Origins of fundamentalism and the revival movement of Islam Ahmadiyyat

Ayesha Naseem, UK

Many people think they understand the term fundamentalism; however, when asked to define it, they are unable to do so. A century after it was first used, there is still not one agreed universal definition of fundamentalism.

For Malise Ruthven, it is “a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities as individuals or groups in the face of modernity and secularisation.” (Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction [New York: University of Oxford Press, 2007], pp. 5-6)

David Harrington Watt suggests that fundamentalism has a defining characteristic of resisting modernity, and it tends to “read texts literally, a predilection for getting involved in politics, and a proclivity for militant rhetoric and action.” (David Harrington Watt, “Fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s”, in Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, eds by Simon A. Wood and David Harrington Watt [Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014], p. 18).

The same concept is much broader for Simon Wood who speaks of fundamentalism as an idea that can be understood in “terms of resistance to modern ‘threats’ or opposition to modern secularism.” (Simon A. Wood, “The Concept of Global Fundamentalism: A Short Critique”, in Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, eds by Simon A. Wood and David Harrington Watt [Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014], p. 125)

All three of these definitions give fundamentalism a religious connotation while also associating it with the idea that it resists and confronts modernity. However, despite having similar descriptions, the term still has ambiguities to its applicability and one definitive categorisation of the concept does not do it justice.

Fundamentalism – The term and its origins

The concept of fundamentalism has its origins in Protestant scholarship, and it did not always have negative implications. Broadly, revival and reform movements in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have been associated with the idea of fundamentalism because they tend to stress the need to return to the basic roots of the religion and its scripture. For this research piece, the religion of Islam is the focus.

Through a study and analysis of the beliefs of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, the aim is to explain whether fundamentalism supposedly always carries the risk of inspiring extremism because it is based on the revival of a religion’s teaching. Islam Ahmadiyyat is, of course, also a revival movement, but it is one that actively refutes the widely known view that returning to the original scripture and its teaching incites extremism, oppression, or serves as a resistance to civilisation.

In 1910, two Christian brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, with a successful oil business in the United States, sponsored a five-year programme for the publication and distribution of free-of-cost pamphlets about Protestant Christianity. The pamphlets were to be distributed to English-speaking Protestant pastors, evangelists, missionaries, theological professors, theological students, and other Protestant Christians etc. The booklets were a collection of essays authored by several Christian writers and were edited by three evangelists: A.C.  Dixon, Louis Meyer and Reuben Torrey. Titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, the pamphlets were a reformatory programme to stop the erosion of Protestant Christianity’s fundamental beliefs. (Ruthven, Fundamentalism, p. 7)

Those fundamental beliefs were the “inerrancy of the Bible; the direct creation of the world, and humanity; the authenticity of miracles; the virgin birth of Jesus, his Crucifixion and bodily resurrection; the substitutionary atonement; and his imminent return to judge and rule over the world.” More than three million copies of the booklets were circulated and were spread and shared on both sides of the Atlantic. For the authors of The Fundamentals, the booklets were a form of reformation for the “sizeable portion of Christendom” who had fallen into “grievous error.” Moreover, the publication of these pamphlets was to remove the doubts and mistrust of those Christians who had any “uneasy or distrustful feeling” regarding the Bible. (Ibid.; Watt, “Fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s, p. 19.; James Orr, “Holy Scripture and Modern Negations,” in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, ed. George M. Marsden [New York: Garland, 1988], pp. 31-45)

Scholars writing on the origins of fundamentalism also agree that the term did not always have negative connotations nor was it a term of abuse when Christians were making efforts to preserve their original teachings. (Ruthven, Fundamentalism, p. 5)

In the case of Islam; however, the same understanding is not demonstrated owing to the representation given to the religion and its followers by politicians, media and even academics. If one were to study the reformist and revival movements of Islam, mostly established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost all argue for a return to the basic teachings of the Holy Quran. Without an awareness of the origins of the concept, and with the constantly changing nature of how it is viewed at present, it may be easy to conclude that fundamentalism is a negative idea that challenges and confronts Western values and modernity. Of course, the cases of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam do not help this misunderstanding and stereotypical view of Muslims in the West.

Reformist movements in Islam

If Christian fundamentalism in the early twentieth century and Islamic fundamentalism share the same definition of what they intend to preserve – that is their original teachings – then it is important to distinguish and explain why the revival movements in Islam became the supposed inspiration for extremism. The reformist movement of Wahhabism in Islam founded in the eighteenth century places a significant emphasis on following the Holy Quran word-for-word. (Carol E. B. Choksy and Jamsheed K. Choksy, “The Saudi Connection: Wahhabism and Global Jihad”, World Affairs, vol. 178, no. 1 [2015], pp. 23- 34.)

The very premise of Wahhabism misses an important point of linguistics; that taking the Holy Quran word-for-word is not always possible. The Holy Quran addresses this itself. It says:

“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book; in it there are verses that are decisive in meaning—they are the basis of the Book—and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking [wrong] interpretation of it. And none knows its [right] interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; they say, ‘We believe in it; the whole is from our Lord.’—And none heed except those gifted with understanding.” (Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, Ch.3: V.8)

In the Five-Volume English Commentary of the Holy Quran, it has been explained:

“According to the verse, the Quran has two sets of verses. Some are محکم (decisive in meaning) and others متشابه (capable of different interpretations). The right way to interpret a متشابه verse is that only such interpretation of it should be accepted as agrees with the verses that are محکم and all other interpretations should be dismissed as incorrect.

“It is on record that one day the Holy Prophetsa, on hearing people disputing about the interpretation of certain verses of the Quran, angrily said: ‘Thus were ruined those who have gone before you. They interpreted certain parts of their scriptures in such a manner as to make them contradict other parts. But the Quran has been so revealed that different parts of it should corroborate one another. So do not reject any truth by making one part contradict the other. Act on what you understand thereof and refer that which you do not understand to those who know and understand it.’ (Musnad)

“The above hadith also refutes the theory of abrogation, for it speaks of the Holy Quran as a Book of which all parts corroborate one another and condemns those who think that some of its verses contradict others.” (Five Volume English Commentary, Vol. II, pp. 455-456)

This explanation challenges the commonly known allegation against Islam that the inspiration for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS stems from their following of the Holy Quran. The ideological claims of these revival movements taking everything in the Holy Quran literally are also dismissed by the sacred text itself so even if these groups claim to be the “followers” of Islam or the Holy Quran, only they are responsible for such a lie and an error so grave of its nature.

The Ahmadiyya Movement

A revival movement by nature, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s main objective is to instil the belief and love of Allah Almighty in people, to serve humanity irrespective of backgrounds, and to promote the true teachings of Islam that have been misused by clerics and unqualified scholars. (The Objectives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim

Islam Ahmadiyyat also emphasises the importance of returning to the ultimate teachings of the Holy Quran – but encourages the use of reason and interpretation where commandments are complex or require context, – followed by the ahadith (narrations) of the Holy Prophetsa of Islam. Contrary to how some people understand the movement as a “liberal” form of Islam, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has always avoided wearing a term that defines its movement. Ahmadiyyat considers itself to be an Islamic movement only with the sole purpose and objective of practising and propagating Islam. In doing so, it directly challenges the common understanding that religious fundamentalism always connotes coercion and creates fears of modernity and Western values.

Ahmadiyyat advocates for the implementation of the guidance and commandments set out in the Holy Quran regarding cultural and social practices, but at the same time, also encourages the use of modern advancements in technology, science, education, medicine etc., to provide benefits to mankind and wider society. The Holy Quran also encourages this as it contains prophecies of the advancement in the world with regard to medicine, travel, and publication among others.

Western fear of sharia and Islamic leadership

One of the biggest issues that keeps recurring in the debate around Islam and fundamentalism is the fear of Islam being spread by force with the establishment of a repressive Islamic leadership in the West. Although other systems of Islamic government have widely used the term “Khalifah” and many political ones have existed (Spain, Turkey etc), most Muslims generally accept only one religious Khilafat, which was established, on the precepts of prophethood, after the demise of the Prophet of Islam.

In one narration of the Holy Prophetsa, we find the following:

“Prophethood shall remain among you as long as Allah wills. He will bring about its end and follow it with Khilafat on the precepts of prophethood for as long as He wills and then bring about its end. Kingship shall then follow, to remain as long as Allah wills and then come to an end. There shall then be monarchical despotism which shall remain as long as Allah wills and come to an end upon His decree. There will then emerge Khilafat on the precepts of prophethood.” (Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal, Kitab ar-riqaq, Bab al-indhari wa t-tahdhir)

In contrast to what many non-Muslims fear and what Western historians allege, just as the first, this second era of Khilafat is also free of any worldly aspirations and would continue till the end of times.

The Ahmadiyya Khilafat was established after the demise of the Promised Messiahas in 1908 – and in fulfilment to the prophecy of the Holy Prophetsa, this is the second spiritual Khilafat in Islam, and free from all kinds of worldly aspirations. It intends to lead and guide the followers of Islam Ahmadiyyat according to the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be on him. Khilafat-e-Ahmadiyya is currently in its fifth era under the blessed leadership of Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa, who has clearly stated:

“Let me make it clear that the institution of Khilafat leading the Ahmadiyya Community has no interest in power or government. Rest assured that true Khilafat has no worldly or political objectives and gains and neither is it gifted to those who have a lust or greed for it. The sole concern of the Ahmadiyya Khilafat is that the people of the world come to recognise their Creator and bow down before the One God and secondly create the spirit of love and harmony among the people of the world.” (“Islam – A Threat or a Source of Peace”,

Change in the understanding of the term fundamentalism

There is widespread agreement among scholars that the change in the understanding of fundamentalism and its close association with Islam was due to the Iranian Revolution and the Gulf crisis in the aftermath. Peter Antes argues that the case study of Iran shocked the Western governments and analysts alike as for the “first time in modern history, a revolution was successful based on a religion that […] had its roots not in Western thoughts but in a religious setting that seemed to reject modernisation.” (Peter Antes, “Religious Fundamentalism – A Misleading Concept?”, in Religious Fundamentalism in the Age of Pandemic, ed. by Nina Käsehage [Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2021], p. 253.)

Here is a classic example of “Othering” of the East once again; this problematic terminology around revolutions suddenly changes if the experiences of those places do not go according to the typical Western playbook, and if their revolutions are of a religious nature. Even at present, where Ukrainians confronting the Russian invasion is a struggle for liberation and freedom from illegal and unjust occupation, Palestinian resistance demanding liberation from Israel’s occupation (recognised to be in breach of international law by the United Nations) is considered militant.

The use of violence and coercion and one’s views on it can obviously be debated and deconstructed elsewhere – for example Islam does not permit that harm be inflicted on civilians including non-combatant men, women, children, and the elderly – but it is certainly interesting that the standards to the struggle for liberation change depending on the nations involved.

The response from the international community and the unjust use of the right to veto in the United Nations also adds to these double standards and the hierarchy with which the Security Council operates despite being the ultimate neutral organisation responsible for maintaining peace in the world, due to the power of some wealthy and privileged nations.

sheraz nazar KfpTd2B5vV4 unsplash scaled
sheraz nazar | Unsplash

Conflict resolution in Islam – the guidance to Muslims in the Holy Quran

The Holy Quran states in Surah al-Hujurat: “And if two parties of believers fight each other, make peace between them.” (Surah Al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.10)

It has been explained in the Five Volume Commentary of the Holy Quran:

“The central theme of the Surah is the solidarity of Islam. Directions and rules of conduct which are calculated to achieve and maintain this solidarity have been laid down in it in some detail. Some of these rules have been mentioned in the preceding verses, others follow in the verses that come later. A great danger to the security and solidarity of the Muslim State or Community are the disputes and quarrels that haply might arise between different Muslim groups or parties. The verse under comment provides a most effective remedy to compose these quarrels. Primarily, the verse deals with the settlement of disputes between Muslim parties, but it equally embodies a sound basis on which a really effective “League of Nations” or a “United Nations Organisation” can be built. The verse lays down the following principles for the maintenance of international peace.

“As soon as there are indications of disagreement between two nations, the other nations, instead of taking sides with one or the other, should at once serve notice upon them, calling upon them to submit their differences for settlement to a “League of Nations” or “United Nations Organisation”, as the case may be. If they agree, the dispute will be amicably settled. But if one of them refuses to submit to the “League” or having submitted refuses to accept the award of the “League” and prepares to make war, the other nations should all fight it.

“It is evident that one nation, however strong, cannot withstand the united might of all other nations and is bound to make a speedy submission. In that event, terms of peace should be settled between the two original parties to the dispute. The other nations should act merely as mediators and not as parties to the dispute and should not put forward new claims arising out of the conflict with the refractory nation, for that would lay the foundation of fresh disputes and quarrels. The terms of peace should be just and equitable with reference to the merits of the dispute; they should be confined to the original dispute between the parties and should not be allowed to travel beyond it.

“It is only such a “League” or “Organisation” which can safely be entrusted with the maintenance of international peace, not a League or Organisation whose very existence is dependent upon the goodwill of others.” (Five Volume Commentary, Vol. V, pp. 2961-62)

Then in verse 11 of the same chapter, it is said:

“Surely [all] believers are brothers. So, make peace between your brothers.” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.11)

“The verse lays special stress on Islamic brotherhood. Islam tolerates no discord or dissensions between brothers. If there happens to arise a quarrel or dispute between two Muslim individuals or groups, other Muslims are bound at once to bring about reconciliation between the quarrelling parties. Islam’s real strength lies in this ideal of brotherhood which transcends all barriers of caste, colour, or clime.” (Ibid.)

During the heightened tensions between Muslim nations during the Gulf Crisis, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IVrh emphasised that “the Islamic world has not followed the guidelines as enunciated by these verses of the Holy Quran.” (The Gulf Crisis and New World Order [Khalij ka Buhran]p. 33)

What has been described above is just based on two verses of the Holy Quran that advocate for the need to put aside conflicts by placing unity and mutual dialogue at the centre. If fundamentalism is going back to the scripture’s word-for-word teachings, then this is one example rarely found in academic research as evidence.

Jihad – the literal meaning

With their rise, influence and then decline in the last decade or so, the narrative from ISIS was one on the precepts of their understanding of Jihad – the struggle that was for “defeating” the West and establishing the dominance of Islam by force.

However, On its own, Jihad means “struggle” or “to strive”. (The Essence of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 319)

The Jihad of the early Islamic history was fought to defend, not just the religion of Islam after years of intensive persecution that was aimed at early Muslims and the Holy Prophetsa, but also the very existence of belief in God and religion itself.

No compulsion in religion

The Holy Quran states:

“There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.257)

In the Five Volume Commentary, it has been explained:

“The injunction to make special sacrifices in the cause of religion and to fight the enemies of Islam who had transgressed against the Faithful was likely to cause the misunderstanding that Allah desired Muslims to use force for propagating their religion. The verse under comment removes this misunderstanding. The object for which Muslims have been commanded to take up arms against the disbelievers is not to force them to accept Islam, but only to check mischief and put a stop to persecution. The verse enjoins Muslims in the clearest and strongest of words not to resort to force for converting non-Muslims to Islam. In the face of this teaching embodied in the words, There should be no compulsion in religion, it is the height of injustice to accuse Islam of countenancing the use of force for the propagation of its teaching.

“The verse not only gives the commandment that in no case is force to be resorted to for the purpose of converting non-Muslims to Islam, but also gives the reason why it should not be used, saying: Surely, right has become distinct from wrong, i.e. the true path has become distinct from the wrong one and therefore there is no justification for using force. Islam is a manifest truth. Anyone who sincerely desires to see this truth can easily see it; but if there is a person who does not desire to see it, no force can possibly make him do so. One only needs to point out its beauties to non-Muslims; it rests with them to accept it or reject it as they like. ايـمان or faith, as defined by Islam, consists in believing something with the heart or the mind and expressing that belief with the tongue. No force on earth can bring about that change.”

“The person who sticks to true faith and shuns false ones is here represented as laying hold of a strong عروہ (‘urwah) which word, as shown above, gives a number of meanings. Taking it in the first-mentioned sense, i.e. the handle of a mug, etc., the Quran compares Islam to the pure life-giving liquid which is put into a mug, and the believer is represented as taking fast hold of the handle thereof. Taking the word in the second sense, i.e. anything which is grasped and clung to for support; the true faith is represented as something on which complete reliance can be placed in all circumstances. If one adheres to it, there is no fear of one’s stumbling or falling down. Following the third significance, i.e. a pasture that remains green even in time of drought, Islam has been likened to a grazing ground the herbage of which is everlasting. There can be no spiritual famine in Islam. Following the last-mentioned meaning of عروة Islam is represented as a storehouse of spiritual treasures that are without equal.” (Five Volume English Commentary of the Holy Quran, Vol. I, pp. 403-404)

Jihad of the pen

Despite such a profound and beautiful injunction of Islam to not use force or compulsion, some Muslim scholars still believe that just like in the period of early Islam, wars are necessary.

In relation to this, the Promised Messiahas has written: “I have come to you with an order: jihad with the sword has ended from this time forward, but the jihad of purifying your souls must continue.” (The British Government and Jihad [Government Angrezi aur Jihad], p. 17)

A hadith of the Holy Prophetsa supports this; the narration refers to “yada-u l-harb” which means that “(when the Messiahas comes) he will put an end to religious war.” (Ibid.) In Invitation to Ahmadiyyat [Da‘wat-ul-Ameer]Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IIra, stressed that in this era “Jihad by the sword cannot help Islam.” (p. 440)

The objective is to bring people closer to the teachings of Islam as revealed in the Holy Quran, and through the study of the life and character of the Prophet Muhammadsa, Islam Ahmadiyyat intends to bring a revolution of the self among its followers. The argument that Islamic “fundamentalism” increases the risk of militancy against Western modernisation and civilisation is directly challenged by Ahmadiyyat not just in words but also in practice because its ideas trace back to the original teachings of the religion – which instils the values of compassion, peace, and freedom at the centre of belief.

Does Islam resist modernity and civilisation?

The idea of resisting modernity because of a potential clash between Western civilisation and Islam is another aspect often contested against it for having extremist tendencies. Samuel Huntington infamously argues in Clash of Civilisations that Islam absolutely opposes modernisation, and it is the complete opposite of what the West represents. For Huntington, other world religions still stand on a moderate scale between Islam on one end, and the secular West on the other. This, at its simplest, is another obvious sense of ‘othering’ implied by Huntington for while other religions may still stand a chance in the West, Islam never will. Richard Dawkins made a similar case recently during his interview with LBC radio.

If for a moment, we take away the religious element and just focus on the view that Islam has no place in the West, don’t we see just another form of fundamentalism? If, supposedly, taking religious commandments and teachings literally is extreme and fundamental then isn’t believing a religion can never be welcomed in a specific part of the world or society extreme and fundamental too? The apparent Islamophobia and the double standards have blinded those whose whole focus should be to build arguments with evidence and honest research.

What is civilisation?

Simply, Oxford English states that civilisation is ‘a state of human society that is very developed and organised.’

Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra has also elaborated on the concept of civilisation, and wrote:

“Civilisation is the material progress and development of a society”, including aspects like “economic progress, the level of technological innovation, the advancement of the means of travel, communication and the intellectual progress of the society.” Huzoorra also emphasised that even fostering “peace and stability […] is also a measure of its civilisation.” (See “Islam and Europe? A Clash of Civilisations”,

Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa has said that the declining belief in religion in the West is the reason people fear Islam because Muslims, more broadly, “remain attached to their faith.” (Ibid.)

Considering how one of the biggest critiques of religious fundamentalism is that it apparently confronts modernisation, this makes complete sense. While it is undeniable that the fear of being forced into committing to faith has spread because of the actions and ideologies of people who use the name of religion to justify their aggression and militant tendencies, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa has spoken to non-Muslims on several occasions and has emphasised that “there is no cause to fear Islam. Muslims believe the Holy Quran to be a final and perfect religious teaching and it is due to our love and obedience to the Holy Quran that we firmly believe that religion is a matter of the heart and personal to every individual.” (Ibid.)

Rather than avoiding addressing the criticisms aimed at Islam and the unfairly assumed challenges it supposedly poses to Western society, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Movement, through its leadership, continues to fulfil its responsibility of clarifying misconceptions and informing people about the real message of Islam. Indeed, by doing so, it is fulfilling the purpose for which the spiritual Ahmadiyya Khilafat was established after the demise of the Promised Messiahas.


It has been regrettable that during research for this piece of work, every reference noticed regarding Islamic teachings in academic published work did the bare minimum of citing another scholar’s work or a general theological view of a Muslim group. Not once was an actual verse from the Holy Quran or its commentary cited anywhere. Nor was a reference made to a narration of the Holy Prophetsa. Yet claims of Islamic movements that followed the original teachings of the scripture being the inspiration for extremists were made.

Global history must deal with such weaknesses in historiography, especially in a time where one-sided assumptions void of evidence and reasoning, are rife.

An even more contemporary case is of Palestine at the moment. For over six months, Palestinians in Gaza have been documenting the atrocities that are being inflicted on them by the Israeli forces, yet they were silenced, unheard and ignored. Now when Israel’s impunity has led to the brutal killing of seven foreign nationals who were in Gaza to provide food to the vulnerable population of the Strip, the same voices in the West who were silencing Palestinian testimony are now quoting and referencing it.

If this is not a lesson for academia, then what will be?

In conclusion to the case study of Islam Ahmadiyyat, it’s fair to make the case that a religious group can be fundamentalist and can be so by practically challenging the commonly known negative connotations attached to the term. But language and its meaning constantly change so, the term fundamentalism is no different. What would be fair and reasonable though, is that if researchers and historians do not confine their research and findings to specific definitions that are now either outdated or can easily be dismissed with counter cases – as has been the case with fundamentalism.

No posts to display