The visionaries behind a veil

The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (HarperCollins, £19.99, 442pp)
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The Independent Culture

Humanity today is living in a huge brothel! One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ball-rooms, wine bars, and broadcasting stations! Or observe its mad lust for naked flesh, provocative postures, and sick, suggestive statements in literature, the arts, and the mass media! And add to all this, the system of usury which fuels men's voracity for money and engenders vile methods for its accumulation and investment". So wrote Sayyid Qutb, a leading ideologist of Islamic fundamentalism who was executed in Egypt in 1966. One of the most striking features of the various fundamentalisms, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish (Hindu too, for that matter), is the amount of bile and resentment harboured by their adherents and, in particular, their hatred of the values of Western secularised society. As Karen Armstrong observes, in her fascinating and widely researched history of these movements, they embody "theologies of rage, resentment and revenge" and, one might add, demented paranoia as well.

Ever since Auguste Comte (1798-1857) put forward his theory of the three ages, sociologists and historians have tended to assume that in the third, modern age, religious faith would wither away and be replaced by a scientific mentality. Things have not worked out that way and the 20th century turned out to be the golden age of religious fundamentalism. The rival fundamentalists not only hate the secularising liberals; they also hate each other.

In the US, the Christian Reconstructionist movement advocates reintroducing all the laws of the Bible. This entails slavery, the execution of adulterers, homosexuals, blasphemers, astrologers and witches, as well as the stoning of disobedient children. The poor are hateful, for "there is tight relationship between wickedness and poverty".

In Israel, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, leader of one of the more important Jewish fundamentalist groups, "was filled with burning hatred of Christians, of the goyim who interfered with Israeli ambitions and of the Arabs". Rabbi Israel Hess has argued that the extermination of the Arabs was, like the extermination of the Amalekites in Biblical times, a religious duty.

Armstrong seeks to present the history of the three fundamentalisms in parallel from around 1492 onwards. I am not sure that this was the best way form for the material, as the chronological parallels are not really there and religious cults seem to evolve at their own pace.

Christian fundamentalism has a long history. Armstrong begins with the Protestant reformers of the 16th century, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others, but it might have made more sense to begin with John Wycliffe in the 14th century.

When it comes to Judaism, Armstrong offers fascinating accounts of Lurianic Cabalism in 16th-century Palestine, Shabbetian Messianism in the 17th-century Ottoman Empire and the Hassidic teachings of the Baal Shem Tov in 18th-century Eastern Europe.

Although I learned a lot from her exposition, I am not sure how much of a precedent these wild and charismatic Jewish mystics provide for the present age's literalist, land-grabbing, Arab-murdering bigots who threaten to derail the essentially secular Zionist project for Israel. "Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers", as the 14th-century North African philosopher-historian Ibn Khaldun observed.

As for Islamic fundamentalism, it would have been a good idea to begin with the religious thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). Ibn Taymiyya taught that nominally Muslim rulers who did not actively implement Islam were no better than pagans and therefore to be fought against as unbelievers, and this doctrine has strongly influenced some modern Egyptian fundamentalists, including the officer who murdered President Sadat. Armstrong does discuss Ibn Taymiyya, but her view that he sought to overturn much of medieval jurisprudence is misleading. Ibn Taymiyya was precisely a medieval jurisprudent.

More damaging is her skimpy treatment of the Wahhabi movement in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century, as the Wahhabi example would seem to contradict one of the leading theses of The Battle for God, which is that fundamentalism should be seen as a defensive and almost pathological response to the challenges of Western imperialism, secularism and science.

The early Wahhabis were not particularly aware of these threats and instead concentrated on the violent destruction of medieval superstitions and accretions to the Islamic faith. However, it is not true, as Armstrong claims, that Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was opposed to medieval jurisprudence. He was in fact a follower of the jurisprudential rulings of Ibn Taymiyya.

Setting the Wahhabis aside, there is not much Islamic fundamentalism in evidence until the 20th century. Armstrong is on surer ground discussing modern Iran and Egypt. She rightly stresses the novelty of Khomeini's concept of Velayat-i Faqih, or "Government of the Jurist", as well as the fairly general abandonment of traditional quietism by the religious establishment in Iran. Similarly, she makes plain that Sayyid Qutb and his allies are not ignorant of what they are rejecting. Quite often, like Sayyid Qutb, they have studied in Western universities.

Egyptian fundamentalists are not (usually) advocating a return to medieval values. They are instead setting out a programme that reconciles a rigorous practice of Islam with an acceptance of modern technology and administration. However, I think Armstrong underestimates the extent to which fundamentalism can be not just an angry response to modernity, but rather an actual force for modernisation.

The adoption of Islamic fundamentalism allows Third World countries to modernise without a sense that they are merely mimicking the West. Women adopting the veil are not going back to the ways of their grandmothers (who tended not to wear the veil). Rather, a woman who takes the hijab is making a statement about her faith in the future of an Islamic society.

The leaders of the Egyptian fundamentalist factions have tended to be drawn, not from experts in medieval theology, but from army officers, technocrats and students in university science departments.

Even in Afghanistan, where the Taliban wage demented campaigns against such things as videos, paper bags and kites, they can still be seen, in part at least, as modernising agents. They are getting rid of folk superstitions and breaking up old tribal structures. Fundamentalism can be a forward-looking credo, as it looks forward to the end of the world and the afterlife.


Robert Irwin's anthology of classical Arabic literature, 'Night and Horses and the Desert', is published by Allen Lane