Q&A: Islamic fundamentalism
A world-renowned scholar explains how Islam is, and is not, connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Islam is one of the world's largest and fastest-growing religions. Yet its most basic tenets remain mysterious to the great majority of Americans. To shed light on a religion that has become the source of intense discussion following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, csmonitor.com interviewed Professor Charles A. Kimball, chair of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. Dr. Kimball was interviewed by csmonitor.com news producer Josh Burek.Skip to next paragraph
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1. What is the Islamic concept of "jihad," and how has it been variously interpreted?
Jihad means "striving or struggling in the way of God." It is a central concept in Islam. Muslims should strive to know and do the will of God. Historically, the "greater" jihad refers to the struggle each person has within him or herself to do what is right. Because of human pride, selfishness and sinfulness, people of faith must constantly wrestle with themselves and strive to do what is right and good. The "lesser" jihad involves the outward defense of Islam. Muslims should be prepared to defend Islam, including military defense, when the community of faith is under attack. While the vast majority of Muslims clearly reject the violent extremism manifest on Sept. 11, some religiously inspired and politically motivated individuals and groups attempt to justify their behavior in the context of a holy war or struggle in defense of Islam.
2. What sect of Islam does the Taliban adhere to, and do its tenets differ from more mainline denominations of Sunni Islam?
The Taliban advocate a strict and extreme version of Sunni Islam. Policies about education, restrictions on women, and the destruction of the large Buddha figures have received a good deal of attention in the past few years. Prior to September 11, only three nations had diplomatic relations with the Taliban: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. Today, only Pakistan recognizes the Taliban officially. Clearly, most predominantly Muslim countries view the Taliban with suspicion. Like all religious traditions, Islamic history includes various schools of thought and legal structures. It is very difficult to quantify particular groups and movements or sharply define adherents within particular traditions among Muslims worldwide. To the extent the leaders of the Taliban embrace the teaching and worldview of the network connected with Osama bin Laden, they should be viewed as very much on the fringe of what the large majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims (2nd largest, growing rapidly) understand to be central tenets of their faith.
3. Can you give us an explanation of the differences between the tenets of "fundamentalist" Islam and "extremist" (or violent) Islam?
Religious studies scholars approach the term "fundamentalist" in different ways. Some argue the term is so rooted in a particular form of Protestant Christianity that it cannot easily be used in relation to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Martin Marty, a renowned scholar who co-edited a five-volume study on fundamentalism, argues that fundamentalisms are certainly very different. However, there are also striking similarities. Fundamentalists in various traditions teach that there was a perfect moment and they endeavor to recover that moment. This often involves reacting to that which is seen as a threat to realizing the ideal-even if the ideal never actually existed. In the case of selected Islamist groups (e.g. Hizbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad), the realization of their vision of an Islamic state is being thwarted by corrupt leaders in predominantly Muslim countries. The pervasive dominance of external powers, most notably the US, is also seen as both polluting Islamic culture and as a mechanism for exploitation. In recent decades, some groups have sought to work within particular political systems; some have resorted to violent extremism. To understand particular groups, it is important to do careful contextual analysis.
4. What is the Qur'an's stance on suicide? Are suicide bombers who cite a heavenly afterlife as a reward for their deeds following a misinterpretation of the scripture?