Essentials of Islam - Lesson 6

Islamic Fundamentalism

It is timely to explore the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and how that has resulted in the rise of Osama bin Laden and recent terrorist activities. An effective response to this movement will require a Christian presence among Muslims around the world.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of Islam
Lesson 6
Watching Now
Islamic Fundamentalism

Islamic Fundamentalism

I. Introduction

II. Historical Background

1924 - Abolishment of the Caliphate by Ataturk

1928 - The Muslim Brotherhood

1954 - Nasser becomes president of Egypt

1965 - Signposts on the Road by Sayid Qutb

1967 - Six Day War

1979 - Iranian Revolution

1979 - Invasion of Afghanistan by U.S.S.R.

1979 - Sadat signs Peace Treaty with Israel

1980 - The Neglected Duty by Faraj

1981 - Sadat is assassinated

1983 - Attack on Marine barracks in Beirut

1989 - U.S.S.R. leaves Afghanistan

1991 - Gulf War

1993 - Bombing of the World Trade Towers

1996 - Rise of the Taliban

1998 - Bombing of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania

2001 - Bombing of World Trade Towers and Pentagon

III. The Ladenese Epistles - Five Themes

A. Defeat of Arabs in Six Day War

B. Bitterness toward the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia

C. Iranian Revolution

D. Lesson of the invasion of Afghanistan

E. The U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia

IV. A Christian Strategy


For more on Islamic Fundamentalism, go to "Introduction to Islam" in the Leadership Education section of this site:

Lecture #11 - Sufism and Sufi Orders"

  • The purpose of this course is to provide an introductory study of the structure, beliefs and practices of Islam. Special emphasis will be placed on a study of the theology of the Quran.

  • In 6th-century Arabia, geography and culture shaped the emergence of Islam. Muhammad, once leading a normal life, at 40 claimed revelation from Gabriel about worshipping one "true" God, Allah. His Qur'an recorded further revelations. Destroying family idols, he fled to Medina with supporters, facing outnumbered battles. Muslim mosques built hold deep religious and historical value.

  • The Muslims believe that the Qur'an is a divine revelation from God given directly to Muhammed beginning in about 610 a.d. The Five Pillars of the Islamic religion are the confession of faith, ritual prayer, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage.

  • Muhammad's successors were call caliphs. From the beginning, there was disagreement about what characteristics would qualify someone to be a caliph. The four "Rightly Guided Caliphs" were in power in successive years from 632 to 661. The two major divisions in Islam are the Shia and Sunni Muslims. One of the major differences between these two movements was over how the successors to Muhammad would be determined. A third movement in Islam is known as Sufi.

  • Along with the Qur'an, the Hadith is another source of revelation for the Muslim religion. The Hadith addresses many social and economic issues that come up in daily life. The Sunna is a collection of oral tradition about Muhammad, and the Hadith is a collection of narratives about Muhammad that are written. The Sunnis also have a provision for the community coming to a consensus about something new being agreed to as having equal authority with the Qur'an and Hadith. In the Shia community an Imam can declare something as revelatory truth. These components combine to make up Sharia law, which governs the Muslim community.

  • If we look at this as an exegetical statement, we can see that from looking at the teachings of the Qur'an, Islam is not a religion that at its root, advocates peaceful propagation. If we look at this as a historical statement, Islam has not historically been a religion of peace, even though some of its followers may advocate living at peace with others. The two contradictory principles that exist in tension in the Muslim religion are Da'wah and Jihad..

  • It is timely to explore the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and how that has resulted in the rise of Osama bin Laden and recent terrorist activities. An effective response to this movement will require a Christian presence among Muslims around the world.

  • Islam and Christianity have major theological differences including their view of Scripture, the nature of God, who Jesus is and what is required for salvation. There are specific strategies that can help us witness to Muslims genuinely and effectively.

 There are seven messages that will introduce readers to the historical context, key tenents of the Muslim faith, distinctions and divisions found within Islam, and a basic strategy for engaging Muslims with the gospel.

Recommended Books

Essentials of Islam - Student Guide

Essentials of Islam - Student Guide

This course serves as a summary of the beliefs and practices of Islam. There are seven messages that will introduce readers to the historical context, key tenents of the...

Essentials of Islam - Student Guide

I. Introduction

When you drop a heavy rock in the middle of a lake, you not only have the initial impact of the water, but the ripples work their way even to the far reaches of the lake. In the same way, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11th continues to ripple out with many consequences, many of which are still yet unforeseen.

One of the new realities is that clearly, the eyes of the world are now on Islam. Christians are more interested in the challenges which Islam poses, the history of Islam, the teachings of the Qur’an, than ever before. There is an old poster which the mission organization Frontier put out a few years ago. It shows an Arab male with a wrinkled face with so many lines, it looks like a road map; his eyes piercing out from his wrinkled brow underneath an Islamic turban; his skin darkened by both birth and the sun. The caption underneath reads a simple phrase: “Muslims, it’s their turn.” The poster is lamenting the fact that so few missionaries were going to the Muslim world with the Gospel. One of the ironies of September 11th is that the prayer burden and the love for Muslims by Christians has increased, not decreased. In our own daily prayer time at Gordon Conwell the students get on their faces every day for months, praying for the Muslim world. Indeed, the eyes of the world are on Islam.

I think it is important to take a few moments to learn some things about what produced Osama Bin Laden that are not obviously put out on your typical nightly newscast. Even now, some months after the September 11th attack, I think it is fair to say that the reporting has been largely reporting the media events surrounding the rise of Bin Laden. There has been very, very little serious discussion of the rise historically of Islamic fundamentalism.

The purpose of this lecture is to explore the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and then to explore how that has rippled out into the current place where we are today with the rise of Osama Bin Laden.

First, what do we mean by Islamic fundamentalism? Islamic fundamentalism refers to a movement which seeks to go back to the original documents and reclaim an original fervor and original spirituality that perhaps was not present in a later movement. It’s a “back to the Bible” or “back to the Qur’an” or “back to the Vedas” movement. Fundamentalism is a movement that has swept across the world and is encompassing all major religious communities.

I work in India and have experienced a lot of Hindu fundamentalism. There is a widespread Buddhist fundamentalism. There is Jewish fundamentalism. There is Christian fundamentalism. And of course, now we are quite aware of Islamic fundamentalism.

II. Historical Background

1924 – Abolishment of the caliphate by Ataturk

Historically the birth of Islamic fundamentalism is traced in the modern period to actually 1924 when Ataturk, the president of Turkey, abolished an Islamic caliphate. You recall in our earlier lecture we discussed how after the death of Muhammad, the Muslims set up a legal system whereby the Muslim community would be guided by a figure known as “the caliph.” The caliphate, which is the institution which is led by a caliph, continued from the time of Muhammad until the time of Ataturk, the president of Turkey, who essentially established a secular country, Turkey, that is populated by 95% Muslim people.

1928 – The Muslim Brotherhood

Islam does not accept what we would call “the separation of church and state” or “mosque and state.” Their idea is that mosque and state must work hand and glove. Ataturk made a major break with that by abolishing the caliphate and simply saying that Islam will be the personal religion of Turkey, but politically the country will be secular. This is a big change and this created a massive reaction for the Muslim world. Particularly, an Egyptian named Assan Abana, founded in 1928 a movement called The Muslim Brotherhood. The purpose of this movement was to unite Muslims around the world, from Indonesia in the East and India, Pakistan, East Africa below the Sahara, all of the way to the Middle East and even Muslims that had migrated to the West; to unite them into a single movement which could unite and create political power and to unite the Muslims under a common banner. To this day there are Muslim Brotherhoods around the world. That occurred in 1928, founded by Assan Abana.

1954 – Nasser becomes president of Egypt

Another important milestone on the way occurred in 1952 with the rise of Gamal Nasser, who comes to power in Egypt. Nasser of course was a powerful, pro-Islamic nationalist who put the squeeze on Israel. Israel, you recall, had been established in 1948 in the wake of World War II after the horrible calamity of Hitler and the extermination of six million Jews, known as “the holocaust.” Nasser was so opposed to Israel that he seized the Suez Canal and said no ships headed to or from Israel would be allowed through. The Suez Canal at that time was under international control. This became a lightning rod for Muslim extremists around the world, that began to ignite the whole anti-Israel ferment which we still live with today. These are early fundamentalist movements which we are still experiencing today.

1965 – “Signposts on the Road” by Sayid Qutb

In 1965 another Egyptian, named Sayid Qutb, wrote a book entitled – the translation would be – “Signposts on the Road.” This is really a very important book in the history of Islamic fundamentalism, particularly the history of terrorism. He refers to any Muslims who do not live under sharia law. We discussed before how Muslims under the ideal of Muhammad and his immediate followers in the caliphate would be governed under sharia law, which was made up of the Qur’an, the hadith, the ijma; or Qur’an, hadith and the imams. All of the material is codified into a legal system. We talked just a moment ago about how Ataturk abolished the caliphate and would not allow for the caliphate to be governing a Turkey that chose a secular government.

There is an Egyptian in 1965 who says, “Any Muslim who is not under sharia law is living in ‘jahiliyyah” or ignorance. “ He lays out basically a syllabus for radicals to attack these Muslim states and to create a movement of fundamentalism to restore Islam to its original purity. It is a very important event because one of the things that Bin Laden to this day is doing is criticizing the Muslim community for their lack of spiritual fervor of their fundamental beliefs.

1967 – Six Day War

Another signpost on the road or another major point along the rise of fundamentalism is of course the 1967 six-day war. This was by all accounts one of the most remarkable events of Twentieth Century, where there is a major attack where the Egyptians attack Israel and Israel, in a matter of hours, completely defeats the entire Egyptian Army. The tanks are destroyed. Egypt, again under Gamal Nasser, had contacted both Jordan and Syria and claimed there was a great rout of Israel, so Jordan and Syria joined in. The result was that Israel completely humiliated and defeated in only six days, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, a simultaneous defeat. Nasser resigned from office in humiliation, but popular sentiment insisted that he stay on. But he was really a lame duck until his death in 1970, just three years later. He was succeeded by a well-known figure, Anwar Sadat.

That six-day war continues to be a craw in the hands and feet of Muslims, who insist that the six-day war and that massive humiliation was because Muslims were not faithful to the true principles of Islam. This became a rallying point for fundamentalism. Remember how we looked at the very beginning at these two major battles: The battle of Badr and the battle of Uhud. These battles, which became the symbol of the “mother of all battles” and martyrdom are again brought out in this modern-day period when they say, “This defeat, this martyrdom, this humiliation was because we were not faithful to Islam, and Allah therefore called us to be martyrs.”

1979 – Iranian Revolution

The next major event in the rise of fundamentalism and the birth of terrorism is in 1979, the Iranian revolution which overthrew the Shah of Iran, who was supported by the West; and the rise of Ayatolla Kohmeini with his cries of “Death to America.” This was a very major challenge by the Shiites to demonstrate that the Shiite Muslims could provide an alternative to Western secular materialism and democratic liberalism. The Muslims believed that the Iranian revolution would eventually spread to every other Muslim country. The interesting thing is that in fact, the Iranian revolution in many ways has been exported to all of the Muslim countries in the region. To some degree or another, they sparked fundamentalist movements in all Muslim countries. The interesting thing is that Iran has become increasingly more moderate, while every other state has become more radicalized in particularly the last 25 years.

1979 - Invasion of Afghanistan by U.S.S.R.

In the same year of the Iranian revolution you have the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979. That is a very important fact because that becomes a 10-year struggle to run the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. The fact that the Muslims in the very backward country of Afghanistan could unite, granted with the help of shoulder-held missiles from the West. Nevertheless, the Muslims were able to defeat the most powerful, or at least one of the most powerful, military machines in the world, the mighty Soviet Union. This was considered to be a tremendous, tremendous victory for the Muslim community. Bin Laden refers to this quite a bit in his writings, which I will mention in a moment.

1979 - Sadat signs Peace Treaty with Israel

1980 – “The Neglected Duty” by Faraj

One year later in 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and while that combat was still going on, there was another Egyptian named Faraj who wrote a very, very compelling book entitled “The Neglected Duty.” Essentially the neglected duty in his book is the duty for Muslims to call for jihad against all infidels. This is a recapitulation of the doctrine of jihad, trying to go back to the violent theme that we have touched on. In an earlier lecture, we discussed whether or not Islam is a religion of peace. Here are two books, which I would say that 99% of Americans have never heard of. The book “Signposts on the Road” by Sayid Qutb and the book, “The Neglected Duty” by M. Faraj. Both of these books, written by Egyptians, have become major manuals for radicals, for terrorists and for Islamic fundamentalists. Copies of these books have been found in the raids in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. There is no question, these are very influential books that it would do very well for us to study and learn how people are thinking in the Islamic world.

1981 – Sadat is assassinated

In 1981, the year after “The Neglected Duty” was published, you recall that Sadat had come to power after the humiliation of the six-day war. By this time Sadat had been in power for 11 years, from 1970 until 1981. In 1981 Sadat became the first Arab statesman to sign a peace treaty with Israel. This was a major challenge to Islamic fundamentalism because he was essentially tolerating Jewish presence on what they believed was Islamic soil. In response to that, Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981. This demonstrates the tremendous anger in the Muslim fundamentalist community about any attempts to make peace with Israel.

1983 –Attack on Marine barracks in Beirut

It isn’t until 1983, or some number of years from the birth of fundamentalism in 1924, that for the first time the U.S. is directly involved with this movement and it more or less hits our radar. Though this time in 1983, when there was the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, there where 241 Marines killed. It is at this point that it finally begins to hit the consciousness of Americans that fundamentalists could become dangerous to American presence around the world.

1989 – U.S.S.R. leaves Afghanistan

This is followed by another victory by the Muslims in 1989 when the Russians were forced to leave Afghanistan. That is still fresh in the minds of Muslims.

1991 – Gulf War

In 1991, just two years later, when the Gulf War occurs, after Iraq invades Kuwait, this whole thing is couched in terms of The Holy Land being threatened; not The Holy Land the Christians and Jews refer to; but the Muslim Holy Land, that is, Saudi Arabia. The oil fields of Saudi Arabia were clearly under threat by Sadam Hussein, a Muslim leader. Again, the Muslims viewed him as an infidel who was seeking to destroy and rampage The Holy Land. What shocked the Muslim world, particularly the fundamentalists, was rather than having an old, 10-year struggle the way the Muslims did in Afghanistan to push the Russians out, the Saudi family, the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia, decided to go for a quick solution. Rather than a 10-month or 10-year struggle, they decided to go instead with a 10-month plan and that is, to sign a deal with the U.S.A. to allow military bases to be set up in Saudi Arabia and allow for U.S. troops to be present right there in Arabia. Arabia is considered by Muslims to be a Holy Land, which should not ever have an infidel foot touch on the soil of Arabia. This has been a major source of anger and is constantly pouring out of the pen of Osama Bin Laden.

1993 – Bombing of the World Trade Towers

In 1993, two years later, this is the first major reaction to the American presence in Arabia, the bombing of the World Trade Towers. That was the first attempt and only a few were killed.

1996 – Rise of the Taliban

Finally, this was followed by the Taliban’s rise in 1996 where they gained control of most of Afghanistan.

1998 – Bombing of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania

In 1998 you had the simultaneous bombing of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. As I recall, 213 were killed in those simultaneous attacks.

2001 – Bombing of World Trade Towers and Pentagon

Of course, this finally culminated in the September 2001 attack on the Trade Towers and the Pentagon, which left thousands of civilians dead and people from around the world who worked in the World Trade Towers.

My main point is to say that what we experienced on September 11th is actually the culmination of a wide development of events that have dated back into the 1920s. This story is not over. We obviously now are engaged in a war on terrorism. There is no question that Islamic fundamentalists are plotting more attacks on the United States of America.

III. The Ladenese Epistles – Five Themes.

Go back and read some of Bin Laden’s writings. These, by the way, are on the Internet, many of them are available. They are known as “The Ladenese Epistles.” In the Ladenese Epistles there are pages and pages of documents of the speeches and writings of Osama Bin Laden. You notice that in the course of his writings there are five major themes that come out repeatedly in his writings. I think this would be his own answer to, “Why is Osama Bin Laden angry? Why does he hate the United States of America?”

A. Defeat of Arabs in the Six-Day War

The first reason that comes out in his writings is the defeat of the Arabs in the six-day war. This anger is mainly directed against Muslims, who he feels are not faithful to the true tenants of Islam, but have been influenced by Western ideals, Western democracy, Western egalitarianism; and he is convinced that the Muslims were not truly fundamentalists. We know from reading the news that in Saudi Arabia, those fundamentalists, the country in general, by our standards is very fundamentalist. Women can’t vote; women can’t drive cars. But for Bin Laden, even Saudi Arabia is not fundamentalist enough, it has been overly influenced by Western ideals.

B. Bitterness toward the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia

Secondly he is very bitter, particularly towards The Royal Family of Saudi Arabia, whose one of their titles is, “guardians of the holy mosques” referring to the mosques in Mecca and Medina. He is concerned because he feels like The Royal Family has sold out Islam to the West, particularly by making deals with the U.S. Military.

C. Iranian Revolution

He also frequently alludes to the Iranian revolution. This is to him a great example of anti-Western ideology. He is very encouraged by the power of the Iranian revolution to overthrow the Western puppet leaders and to establish fundamentalist governments which would re-institute Islamic law. This is why he is very much in favor of the Taliban, because the Taliban represents a return to fundamentalist sharia law in the country.

D. Lesson of the invasion of Afghanistan

Fourthly, he is very concerned about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; the lesson of that not being applied by modern day Muslims. He exults at how the Muslims were able to single-handedly cast out the Russian invaders. Russia in his mind epitomized the infidel. Russia was atheistic; so, godly Muslims threw out the ungodly atheists, the Russians. In the same way, he believes that America represents godless, faithless people who could be cast out of the Middle East. He is convinced that we represent a secular model which is threatening to the history of the world; and even though their response is violent, it is necessary to restore the world to its purity.

E. The U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia

Finally, Bin Laden is concerned about the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. He points out that we were invited in to defeat Sadam Hussein. But after the war is over, we are still there, the troops have not left. This bothers him greatly and he actually goes on to say that he believes that the whole invasion of Iraq was a setup that the West engineered in order to get an excuse to invade Saudi Arabia. In the Ladenese epistles he claims that the purpose of the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia is actually to divide Saudi Arabia into two countries or two areas, one of which would be given to Israel, to give them more land; and one of which would be controlled by the U.S. as a major base in the heart of the Middle East.

We can talk all day about how crazy this is and how bizarre this is, but don’t mistake for a minute that there are millions of Muslims around the world who believe that our presence in Saudi Arabia is exactly for the purpose which Bin Laden has outlined.

It is only in the recent post September 11th period that Bin Laden has linked the safety of the U.S. to the Palestine cause in Israel. This is of course an ongoing problem among Muslims, but only recently has this entered into the writings of Bin Laden. He has said effectively that the U.S. will never be secure until Palestinians have a homeland, etc. This linking the safety of Americans to the establishment of a peaceful homeland of the Palestinians is something that is a more recent development. Bin Laden officially declared war on the U.S. back in 1996 and so we have to realize there are a number of years of preparation before the actual 2001 event on September 11th. It is quite well known now that September 11th was planned ever since Bin Laden declared war on the U.S. in 1996. This gives us some sense of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and why Bin Laden is angry.

IV. A Christian Strategy

This does not call for easy answers, but fundamental strategy on a multi-layered basis. I believe it involves most importantly, a Christian presence among Muslims around the world. Christians must model love and sacrificial kinds of ministry to Muslims who are in need around the world. A great example would be in Bosnia and other areas where Muslims have suffered greatly because of the terrible conflicts in the Balkans. There are many places in the world where we can model Christian love.

I think that is the most important strategy. I think also politically it is important for the U.S. to develop ties with moderate Muslims, to give further voice to Muslims who do oppose Islamic fundamentalism and some of the extremes, especially in their writings about the proper interpretation of jihad and this whole issue of passive versus active martyrdom which I alluded to in the last lecture.

I hope this has been helpful to draw upon the history of Islamic fundamentalism and provide some context for the current situation.

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