Battle for the Soul of Islam: traditionalism versus fundamentalism

September 5, 2006 at 11:26 pm (Blogs, Islam, Islamism, Religion, The West)

I would like to thank Ali Eteraz of Eteraz for responding to my post (which he does in his post “What about the Moderates?”), wherein I mention him, and thereby bringing up an issue I ought to address.

In the current battle for the soul of Islam, as The Chicago Tribune put it some time ago, there are two prominent factions that are pitted against each other in a war that has become violent, vociferous, and vitriolic. This war has already had wide repurcussions throughout the Muslim world, and will continue to do so. At this point, one cannot say which side is winning.

Despite its rapid growth and the spread of its influence, fundamentalist Islam (also called radical Islam, Salafi Islam, militant Islam, and so on) is checked by traditionalist Islam. I have discussed at length what fundamentalist Islam is; let me dwell for a short while on what traditional Islam is.

To be pendantic, one ought to speak of “traditionalist Islams” or the “traditionalist movement” of Islam. This is because for all intents and purposes, every region of the Muslim world has its own version or manifestation of traditionalist Islam. Having mentioned this, I will simply speak about “traditionalist Islam,” by which I mean the traditionalist movement in, rather than a single interpretation of, Islam. raditionalist Islam is rooted in the traditions and beliefs of the Muslims as they have evolved since Islam’s first contact with that area and its peoples. Different traditions reflect different preceding ways. Often, traditionalist Islam will incorporate elements of the religion it came to supercede. At times, specific Islam movements will make their imprint on an area’s traditions; this is especially evident with Sufi orders.

Traditionalist Islam, while preserving what it perceives to be key elements of Islam, has also evolved in such a way as to make governing easier. Gone, essentially, is the warrior code or the zeal for jihad. Gone are obsession with pure and faithful governors. Gone is the demand that believers scrupulously adhere to Islam or else. These reflect changing needs for changing times: Muslim rulers needed to have their people passive rather than activist, quiet rather than storm-rousing. Relations with non-Muslims also played a role: it was not convenient or even desireable to implement Islam’s command for non-Muslims to convert, submit to second-class citizenship, or die – and this was particularly so where non-Muslims were not People of the Book, in which case they could choose only between converting or dying.

The rise of fundamentalist Islam changed all this. What was assumed that the people will follow was now being challenged, and effectively in some cases, by a movement seeking to reform Islam and tear dowm traditionalism. Fundamentalism and traditionalism are diametrically opposed: fundamentalism wants to tear down the old structure and build a new one; traditionalism wants to preserve the age-old structure from being torn down, seeking instead to destroy those trying to pull down its pillars.

A good example is the contrast (and even scathing battles) between Deobandis and Barelvis in South Asia. The former is fundamentalist; the latter is traditionalist.

In comparing the two, traditionalist Islam is far more humane than fundamentalist Islam as traditionalist Islam tends to blatantly ignore rules and commands that create more upheaval, instability, and unrest than stability and security. Traditionalist Islam has evolved out of the need to be practical. On the other hand, fundamentalism demands that even inconvenient and upheaving commands and rules be followed, and fundamentalism is quite impractical. If truth be told, fundamentalist Islam would not be able to survive as state policy for a long period of time without massive external support and assistance (which is why the Salafi regime of Saudi Arabia continues to survive and why the Taliban/al-Qaa’idah regime of Aghanistan was able to survive as long as it did). It will either topple or, as happened to Islam when it was established in new areas, evolve into a softer form.

Neither are a friend of the West, but at least it is possible to defend the West in traditionalist Islam without being killed or proclaimed an apostate (which is one and the same thing, really). Furthermore, traditionalist Islam condemns the excesses fundamentalists approve of when using force.



  1. Wickedpinto said,

    How about “decency” vs “arrogant cruelty?”

  2. John (AGJ) said,

    Just out of curiosity, what do you think of this article entitled Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope?

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