Pre-modern origins of present-day fundamentalism

The Fundamentalism Project (FP), directed by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby at the University of Chicago, is the reference work for studies of fundamentalism. It produced five thick volumes (1990-1995), treating every possible aspect of modern fundamentalism, including its pre-modern religious precursors and its relationship with political ideologies, particularly nationalism. The outcome was a ‘family resemblance’ list of nine traits of ‘fundamentalism’:

  • Response to religion’s social marginalization
  • Selective use of tradition and modernity
  • Moral dualism
  • Absolutism and inerrancy of essential texts
  • Millennialism
  • Elect membership
  • Sharp boundaries (in-group/out-group)
  • Authoritarian organization
  • Strict behavioural requirements

Numerous subsequent studies have criticised the family resemblance model. Instead, the NTNU-produced double volume Fundamentalism in the Modern World (FMW; 2011) has explored FP’s family traits specifically in relation to fundamentalist ambitions to re-form their community, producing an operational definition of fundamentalism as

...specific, ideologically-inspired methodologies related to the formation and reformation of nations, states and communities, and as a specific mode of communicating in the public sphere which now has both national and global dimensions. (p. 1)

The methodologies are centred on exclusiveness, i.e. the distinction between ‘the true believers’ and the others, and as such they transcend pre-modern and modern contexts. What is peculiar to modernity is that fundamentalist community re-formation concurs with the nation-state and nation-formation, with the result that exclusive concepts of the religious community overlap with exclusive concepts of nation and people. This methodology is what makes fundamentalism a religious alternative to exclusive forms of nationalism.

Fundamentalism and Protestantism

The most recent contribution to the debate is Torkel Brekke’s Fundamentalism: Prophecy and Protest in the Age of Globalization (2012). Brekke claims that

...the right way to study fundamentalism in the world religions is to look at movements within different traditions as sharing basic historical origins. The Fundamentalism Project and several other studies say that we can compare movements in different religions and put the label ‘fundamentalism’ on them because they are similar. They share some characteristics. There is a family resemblance. I claim that there are movements in the world religions that we can call by a common name not only because there is a family resemblance but because they are in fact results of the same global historical processes. They have the same form and the same origins. (p. 9)

This origin is a critique of modernity, globalisation and the social and functional differentiation that characterises them. On this basis, Brekke develops three arguments:

1. Fundamentalism is limited to the world religions and to modernity after 1850, i.e. it has no secular counterparts or pre-modern precursors.

2. Modern fundamentalism represents the globalization or mimicking of Protestantism, i.e. the decentralization of religious authority which enables lay ‘preachers’ to interpret scripture and to define what true religion is.

3. The fundamentalist challenge of religious authorities can be analysed in terms of Max Weber’s ideal types ‘priests’ (established religion) and ‘prophets’ (non-established challengers of priestly religion).

Given the strong claim that global fundamentalism is a post-1850 phenomenon, it should be noted that Protestantism itself – Brekke’s paradigmatic model for post-1850 globalised fundamentalism – emerged in the 1500s. As David Katz has showed (The Occult Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present Day, 2005), modern American Fundamentalism mimics pristine Protestantism, except for the additional dispensational model of history and the ‘born-again’ concept. The ‘dispensations’ in their turn derive from the medieval apocalyptic visionary Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202) and his interpretation of the Book of Revelations.

The modern concept ‘born-again’ is rooted in Fiore’s dispensation of the Holy Spirit, when the Church is replaced by the Order of the Just and the believers and infidels are united in Christ (David Katz and Richard Popkin, Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics in the End of the Second Millennium, 1999). This apocalyptic dispensation-history corresponds to millennialism in the FP list of family traits, and thus bridges pre-modern and modern times. Brekke’s prophet-priest types also signify continuity, since Fiore began his career as apocalyptic visionary as a lay court official and was eventually recognised as a ‘prophet’ within the Franciscan order.

Fundamentalism and Islam

Millennialism, reinterpretation and laymen are themes which appear also in early medieval Islam. The Ismailite movements began with lay preachers re-interpreting the Qur’an according to elaborate cosmological schemes which they framed as critiques of the established Islamic politico-religious order, like Fiore’s dispensations and the modern Fundamentalist Schofield Bible.

The Hanbalite School is another pre-modern Islamic case which matches most of the FP family traits. Here the trait ‘a response to religion’s social marginalization’ will serve to make the point that Hanbalism was a reaction to the state-enforced doctrine that the Qur’an was created, not part of the Creator; and to the use of human reason and extra-scriptural sources to seek knowledge about God and Islam. Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855) perceived that true (Arabic) Islam was being marginalised under the influence of ‘Persian’ political power and rationalist theology, and that adherence to the divine Qur’an and Prophetic hadith was the only way to save true monotheist Islam.

The sense of embattlement is carried on by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), at a time when the Hashemite caliphate was lost in the Mongol conquest. His concept al-wasat expresses the quest to unite the Muslim community around a ‘central’ platform, by returning to the sunna of al-Salaf al-salih, i.e. the Prophet and his Companions, which was lost among all the competing schools, abetted by the foreign infidel Mongols and crusaders. Modern Salafi fundamentalism continues Ibn Taymiyya’s legacy. Many Salafi preachers are trained at Islamic seminaries, hence they are not laymen; this implies that either Salafism is not fundamentalism, or fundamentalism is not limited to laymen. Brekke’s main case of Islamic fundamentalism is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder Hasan al-Banna was indeed a layman; but he too referred to Ibn Taymiyya and his concept wasat, which is significant for the Brotherhood’s definition of true Islam.

Pre-modern fundamentalism and nationalism

Assuming with FMW that fundamentalism aims at re-forming the community (just as nationalism re-forms the nation), fundamentalists (like nationalists) frame their concerns as decisive for the community’s (or nation’s) destiny. The critique that true religion has become marginalised and that the community is destined to ruin unless religion is restored by a reformed community thus connects pre-modern with modern forms of fundamentalism, and religious fundamentalism with nationalism.


Ulrika Mårtensson is professor of Religious Studies at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)


By Ulrika Mårtensson
Published Mar. 27, 2012 10:32 AM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:49 PM