Islamic Fundamentalism

Islamic fundamentalism has been defined as a movement of Muslims who regard earlier times favorably and seek to return to the fundamentals of the Islamic religion[1] and live similarly to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his companions lived. Islamic fundamentalists favor “a literal and originalist interpretation” of the primary sources of Islam (the Quran and Sunnah),[2] seek to eliminate (what they perceive to be) “corrupting” non-Islamic influences from every part of their lives[3] and see “Islamic fundamentalism” as a pejorative term used by outsiders for Islamic revivalism and Islamic activism.[4]

Definitions and descriptions

Definitions vary as to what Islamic fundamentalism exactly is and how, if at all, it differs from Islamism (or political Islam) or Islamic revivalism. The term fundamentalism has been deemed “misleading” by those who suggest that all mainstream Muslims believe in the literal divine origin and perfection of the Quran and are therefore “fundamentalists”,[5] and others who believe it is a term that is used by outsiders in order to describe perceived trends within Islam.[6] Some exemplary Islamic fundamentalists include Sayyid Qutb, Abul Ala Mawdudi,[7] and Israr Ahmed.[8] The Wahhabi movement and its funding by Saudi Arabia is often described as being responsible for the popularity of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism.[9]

Supporters of Lebanese Hezbollah Leader gather as he delivers a televised speech during a ceremony held by the Shiite party in the capital Beirut, commemorating the party’s killed leaders, on February 16, 2018.
JOSEPH EID | AFP | Getty Images

  • Form of Islamism – Graham Fuller believes that Islamic fundamentalism is a subset of Islamism rather than a distinctive form of it, and to him, Islamic fundamentlists are “the most conservative element among Islamists.” Its “strictest form” includes “Wahhabism, which is sometimes referred to as salafiyya. … For fundamentalists the law is the most essential component of Islam, and it leads to an overwhelming emphasis upon jurisprudence, usually narrowly conceived.”[10] Author Olivier Roy takes a similar line, describing “neo-fundamentalists”, (i.e. contemporary fundamentalists) as being more passionate than earlier Islamists in their opposition to the perceived “corrupting influence of Western culture,” avoiding Western dress, “neckties, laughter, the use of Western forms of salutation, handshakes, applause,” discouraging but not forbidding other activities such as sports, ideally limiting the Muslim public space to “the family and the mosque.”[11] In this fundamentalists have “drifted” away from the stand of the Islamists of the 1970s and 80s, such as [Abul A’la Maududi] who

…didn’t hesitate to attend Hindu ceremonies. Khomeini never proposed giving Iranian Christians and Jews the status of dhimmi (protected communities) as provided for in the sharia: the Armenians of Iran have remained Iranian citizens, are required to perform military service and pay the same taxes as Muslims, and have the right to vote (with separate electoral colleges). Similarly, the Afghan Jamaat, in its statutes, has declared it legal to employ non-Muslims as experts in the eyes of Islam.[3]

  • Umbrella term – Another American observer, Robert Pelletreau, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, believes it the other way around, Islamism being the subset of Muslims “with political goals … within” the “broader fundamentalist revival”.[12] American historian Ira Lapidussees Islamic fundamentalism as “an umbrella designation for a very wide variety of movements, some intolerant and exclusivist, some pluralistic; some favourable to science, some anti-scientific; some primarily devotional and some primarily political; some democratic, some authoritarian; some pacific, some violent.”[13]
  • Synonym – Still another, Martin Kramer, sees little difference between the two terms: “To all intents and purposes, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism have become synonyms in contemporary American usage.”[14]
  • Scriptural literalism – According to another academic, Natana J. Delong-Bas, the contemporary use of the term Islamic fundamentalism applies to Muslims who not seek not just “to return to the primary sources”, but who use “a literal interpretation of those sources.”[2]
  • Use of ijtihad in Islamic law – According to academic John Esposito, one of the most defining features of Islamic fundamentalism is belief in the “reopening” of the gates of ijtihad (“independent reasoning” used in reaching a legal decision in Sunni law).[15]

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his jihadist army

Differences with Islamism

According to Roy distinctions between Fundamentalism and Islamism (or at least pre-1990 Islamism) are in the fields of:

  • Politics and economics. Islamists often talk of “revolution” and they believe “that the society will only be Islamized through social and political action: it is necessary to leave the mosque …” Fundamentalists are primarily interested in revolution, less interested in “modernity or Western models of politics or economics,” and less willing to associate with non-Muslims.[16]
  • Sharia. While both Islamists and fundamentalists are committed to implementing Sharia law, Islamists “tend to consider it more a project than a corpus.”[17]
  • Issue of women. “Islamists generally tend to favour the education of women and their participation in social and political life: the Islamist woman militates, studies, and has the right to work, but in a chador. Islamist groups include women’s associations.” While the fundamentalist preaches that women should return to their homes, Islamism believes that it is sufficient if “the sexes are separated in public.”[18]


Islamic fundamentalism (at least among Sunni Muslims) traditionally tends to fall into “traditionalist” and “reformist” tendencies:

  • Traditionalists accept “the continuity” between the founding Islamic “texts”—the Quran and the Sunnah—and their commentaries. Traditionalists take “imitation” (taqlid), accepting what was said before and refusing to innovate (bidah), as a “basic principle, They follow one of the great schools of religious jurisprudence (Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali). Their vision of the sharia is essentially legalistic and used to determine what is religiously right or wrong for Enjoining good and forbidding wrong. Traditionalists are sometimes connected to the popular forms of Sufism such as the Barelvi school in Pakistan).”[19]
  • “reformist” fundamentalism, in contrast, “criticizes the tradition, the commentaries, popular religious practices” (Maraboutism, the cult of saints), “deviations, and superstitions”; it aims to purify Islam by returning to the Quran and the Sunnah. 18th-century examples are Shah Waliullah Dehlawi in India and Abdul Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula. This reformism is often “developed in response to an external threat” such as “the influence of Hinduism on Islam”. In the late 19th century salafiyya was developed in the Arab countries, “marking a phase between Fundamentalism and Islamism.”[19]


Criticism of the term

Islamic Fundamentalism

Global fundamentalism: Some of the countries spanning two continents where extreme Islamic acts have been perpetrated in recent days and weeks

The term “Islamic fundamentalism” has been criticized by Bernard Lewis, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Eli Berman, John Esposito, among others. Many have proposed substituting another term, such as “puritanical”, “Islamic revivalism” or “activism”, and “Radical Islam”.

Lewis, a leading historian of Islam, believes that although “the use of this term is established and must be accepted”:

It remains unfortunate and can be misleading. “Fundamentalist” is a Christian term. It seems to have come into use in the early years of last century, and denotes certain Protestant churches and organizations, more particularly those that maintain the literal divine origin and inerrancy of the Bible. In this they oppose the liberal and modernist theologians, who tend to a more critical, historical view of Scripture. Among Muslim theologians there is as yet no such liberal or modernist approach to the Qur’an, and all Muslims, in their attitude to the text of the Qur’an, are in principle at least fundamentalists. Where the so-called Muslim fundamentalists differ from other Muslims and indeed from Christian fundamentalists is in their scholasticism and their legalism. They base themselves not only on the Qur’an, but also on the Traditions of the Prophet, and on the corpus of transmitted theological and legal learning.[20]

John Esposito has attacked the term for its association “with political activism, extremism, fanaticism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism,” saying “I prefer to speak of Islamic revivalism and Islamic activism.”[4]

Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, a critic of those called Islamic Fundamentalists, also finds fault with the term because:

[M]any liberal, progressive, or moderate Muslims would describe themselves as usulis, or fundamentalist, without thinking that this carries a negative connotation. In the Islamic context, it makes much more sense to describe the fanatical reductionism and narrow-minded literalism of some groups as puritanical (a term that in the West invokes a particular historical experience)[21]

Eli Berman argues that “Radical Islam” is a better term for many post-1920s movements starting with the Muslim Brotherhood, because these movements are seen to practice “unprecedented extremism”, thus not qualifying as return to historic fundamentals.[22]


In contrast, American author Anthony J. Dennis accepts the widespread usage and relevance of the term and calls Islamic fundamentalism “more than a religion today, it is a worldwide revolutionary movement.” He notes the intertwining of social, religious and political goals found within the movement and states that Islamic fundamentalism “deserves to be seriously studied and debated from a secular perspective as a revolutionary ideology.”[23]

At least two Muslim academics, Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm and Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi, have defended the use of the phrase. Surveying the doctrines of the new Islamic movements, Al-Azm found them to consist of “an immediate return to Islamic ‘basics’ and ‘fundamentals’. … It seems to me quite reasonable that calling these Islamic movements ‘Fundamentalist’ (and in the strong sense of the term) is adequate, accurate, and correct.”[24]

Hassan Hanafi reached the same conclusion: “It is difficult to find a more appropriate term than the one recently used in the West, ‘fundamentalism,’ to cover the meaning of what we name Islamic awakening or revival.”[25]


In 1988, the University of Chicago, backed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, launched The Fundamentalism Project, devoted to researching fundamentalism in the worlds major religions, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. It defined fundamentalism as “approach, or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group … by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past.”[26] A 2013 study by Wissenschaftszentrums Berlin für Sozialforschung finds that Islamic fundamentalism is widespread among European Muslims with the majority saying religious rules are more important than civil laws and three quarters rejecting religious pluralism within Islam.[27]

Islamic fundamentalism


The modern Islamic fundamentalist movements have their origins in the late 19th century.[28] The Wahhabi movement, an Arabian fundamentalist movement that began in the 18th century, gained traction and spread during the 19th and 20th centuries.[29] During the Cold War following World War II, some NATO governments, particularly those of the United States and the United Kingdom, launched covert and overt campaigns to encourage and strengthen fundamentalist groups in the Middle East and southern Asia. These groups were seen as a hedge against potential expansion by the Soviet Union, and as a means to prevent the growth of nationalistic movements that were not necessarily favorable toward the interests of the Western nations.[30] By the 1970s, the Islamists had become important allies in supporting governments, such as Egypt, which were friendly to U.S. interests. By the late 1970s, however, some fundamentalist groups had become militaristic leading to threats and changes to existing regimes. The overthrow of the Shah in Iran and rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the most significant signs of this shift.[31] Subsequently, fundamentalist forces in Algeria caused a civil war, caused a near-civil war in Egypt, and caused the downfall of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.[32] In many cases the military wings of these groups were supplied with money and arms by the U.S. and U.K.

Muslim critics of Islamic fundamentalism often draw a parallel between the modern fundamentalist movement and the 7th century Khawarij sect. From their essentially political position, the Kharijites developed extreme doctrines that set them apart from both mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Kharijites were particularly noted for adopting a radical approach to Takfir, whereby they declared other Muslims to be unbelievers and therefore deemed them worthy of death.[33][34][35]

Interpretation of texts

Islamic fundamentalists, or at least “reformist” fundamentalists, believe that Islam is based on the Qur’an, Hadith and Sunnah and “criticize the tradition, the commentaries, popular religious practices (maraboutism, the cult of saints), deviations, and superstitions. They aim to return to the founding texts.”[19] Examples of individuals who adhere to this tendency are the 18th-century Shah Waliullah in India and Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula.[19] This view is commonly associated with Salafism today.

Social and political goals

As with adherents of other fundamentalist movements,[36] Islamic fundamentalists hold that the problems of the world stem from secular influences.

Some scholars of Islam, such as Bassam Tibi, believe that, contrary to their own message, Islamic fundamentalists are not actually traditionalists. He refers to fatwahs issued by fundamentalists such as “every Muslim who pleads for the suspension of the shari’a is an apostate and can be killed. The killing of those apostates cannot be prosecuted under Islamic law because this killing is justified” as going beyond, and unsupported by, the Qur’an. Tibi asserts, “The command to slay reasoning Muslims is un-Islamic, an invention of Islamic fundamentalists”.[37][38]

Conflicts with the secular state

Islamic fundamentalism’s push for sharia and an Islamic state has come into conflict with conceptions of the secular, democratic state, such as the internationally supported Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Anthony J. Dennis notes that “Western and Islamic visions of the state, the individual and society are not only divergent, they are often totally at odds.”[39] Among human rights[40]disputed by fundamentalist Muslims are:

  • Freedom from religious police
  • Equality issues between men and women[41]
  • Separation of religion and state[42]
  • Freedom of speech[43]
  • Freedom of religion[44][45][46][47][48][49][50]

Islamic fundamentalist states

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran is seen by some scholars[who?] as a success of Islamic fundamentalism.[51][52][53] Some scholars[who?] argue that Saudi Arabia is also largely governed by fundamentalist principles (see Wahhabi movement)[54] but Johannes J.G. Jansen disagrees, arguing that it is more akin to a traditional Muslim state, where a power separation exists between “princes” (umarā) and “scholars” (ulama).[55] In contrast, Jansen argues Khomeini came to power advocating a system of Islamic government where the highest authority is the hands of the ulamā(see Wilayat al Faqih).[56]

Islamic fundamentalist groups

Islamic fundamentalist groups include Al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Ansar al-Islam, Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, Army of Islam, Boko Haram, Taliban, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Jemaah Islamiyah, Hamas, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Indian Mujahideen, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan among many others.

Islamic State

Caucasus Emirate

Caucasus Emirate is a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group residing primarily in the North Caucasus of Russia. Created from the remnants of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) in October 2007, it adheres to an ideology of Salafist-takfiri jihad that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate within the North Caucasus and Volga region (primarily the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan). Many of their fighters are also present in jihadist battlegrounds such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout Central Asia. Many plots involving Chechen and other indigenous ethnic groups of the North Caucasus have also been thwarted in Europe over the recent years.


Al-Shabaab, meaning “the Youth”, is a Somalia-based cell of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda, formally recognized in 2012. Al-Shabaab is designated as a terrorist group by countries including Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Boko Haram

Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad جماعة اهل السنة للدعوة والجهاد Jamā’a Ahl al-sunnah li-da’wa wa al-jihād), better known by its Hausa name Boko Haram, “Western education is sinful”), is a jihadist militant organization based in the northeast of Nigeria. It is an Islamist movement which strongly opposes man-made laws and westernization. Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2001, the organization seeks to establish sharia law in the country. The group is also known for attacking Christians and bombing Mosques and churches.

The movement is divided into three factions. In 2011, Boko Haram was responsible for at least 450 killings in Nigeria. It was also reported that they had been responsible for over 620 deaths over the first 6 months of 2012. Since its founding in 2001, the jihadists have been responsible for between 3,000 and 10,000 deaths.

The group became known internationally following sectarian violence in Nigeria in July 2009, which left over 1000 people dead. They do not have a clear structure or evident chain of command. Moreover, it is still a matter of debate whether Boko Haram has links to terror outfits outside Nigeria and its fighters have frequently clashed with Nigeria’s central government. A US commander stated that Boko Haram is likely linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), although professor Paul Lubeck points out that no evidence is presented for any claims of material international support.


  1. Guidère, Mathieu (2012). Historical Dictionary of Islamic Fundamentalism. Scarecrow Press. pp. ix. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  2. DeLong-Bas, Natana J. (2004). Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, USA. p. 228. ISBN0-19-516991-3.
  3. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, 1994: p. 215
  4. John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?(NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 8.
  5. Bernard, Lewis, Islam and the West, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  6. ” ‘The Green Peril’: Creating the Islamic Fundamentalist Threat,” Leon T. Hadar, Policy Analysis, Cato Institute, August 27, 1992.
  7. “Islamic fundamentalism”. Retrieved 2013-05-16.
  8. Esposito, Voices of Resurgent IslamISBN0-19-503340-X
  9. Islamic Radicalism: Its Wahhabi Roots and Current Representation|
  10. Fuller, Graham E., The Future of Political Islam, Palgrave MacMillan, (2003), p. 48
  11. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, 1994: p. 83
  12. Remarks by Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr., Middle East Policy Council, May 26, 1994, “Symposium: Resurgent Islam in the Middle East,” Middle East Policy, Fall 1994, p. 2.
  13. Lapidus, Ira M. (2002). A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 823. Retrieved 23 December 2015.
  14. Coming to Terms, Fundamentalists or Islamists? Martin Kramer originally in Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2003), pp. 65–77.
  15. Esposito, John, Voices of Resurgent IslamISBN0-19-503340-X
  16. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, 1994: pp. 82–3, 215
  17. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, 1994: p. 59
  18. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, 1994: pp. 38, 59
  19. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, 1994: pp. 30–31
  20. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 117, n. 3.
  21. abou el Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Harper San Francisco, 2005, p. 19
  22. Eli Berman, Hamas, Taliban and the Jewish Underground: An Economist’s View of Radical Religious Militias, UC San Diego National Bureau of Economic Research. August 2003, p. 4
  23. Dennis, Anthony J. The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat to the West (Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 1996), p. i.
  24. Sadik J. al-Azm, “Islamic Fundamentalism Reconsidered: A Critical Outline of Problems, Ideas and Approaches”, South Asia Bulletin, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 1 and 2 (1993), pp. 95–7.
  25. Quoted by Bassam Tibi, “The Worldview of Sunni Arab Fundamentalists: Attitudes toward Modern Science and Technology,” in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 85.
  26. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, “Introduction,” in Martin and Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 3.
  27. “Islamic fundamentalism is widely spread”. Wissenschaftszentrums Berlin für Sozialforschung. December 9, 2013.
  28. Dreyfuss (2006), p. 2
    Cooper (2008), p. 272
  29. Cooper (2008), p. 272
  30. Dreyfuss (2006), pp. 1–4
  31. Dreyfuss (2006), p. 4
  32. Dreyfuss (2006), p. 5
  33. “Another battle with Islam’s ‘true believersThe Globe and Mail.
  34. Mohamad Jebara More Mohamad Jebara. “Imam Mohamad Jebara: Fruits of the tree of extremism”Ottawa Citizen.
  35. “Archived copy”(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF)on 2014-08-02. Retrieved 2015-11-17.
  36. Matthews, Terry L. “Fundamentalism”Lectures for Religion 166: Religious Life in the United States. Wake Forest University. Archived from the original on October 6, 2009. Retrieved August 29, 2009.
  37. Bassam TibiThe Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Updated Edition. Los Angeles, University of California Press: 2002. Excerpt available online as The Islamic Fundamentalist Ideology: Context and the Textual SourcesArchived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine at Middle East Information Center.
  38. Douglas Pratt, “Terrorism and Religious Fundamentalism: Prospects for a Predictive Paradigm”Marburg Journal of ReligionPhilipps-Universität Marburg, Volume 11, No. 1 (June 2006)
  39. Dennis, Anthony J. The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat to the West (Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 1996) p. 26
  40. See Dennis, Anthony J. “Fundamentalist Islam and Human Rights” pp. 36–56 in The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat of the West (Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 1996).
  41. See Dennis, Anthony J. “The Attack on Women’s Rights” pp. 40–44 in The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat to the West (Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 1996).
  42. See Dennis, Anthony J. “Strange Bedfellows: Fundamentalist Islam and Democracy” pp. 31–33 in The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat to the West (Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 1996).
  43. See Dennis, Anthony J. “The Attack on Freedom of Expression” pp. 47–56 in The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat of the West (Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 1996).
  44. See Dennis, Anthony J. “The Attack on Other Religions” pp. 44–47 in The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat to the West (Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 1996)
  45. “Murtad”, Encyclopedia of Islam
  46. Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri: “Not Every Conversion is Apostasy”, by Mahdi Jami, In Persian, BBC Persian, February 2, 2005. Retrieved April 25, 2006.
  47. What Islam says on religious freedom, by Magdi Abdelhadi, March 27, 2006. Retrieved April 25, 2006.
  48. Fatwa on Intellectual ApostasyArchived 2009-04-25 at the Wayback Machine, Text of the fatwa by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi
  49. S. A. Rahman in “Punishment of Apostasy in Islam”, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 1972, pp. 10–13
  50. The punishment of apostasy in IslamArchived 2009-09-26 at the Wayback Machine, View of Dr. Ahmad Shafaat on apostasy.
  51. Appleby (1993) p. 342
  52. Ahmed (1993), p. 94
  53. Gary Ferraro (2007). Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective. Cengage Learning. p. 362. Retrieved November 14, 2010.
  54. Challenges of the Muslim World: Present, Future and Past. Emerald Group Publishing. 2008. p. 272. Retrieved November 14, 2010.
  55. Johannes J. G. Jansen (1997). The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism. Cornell University Press. Retrieved November 14, 2010.
  56. Jansen, The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, p. 69

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