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Fundamentalism is defined as the activist assertion of a particular faith tradition based on an affirmation of self-defined foundational principles or “fundamentals” of the faith. Fundamentalist movements are movements of renewal, aiming to reform or transform society and religious life. Fundamentalism is one mode of religious expression within broader religious traditions, contrasting with conservativism, which opposes change and reform, as well as with more future-oriented, messianic programs of transformation.

Originally, fundamentalism was the name applied to a specific Christian religious experience that emerged in response to the development of Christian “modernism” in the nineteenth century. While modernism elicited reaction in many areas, it was most vehement in the United States. Between 1909 and 1915 a group of American theologians wrote and published a series of booklets called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, in which they defined what they believed to be the absolutely fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The core of these doctrines was the literal inerrancy of the Bible in all its statements and affirmations. During the debates of the 1920s, the supporters of this position came to be called Fundamentalists.

For many years the term “fundamentalism” was applied almost exclusively to this particular Christian tradition. By the 1970s, as scholars and the general public became increasingly aware of the resurgence of religion in many different societies, the term began to be applied to movements of religious revival in a wide variety of contexts. People spoke of Hindu and Jewish fundamentalism and, in the context of the ideological debates of the 1990s, some people even spoke of “secularist fundamentalism.” When applied to non-Christians, the term was most commonly applied to individuals and movements in the Islamic resurgence of the final quarter of the twentieth century. By the 1990s the phrase “Muslim fundamentalism” (or “Islamic fundamentalism”) was widely used in both scholarly and journalistic literature.

The application of the term “fundamentalism” to Muslims is controversial. It is said by some that the term has connotations of ignorance and backwardness and thus is insulting to movements of legitimate Islamic revival. Others have argued that there is no exact cognate term in Arabic or other major languages of Muslims, and that this indicates that there is no cognate phenomenon in Muslim societies to which the term might apply.

Despite this, there is general recognition that activist movements of Muslim revival are increasingly important and reference must be made to them. Among the many terms used for this purpose are Islamism, integrism, neo-normative Islam, neo-traditional Islam, Islamic revivalism, and Islamic nativism. However, “fundamentalism” remains a commonly utilized identification of the various revivalist impulses among Muslims. More technically accurate expressions and neologisms have not replaced the term.

The description and analysis of Islamic fundamentalism in the modern era gives rise to many debates. Among the most important of these is whether Islamic fundamentalism is a distinctively modern phenomenon. Such scholars as Fazlur Rahman, R. Hrair Dekmejian, and John O. Voll argue that throughout Islamic history it is possible to see activist movements advocating a return to the pristine fundamentals of the faith. From this perspective, the Ḥanbalī tradition, especially as defined by Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) in the fourteenth century, and reformers in South Asia such as Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1625) and possibly even early Islamic radicals like the Khārijī sect, represent premodern expressions of a fundamentalist style of Islamic affirmation. In this view, the fundamentalist movements of the eighteenth century, most notably the Wahhābī movement in the Arabian Peninsula and jihād efforts organized by Ṣūfītarīqahs in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and elsewhere, provide an important foundation for Islamic fundamentalism in the modern era.

In contrast, scholars such as Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (who directed the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Sciences) and Bruce Lawrence argue that current forms of fundamentalism are distinctively the products of the modern era, even though they may have some historical antecedents. In this view, the conditions of modernity are unique, and fundamentalisms are distinctive responses to the religious challenges of modernity. The major examples of Islamic fundamentalist movements are, from this perspective, not the traditionalist movements or nativist revolts of the nineteenth century nor the puritanical holy warriors of pre-modern times. They are those that developed in the twentieth century and became most visible in the Islamic resurgence of the last quarter of that century, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. S. N. Eisenstadt provides a conceptual bridge between these two interpretations by identifying the pre-modern movements as “proto-fundamentalist.”

Among Muslims there is a broad spectrum both in the use of the term “fundamentalism” and in evaluation of the phenomenon. In the nineteenth century most Muslims were aware of the power of Western societies and the relative weakness of Muslim communities. One of the major themes of Muslim history in the modern era is the interaction of Muslims with the West and the efforts to revive and/or reform the world of Islam. The first modern response was to adapt to the new world conditions and utilize Western models in reforming Muslim societies. By the second half of the twentieth century, it became clear that the results of these reform programs were not satisfactory, and new, more revolutionary efforts were undertaken. Among these efforts are the major Islamic fundamentalist movements, which adopt positions rejecting the simple copying of Western methods and affirming the comprehensive and effective nature of the Islamic message.

In the 1970s most Muslim analysts rejected the term “fundamentalism” as an identifying label for the movements of Islamic affirmation. However, writers in Arabic by the 1980s began to use the term uṣūlīyah, an Arabic neologism that is a direct translation of “fundamentalism” based on uṣūl, the Arabic word for “fundamentals.” Nevertheless, by the early twenty-first century, the term continued to be used more widely by analysts of the Islamic resurgence than by activists in that cluster of movements.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, movements of Islamic activism continue to flourish. However, the diversity of their nature and programs makes it increasingly difficult to apply a single term like “fundamentalism” to this broad spectrum. The Islamic resurgence has taken a growing number of forms, with each getting identified as “fundamentalist” at least in journalistic coverage. In some areas, movements continued the mode of activism that had come to be identified as fundamentalist. The Taliban regime that took control of Afghanistan in 1996 was an attempt at a radical transformation of society based on a narrow understanding of the “fundamentals” of Islam. The implementation of Islamic law (sharīʿah) undertaken by governments in some states in northern Nigeria, while also identified as “fundamentalist” by many, involved a more conservative understanding of Islamic legal “fundamentals.”

In contrast, many Muslim groups and tendencies that had been identified as “fundamentalist” in the late twentieth century evolved into a wide range of diverse movements. The “fundamentalist” Muslim Brotherhood, for example, spawned a variety of groups that became part of the participating democratic opposition in Egypt. The older political organizations in Turkey that were led by Necmettin Erbakan (b. 1926) and thought to be “fundamentalist” were transformed into the Justice and Development Party, which won parliamentary majorities in 2002 and 2007 and advocates Turkish membership in the European Union. Similar developments took place in many other parts of the Muslim world.

One of the most dramatic developments was the emergence of militant terrorist groups like al-Qaʿida. Throughout the Muslim world, small but highly visible extremist groups captured headlines and attention through acts of terrorism. The suicide attack that resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, was a major event in this development. However, extremist terrorist groups tended to emphasize themes of “holy war” against unbelief rather than the older standard reaffirmations of the “fundamentals” of Islam. These new groups are identified with more specific terms like “Wahhābī” or “Salafī,” which are similar in meaning to fundamentalism but with somewhat different ideological implications.

As the term fundamentalism has come to be less prominent in discussions of Muslim activism, it has gained a more generic usage by scholars in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Despite the objections to the term as being vague, with definitions tied to Christian history, it became a generic term of convenience for analysts as scholars increasingly recognized the global and multicultural nature of the religious resurgence. The rise of Hindu activism during the 1990s, for example, was quickly labeled by many as “Hindu fundamentalism.” The volumes published during the 1990s by the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Sciences confirmed this expansion of usage by discussing “fundamentalisms” in many different religious traditions.

A general survey of scholarship in the sociology of religion published in 2006 spoke of “the rise of religious fundamentalism” (Emerson and Hartman, 2006). The survey presented the broader scholarly understanding of the global nature of religious activism at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the identification of that activism as “fundamentalism.” The movements of religious activism and the studies of these movements reflect the emerging conclusions that the “resurgence” of religion at the end of the twentieth century is more than the last phase of pre-modern opposition to modernity. The new fundamentalism is one manifestation of the continuing importance of religion in human life.



  • Antoun, Richard T.Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Movements. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press, 2001. A remarkably comprehensive comparative analysis.
  • Choueiri, Youssef M. Islamic Fundamentalism 3rd Edition: the Story of Islamist Movements. Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
  • Eisenstadt, S. N.Fundamentalism, Sectarianism, and Revolution: The Jacobin Dimension of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An important analysis of the broader phenomena of religious activism in the contexts of modernity.
  • Euben, Roxanne L.Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. A clear analysis of the development of Islamic fundamentalism, placing it in historical context.
  • Emerson, Michael O., and David Hartman. “The Rise of Religious Fundamentalism.”Annual Review of Sociology. 2006. 32: 127–144. A useful and comprehensive survey of scholarship at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
  • Marty, Martin, and R, Scott Appleby, eds.Fundamentalisms Comprehended. The Fundamentalism Project, vol. 5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. The final volume presenting comparative summaries and conclusions of the very influential “Fundamentalism Project.”
  • Roy, Olivier. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. An important analysis of new modes of Islamic activism, described as the “neo-fundamentalism” of the twenty-first century.
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