Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Nature of Islamism

The theological positions that became known as “Fundamentalism” arose in the U.S. shortly after the turn of the last century in reaction against Germanic Scholarship which rejected divine inspiration of Scripture and substituted the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis that argued Scripture should be treated according to the rules of literary criticism and not as though God inspired them. A series of books were written by religious scholars opposing one thing and another and these books became known as The Fundamentals. I have a set and have read a number of the articles. Some make good arguments that Germanic scholarship, and most of the original arguments derived by Wellhausen have been largely abandoned even by the those of the “Historico-Critical” school which he inspired.

Those who contributed to The Fundamentals whom I consider serious theological scholars soon distanced themselves from the group that retained the title, “Fundamentalist.” The group that is currently known as Fundamentalists derives its theology from the British theologian Darby who made several trips to the U.S. and influenced Louis Chafer who founded Dallas Theological seminary which has produced countless preachers who sound like Hal Lindsey. If you ever read The Late Great Planet Earth, then you know something of what these guys are about. They obtain their peculiar view of eschatology through a hermeneutic that requires the exegete to interpret every Scriptural passage literally “if it can be taken literally.” The famous verse in Revelation 20:2 which speaks of Satan being bound for a thousand years is under the Darby hermeneutic to be taken literally. This is one of their distinctives, and before they became known as Fundamentalists and Dispensationalists, they were known as Millennialists.

As to their danger to the US, I always believe stupidity and ignorance dangerous, but there is nothing militant about these people. Jerry Fallwell tried to marshal them in order to get them to vote as a block, but that largely failed. The “Christian Right” is largely a myth. Fundamentalists might vote with Catholics and Muslims on such issues as abortion and gay marriage, but it pretty much ends there. Their Millennialism causes them to expect a “Tribulation,” but they won’t be causing it. Neither will they be participating in it. They expect a “rapture” to take them up to heaven before it happens. Anyone who expresses fear of this group just isn’t paying attention.

Christian Fundamentalism has a parallel in Shiite Islamism. The Christians are awaiting Christ while the Shiites are awaiting the Mahdi, also known as the Twelfth Imam. The logic of both positions would suggest an inclination toward political pacifism. If you are going to wait for the Second Coming of Christ to set up a millennial kingdom, then you are not going to try and set it up yourself – especially when you believe that you are going to be raptured before it happens. Similarly the Shiite Islamists believe that the Mahdi will “restore all things,” so they must wait for his leadership, or follow the lead of some Imam who is getting instructions from the Mahdi. It was widely believed that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was in the second category; some for awhile thought he might even be the Mahdi.

Aside from the Shiite Islamists, primarily of Iran, the bulk of the Islamists today derive their doctrine from Sayyid Qutb who was an Egyptian “Muslim Brother.” He wrote the multivolume In the Shade of the Quran while he was in an Egyptian prison. He also wrote Social Justice in Islam and Signposts before he was hanged by Nassar in 1966. Qutb was neither a Koranic scholar nor original but he was a better writer than those who influenced him. He was heavily influenced by the Pakistani Maududi who advocated “violence if necessary,” but argued against it whenever his associates and followers thought it necessary. Many have thought it a shame that Qutb was executed believing that he too would have argued against the actually violence that his writings advocated. Nonetheless, violence is a distinctive of the Sayyid-Qutb-inspired Sunni Islamism. Qutb admired Lenin and Stalin and incorporated some of their techniques into his Islamism, but the idea that Islamism advocates a Marxist-type revolution has been discredited.

In regard to Sunnis, aside from Sayyid-Qutb-Islamism there is Maududi Islamism in Pakistan and Wahhab Islamism in Saudi Arabia. They share a Fundamentalist-type adherence to the Sharia. This means that they take a simplistic literalistic interpretation of the Koran and the Sunnah (the sayings and teachings of Mohammad collected after his death) and they teach children to memorize them. The Saudi Wahhabs deny that they advocate violence, but Saudi Arabian Wahhab money has been behind a lot of violence elsewhere so few outside of Saudi Arabia are interested in defending the Wahhabs.

In Raymond Baker’s Islam without Fear, Egypt and the New Islamist, 2003, he describes a group of Islamic scholars he calls New Islamists. These are Islamic intellectuals and Koranic scholars. Apparently there are only a few of them, but they have written books and, Baker hopes, could be influential. The most influential is Shaikh Muhammad al Ghazzaly who died in 1994. He regularly denigrated the Islamists for their poor theology. However, he and the other New Islamists believe that “Sharia Law, rightly understood” should be the law of the land in Muslim nations. I had to read pretty far into Baker’s book before I became comfortable with what they were talking about, but Baker ploddingly does his work and convinces the reader that a Middle East adhering to Sharia Law “rightly understood” as Ghazzaly and the other New Islamists teach would be easy for the West to live with. The New Islamists, however, do not seem to be very influential.

Unfortunately the old Islamists are such an intimidating factor in the Middle East that it is hard to tell how many Muslims would like not to live under Sharia Law as they teach it. What we are hearing from Iraq is encouraging in that regard. Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish Muslims are coming together in support of some form of democratic cooperative that doesn’t do away with the rights of minorities. The Islamist version of Sharia Law would not be adhered to in the New Iraq unless the Islamists manage to destroy the new government.

Iraq being set up as it has been is an enormous blow against Islamism, despite the American press’s ho-hum attitude about it. Islamism is not losing any place else in the Middle East when one looks at matters from their standpoint. For example, Egypt’s Mubarak has ruthlessly suppressed the Islamists but in the process he has antagonized a great number of ordinary people who are like the Iranians under the Shah back in 1979 in that they might be induced to think, “Anything is better than this.” When Mubarak dies (and he has not designated a successor) the Islamists will make a strong push for greater power. The same sort of thing is true elsewhere. Autocrats of the sort that took power after Britain and France left their colonies are still in power and with a few exceptions still rule ruthlessly. It is widely believed that this sort of government cannot continue indefinitely, but what shall replace it? The Islamists until recently have been the only alternative with a powerful presence. Now, in Iraq, there is one additional alternative.

Lawrence Helm

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