The phrase Islamic fundamentalism is primarily used in the West to describe Islamist groups. However, usage of the term is often expanded to include all of the following aspects of Islam and the modern Muslim world:
- It describes the beliefs of traditional Muslims that they should restrict themselves to literal and traditional interpretations of their sacred texts, the Qur'an and Hadith.
- It describes a variety of religious movements and groups in Muslim communities which may be entirely apolitical. An example is the Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary-like organization whose main goal is to increase the personal piety of its members. In this sense, Islamic fundamentalism is just a term for religious conservatism which forms part of the spectrum of Muslim society.
All the above perspectives are opposed by liberal movements within Islam to varying degrees; in fact, fundamentalism and liberalism often define the two poles of public opinion in Muslim society. This indicates that fundamentalism may be simply a kind of conservatism which finds expression in a religious context.
As a way of reading one's religious texts
Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated by Allah, through the Arch-Angel Jabril, to Muhammad and that the current text of the Quran is identical to what was said by Muhammad to be the Quran. Islam traditionally has also taught that the correct interpretation of the Quran must rely solely on the Quran and Hadith (the oral accounts of Muhammad's teachings and practices), and nothing else. This excludes tradition, popular practice and all but the simplest reasoning.
While reading the Quran does not allow one to unambiguously know the will of God, reading the Quran in reference to the practices of Muhammad does allow one to unambiguously determine how Muslims should behave on important issues. This view, commonly associated with Wahhabism by Western sources hostile to islamic ideals, rejects Shi'a Islam, and the four common schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam.
As a social and political movement
As with adherents of other fundamentalist movements, Islamic fundamentalists hold that the problems of the world stem from secular influences. Further, the path to peace and justice in this world lies in a return to the original message of the faith, combined with a scrupulous rejection of all Bid'ah ("innovation') and perceived anti-Islamic traditions. Sometimes this results in Islamism.
Groups advocating Islam as a political movement are invariably responding to complex political and historical situations, usually with deep roots in the local environment. For example, the rise of the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh would not have been possible without widespread public reaction against the corruption of the secular Awami League government in that country. Unfortunately, this complex local political history is completely lost in the simplistic reductionism of terms like 'Muslim fundamentalism', which simultaneously explains everything and nothing by blaming Islam for being the religion of the majority.
Given the existence of undemocratic and corrupt regimes all over the Muslim world, it is not surprising that for much of the 20th century the dominant form of political dissent in these countries has been revolutionary Marxism rather than Islam as a political movement. However, the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War largely discredited leftist ideologies and Arab Nationalism there by strengthening Islamic parties. Continuing Western support for the Israeli settlement of the West Bank has also increased the anti-American sentiments which Islamism represents.
Many scholars of religion believe that, contrary to their own message, Islamic fundamentalists are not actually traditionalists. Typically, their message is that returning to the original version of the faith requires abandonment of a variety of traditional practices which they contend are medieval innovations, such as the practice of asking favors from "saints" (awliya). However, scholars of Islam hold that the result is that the fundamentalists are creating innovations; they are creating a form of Islam that never existed in the past.
Some Muslim fundamentalists seek to change the laws of their nation so as to make their laws based on the Quran and Hadith. While there have historically been many non-violent Muslim fundamentalists, one Western connotation of the term fundamentalism is the assertion of views through violence or oppression, rather than persuasion.
Conflicts with the secular, democratic state
Islamic fundamentalism and especially Islamism is becoming more and more in conflict with the secular, democratic state, based upon the widely supported Universal Rights (as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This conflict centers on following issues:
- acceptance (as prescribed by the UDHR), or rejection of the priority of universal rights and civil law upon religious group rights and religious law (as defended by islamism), and more specifically
- acceptance (UDHR), or rejection of the equality of men and women;
- seperation of state and church (UDHR), fiercely rejected by islamism;
- acceptance of religious rights, including the right for someone, Muslim or not, to leave the religion in which he was born;
As a result of this sharp conflict, many doubt whether Islam is compatible with modern secular and democratic state. E.g. the European Court of Human Rights explicitly stated that Islam and Shariah is incompatible with democracy. This, however, is a narrow, legalistic statement. It does indeed only apply to the literal interpretations of the Qur'an and the Hadiths.
Many modern Islamic writers and imams (as Soheib Bencheikh, Mohammed Arkoun, Bassam Tibi, Abdoldjavad Falaturi and Nasr Abu Zayd write on a modern, secular interpretation that is perfectly compatible with modern secular democrary and with the legislation in the EU-states.
- Sikand, Yoginder Origins and Development of the Tablighi-Jama'at (1920-2000): A Cross-Country Comparative Study, ISBN 8125022988