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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Comparative Fundamentalism and Scriptural Authority

Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in the USA in 1979, the same year as the coup in Iran and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. These two developments revealed mass following for conservative forms of religion that could be mobilized politically. The label ‘fundamentalism’ was extended from the North American context to the Iranian revolutionaries, and became associated with religio-political activism. Soon it was applied to numerous religious resurgent movements, including Hindutva (Hindu-ness) organizations in India and Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Most of these movements had been in existence for decades, and had originated as reactions to Western colonial and missionary activity. Whether they are all rightly called ‘fundamentalist’, or have significant features in common, are contentious matters.

The most agreed method today for finding meaning for the term ‘fundamentalism’ is to discern the overlapping resemblances amongst so-called fundamentalist groups (e.g. Marty and Appleby 1995; Bruce 2000). For example, Jewish ‘fundamentalists’ share Muslim ‘fundamentalist’ devotion to scriptural law, and some share the desire to build a religious state. Like Hindu and Buddhist ‘fundamentalists’, they identify their people by the preservation of religious practices and by religio-historical links to a particular land. None of these groups fully exhibit the Protestant fundamentalist approach to Scripture or the emphasis on right belief, but all do select particular aspects of their tradition that they absolutize and may make foundational.

Early comparative studies of fundamentalism focused on the Abrahamic religions, as ‘religions of the Book’. ‘Scripturalism’ was identified as a key feature of fundamentalism, as a mode of believing organized around texts whose status is somehow absolute (Lawrence 1989; Hunter 1990). The Fundamentalism Project (1988–93), based at the University of Chicago and funded by the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, studied hundreds of movements across the world's faiths, and implied in its conclusions (without explicitly stating) that scriptural absolutism is a feature of genuine fundamentalism. See point 4 in the following list of fundamentalist characteristics identified by the Project:

  • 1. reactivity to the marginalization of religion

  • 2. selectivity

  • 3. moral dualism

  • 4. absolutism and inerrancy

  • 5. millennialism and messianism

  • 6. elect membership

  • 7. sharp boundaries

  • 8. charismatic and authoritarian leadership

  • 9. behavioural requirements

The Project found that movements most strongly reflecting these characteristics were from the Abrahamic religions, for whom scriptural revelations relating to political, moral, and social issues form the corpus of demands. It judged groups such as Ulster Protestants and Hindutva groups, who recognize true Hindus by their allegiance to the land of India, to be only ‘fundamentalist-like’ because they promote cultural and national purity, rather than scriptural and doctrinal purity (Marty and Appleby 1995: Part 5).

If we say that scripturalism is a central feature of fundamentalism, we must recognize that it takes different forms in different religions. The term ‘scripturalism’ suggests bibliolatry or a heterodox emphasis on Scripture, and one religion's heterodoxy might be another's orthodoxy. The belief that all Scripture is an immediate word-for-word communication from God is a specifically fundamentalist belief within Protestant Christianity, but not within a Muslim context. All Muslims, ‘fundamentalist’ or otherwise, hold the Qur'an to be the very words of Allah given to the Prophet Muhammad—this is an aspect of Islamic orthodoxy.

Protestant fundamentalists, we have suggested, attempt to make the Bible foundational for faith and to read it plainly. The emphasis on the ‘plain sense’ indicates a concern to close off rather than to open out interpretative possibilities. Realizing this, some Muslim and Jewish scholars have rejected the fundamentalist label for Muslim and Jewish groups, in so far as it implies a suspicion of the interpretation of Scripture which is peculiar to Protestant fundamentalism (Hassan 1990; Wieseltier 1990; cf. Barr 1977: 7, 182, 284–6).

Jewish ‘fundamentalists’ have allegiances to particular rabbinic traditions, Islamic ‘fundamentalists’ to particular schools of law. Both consciously reside within traditions of interpretation. ‘Fundamentalism’ might, in this sort of context, mean rigid adherence to practices advocated within particular interpretative traditions. It would not necessarily cancel out the possibility of vigorous reinterpretation of the fundamentals of Scripture. For example, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that the Qur'an and Hadith cannot be understood outside of eleven centuries of Shi'a scholarship, and he developed an innovative Shi'a concept of the state as supervised by ulama (clergy) and religious jurists.

That said, so-called Muslim fundamentalists disagree widely over the place of interpretation, partly depending on whether they are Sunni or Shi'i Muslims. There is space here for only brief consideration of some of their differences, but the disagreements will illuminate points of comparison and contrast between Muslim and Protestant scripturalism.

Sunni and Shi'i Muslims disagree over whether the Qur'an is uncreated, as is the Sunni belief, or created. Shi'i Muslims believe it was created and came into existence in the seventh century CE. Hence they are less inclined than Sunni Muslims to believe that the Qur'an is eternally and universally valid in such a way that it does not necessarily need interpreting with reference to seventh-century Arabia. Shi'i Muslims place greater emphasis than Sunni Muslims on the need for careful exegesis and interpretation. For this reason they are sometimes described as being more ‘Catholic’, and Sunni more ‘Protestant’ in their approach to Scripture (Goddard 2002: 150). Within Shi'i Islam, ‘aql (reason) came to be considered one of the four legitimate sources of guidance, along with the Qur'an, the Hadith (Muslim tradition), and the ijma (consensus) of the community. Most Sunni Muslims recognize sources other than the Qur'an as legitimate for guidance, but in recent centuries a view has emerged that the earliest generation provides the supreme model, and later history is a corruption, rather than a legitimate development, of the tradition. These Sunni attitudes resemble radical elements of the Protestant Reformation, which regarded Christian history since the days of the Apostles to be a process of corruption (Goddard 2002: 154–5). This, then, is the likeliest place to look for similarities between Protestant and Sunni forms of scriptural fundamentalism.

Within Sunni Islam, the ancestry of this view can be traced back to Ahmad ibn Hanbal in the ninth century. The Hanbali legal school named after him does not accept either ijma or quiyas, and takes only the Qur'an and Hadith as sufficient authority on which to base conclusions. Descendants of this way of thinking include the eighteenth-century Wahabi movement in Arabia, and many later groups sometimes collectively known as the Salafiyya—those who base themselves on the Salaf (the ancestors), the first generation of Muslims (Goddard 2002: 155). They can be said to reveal a primitivism similar to that of Protestant fundamentalists. Indeed, one recent commentator likens the self-taught Salafiyya reformists to fire-breathing Protestant fundamentalists, both of whom abjure traditional scholarship, and who between them are precipitating a clash of civilizations (Ernst 2004). Muslims reflecting this Salafist approach are currently involved in separatist or violent responses to the Western world. Fifteen of the nineteen suicide hijackers of September 11, 2001, were Saudi citizens, and therefore influenced by Wahabbism.

Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1927, has recently criticized his grandfather's Salafist followers. The Muslim Brotherhood called for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by shar'ia (divine law), as opposed to the secular Arab states governed by European laws. It today bears an influence over much of the Sunni Muslim world, though it is criticized by more radical groups, like Jama'a, for operating in mainstream politics. Several offshoots from the Brotherhood, such as Hamas in Palestine, have become separate entities. Ramadan (2004) criticizes al-Banna's present-day followers for teaching Muslims living in the West to keep themselves apart from their host cultures by, for example, adopting distinctive dress codes. Ramadan himself counteracts these Salafist tendencies by arguing that on social matters (al-muamalati) the divine text of the Qur'an ‘almost never allows itself, alone, to lay down a universal principle’. Rather, he says: ‘It is the human mind that derives both absolute and relative principles, as appropriate, from the Text and from the reality of the context in which it was revealed’ (Ramadan 2004: 21). He emphasizes that ‘the Revelation was elaborated in time and space, over twenty-three years, in a certain context expressed in pronouncements affected by circumstance, open to evolution, accessible to reason, in a historical setting’ (Ramadan 2004: 21). He is thereby criticizing a Muslim form of militant separatism, and the use of Scripture undergirding it, reminding Salafists that when they appeal to Scripture they are always interpreting it: ‘There can be no revealed Text unless there is human intellect up to the task of reading and interpreting it’ (Ramadan 2004: 20).

Once the concept of ‘fundamentalism’ is extended to cover movements within Indian and Far Eastern religions, it cannot be said always to be organized around scriptural norms. Sinhalese Buddhist activists derive their absolute principle, a command to maintain the Buddhist purity of Sri Lanka, from a particular construction of Buddhist history that lies outside the Pali canon (Obeyeskere 1995). If they are to count as ‘fundamentalist’, their fundamentalism is not scripturalist. It is related to a myth which operates powerfully in the self-identity of the Sinhalese— that the Buddha visited Sri Lanka by means of supernatural powers and consecrated the land—and to histories in which aggressive defence of the land's (ethnic) purity are justified as bringing glory to the Buddhist order. This accounts for the seeming anomaly and irony that Buddhist ‘fundamentalists’ can perform acts of violence, whereas primary Buddhist principles derived from the Pali canon oppose violence.

There is a different kind of irony regarding Hindutva ideology, which celebrates its plurality of texts and authorities, and regards the absence of essentials as essential to Hinduism. It propounds the ‘irreducibly non-fundamentalist nature of Hindu thinking’ (Ram-Prasad 1993: 292; cf. Parekh 1992: 43–5; Madan 1997). At the same time, its assertion of self-identifying essentials against the encroachment of Western culture betrays some influence from Western fundamentalist patterns of thought.

Arguably fundamentalism is most at home in the Protestant context. Not only did it originate there, but its thought patterns are those prevalent in the post-Reformation, and especially post-Enlightenment, Christian West, where a particular kind of apologetic process had emerged of treating the Scriptures as providing the justifying grounds for faith. This hardened into a textual foundationalism which set the Bible up as a self- authenticating authority for faith, an immediate divine communication requiring no interpretation, 100 per cent verbally inspired and 100 per cent inerrant. Other fundamentalisms across the world's faiths are not scripturalist in quite this way, and some are not scripturalist at all. Whereas Protestant fundamentalists go ‘back to the Bible’ and bypass elements of tradition which seemingly deviate from the Bible's plain truth, others go back to ‘the ancestors’, or to teachings of a particular school of law, or to foundational myths not even enshrined in Scripture. What they have in common is a belief in some original, unconditioned teaching or pristine state. It is a mistake to regard fundamentalists as traditionalists. Traditionalists are keenly aware of the organic development of their religion. Fundamentalists are primitivist and selective, wanting to return to some unconditional origin, and ignoring parts of the religious tradition which detract from that.

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