Minutes of Meeting

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Date: December 14, 2003

Location: Home of Shirley Flacks

Speaker: Agnes Hannahs

Host: Shirley Flacks

Karen Armstrong’s: THE BATTLE FOR GOD; a discussion of the “startling” resurgence, in the late 20th century, of “fundamentalism” in three major Western religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity.

 HANDOUT ON FUNDAMENTALISM (With a hope this helps to explain  - but not to offend anyone.)     AWH

1. Characteristics of 20th/21st century Fundamentalism in all religions.

            Fundamentalism is not going to silently disappear (nor is religion): It is a part of the modern world and represents anxiety and fear, disappointment and alienation, and increasingly, rage; it is an embattled form of spirituality in what is seen by Fundamentalists as a cosmic war between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  The Fundamentalism of the 20th/21st centuries exists in a symbiotic relationship with liberalism and secularism - under attack it becomes increasingly extreme, bitter, excessive.

            Fundamental begins when, characteristically, a sect breaks off from the mainline religious body.  Fundamentalist crusaders believe they are among the Elect, they want to return to the purity of the Chosen People and to First Principles.  They want to turn mythos (example: Bible mythology: Garden of Eden, the world and all in it created in a week, miracles) into logos (“scientifically” true because such myths are in sacred text).

            Each Fundamentalist group is a law unto itself and has its own dynamic.  But Fundamentalism is useful as a label, and despite the cultural differences, global Fundamentalism shares strong family resemblances.  There are patterns: each is a response to modern secular culture, a rebellion against rationalism and scientific humanism.   Fundamentalist expressions in each of the monotheistic religions (as well as, increasingly, in Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism) strive toward extending the sacred into the realm of politics, limiting the secularist ethos, reinstating the divine into the national struggle.  To do this, Fundamentalists will fight and kill in the name of religion (example: in the U.S.: abortion clinics and doctors). 

            Fundamentalists fear annihilation; they fortify their identity by selectively retrieving certain of the doctrines and practices of the past.  They create a counterculture and may withdraw from mainstream society, thereby avoiding contamination.  But they have absorbed aspects of modernity such as its practical rationalism, and thus - with a charismatic leader - they create a workable ideology out of which comes a plan of action.   

             Though Fundamentalists are deeply fearful that secular modernity threatens essential values, they partake of benefits that have evolved in the secular realm.  (Example: the American Constitution guarantees the right of free speech; American Fundamentalists use that guarantee to promote their views from the pulpit, in the media and thus enjoy a wide audience - and for some, the garnering of wealth.)  Nevertheless, they perceive modernization not as liberation but as aggressive assault, and they live in fear of hostile conspiracies.

            K.A.: “This type of religiosity is actually a retreat from God into a new form of idolatry: ‘family values’, ‘islam’, ‘Holy Land’.”    An impassible gulf, one that springs from a deeper, more instinctual level, exists between Fundamentalists and those more positively attuned to the modern world.  Rational arguments are of no avail.

            Conservative American Protestants were the first, in the early decades of the 20th century to use the term, Fundamentalism, to describe themselves.  They wanted to distinguish themselves from “liberal” Protestants whom, they felt, distorted the Christian faith.  Feeling themselves to be “outsiders”, they started a crusade against the evil that they believed would take possession of America

            Fundamentalism expresses the constant historical temptation of monotheists to be righteously belligerent.   It is literal and intolerant in its vision.  It takes a hard line on moral/social decency (example: Moral Majority - until Tammy Faye & Jim B., and Jimmy S. and other such televangelists  fell into perdition after exposing themselves as well as their rage and hatred toward one another).  

                        It is against more than for: experts, foreign influence, teaching of sex and Darwinism in schools, feminism (with the result, it is believed, emasculation of men), colonization, immigration, plus (in the U.S.) everyone who is not white, not WASP, not Protestant.    It rejects peacekeeping, separation of church and state, pluralism, democracy and free speech (though it may benefit from both), religious toleration. 

                        Fundamentalism is for tax relief for private religious schools (U.S.A.), for minute observance of divine law (Anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews), for a state (country) governed by sacred texts (Islam as well as other Fundamentalist groups). 

            Finally: like any human anywhere (including those in mainline religions, monotheistic and otherwise), Fundamentalists forget the words and actions of the prophets and reformers of their faith who remind humanity of the grace of compassion, justice, equity, mercy, forgiveness (and humor!!).

 2. “The Divine Origin of Truth”: similarities between the three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (listed in order of appearance in the world)

            A) The Three Faiths:  The sons and daughters of the three faiths are descendants of the prophet, Abraham: the Jews and Christians from Abraham and his wife, Sarah from whom was born Isaac; the Muslims from Abraham and his concubine, Hagar from whom came Ishmael. 

            The qur’an (Koran) revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (early 7th century C.E.) over a period of 23 years emphasizes the kinship with older monotheistic religions and includes in it familiarity with those whom they call  apostles:  Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus. 

            The three faiths emerged from the Semitic experience in the Middle East and all three have links with Jerusalem.   They built on older traditions to evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they cultivated an internalized spirituality which stresses the importance of practical compassion in a just and equal society. 

            B) Judaism and Islam:

            God (Muslims: al-Lah; Jews: YHWH) is a moral imperative.

            Hebrew Prophets spoke of sensing  the terrifying otherness of God when experiencing the Holy Spirit of revelation.  Muhammad experienced such a numinous reality when Gabriel (“the Holy Spirit of Revelation”: Koran) was sent to Muhammad to call him to bring new scripture to the Arab peoples; so, too, when the Torah was revealed to Moses.

            In the reading, aloud of the Koran in Arabic, and of the Torah in Hebrew, the faithful feel themselves “enveloped in divine dimension of sound.”

            Jews and Muslims make a practice of not trying to convert others to their religion .

            Historically, there has been dialogue between the two great religions since the time when Gabriel revealed himself to Muhammad.  One notable example: in Spain, Rabbi Maimonides (12th c.) was a disciple of Abi al-Walid ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, the distinguished Muslim philosopher.

            C) Mohammad and Jesus.

            Jesus, a Jew, never claimed he was God, never claimed divine powers were his alone.  Nor did Muhammad, an Arab.  Neither believed he was founding a new exclusive religion.  Jesus was devoted to the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and taught that charity and loving-kindness were the most important of the Commandments. Muhammad, after revelation, saw himself as bringing one loving God to a tribe in Mecca.   Both men were illiterate.  It was for others to write down what had been revealed to them: for Jesus, decades after his death; for Muhammad, over a period of 23 years during his lifetime.

            Muhammad and Jesus attracted those who were poor and marginalized which included women, slaves, the disillusioned young, members of weaker sects, clans, groups.   Women were treated as equals by Muhammad and Jesus, both of whom emphasized the moral and spiritual equality of the sexes.  . [K.A.: “Later, unfortunately, both faiths were hijacked by men.”]

3. Vocabulary (words defined by Karen Armstrong)

            MYSTICISM: the descent into the psyche by means of structured disciplines of focus and concentration.  In all cultures mysticism has evolved as a means of acquiring intuitive insight.

            MYTHOS: As a complementary with logos, it is a primary way of arriving at truth.  Mythos is concerned with what is thought to be timeless and constant in our existence; thus it looks back at origin of life, the foundations of culture.  It has the power to plumb the deepest levels of the human mind (unconscious) and give us meaning (significance of our lives).  Mythological stories (not meant to be taken literally) bring to light the obscure regions in the subconscious realm.  They have the capacity to have a profound effect upon our experience and behavior.  

                        Mythos cannot be demonstrated by rational proof.  Instead it gives us intuitive insights; art, music, poetry, sculpture also have that power.   

                        Modern society has a dearth of mythos - thus the uses of psychoanalysis.

            LOGOS: rational, pragmatic, scientific thought that enables men and women to function well in the world (logos is the basis of Western society).  Logos looks forward.  It is essentially practical and relates exactly to facts that correspond with external realities.  It must work efficiently in the mundane world.  We use logical, discursive reasoning (logos) when we want to make something happen, persuade others to get things done, invent, gain greater control over the environment, elaborate on old insights.       

                        Logos cannot assuage pain or sorrow; it cannot explain the ultimate value of human life.  It has no effective explanation for the sense of tragedy. 

                    ***Modernity and Fundamentalism confuse mythos and logos:***

Fundamentalists turn mythos into logos:(everything written in the Bible is scientifically true).

                        Modernists who regard scientific rationalism alone as the truth, discount mythos as superstitions

            ISLAM: (Arabic): act of existential surrender to al-Lah (God)   

            MUSLIM (Arabic): a man or woman who surrenders his/her whole being to the Creator (al-Lah)

            JIHAD (Arabic): “struggle”; reform of self or of those in an Islamic community, war in service of religion.

4.  Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)          “He was a formidable person,” one writer says of him.

            Sayyid Qutb, an Egytian Muslim,  is our guide to the beginnings of 20th century Islamic Fundamentalism. (A part of what appears here is also in the presentation.)   He also serves to illustrate how and what a person comes to when under attack - real, in his case, or imagined.

            While imprisoned for 15 years (1954-1966), he developed an ideology that almost all radical (terrorist) Islamists now read and use as their guide. 

            To have some understanding of the how and why of Sunni Islamic Fundamentalism , we need to understand who Sayyid Qutb was and what forces were working on his life.       He was born into a traditional and pious village family; a devout student, he memorized the entire Qur’an by age 10.  Listen to him reflecting on his childhood in a book dedicated to his mother:  As I was brought up under your caressing care you sent me to the primary school of the village.  It was your sincerest and greatest desire that Allah may open my heart and I should commit the Holy Qur’an to memory and Allah may bestow upon me the art of sweet recital and I may, sitting before you, all the time recite the Holy Qur’an.  I therefore, memorized the Holy Book and thus a part of your desire was fulfilled.

            A small, soft-spoken, and physically weak person, such devotion to his religion was central to his being for the rest of his life.

              He attended Cairo University, worked in the Ministry of Education and then traveled in the West (including attending a college for a time in the USA!).   He was intrigued and attracted to the liberal West - and “fell in love with”  English literature. But as a devout Islamist, he was not impressed with the West’s habits, social mores, racism, vices, materialism, and larger social and political agendas - including colonialism. 

            Western colonialism in the lands of the Arabs had played a major part in undermining the will of Muslims who were denigrated into the status of second class citizens.   To illustrate: In the 1880s the British established military occupation in Egypt.  One Lord Cromer, the British proconsul became the real ruler of Egypt though a puppet Arab was set in place as khedive (ruler).   All Middle Eastern lands that came under the domination of Western colonialism could not develop on their own terms.   Lord Cromer was typical of the attitude of the colonists in the Middle East and Asia: Egyptians were inherently backward people; they needed to be colonized for their own good - their Islamic faith was moribund.  His good English “public school” education resulted in a firm view that Europe historically had been in the vanguard of civilization.   Always.

             Most damaging was that the Arabians tended to internalize the colonist’s negative views of Islam and of themselves.  A corrosive sense of inferiority crept into the religious life of the colonized people causing deep fissures in society.     Humiliation!     

            Jamal Nassar (1918-70) overthrew (1952), in a military coup, the old discredited regime.  His mission was to create a revolutionary socialist republic.  He courted the Soviets, and was defiant in his determination to get rid of the British presence.  He wanted them out of Egypt once and for all.  A determined secularist, Nassar used Islamic rhetoric while it served his purpose, but then when he had consolidated his power, he made it clear he had no intention of setting up an Islamic state.     

            Meanwhile, in 1928 in Egypt (Nassar would have been 10 at the time) the benign Society of Muslim Brothers and Sisters was created.

            Membership in the Society of Muslim Brothers and Sisters spread  into the hundreds of thousands.  This Society was the only group in Egypt that represented every part of Egyptian culture: peasants, civil servants, students, and urban workers.  The Society’s chief aim was education: the people absorbing the message of Islam would then transform themselves, so that the nation would become an Islamic state.  All this by peaceful means.         Nassar was shot at - he survived,  became a hero, and blamed the Society.  Thus was handed to him the reason he needed for destroying the Society and its ideals.  He threw thousands of the members in jail . . . including the benign educated man of letters, Sayyid Qutb, a devoutly religious Muslim.   Sayyid Qutb had joined the Society the year before because he wanted to assist in the reclamation of  Islam.  His goal also was to peacefully absorb the best of modern Western ethos.

            He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. 

            In prison he witnessed the brutality of Nassar’s regime toward the Islamists, including his own torture and deprivation.    Qutb’s ideology radicalized and Sunni Fundamentalism was born. 

             In his writings (which his sisters secretly took away in bits and pieces) he came to insist on armed struggle for God, to establish an Islamic state.   His proclamation of the sovereignty of God was stated as a declaration of independence: “a universal declaration of human liberation on earth from bondage to other men.”

            In the 7th century, the Prophet Muhammad had exhorted the Islamic faithful to use their religion to reach out to others, to understand them since all human beings are brothers and sisters.  The Koran emphasizes that there shall be no coercion in matters of faith.

             Sayyid Qutb, scarred by his prison experience, distorted that message: There could only be toleration after jihad  (war for the sake of God, Holy War) resulting in the political victory of Islam with the establishment of a true Muslim state.  He himself did not live to work toward this goal (Nassar saw to that), but his writings have become the call that Islamic Fundamentalists hear and respond to.

            His masterpiece is a book entitled IN THE SHADE OF THE QUR’AN (36 volumes!, slowly being translated into English).   In them, he quotes passages from the surahs (chapters) and then comments on them; as well he recounts stories from the Qur’an and remarks on their wisdom and significance.   He came to see that the only proper way to understand the Qur’an is when the reader is engaged in a ferocious campaign for Islam. 

            Qutb’s progression in his thinking is complicated.  Briefly (very),  he takes on Judaism (though, as all Muslims do, he looks on Judaism as the “original religion, divinely revealed by God to Adam, Moses, and prophets . . . “. )   He takes on  Christianity as having distorted its origins, [ Marxism], and “false” Muslims  He finds them all wanting because in modern  liberal societies religion is dismissed to one corner (Marxism dismisses religion period.), the state to another.  

            To sum up Sayyid Qutb’s final resolution: “The people of God (Muslims) had come under insidious attack from within their own society, by the forces of corruption and pollution - these are the false Muslims, the “hypocrites.”  Such enemies are backed by sinister and cosmic enemies from abroad.  There is going to be a terrible war, a jihad, with victory guaranteed.  The reign of God, which had once existed in the long-ago past, is going to be resurrected.  And the reign is going to create a perfect society, cleansed of its impurities and corruptions.”

                                    For further information on this man and his writings:

             Karen Armstrong: THE BATTLE FOR GOD        Paul Berman: TERROR AND LIBERALISM (2003)

5.  Who is Karen Armstrong?  She has been categorized as an “atheist. Is she?  Listen to her:

            She certainly felt herself to be an atheist , some 30 years ago, when she voluntarily, in her 20s, left a British Roman Catholic convent where she had been a nun for seven years.  Continuing on in her life evolution,  this is what she writes now: “religion is an essential human activity, one we are no more likely to ‘outgrow’ than we are likely to outgrow art.  Like art, religion is part of being human and demands to be renewed, if not totally reformulated in every generation . . .   The God of Rationality has been able to accomplish great things in the West but as Sartre expressed it, ‘there is a God-shaped hole in our consciousness.’  The God of the Mystics is a viable alternative, a way to regain the old balance in order to get to the next level.  This God is approached through the imagination and can be seen as a kind of art form, akin to the other great artistic symbols that have expressed the ineffable mystery, beauty and value of life . . .  Like art, mysticism requires intelligence, discipline and self-criticism as a safeguard against indulgent emotionalism and projection. . . . The test between ‘good’ (ethically based) religion and ‘bad’ religion is compassion.  That is the key.   . . .      I’m Irish – a Celt, not an Anglo-Saxon.   That is why I am so interested in religion; people with my form of epilepsy tend to be fascinated with religious and philosophical questions and to write a great deal.  (Think of Dostoevsky)    . . .    When I was about eight years old, I had to memorize this catechism answer to the question, ‘What is God?’: ‘God is the Supreme Spirit, Who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.’  Not surprisingly, it meant little to me, and I am bound to say that it still leaves me cold.  It has always seemed a singularly arid, pompous and arrogant definition.  Since writing this book [A HISTORY OF GOD], I have come to believe that it is also incorrect.”

6. Bibliography.          Karen Armstrong writes lucidly.  She has the ability to take an ambiguous, complex subject and make it accessible to a reader. I used most particularly BATTLE FOR GOD to explore the rise of Fundamentalism in the past 100 plus years.  Also for background I used her THE HISTORY OF GOD.   Both were written within the last 10 years.  Both are well worth anyone’s time. To give you an idea of the scope and depth of her reading, thought and writing, the following selections are authored by Karen Armstrong and available in local libraries. [Note: the book she is now working on (not yet published) will be a history of the Axial Age (700-200 BCE): “a time of great creativity when new ideologies were formed, in the chief civilizations, that have continued to be crucial and formative.”] 

THROUGH THE NARROW GATE (1981) (autobiography: leaving a convent after seven years as a nun)


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO WOMEN: Christianity’s creation of the sex war in the West (1986)








THE BATTLE FOR GOD (2000)     Fundamentalism in the three monotheistic faiths: one response to the spiritual crisis of the modern age.


 THE CHANGING FACE OF GOD [et al.] edited by Frederick W. Schmidt (2000)

 BUDDHA (2001)

Respectfully Submitted,

Donna Bealer, Secretary

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