What role does scripture play in fundamentalist ideology?

When one thinks of fundamentalism, one most likely thinks of violence, preaching and a literal interpretation of scripture. But to what extent does scripture play a role in fundamentalist ideology? In this essay, therefore, I shall focus primarily on Islamic and Christian fundamentalism and their sacred texts – the Quran and the Bible. I will illustrate how religion and ideology are conjoined with one another when exploring fundamentalism. I will also address the question why do fundamentalists select particular passages from their chosen scripture and declare them as “decisive authority” (Lawrence 1995: p. 60)? Ultimately, I will critically examine what Islamic and Christian fundamentalist ideology entails and how their scriptures play a role, and how it underpins their ideology.

However, before we discuss the ideology behind Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, I believe that it is important to first define what fundamentalism is. Oxford dictionaries defines fundamentalism as “a form of religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture” (Oxford Dictionaries 2017). However, fundamentalism is more complex than a one sentence definition. Indeed, the term fundamentalism is “often used on the cover of a book to catch the eye and make the sales, and then disowned in the opening pages” (Harris 2001: p. 3). James Barr (1924 – 2006) recognises this, he suggests that a clear and simple definition cannot be given; complex social and religious movements cannot be defined in a few words. Therefore, in Fundamentalism (1977), he offers a group of characteristics that fundamentalist groups display: firstly, a strong emphasis on the inerrancy of scripture; secondly, a strong hostility to modern theology; and finally, those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true believers’ at all (Barr 1981). Barr speaks in particular of Christian fundamentalism but these characteristics can be seen across various religious fundamentalist groups. Arguably, therefore, from these definitions we can see that scripture plays a large role in fundamentalist movements.

That said, when discussing the role of scripture in fundamentalist ideology, it would be impossible not to discuss literalism, how many fundamentalists take their scripture literally. In its simplest sense, literalism means that the exact wording of a text carries the whole weight of its meaning, disregarding any unmentioned details (Ruthven 2007). It can be seen that fundamentalists tend towards a literalist interpretation of their religious texts. A survey has reported that three in every ten Americans interpret the Bible literally, claiming that it is the actual word of God (Gallup 2011). The original auditors of the scriptures and, also, the initial readers, were people of their times. Still, fundamentalists resist the onslaught of historical criticism and insist that the word of God is timeless and eternal (Ruthven 2007). Therefore, the literalist approach to the scriptures is in no doubt connected to the inerrancy of those scriptures. When we examine the role of the Quran and the Bible in Islamic and Christian fundamentalist ideology, we will be able to see the role of literalism.

With regard to the ideology behind Islamic fundamentalism, it is important to note that Muslims once ruled large parts of the globe where domination was built on military power (Bruce 2008). For example, in the eighth century, the south of Spain was Islamic due to Muslims from North Africa conquering the land until Christians from Northern Europe drove the Muslims away in the tenth century. Moreover, there are two key attributes of Islam that are important to consider when understanding the ideology behind Islamic fundamentalism – firstly, the lack of a clear separation between spiritual and political power and, secondly, the Quran being the primary legislative source for the Islamic faith. I will discuss the centrality of the law when exploring the Quran however, with regard to the lack of a direct division between spiritual and political power, it can be seen that there was no theoretical division between church and state in the founding years of Islam (Bruce 2008). For instance, Islam achieved political power during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, its founder. Therefore, its original followers were unable – and did not have to – develop an image of themselves separate from the secular powers. Today, however, it can be seen that Islamic fundamentalist groups wish to regain political strength and in some cases, groups have been somewhat successful. In 2012, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate for Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, became the first democratically elected president. However, he was overthrown by the military a year later. Also, despite the fact that there are countries that comply with shariah law, such as Egypt, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates to name a few; shariah being Islamic law derived from the Quran, considered binding for all believers. There are still groups such as ISIS, who wish to re-establish an all Islamic State, since the last one dissolved in the early twentieth century.

The Quran is the central religious text of Islam. In short, it is the full account of the revelations that came to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel. It emphasises the oneness of God (Tawhid) and provides broad guidelines on living a moral and upright life. It is understood by many Muslims to be a literal transcription of what was relayed to Muhammad so therefore, it is understood to be the literal word of God. Due to this, the Quran has supreme authority in Islam and has divine authority and, thus, it is the primary legislative source in the Islamic faith. The Hadith is used alongside the Quran to confirm, explain or elaborate Quranic teachings; the Hadith being a collection of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad’s acts and deeds. Islamic fundamentalists groups such as ISIS wish to return to a ‘pure’ interpretation of Islam so profess a strict adherence to the Quran. For Muslims, the Quran is inerrant. The inerrancy of the text is particularly important to Islamic fundamentalists due to the concept that the human agent, the human mind, cannot possibly understand the word of God. Hence, one must follow the Quran word for word, for the human agent cannot interpret it.

Consequently, Islamic fundamentalists may use particular verses from the Quran to justify their actions. The first being 9: 5, which has become labelled the ‘Sword Verse’: “…wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them…” (Quran 9: 5). It is this verse in particular that is singled out time and time again by Western scholars to reflect the Islamic attitude to war (Haleem 2011). The full context of this verse is given in 9: 1 – 15, where it gives the reasons for fighting the idolaters. However, Islamic fundamentalists take the main clause of 9: 5, “kill the idolaters”, and allege that this overrules other verses in the Quran on war (Haleem 2011). Another verse is that of 2: 191: “Kill them wherever you encounter them…If they do fight you, kill them – this is what such disbelievers deserve” (Quran 2: 191). It must be understood that the context of 2: 190 – 5 is that it justifies fighting those who will not allow Muslims from reaching the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to perform the pilgrimage. However, Islamic fundamentalists like to ‘cherry-pick’ verses and ignore the context of those verses when fighting those who do not share their extremist beliefs. For instance, verse 2: 256 states that, “There is no compulsion in religion”. In other words, one must not coerce another into a religion, which is the opposite of what Islamic fundamentalists strive for. This is just one example that illustrates Islamic fundamentalists selectively choose what verses they adhere to.

In addition to this, I would like to discuss the notion of jihād. Jihād stems from Arabic meaning “to strive”, “to exert”, “to fight” but, it’s exact meaning depends on the context in which it is being used (Esposito 2003). Traditionally, it means a spiritual struggle against oneself from sin. However, today it is more commonly understood to mean ‘Holy War’, a war against the disbelievers. Yet, ‘Holy War’ does not actually exist as a term in Arabic. Instead, in the Quran, jihād is always described as fi sabīl illāh, which can be defined as financial help or actual fighting (Haleem 2011). When there is an objective cause for jihād, it must have a righteous intention, which in turn becomes an obligation. The only valid justifications for war as stated in the Quran are as follows: for defending religious freedom (22: 39 – 41); for self-defence (2: 190); and for defending men, women and children who are oppressed (4: 75). Nonetheless, we see that Islamic extremists have a tendency to brand Muslims that do not adhere to their interpretation of Islam as unbelievers, to justify their jihād, to justify their fight against them (Esposito 2003). Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether Islamic fundamentalists follow a strict adherence to the Quran, or whether they follow a strict adherence to the verses that support their ideology and manipulate/ignore the verses that do not?

Turning to the ideology behind Christian fundamentalism, the general consensus behind Christian fundamentalist ideology is that anything that challenges biblical teaching is sinful. I will explore the Christian fundamentalist use of the Bible in more detail later on in this essay but, for now, another principle behind Christian fundamentalist ideology is that of pre-millennialism. Essentially, this is the concept that the world will get worse before the impending Judgement Day. Christian fundamentalists tend to believe that there is no need to engage constructively in this world if life is to be unpleasant anyway, until the righteous are to be lifted out during the rapture. Therefore, they believe that one should remain pure and clean by remaining “aloof” (Bruce 2008: p. 69). Nonetheless, for the Christian Right in particular, implementing traditional values within the American society is a key element in their ideology, alongside re-establishing the traditional family and eradicating laws that challenge the moral Christian foundation.

The Bible is central to Christianity. For Christian fundamentalists, the Bible provides the layout that needs to be followed in a literal manner for a cohesive society to be obtained (Ammerman 1991). Indeed, the Evangelical Theological Society was founded upon a single item as its doctrinal statement: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” (Erickson 1982: p. 387). Similarly, to the Islamic fundamentalist view of the Quran, the Bible is the word of God and is therefore, an inerrant text for Christian fundamentalists. The truth and authority of scripture is inevitably connected with the inerrancy of the Bible, where it is the primary doctrine to go to when faced with threatening propositions. The Bible is the literal and historical truth, whatever the biblical text affirms, it is to be taken to be factually accurate (Barton 2010). For Christian fundamentalists, if they cannot be steadfast in the absolute truth of the Bible, they would end up whirling in the “vortex of nihilism” (Boone 1990: p. 24). Therefore, because the author of the scriptural text is an omniscient, omnipotent God, the logic of biblical inerrancy is plain to see.

As noted earlier, Christian fundamentalists comply with verses in the Bible so that a well-integrated society can be achieved. For example, Christian Right uses the Bible to provide a firm set of rules that safeguard the traditional family and in turn remain untainted by modernity. Such as adhering to the verse Ephesians. 5: 22 – 24, where it states that a woman must be subject to their husband as the church is to Christ. Also, in 1 Timothy. 2: 15 where it suggests that the woman’s role in society is to bear children, this is how she will be saved due to Eve’s act in The Fall (Gen. 3: 6). In fact, Christian Right singles out specific texts to back their political agenda. One example of this is “You shall not murder”, found in the Decalogue, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 13; Deut. 5: 17), when campaigning that abortion is murder. This can be seen in Roe v. Wade (1973), where the Supreme Court ruled that state laws restricting abortion breached a woman’s constitutional right to privacy. This court case in particular gave rise to the Christian Right movement in the 1970’s and the 1980’s as the group tries to overturn the decision of the Supreme Court (NPR 2006). Additionally, the Moral Majority, a Christian fundamentalist group associated with Christian Right, made the prohibition of abortion their central issue (Wilcox & Gomez 1990).

Another example of a Christian fundamentalist group singling out pieces of the text is that of Christian Identity, a white supremacist group. Christian Identity cite passages from the Old Testament which they claim contain injunctions from Yahweh (the Hebrew name for God) against interracial marriages. Such passages are Ezra. 9: 2, Ezra. 9: 12 and also, Nehemiah. 13: 27; “…act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” (Neh. 13: 27). Additionally, the Ku Klux Klan, another white supremacist group, believe that black people were created at the same time as the “beasts of the Earth” (Gen. 1: 25). However, similarly to Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists also have a habit of ‘cherry-picking’ verses from the Bible to match their ideology. So, where Christian Identity are claiming that mixed race marriages are sinful and the Ku Klux Klan segregating black people from the rest of humankind, they are ignoring passages such as Galatians. 3: 28; “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.” This passage is particularly important as it suggests that all of humankind is equal to one another – a passage that a number of Christian fundamentalists appear to ignore.

As argued earlier, the general consensus behind Christian fundamentalist ideology is that anything that challenges biblical teaching is considered sinful. This can be seen in the Scopes Trial, an American legal case in 1925, formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. In short, John Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, an act which meant that teaching evolution in any state-funded school was illegal. This trial heavily publicised the Modernist–Fundamentalist controversy as modernists stated that evolution was not inconsistent with religion, whereas Christian fundamentalists stated that the word of God in the Bible overruled any human knowledge (Cotkin 2004). A similar court case occurred in 2006, Selman v. Cobb County School District. This resulted with a judge in Georgia ordering the Cobb County School District to remove stickers on textbooks that warned, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” (NBC News 2005).

In conclusion, we can see that scripture does indeed play a significant role in the ideology of fundamentalist groups. Scripture is a central, integral part of religion, as evidenced within Islam and Christianity and, consequently, it is easy to see why it has a substantial role in fundamentalist movements. Ultimately however, as I have argued, Islamic and Christian fundamentalists often selectively choose what passages they submit to and either ignore, discriminate, or manipulate the passages that do not comply with their particular beliefs or ideology. Therefore, with this in mind, scripture does play a significant role in fundamentalist ideology but to a certain degree.


Ammerman, Nancy T. (1991) ‘Accounting for Christian Fundamentalism: Social Dynamics and Rhetorical Strategies’. In Accounting for Fundamentalisms, edited by Martin E. Marty and Scott R. Appleby, pp. 149 – 168. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Barr, James. (1981) Fundamentalism. 2nd edition. London: SCM Press.

Barton, John. (2010) The Bible: The Basics. London, New York: Routledge.

The Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized Edition. (1995) Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Boone, Kathleen C. (1990) The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Bruce, Steve. (2008) Fundamentalism. 2nd edition. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press.

Erickson, Millard J. (1982) ‘Biblical Inerrancy: The Last 25 Years’. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society vol. 25, issue 4: pp. 387 – 394.

Cotkin, George. (2004) Reluctant Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880 – 1900. USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Esposito, John L. (2003) The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gallup. (2011). ‘In U.S. 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally’. Accessed 7 January. http://www.gallup.com/poll/148427/say-bible-literally.aspx

Haleem, Muhammad A. (2011) Understanding the Quran: Themes and Style. London, New York: I.B. Tauris.

Harris, Harriet A. (2001) ‘How Helpful is the Term ‘Fundamentalism’?’. In Fundamentalisms, edited by Christopher H. Partridge, pp. 3 – 18. Carlisle, Waynesboro: Paternoster Publishing.

Lawrence, Bruce B. (1995) Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

NBC News. (2005) ‘Evolutionary theory stickers taken off textbooks’. Accessed 6 January 2017. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7963494/ns/us_news-education/t/evolution-theory-stickers-taken-textbooks/#.WG7msbaLT-Y

NPR. (2006). ‘Evangelical: Religious Right Have Distorted the Faith’. Accessed 6 January 2017. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5502785

Oxford Dictionaries. (2017) ‘Definition of fundamentalism in English’. Accessed 2 January 2017. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fundamentalism

The Qur’an. (2004) Translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem. United States: Oxford University Press.

Ruthven, Malise. (2007) Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilcox, Clyde and Leopoldo Gomez. (1990) ‘Christian Right and the Pro Life Movement: An Analysis of Political Support.’ Review of Religious Research vol. 31, issue 4: pp. 380 – 389.



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