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Why We Need to Understand the Apocalyptic Worldview of a Small Group of Radical Muslims

If we want to understand the genesis of much Islamic terrorism by a small handful of Muslims, a speculative tour of their apocalyptic worldview may help us design a more effective response.

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In Islam there was a series of reformations in the 1700s, similar to Martin Luther's reformation of Catholicism into Protestantism, but the decentralized nature of Islam was an issue, and there were several separate reform movements. One was led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), that became the Wahhabi movement-the theology behind the Saudi government. Think of the Wahhabist Saudi government as similar to the theocratic government created by John Calvin in Geneva. Both are based on the idea of the sovereignty of God administered by righteous men.

Now there is a second reformation going on within Islam that is more global-theocratic Islamic fundamentalism. Jamal Malik, who studies Muslim identity, explains that with Islamic fundamentalism "Islamic tradition is modernized, since the imagined Islamic society is to compete and correspond with Western achievements. This would only be possible in a centralized Islamic state over which they would wield control as the agents of God's sovereignty on earth. . . ." {4}

This explanation of Islamic fundamentalism describes a form of theocracy-a system where the only appropriate political leaders are persons who see themselves as devoted to carrying out the will of God as interpreted by a common religion. Some scholars, however, argue that not all forms of fundamentalism are necessarily theocratic, at least in practice.

Contemporary Islamic fundamentalism has its roots in the theological/political theories of Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) and the emergence of a theological outlook called Salafism that is complimentary to Wahhabism. As Khaled Abou El Fadl explains:

Wahhabi thought exercised its greatest influence not under its own label, but under the rubric of Salafism. In their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis, and not Wahhabis....

Salafism is a creed founded in the late nineteenth century by Muslim reformers such as Muhammad 'Abduh, al-Afghani and Rashid Rida. Salafism appealed to a very basic concept in Islam: Muslims ought to follow the precedent of the Prophet and his companions (al-salaf al-salih).

Methodologically, Salafism was nearly identical to Wahhabism except that Wahhabism is far less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinion. The founders of Salafism maintained that on all issues Muslims ought to return to the Qur'an and the sunna (precedent) of the Prophet. In doing so, Muslims ought to reinterpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands, without being slavishly bound to the interpretations of earlier Muslim generations. {5}

The result is a form of Islamic fundamentalism that is very repressive. Mawdudi argued that his ideal Islamic State "would be totalitarian, because it subjected everything to the rule of God. . ." notes Karen Armstrong. {6}

Some observers use the term “fundamentalist” to describe all militant totalitarian apocalyptic religious movements. This is not accurate. The term fundamentalism, originally used to describe a form of Christianity, is properly used to describe similar but not identical religious revitalization movements in various religious traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Fundamentalism is often confused with orthodoxy and traditionalism. Fundamentalists claim to be restoring the "true" religion by returning to "traditional" beliefs and enforcing orthodox beliefs-the set of theological doctrines approved of as sound and correct by a faith's religious leaders. In fact, while fundamentalist movements claim to be restoring tradition and orthodoxy, they actually create a new version of an existing religion based on a mythic and romanticized past. This thesis was a central argument in Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God, a comparative study of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. {7}

So, while fundamentalism is a reaction against the Enlightenment and modernity, it is ironically a distinctly modern phenomenon. Jamal Malik, who studies Muslim identity, explains that with Islamic fundamentalism "Islamic tradition is modernized, since the imagined Islamic society is to compete and correspond with Western achievements. This would only be possible in a centralized Islamic state over which they would wield control as the agents of God's sovereignty on earth. . . ." {8} This explanation of Islamic fundamentalism describes a form of theocracy-a system where the only appropriate political leaders are persons who see themselves as devoted to carrying out the will of God as interpreted by a common religion. Some scholars, however, argue that not all forms of fundamentalism are necessarily theocratic, at least in practice.

 
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