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Bismi Allah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem.  In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful

Suzy Ashraf

Fundamentalism and Scripture

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Fundamentalism being the most interesting religious phenomenon of the modern times, it is exciting to touch upon it in any form other than contact with its representatives. It appears rather futile to discuss "What is Fundamentalism", as is done by most authors, and attempt to outline some specific features defining it. Not more use there is in questioning legitimacy of the term, and trying to find alternative definitions, because by now the word is firmly part of English (and other) language(s), and there is little doubt in most people's mind as to what is implied by the word(1).

The most legitimate question would be "Who is Fundamentalist?", because the term does not necessarily apply to well-defined groups. Even within each group there may be variations, and among the majority in every religion, i.e. those who define themselves as simple members of a faith, there would be represented a full spectre of beliefs, including some individuals with the "fundamentalist" views. The common connection between religious fundamentalism and extreme political positions is not so relevant here, because fundamentalism is first and foremost a form of religious, not political outlook, while many political extremists are not as much concerned with religion as with using (twisting) some religious precepts(2). This does not mean labelling people, but defining certain characteristics indicative of the fundamentalist outlook.

However, it does not seem that uncovering the subtle differences is necessary when discussing relationship between the fundamentalists and the Scripture, because this is the point where differences between various religious traditions are so marked that generalising across religious boundaries offers very limited perspective. Not even literalism, often claimed as a universal characteristic, is truly such, and where literalism is present, it is often applied only to those parts of the Scripture where literal interpretation is long abandoned by the rest of the society, and which pit the fundamentalists against the rest of the society(3).

As Shepard notes, fundamentalists tend to emphasise the points which distinguish their religion, rather than its most central tenets. Partly, this is due to the fact that they focus on the issues of disagreement with the rest of their co-religionists, while the basic tenets are not usually contested. This means, they uphold and take to the extreme the attitude to Scripture characteristic of their religious tradition. Even within a religion the same may be true of different denominations. For example, Protestant Christian fundamentalists emphasise "the Bible, original sin, deity of Christ, and atonement"; death, rather than the resurrection of Christ, and uphold individualism, all features characteristic of the Protestant Christianity(4).

The feature which can safely be asserted as common for the fundamentalists of different religions is their claims to represent a return to a conservative, "historical" position. Most often, this merely disguises severe reformulating of religion, which may be closer to its appearance in the past, but still significantly influenced by the contemporary issues. For example, Christian fundamentalists are attempting to enforce the "true Christian" morals, as they were accepted in the past centuries, yet, apart from differing in details, for them such moral attitudes are religiously inspired stance against the rest of the society, while in the past it was merely a part of everyday culture, something incomprehensible to be otherwise, not really an issue at all. Similar dichotomy occurs with their attitudes to the Bible. Biblical inerrancy and lack of historical criticism were once the only ideas, not under threat from any opposition. Not being a conscious attitude, it was the only possible one. The difference from the conservative position is that the fundamentalists, under the pressure of modernity, reinvent rather than continue this "traditional" attitude(5).

It is interesting to note the dual nature of fundamentalism. As already mentioned, it frequently comes close if not coincides on the one hand with political extremism, on the other hand with extreme traditionalism/conservatism. It cannot be equalled with either, and in different religions different elements are more prominent. For example, in Judaism, those who could rightly be called religious fundamentalists are indeed upholding historical traditions, so they could just as well be called traditionalists (but not Conservative in the Jewish context), while the religious political right-wingers follow a more modernised version of the religion, or, rather, the one where emphases are shifted to meet current political goals. For them, it means greater attention is paid to the Bible, through which they are seeking closer connection to the land of Israel. Much honoured by the Orthodox Talmudic precepts may be pushed into background when they contradict the political agenda. It could be said that Judaism presents one of the clearer examples of the two types of fundamentalism, where they are well separated. It is still important that defining those as fundamentalists is based on their religious, not political outlook(6).

Being the first fundamentalists to receive this title, Christian fundamentalists largely pave the road and set pattern, if not for the fundamentalists of other religions, then for those who label them as such. It is considered that the rise of Biblical (Scriptural) criticism had been a strong catalyst leading to the emergence of such groups. It was one particular issue in the great overall change our society had undergone during the last 100+ years, and it caused a particular response on the part of the reactionary-turn-fundamentalist groups. This reaction was the immense stress they place on the inerrancy of the Bible, a defining point of Christian fundamentalists. Of course, almost as important was the development of science, which incidentally did not seem to prove right absolute majority of religious precepts. Instead, it induced rationalism, which possessed our society, and is countered by the fundamentalists with a great emphasis on the supernatural, starting from the Virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus. In time, simple rejection had to give way to the developments in society, so that scientific discoveries had to be accepted and the fundamentalist ideas adjusted accordingly. An interesting example of such concession is reinterpretation of the story of Genesis, for which the fundamentalists had to forgo the literal interpretation to fit it in with the contemporary scientific outlook they can no longer reject or ignore. At the same time, they would not admit the Bible to be wrong in the smallest detail.

In order to uphold inerrancy of the Bible, 7-day Creation of the World in Genesis is explained away, with days meant to represent symbolically much longer periods. The most interesting part is not how the fundamentalists have to give way to modernity despite all their claims to historical authenticity, but the way fundamentalists of other religions, namely Judaism and Islam followed their lead in explaining the days of Creation allegorically, as the long cosmic periods, called "days" in this context. Lucky for Muslims, Quranic presentation is, as usually, more vague than the Biblical one, so the explanation is less stretched(7). However, there are Jewish groups who not only insist that the Earth is literally 5759 years old, but that the six days are just that(8). These groups would not adopt the explanation that generations from Adam to the flood have gaps, where "son of" means "descendant of", common among the Christian fundamentalists, etc. The more politicised groups of Jewish fundamentalists, with their emphasis on the Bible are more likely to use similar explanations with the Christians to uphold the inerrancy of the Bible.

It is clear from the above examples that "literalist" is far from being a correct characteristic of the fundamentalist attitude to the Scripture. Possibly, it would be more justified to talk about "realism", or even "corporealism". This is because what indeed characterises fundamentalists is their straightforward, corporeal understanding of all the supernatural events, creatures and situations related to us by Scripture. Above mentioned Virgin birth is one of them, but the same applies to the angels, devils, heaven and hell, ladder to the sky or Jesus' ascent to Heaven.

This is not to say, however, that literalism is not important and is not a feature of the fundamentalist attitude. It is consistently preferred as the best interpretation, but because it is fully subservient to the notion of inerrancy, it is only used where there is no contradiction between the obvious literal meaning and other aspects, be it another verse, contradicting the meaning of the verse in question, or knowledge of a modern man. "In order to avoid imputing error to the Bible, fundamentalists twist and turn back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretations"(9). Example of the contradictory verses, explained away by non-literal understanding is parts of Exodus relating the generations from Judah to Moses, where only 3 generations are named, yet in the other verse, it is said that Jews have stayed in Egypt for 430 years. The same technique as with the previous generations inconsistency is employed, i.e. the gaps are implied between the persons named.

An interesting detail is noted by Barr: it is the true literary understanding of the Bible which led to the rise of the literary criticism. He suggests that where the verses contradict each other, but are understood in their direct literary meaning, it is most logical to suppose they were related by different authors, who had different traditions to record(10). This approach means that with other passages, it has to be assumed that the author was not sufficiently informed, and this assumption strongly contradicts any idea of its divine origin.

While the belief in Biblical inerrancy is the major characteristic of Christian fundamentalists, applying the same scale to Muslims would place them all into category of harsh fundamentalists, because Quran being the direct unaltered word of God is a central tenet of Islam. This is the perfect illustration of the relativity of any definitions of fundamentalism across the religious boundaries.

Fascinating example of fundamentalism is the Hindutva movement led by the RSS (Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh, "National Volunteer Corps"). This is the case where ideas and notions arguably alien to the Hindu tradition are imported following the pattern of other religions, and, largely, on the example of other fundamentalisms. In general terms, they are attempting to construct a Hindu nationalist movement, with such attributes as Holy land, Sacred place, the Scripture, single deity and common ritual, which all make it look as much as a nationalist as a religious force.

Their efforts had been called "Semiticization" of Hinduism, defacing its diversity of traditions and cultures. The elements of their system indeed look like directly borrowed components of a Semitic religion, especially in a nationalist interpretation.

Unlike any other fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism is not a reaction to the religious developments threatening the stability of the age-confirmed faith and practice. It could be said that it has purely political origins, and the only pressure is the external one, not of the modernisation, as is the case for the Muslim fundamentalists, but, rather, general influence of foreign religion(s). All this is done under the banner of "rediscovering" the true Hindu identity. "The Sangh is clearly trying to shape the tradition, although when a tradition is not well-set one can easily clothe innovation in the rhetoric of redicovery, as Krishna himself says in Gita 4.1-3"(11).

Their use of the Bhagavad-Gita as the Scripture is point of great difference from the Scriptural attitudes of the other fundamentalists. The peculiarity is in the fact that Bhagavad-Gita is not at all the most sacred religious text of Hinduism. The central ritual text is the Vedas, followed by the Upanishads, and then, down the descending line, one comes to the religious books which are revered as religious sources, but are not given any sanctity usually expected of the main Scripture of a religion.

It may be due to another specific aspect of the Hindutva. Like most other fundamentalist movements, it is trying to emphasise unity of the religious tradition, disregarding denominational differences. In the Indian diversity the variety cannot be ignored, and the fundamentalists are left to seek those symbols which are not associated with any particular tradition, do not come into contradiction with any, and are acceptable as the "extra" elements, which could be adopted in addition to the existent patterns. Seeking to superimpose its own over the existent, without negating the existing customs, and in distinction to all other fundamentalists, RSS ideology does not criticise the mainstream, traditional practice.

Hindutva movements is one of the more difficult examples of political, nationalist extremism clothed in the garb of religious fundamentalism. The difficulty of defining fundamentalism is especially apparent here, but it does not fit too well other non-Christian movements. Even comparing Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms, the two most commonly designated as such, shows more differences than similarities in their origins, ideology, and practices. All it represents is the difficulty of applying an essentially Christian term to others, the same case being apparent with a number of other terms, beginning with "Scripture".

Yet, there is always another level, where academic definitions and terminology become futile, because fundamentalism can be perfectly well defined merely by the attitudes of its representatives: "For, while the word "fundamentalist" does carry the suggestion of narrowness, bigotry, obscurantism and sectarianism, it remains an open question whether this suggestion, though unpleasant, is not a true and just one"(12).


1. William Shepard,

""Fundamentalism" Christian and Islamic",

Religion, Vol. 17, 1987, pp. 355-378

2. James Barr,

Fundamentalism, XPRESS REPRINTS, 1995

3. James G. Lochtefeld,

"New Wine, Old Skins: The Sangh Parivar and the Transformation of Hinduism",

Religion, Vol. 26, 1996, pp. 101-118

4. Hava Lazarus-Yafeh "Contemporary Fundamentalism: Judaism, Christianity, Islam"

in Silberstein ed., Jewish Fundamentalism in Comparative Perspective,

NY University Press, 1993


1.) I feel that even when people attempt to contest the use of this term, they understand perfectly well what the word implies, and rejecting it as a correct term for certain groups necessarily involves certain linguistic dishonesty.
2.) This is especially true of many nationalistic movements.
3.) For example, Muslim fundamentalists' obsession with the hadd penalties for theft and adultery.
4.) William Shepard, ""Fundamentalism" Christian and Islamic", Religion, Vol. 17, 1987, p. 361
5.) This is a personal corruption of Barr's discussion of the term "Conservative Evangelical" applied to the fundamentalists in J. Barr, Fundamentalism, (XPRESS REPRINTS, 1995), p.5
6.) It is my personal view that the distinction between religious fundamentalism and political extremism is very important, and the two may or may not go together, so one should not be taken as a determinant for the other.
7.) This is important because fundamentalist Muslims seem to be more reluctant than anyone to concede the literal understanding of the Scripture (and supplements), to the point of Sheikh ibn Baz pronouncing a fatwa that one is not allowed to deny that the Earth is flat (or something with this meaning).
Of course, where others resort to allegory, Muslims apply the theory of abrogation, saying that the undesirable verse has been superseded by another, revealed later according to them. Somehow, this happens to all the verses and ahadith enjoining the believers to be tolerant and live in peace with other religions.
8.) I am not sufficiently informed about those groups to expound further on their views. I am not even sure if it is justified to call them "fundamentalist". Barr explains this difference in attitude to Bible by Jewish greater reliance on the tradition and that the narrative details are of less consequence in Judaism religiously (Barr, Fundamentalism, p.285).
9.) Ibid, p.40
10.) Ibid., p. 46
11.) James G. Lochtefeld, "New Wine, Old Skins: The Sangh Parivar and the Transformation of Hinduism", Religion, Vol. 26, 1996, p.108
12.) Barr, Fundamentalism, p.3

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