Fundamentalism | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru


(Relevant for Sociology optional for UPSC CSE)
Paper-1 ,Unit-8 : Fundamentalism


Fundamentalism stresses the infallibility of a scripture (e.g. the Bible, the Granths, the Gita or the Quran) in all matters of faith and doctrine. The believers accept it as a literal historical record. The result is that sometimes a militant stand is taken by the followers, often preceded or followed by a desire for a separate homeland. At times, this too is taken as a prophecy in the scriptures.

  1. Fundamentalism separates a certain community from the mainstream. However, society, by its various arms (the police, army and so on), attempts to suppress or eliminate the fundamentalist. This is especially so when they begin acting outside of the law. Communalism is associated with eruption of violence and riots these conflagrations may not have any particular aim or goal (apart from communal ascendancy or supremacy).
  2. Fundamentalism however is an organized all-encompassing movement which aims to promotion of society goals especially in the light of religious enshrinements. Operational strategy includes peaceful as well as war-like uses and movements.
  3. Social Anthropologist Lionel Caplan (1987) defines fundamentalism as a belief in the timelessness of sacred writings and a belief that such writings apply to all kinds of environments. In its popular usage, the term fundamentalism is applied to a wide array of religious groups around the world.
  4. The most important characteristic of fundamentalists is their belief that a relationship with God, Allah, or some other supernatural force provides answers to personal and social problems. In addition, fundamentalists often wish to “bring the wider culture back to its religious roots.”
  5. Fundamentalists usually conceive of history as a “process of decline from an original ideal state,” which includes the “betrayal of fundamental principles”.
  6. Fundamentalists do not distinguish between what is sacred and what is profane in their day-today lives. Religious principles govern all areas.
  7. It is not surprising then, that during times of rapid change, many people look for and finds answers and calm in religion. Fundamentalism is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. Yet, increasingly, religious responses to change are occurring in new and unfamiliar forms: new religious movements, cults, sects and ‘New Age’ activities. While these groups may not ‘look like’ forms of religion on the surface, many critics of the secularization hypothesis believe that they represent transformations of religious belief in the face of profound social change.
  8. The strength of religious fundamentalism is another indication that secularization has not triumphed in the modern world. The term fundamentalism can be applied in many different contexts to describe strict adherence to a set of principles or beliefs. Religious fundamentalism describes the approach taken by religious groups which call for the literal interpretation of basic scriptures or tests and believe that the doctrines which emerge from such readings should be applied to all aspects of social, economic and political life.
  9. Religious fundamentalists believe that only new view – their own – of the world is possible and that this view is the correct one: there is no room for ambiguity or multiple interpretations. Within religious fundamentalist movements, access to the exact meanings of scriptures is restricted to a set of privileged ‘interpreters’ – such as priests, clergy or other religious leaders. This gives these leaders a great amount of authority – not only in religious matters, but in secular ones as well. Religious fundamentalists have become powerful political figures in opposition movements, within mainstream political parties (including in the United States) and as heads of state (for example in Iran).
  10. Religious fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon – it is only in the last two to three decades that term has entered common usage. It has arisen largely in response to globalization. As the forces of modernization progressively undermine traditional elements of the social world – such as the nuclear family and the domination of women by men fundamentalism has arisen in defence of tradition.

Aspects of fundamentalism:

  1. Fundamentalism as a concept was first used in 1910-1915 when anonymous authors published 12 volumes of literature called them ‘The Fundamentals’. In the early 20s the print media used this word with reference to conservative protestant group in North America. These groups were concerned about liberal interpretations of the Bible. Alarmed by liberal interpretations the conservative insisted on some “fundamentals” of faith. These included belief in the virgin birth divinity, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and the infallibility of the scripture. As mentioned, these and other fundamentals were published in 12 pamphlets called The Fundamentals between 1910-1915. Thus began the specialized usage of the concept of “fundamentalism”. Thus, a fundamental movement is one which takes infallibility of a scripture as a basic issue and as a guide to life. Some fundamentalists add that there is no need to even interpret the scripture as meaning in it is self-evident. This often amounts to intolerance of any form of disagreement or dissent. This there is an apprehension that fundamentalists are narrow, and bigoted.
  2. T.N. Madan (1993) has pointed out that the word fundamentalism has gained wide currency in the contemporary world. According to him it refers to a variety of norms, values attitudes which either judge the fundamentalist or condemn them outright. This word is sometimes erroneously used in place of communalism. In fact, the word fundamentalism has become a blanket term. That is to say that various fundamental movements across the world are actually not identical but differ in various ways. But they are linked by a ‘family’ resemblance.
  3. Fundamentalist movements are of a collective character. They are often led by charismatic leaders who are usually men. Thus the 1979 Iranian movement was led by ayatollah Khomeini, and the Sikh fundamentalist upsurge by Sant Bhinderanwale (Madan). Fundamentalist leaders need not be religious leaders. Thus, maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamati Islami in India was a journalist. K.B. Hedgewar, founder of the Rastriya Sewak Sangh was a physician.
  4. The fundamentalists are a practical people and try to purge the way of life all impurities (religiously speaking). They reject all corrupt lifestyles. An example of this is swami Dayanand’s critique of the traditional, superstition filled way of life. Thus Maududi criticised the present Muslim way of life as ‘ignorant’ and Bhindranwale talked of the ‘fallen’ Sikhs who shave off their beards, out their hair and do not observe the traditional Sikh way of life. Thus, fundamental movements are not only about religious and practices, but lifestyles generally.
  5. Thus, fundamentalist movements are reactive and response to what the person involved-the leaders and participants, consider a crisis. The crisis calls for urgent remedies. The basic programme is presented as a return to the original tradition. That is to say to the contemporarily redefined fundamentals. Which cover the present-day needs. This usually involves a selective retrieval of tradition. The case of Dayanand illustrates this very well. He tried to evolve a semitised Hinduism in response to the challenge for conversion by Christian missionaries. He claimed that the Vedas were the only true form of Hinduism and his call was back to the Vedas. In Iran Khomeini developed on Islamic state based on the guardianship of jurists. Again bhindranwale gave a selective emphasis to guru Gobind Singh’s teaching rather than those of his immediate successors. Assertion of spiritual authority and criticising the culture are two aspects of fundamentalism. A third crucial element is that of the pursuit of political power.
  6. The pursuit of political power is very important aspect of fundamentalism, for without it we would be presented with a case for revivalism. The Samajists were ardent nationalists in north India, and the movement had its political overtones. Again the RSS which has been described as cultural organisation has had close links with political parties and contemporarily with the Sangh Parivar. This covers both cultural and political aspects of Hindu nationalism. This explains why fundamentalist movements often turn violent, and the ideology of secularism is rejected. They are totalitarian and do not tolerate dissent. However, these movements also perform a particular role in modern society which cannot be ignored. Thus, an objective intellectual analysis should consider fundamentalism as a distinctive category. It is not theocracy or backward communalism.
  7. Politics, religion and education vs fundamentalism: the fundamentalist’s criticise the idea of separation of religion from politics and state. They say god is omnipotent and political rule comes under his domain, how can then the state be outside religious realm? They insist on religious control on education important in schools and colleges. The fundamentalists advocate boycott of modern state-run schools where teaching is not through traditional religious system. The Muslim fundamentalists demand that all laws must be desired from the Koran and the sunnah. They suggest harsh punishments like emulation of hands and feet, public flogging etc. For crime done. The American fundamentalists suggest death penalty for murder adultery sodomy, rape, homosexuality, kidnapping, etc. Fundamentalism is anti-science and denies the validity of human knowledge which is outside the religious realm.
  8. Equality of religions vs. Fundamentalism: the fundamentalists do not believe in the equality of all religions. They say how on false religions be treated as equal to the true religion. On the similar line, they oppose the concept of the unity of all religions. They are opposed to reason, rationalism, humanism and secularism. The fundamentalists are also opposed to the idea of sovereignty, democracy and constitutional government.

Fundamentalism in relation to communalism:

Communalism can best be described in the context of Indian scenario. Communalism developed in
India through three stages:

  1. First stage: It began during the last quarter of 19th century. It was put forward that followers of a religion not only have religion in common but also political, economic, social and cultural interests. It led to the notion that in India, Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians form district communities and hence Indian Nation is made up of these communities.
  2. Second stage: It began during the start of 20th century. The communists argued that followers of a religion have different economic and political interests to these of other religions. At the same time some liberal communalists argued that different religious people also have some common economic and political interests.
  3. Third stage : In this stage, the notion which permeated was that Hindu and Muslim could never live together. They can never form one nation. Actually, what was good for Hindus was bad for Muslims, what was good for Muslims was bad for Hindus and so on.
Similarities between fundamentalism and Communalism:
  1. Both attack the concept of separation of religion from politics and the state.
  2. Both oppose unity of all religions.
  3. Both advocate control over education.
  4. Both believe in restoration of the past values and greatness.
  5. Both share the notion that founding of religion led to the achievement of near-human perfection.
  6. Both oppose secularism:
Differences of perception:

In a multi-religious society, a fundamentalist tends to be communal while communalist are not fundamentalists. As, in India, the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS, the BJP, the Akali Dal, etc. are communal parties but are not fundamentalists.

  1. Fundamentalists seriously urge for the actual revival of the pristine past whereas communalists though appeal, they are more focused on modern world.
  2. Fundamentalists are deeply religious and put their entire ideology on religion whereas communalists use religion just to give political power.
  3. Fundamentalists want to Christianize or Islamize or Hinduige the whole world. Communalists just want to communalize their own society.

Fdamentalism in the global context:

  1. Fundamentalism in Iran :
    • In the 19th century in Iran, Pahalvi dynasty was founded and with the help of Britishers, colonel Rajja Khan was made the king. Iran being on oil rich country attracted Britishers as they needed oil. For the purpose of exploitation of this resource, they employed their own men which erected dissatisfaction among Iranian masses. Meanwhile, America also joined and triangular co-operation developed with the support of British and America, king KHAN, started modernizing the state in which Madrassa’s and Maqatab were put under the control of Central administration.
    • All such actions caused great disenchantment among many Iranian. To protect their interest they took shelter in the religious places. Under the guidance of Ayyatullah Khomeini, their collective Action dethroned king Khan and a new set up was created in which religion got a special place marking the beginning of fundamentalism.
  2. In America :
    • Non-Religious Right Movement in America: Protestant Fundamentalism: the motto of this movement was to spread the importance of protestant religion and to stop modern practices as they were highly vulgar. They were causing harm to national values and mobility. Their slogan was “Bring Back America Again”. This shows American fundamentalism.
  3. Taliban regime:
    • Afghanistan could be cited as the most recent example of fundamentalism. A lot of hardships were inflicted upon women. Entire regime was politically, economically and socially crippled only Religion existed.
  4. Pakistan:
    • Fundamentalism kept on surfacing time to time in Pakistan but the some was to a large extent counterpoised by democratic government.


The phenomenon of fundamentalism is not confined to one religion but is freely and widely found among Christians, Muslims, Jains, Hindu and Sikhs. Fundamentalists asks for return to the fundamental tenets of a religion, to its original formulations and meanings that were given to the religion in its first text. No interpretation is allowed. Any interpretation made should be wiped out. These texts are God’s own words. Therefore, they are circular, unambiguous and changeless. For example, for Christian fundamentalists old and new testaments are God’s own words, for Muslim fundamentalist Karan and Sunnah, for Hindus the Vedas, for Sikh the Gurbabni. Infact, the fundamentalists regard any interpretation of such text as blasphemous act. Fundamentalists considers that the life should be governed by the religion as written in the tests. Gary North, one of the American fundamentalist said that Bible contains solutions to all problems a person faces today in his/her daily. According to Abdul-Jawed Yasin, religion is the divine way drawn by God for man to solve his economic affairs, social affairs, political affairs, legislative affairs, psychological affairs, internal affairs, external affairs and any other affair that it may have. A muslim fundamentalist say “God’s final religion contains all the legislation required”.

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