Ernest Gellner and his thinly disguised historic idealism
Part VIII Is dedicated to a critique if the positions of the left

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