nighttime vigil with signs
Mourners take part in a vigil for slain soldiers Nathan Cirillo and Patrice Vincent in Montreal (Photo: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Topics: World | Theology

Islam theologian Amir Hussain unpacks the roots of fundamentalism

Groups like ISIS pose a genuine threat to the West but the bigger war is being waged within Islam itself


“So, what do you think about ISIS?” The question was posed at the end of September by an agnostic colleague at the Jesuit university in Los Angeles. The query was directed at me, no doubt, because I’m the lone Muslim theology professor on staff.

And I’m not sure how to respond or what else I can say except that members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are horrific. I also can’t imagine my colleague asking me a comparable question — “What do you think about the Nazis?” or “What do you think of clergy who sexually abuse children?” — and expecting any kind of nuanced answer. I put his question aside.

A couple of weeks later, I was driving home from visiting friends in Santa Barbara when I heard that Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent had been deliberately run over and killed in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. Two days after that, while I was in an airline lounge in Chicago, word flashed across the TV monitors that Cpl. Nathan Cirillo had been shot dead while he guarded the National War Memorial in Ottawa and that the assailant was killed in a hail of gunfire in the corridors of the Parliament Buildings. It turned out that both murderers were self-radicalized converts to Islam. I was horrified.

The October attacks brought back to mind my colleague’s question about ISIS. Perhaps, when he asked, he wasn’t looking for nuance but context. Perhaps he wanted to better understand what motivates and inspires their evil, where the movement came from, how they are able to export their ideologies to troubled young men and women around the world, and how worried we North Americans should be about their threat to us.

My response is the same now as it was before. As shocking and frightening as incidents of “homegrown terrorism” may be, we must keep one fact in mind: the primary targets of Muslim fanatics are much more likely to be other Muslims than non-Muslims. Their main purpose is to force their own skewed version of Islam onto other Muslims. In the same way that Ebola is a serious threat to West Africans, not to North Americans, ISIS is a serious threat in Iraq and Syria, not here in North America. Personally, I’m much more concerned about Islamic fundamentalism in general than I am about ISIS specifically.

First, what is meant by the phrase “Islamic fundamentalism”? The name “fundamentalism” itself, as well as many of its characteristics, arose in the early 20th century in the United States. In 1910, a series of booklets entitled The Fundamentals affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines. Three million copies were distributed free to Protestant clergy, missionaries and students through the anonymous sponsorship of “two Christian laymen,” who were Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton, major figures in the Union Oil Company of California. The connection between oil wealth and religious proselytizing would arise a few decades later in the Muslim world.

By 1920, advocates of inerrancy were being called “fundamentalists.” Fundamentalism is a modern development, a reaction against secularism and modernity and their tendency to place ultimate authority in human institutions (legislatures and courts) rather than divine ones (scriptures and religious leaders). For example, if fundamentalists interpret either the Bible or the Qur’an as condemning homosexuality, they resist any attempt to legalize same-sex marriage based upon human rights concerns.

It should be noted that although fundamentalists are offended by modernity, most welcome modern technology — making proficient use of the Internet and social media to advance their causes. Discussing ISIS in late August, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart quipped, “Everybody uses social media as a weapon. That’s what it’s for.” And while we do not have the full story (this essay was completed a week after Cirillo’s murder), we do know that the murderers of the two Canadian soldiers had self-radicalized, in part through the Internet. In addition to other suspicious or criminal activity, they had visited terrorist websites and posted propaganda videos.

In the case of Islam, modern militant fundamentalism began in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century. An obscure religious scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), began calling for the radical reformation of Islam to purge it of any mystical or intellectual traditions. His “Islam” was bound in ethnocentrism, seeing his native Arabia as inherently pure but sullied by developments that came from Persia or Turkey. He also declared other Muslims to be heretics — a label even conservative jurists before him were unwilling to use — and urged that they be tortured and killed for their beliefs. His views were extreme enough that they were denounced by his own father and his brother Sulayman, who countered Abd al-Wahhab’s stance with his own treatise — banned in Saudi Arabia to this day.

Abd al-Wahhab’s extremist views, however, found favour with the leader of a neighbouring town and tribe, Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud. The two men joined forces, with the one providing the religious inspiration and justification for the other’s military operations in Arabia, leading to the creation of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (whose current king is a descendant of Ibn Sa‘ud).

What is important to note is that this movement targeted Muslims, not non-Muslims. The foreigners they wanted to drive out of Arabia were not the British or the French but fellow Muslims, the Ottoman Turks. The Wahhabis saw the Ottoman practice of Sunni Islam as corrupt, indeed un-Islamic. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Wahhabis devastated the town of Karbala in Iraq, massacring many of the Shi‘a Muslims who lived there and looting and damaging the town’s key shrine, the Mosque of Imam Hussein (the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the third imam for the Shi‘a). So the Wahhabis were indiscriminate in their war against all Muslims, Sunni or Shi‘a, who they labelled as heretical.

While there have been many movements in history where one group of Muslims accused another of corrupt practices, what set the Wahhabis apart was their decision to equate this corruption with apostasy — a complete desertion of religious principles — and label their opponents as non-Muslim. For classical Muslim theologians, the decision of who was and who wasn’t a Muslim was ultimately up to God. Not surprisingly, the Wahhabis also wanted to mete out the ultimate punishment for apostasy in this world, and not wait for God to enact divine justice in the world to come. In modern parlance, we would say that they were acting in the roles of judge, jury and executioner.

What would have remained a relatively minor movement in Islam (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a population of some 30 million, has only two percent of the world’s Muslims) gained importance with the discovery of oil in the region in 1938. With that oil wealth, the Saudis, not unlike the oil-rich Stewart brothers in California, could export their particular version of Islam around the Muslim world as the only true version.

They did this with an impressive publication and proselytizing program. At seminaries throughout the kingdom, the Wahhabis funded training in their belief system for foreign imams, who would then be sent back to their countries of origin. Saudi Arabia is also one of the best clients for the weapons industry in the United States, using oil wealth to purchase billions of dollars in military equipment and weapons, some of which goes to aid extremist groups who share their ideology. And of course, one cannot forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has continued the work that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began centuries earlier. They have destroyed religious sites around Mecca and Medina, serving as the role model for ISIS in its destruction of Shi‘a sites and Sunni shrines in Syria and Iraq. Watching Muslims destroy the religious and cultural heritage that other Muslims left for the world is particularly painful, and yet another facet of Muslim-on-Muslim violence.

I was not aware of the extent of that destruction until 2009, when, at a conference at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, I met with Sami Angawi, the Saudi architect who heads the Hajj Research Centre in Mecca. He showed me images from the 2002 destruction of the Ajyad Fortress, erected by the Ottoman Turks in the 18th century to guard the Ka‘ba (believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael as the first place to worship the One True God) and to protect the Hajj pilgrims.

The reason given by the kingdom was to increase the hotel space available for pilgrims, itself a noble and worthy goal. But since the chief threat that caused the fort to be built two centuries earlier was from the Wahhabis, one cannot help but wonder if it was instead a chance for the Saudi government to finish a historic conflict.

It was on the space formerly occupied by the Ajyad Fortress that the new deluxe Makkah Clock Royal Tower hotel now stands, built by the Saudi Binladin Group, whose founder had over 50 children, the most infamous being Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda. The hotel is the tallest building in the kingdom and the fourth-tallest building in the world. It also features the world’s largest clock face, which is six times larger than London’s Big Ben. The giant clock tower dominates the skyline and dwarfs the Ka‘ba, which ought to be the focus for pilgrims.

I am left to ponder a famous saying by the Prophet Muhammad, who observed that one of the signs of the Hour of Judgment would be “shepherds vying with each other in building.” With the end of this year’s Hajj in October, Saudi Arabia has revealed plans to begin similar renovation work on the area of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina that contains his grave, a shrine that the Wahhabis also wanted to destroy.

I haven’t yet made the Hajj, the once-in-a-lifetime obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims who, like me, have the privilege to afford it. Going means acquiescing to the authority of the kingdom, and if boycotting apartheid South Africa was the right thing to do, I’m wondering how the kingdom is any different.

We in North America are, rightly, disgusted at the barbarism of ISIS, exemplified in their beheading of innocent civilian journalists. Yet Saudi Arabia has had over 300 public beheadings in the past four years (and, yes, they are done in the public square, not in the secrecy of a prison), including 26 in the month of August alone. And I won’t even get started on its misogyny and mistreatment of women.

ISIS has been condemned by Muslims of all sorts, including all of the major Muslim groups in North America. Perhaps the most notable was the condemnation last February by al-Qaeda, who separated itself from the ruthlessness and barbarity of ISIS. Let that sink in for those who raise the old canard that Muslims have not condemned violence and terrorism: ISIS is condemned even by the terrorists among Muslims.

One condemnation deserves special attention, an open letter to the head of ISIS by 126 religiously trained Muslim scholars. This letter is available online ( and offers 24 points of disagreement with the actions of ISIS. It concludes with the following injunction to ISIS: “Reconsider all your actions; desist from them; repent from them; cease harming others and return to the religion of mercy.” It was the Prophet Muhammad who was sent by God, according to the Qur’an (21:107), as “a mercy to all the worlds.”

Muslims need to continue following the example of the Prophet and be merciful to everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Amir Hussain teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University, the Jesuit university in Los Angeles. He is the author of Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s December 2014 issue with the title “The outer edges of Islam.”


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