Religion in a Changing World: Comparative Studies in Sociology

By Madeleine Cousineau | Go to book overview

Although the spread of fundamentalist Islam throughout the Middle East occurred about forty years ago, its origins are much earlier. The first organized movement of fundamentalist Islam was the Society of the Muslim Brothers, founded in Egypt in March 1928. By the late 1930s, it had grown to become one of the most important politicoreligious organizations in the country. Although the society was courted by the British, the king of Egypt, and other conservative groups hoping to curb the influence of the Nationalists and the Communists, its alleged involvement in violence and the assassination of several prominent figures alarmed the government with the concern that the society was planning an imminent revolution. In 1948 the Egyptian government issued an order dissolving the society.

A branch of the Muslim Brothers was then established in Syria. It was organized into the Islamic Socialist Front in November 1949. Mustafa as-Siba'i, the leader of the front, declared that he would work for the realization of Islamic socialism that had been advocated by the Prophet. This flirtation with the idea of Islamic socialism, however, was short-lived, and by 1961 the Brothers had removed the term altogether from their political vocabulary ( Batatu 1982:12). Since the mid- 1960s, the Muslim Brothers have been involved in several bloody confrontations with the Syrian government, although none has resulted in any political change ( Rabinovich 1972:109-126). In Pakistan, the Jamma'at-i Islami ( Islamic Society) was founded in August of 1941 ( Bahadur 1977). The period of its greatest influence followed the decline of Zulfagar Ali Bhutto's secular government and the military coup of 1977. It was, however, in Iran that Islam became the dominant ideology in a major revolution that brought the fundamentalists to power. The Iranian Revolutionary movement of 1977-1979 was led by Ayatolla Khomeini, one of the supreme religious leaders in Shi'i Islam. It was directed against the arbitrary rule of the Shah and his economic policies that favored modern commercial establishments and foreign companies. In addition to the Islamic opposition, many secular groups and leftist organizations participated in the Revolution. After the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic fundamentalists monopolized power and systematically eliminated other groups whom they thought were un-Islamic.


CONCLUSION

The foregoing historical narrative reveals several important facts about Islam as a belief system and as a historical reality. First, although Islam consists of a set of essential beliefs to which all Muslims must adhere, it should not be considered a monolithic religion because Islamic norms and practices are not the same in all countries and at all times. Both the practical rule of the religion and its political theories have been subject to change according to changes in historical conditions. Even in the modern period, the Islamic movements have displayed considerable diversity. Therefore, understanding Islam in a given society not only requires a basic comprehension of its belief system but an adequate knowledge of the sociology of Islam as well--the specific social context that shapes its norms and practices. Modernism and fundamentalism are both Islamic responses to modernity. The differences in these responses, however, appear to have been a result of the

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