Environment: The fundamentalist quest —Saleem H Ali
For too long now, Muslims have been rather defensive about the use of the word “fundamentalism” since they feel it somehow degrades the basic tenets of their faith. However, the term is valuable insofar that it addresses a key attribute of certain theologies that refuse to adapt to changing times
As Pakistan ponders its options with militancy on various accounts, it may be worthwhile to step back for a moment and reflect on what constitutes “fundamentalist” doctrines. A new book authored by the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Farzana Hassan, titled Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest, provides a much needed analysis of fundamentalist thought in the Abrahamic faiths (with a focus on Islam and Christianity).
For too long now, Muslims have been rather defensive about the use of the word “fundamentalism” since they feel it somehow degrades the basic tenets of their faith. However, the term is valuable insofar that it addresses a key attribute of certain theologies that refuse to adapt to changing times. There is an assertion that in order to be pure, we must somehow be true to origins in the literal sense.
Farzana Hassan argues that the crescendo of apocalyptic rhetoric in both Christianity and Islam has reached a feverish pitch. When communities believe that the end times is near (often Qiyamat in Islam and Armageddon in Christianity) they tend to act with desperate zeal.
In her words, “Christianity and Islam, seen as the only two proselytising faiths in the world, remain pitted against each other in a struggle for ascendancy, driven by presentiments of world glory and domination.”
At first glance this argument may seem reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s famed “clash of civilisations” argument. However, unlike the historical causality that Huntington proposes, Hassan has a more prospective causality predicated in the power of prophecy in both faiths.
Thus her policy prescriptions are focused on a reinterpretation or discounting of these prophetic visions to allow for the cognitive space for peace to develop between these two great traditions. Indeed, much of the inter-faith dialogues that are most substantive and productive will have to eschew the more strident apocalyptic approaches in both faiths.
For example, if we analyse the Arab-Israeli conflict, much of the unequivocal support from Christian fundamentalists that one finds with regard to Israel is a direct result of apocalyptic beliefs that suggest that in order for the return of the Messiah the prophecy of the return of Israelites to Zion must be fulfilled.
Muslim fundamentalists also believe in a similar apocalyptic trajectory but with more sinister outcomes for non-believers.
As a practicing Muslim, Ms Hassan believes in Qiyamat, but feels that many of the anecdotes and specific incidents that are projected in the texts were meant to be allegorical rather than literal. Because of the propensity for humans to take texts literally, we are in fact moving more and more perilously towards a series of ominous self-fulfilling prophecies. All sides clearly need to deal pragmatically with political conflicts rather than trying to formulate their futures around specific visions of apocalypse.
Clearly this book is going to be controversial. The author has already endured numerous threats in Canada from those who seem to misunderstand her views as being heretical. Part of the challenge is that all reformist Muslims are collectively lumped together by the mainstream without caring to consider differences within their different approaches.
Unlike many other controversial Canadian Muslims who have received Western acclaim in recent years, such as Irshad Manji, Ms Hassan’s analysis is firmly grounded in theology and a clear and detailed understanding of the scriptures rather than on any political persuasion. While she may be far from having a large following, her arguments deserve to be heard with credibility rather than being dismissed as apocryphal.
The struggle for finding peace within Islam, Christianity and other great world religions is likely to be a generational struggle. More works of this kind by scholars and activists alike are needed to call for theologically grounded reform to move us away from the precipice of self-annihilation.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: email@example.com