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Fanaticism and Religion

Islam Against Fanaticism

10/07/2012 - Author: Hashim Cabrera, Translation: Medina Whiteman - Source: Verde Islam
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Hashim Cabrera

Fanatic: “One who defends his beliefs or opinions, especially religious or political ones, passionately and with disproportionate tenacity. Blindly concerned or zealous about something.”

Looking at the definition of this term, it is clear that the word ‘fanaticism’ does not necessarily have to carry the negative associations which it is so often imbued with today. Tenacity and passion could even be considered as virtues in a world that tends towards homogeneity and ‘black-and-white-ism’. However, we all seem to agree upon giving this word another meaning, which has come to be habitual to us in our daily discourse. We overplay the unreasonableness, exaggeration and, above all, of negating the ‘other’ – anyone who is different – which we often perceive in the behaviour of fanatics.

First of all, let us look at the reasons why we are moved to analyse possible relationships between religion and fanaticism, and the growing interest in this subject. This is reflected daily in the media, which portrays – and at the same time fuels – the whole repertoire of our collective imagination, our fears and deficiencies, our figures and counter-figures.

These days, people do not seem to be so interested in examining the relationships between fanaticism and ideology, or fanaticism and power, even though these could be viewed in a similar way.

Postmodern society appears to be a shattered society, doomed to an inevitable globalisation and urged on by the demands of a market that is ever more necessary and voracious. This tendency is chiefly manifested through new technologies – particularly in the field of communication and information, as they cut across all cultures and transcend the concept of territories. In this process, our thinking needs to redefine its paradigms; on the surface of things, our languages are changing, and with them also our attitudes.


Few people today would disagree over the societal model that must be constructed. The legitimacy of a system is not determined by how well people talk it up, nor by the opinions of the majority, but rather by its performance – its capacity for continually improving its efficiency.

But the resistence of the people towards this new model seems to be dressed up in the same old clothes. Anyone trying to sell this model has a hard time finding any buyers now; his loss of legitimacy is too recent to be able to offer any appreciable resistence.

On the other hand, the robes of religion, dragged out of our grandfathers’ cupboards, have a patina that reminds us – though momentarily and superficially – of what it feels like to have a history. It is an ancient velvet that has never been sewn onto a theoretical, rational body. It implies a certain kind of commitment and a conscious attitude that, in some cases, affect our relationships with the world in an all-embracing way.

In this context – that of the postmodern individual’s need to feel immersed in history – we are witnessing the revitalisation of the religious spirit, in its most varied manifestations: scientific mysticism, produced by the dissemination of the latest theories of Quantum Mechanics; the proliferation of millenarian sects and esoteric groups; and the search for guidance in other spiritual traditions – hence the current interest in Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. This frequently leads to the phenomenon of religious conversions.

Thus, there are growing questions in today’s world that until recently were considered to have been conquered by modernity; these are historical paradigms that were incompatible with social Darwinism, with the evolutionist idea of progress. Now that this idea is losing its legitimacy, people are starting to open the cupboards where those other versions of reality, supposedly incompatible with the modern world, had been folded up and forgotten.

The growing phenomenon of a return to religion – and, more specifically, that of conversion – is framed within the context of a generalised search for transcendent answers, above all in those societies that have taken on the values of modernity most intensely and which, in their struggle for a progress based almost exclusively on material aspects of existence, have been entirely stripped of their sacredness.


Nevertheless, in the midst of these technically democratic societies, the problem of cultural diversity raises its head, in the form of the right to be different, or respect for minorities. Even so, in the current landscape of this social project, the power discourse does not take into consideration the recognition of different forms of society, of other ways of life, even though they might be decided upon democratically. The limits and the nature of these freedoms are fixed by the interests of the prevailing socioeconomic model.

The only possible way of thinking – the general pattern explicitly described, among the intellectual classes, as ‘weak thinking’ – is extended to the markets, and finds a home in the new languages of the cyberworld. It passes down the information highway, creating the discourse that Roger Garuady calls ‘Market Monotheism’. One of its characteristics is the subtle elimination of diversity – which now also implies dissidence – not by way of repression, but by way of new tools and technologies, by controlling information and consequently manipulating consciousnesses, the views of the people, and public opinion.

‘Black-and-White-ism’ Vs. Passion

In such a context, the only way that we can conform to this exclusive way of thinking is by putting out fingers in our ears and submitting to it. If anyone should dare to defend any idea or position that runs counter to the interests of the paradigm too tenaciously, their perseverance would easily look like stridence amid this general mood of homogeneity, and he will therefore be labelled as a fanatic.

If, furthermore, the media and information facilities serve the interests of power – and not the interests of different groups, parties or belief systems – it is easy for anyone to abort any proposal that threatens said interests, whether by disqualification, tendentiousness, or distortion.


It is clear that no sensible mind would defend fanaticism as the correct attitude for civilised human beings. We associate fanaticism with intellectual blindness, with the inability to value and weigh up all the different aspects of reality.

A fanatic does not listen, he does not reason, he does not enter into dialogue with anyone else. The majority of Christians do not behave like fanatics, and nor do the majority of Muslims, nor the adherents of Western ideologies.

Despite this being the case, many pages of history books have been devoted to fanaticism, describing it in a variety of ways, whether religious, ideological, bellicose, or economic. They describe moments, places and groups marked by passion and intemperance, muddying the clear waters of ideas and relationships, feelings and beliefs.

Historians have almost always opted to relate fanaticism with these situations instead of seeking its roots: in ignorance, exploitation, boorishness, and the feeling of uprootedness that exists among migrants. Instead of remedying the causes of fanaticism, people have chosen to use it for certain political, religious or strategic purposes.

In this biased reading of our present problem, we stand by and watch as a dangerous vision of religious fanaticism develops, attributed to Islam by the mass media – sometimes even with the support of certain intellectuals and international academic institutions.

The dominant image in the media is very tendentious in everything that refers to Islam and to Muslims. In the majority of cases it provokes an immediate association between fanaticism and Islam. These very same media outlets present Islam as an enemy to democracy, without bothering to differentiate between the forms of governmental politics in majority Muslim countries and actual Islamic principles.

Cultural practices are confused with the prescriptions of the Qur’an and the Traditions, the Sunnah. All these ideas and topics, hauled out of the orientalist quarry pit, nourish the vision that the media offers in an ever more convincing and realistic way.

Let us give one more example to demonstrate this contradiciton. The propaganda usually produced about Andalusian Cultural Heritage usually emphasises the universal character of Islam, which made the harmonious coexistence of different religions possible in al-Andalus. Under the protective umbrella of Islamic Shariah, Jews, Christans and Muslims were able to lived together peacefully for many centuries. Islam appears, therefore, as a system of tolerance and respect par excellence, enabling and promoting the greatest possible flourishing of sciences and arts in the known world at that point.

We might read in the same newspaper, alongside cultural propaganda regarding Toledo or ‘Three Cultures Cordoba’, commentaries that relate Islam with fanaticism, anachronism and intolerance.

There must be some mistake here. Or perhaps the reality is that Culture, Power and Technology work together to make it more difficult to produce an unbiased analysis, a non-fanatical inerpretation of what a religion is really like – in this case, of what Islam and its attitude towards fanaticism are really like.

It would be useful to our analysis to be able to separate out human attitudes – ugly or otherwise – from the frames of reference that put forward all the different ideologies or beliefs. Fanaticism, like irrationality, has typically been present in almost every culture and epoch of humanity.

In our times, there is a fanaticism of media and technology that leads many individuals to become isolated and dependent on virtual communication. This kind of fanaticism does not interest us, because it is silent and produces no social alarm. A person suffering from Internet Syndrome is only of interest to the clinical psychologist or sociologist. For the average citizen, this is is nothing more than an anecdote, a minor evil which, moreover, appears dressed up in the very same symbols of the culture in which it lives. It is not exotic, it does not help maintain the illusion of difference, it does not generate – apparently, at least – that all-needed identity, in which it is so lacking.

On the other hand, the image of a few men dressed in dark tunics smashing television sets on an eschatological stage, who furthermore answer to the enigmatic name of ‘the Taliban’, present a certain amount of identity, a necessary feeling of cultural superiority, contributing to the legitimisation of a way of life that is practices in undeveloped countries, perpetuating the sensation that history continues, that there are still people in the world who are ‘far from progress’. It is easy to conclude, in view of this image, that Muslims are backward fanatics. As the image is repeated, it is therefore likely that we we arrive at the conclusion that this is because of religion, that Islam breeds fanaticism. So the atitudes of the majority of Muslims, who are more than distant from any kind of radicalism and zealousness, are not considered as news; there just aren’t as interesting.

The majority discourse of Muslims would not sell papers, because it rejects violent methods and radical positions, and emphasises fairness and measure above all else.

Religious attitudes

The religious experience of human beings, depending on the angle we are viewing them from, can be expressed in myriad forms. There is an inner dimension, which affects our personal evolution and whose experience is much more difficult to evaluate and articulate. This is the inner path of mysticism, of spiritual growth and of going beyond boundaries. In this sphere, many passionate attitudes may spring forth, such as that of the mystic aflame with Divine Love, who distances himself from the ordinary world and refuses to recognise it as real.

There is also the exterior world, the ambit of human relations, of social life. This is the world of forms and of Law, in which there are codes of conduct necessary to make communal life possible.

Both spheres, which are in theory a continuation of one another, often appear to be separate, or even opposite. Between the personal experiences of John of the Cross and the theological canons of the Catholic Church there lies a gaping abyss. The same is true for the relationship between Ibn ‘Arabi and some of the erudites of Islamic jurisprudence.

In any system, whether it be the fruit of religion or ideology, the doctors of the Law – theologians and ideologues respectively – have assumed the task of looking after the limits of terminology, of words, of literalness and conventions; thus they fence in the world of forms in which the sociolinguistic phenomenon occurs.

The mystic is one who accepts and realises within his own being the ultimate goal of religion: union with God. Mystics have always been the object of criticism and persecution on the part of those whose work is confined to the codification of the Law, making recourse to poetry as a vehicle to express their states.

The balance between the different spheres of experience is rarely perfect. Usually one hypertrophies to the benefit of the other, or vice versa, making either spiritual life or social order more difficult. The exaggerated development of formal structures – of terminology – produces a sort of spiritual bureacracy that hinders religious experience, so that it appears to be codified in terms that are devoid of meaning. This idolatry of dogma, often the result of periods of spiritual decadence, is undoubtedly the bacterial culture in which dogmatic attitudes ferment, and it can lead to various kinds of fanaticism.

Nevertheless, there have been historical communities of Muslims with a more acceptable degree of equilibrium, who have created a social model and encouraged the coexistence of diverse ways of life as well as the spiritual growth of individuals; these people have never seen the merest glimpse of fanaticism.

The overly passionate or fanatical defence of a specific interpretation of the Law, or of one particular position, becomes reprehensible when it is imposed upon others, when it suppresses freedom of conscience and openly rejects rationality. The condemnation of these attitudes is part of the mood and spirit of Islam, although – as we so often see elsewhere – that does not stop certain people or groups from having them.


When, for various reasons, Western thought has found some benefit in highlighting the scientific attitudes of Muslims, or their civilising role in the darkness of the European Middle Ages, Islam is described as a path of peace, tolerance and respect.

And yet simultaneously, in other contexts, Islam is presented as an intolerant, aggressive system.

This is far from being a recent phenomenon, but in the interests of clarity, and to avoid the possibility of certain fanaticisms developing today, it is necessary and worthwhile to treat such delicate themes as terrorism, or the political situation in many Arab nations, without bias or tendentiousness, since these do nothing but foment radical, irrational attitudes.

The same critical spirit that is applied to the analysis of other questions should be applied also in this case, because when someone feels unjustly treated, without the possibility of defending himself, he find himself to be forced to seek justice in whatever form that might take. And there needs to be the same justice and impartiality in the treatment of all information and in our rights of opinion and self-expression.

For this, I think that it would be a great step forward, even though it is evidently only a tiny step, that newspapers and major media outlets gave the opinion of Muslims more space to grow. What do Muslims themselves think of many of the acts committed in the name of Islam? What to the majority of them actually think?

Focussing on the theme of fanaticism, it would be useful to know what the Islamic sources – the Qur’an and Sunnah – have to say about the matter.

The Attitude of Islam towards Fanaticism

Regarding the way in which believers should practice their religion, the Qur’an tells us:

“There is no coercion in matters of faith. Now the straight guide is clearly distinguished from the one that strays away.” (Qur’an 2:256)

Even in an ambit so given to irrationality as that of war, there are numerous moral references regarding the way in which this should be carried out:

“Oh believers, when you strike out for the sake of God, use your discernment and do not say to anyone who offers you the greeting of peace: ‘You are not a believer’, moved by the benefits of this world: for there are plenty of spoils with God. You too were like them before – but God has bestowed favour upon you. Use, therefore, your discernment: for God is well aware of everything you do.” (Qur’an 4:94)

The account that José María Mendiluce gives in his book Armed Love illustrates this same idea. In this chronicle of the Bosnian War, he describes his experiences and the attitudes of Muslim soldiers when faced with enemies who, as we know, are now being judged for crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, people have never been particularly interested in relating Serbian crimes and extremism with religious fanaticism; rather it is seen as an ethnic issue.

In this conflict, the media have been unable to find any material that could establish any link between Islam and fanaticism.


In the Sunnah – the collection of sayings of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be with him – there are numerous instructions on this matter. One of these, narrated by Abu Huraira, regarding exaggerated zeal in religion, the Prophet repeated three times,:

“Perish the extremists! Perish the extremists! Perish the extremists!”

Innumerable hadiths exhort believers to moderate their observance of religious precepts, always recommending instead a balanced, intermediate attitude.

Although it has already been published in this magazine in the Readers’ Forum, I would like to add here the letter written by Shahib Zougari, imam of the Seville mosque, published in El País in Mayo of last year. In this letter, a well-known edict of the Prophet Muhammad – peace and blessings be upon him – is cited, in which he says:

“I have written this edict in the form of an order for my community and for all Muslims who live in the Christian world, in the East and in the West, near or far, young and old, those who are known and those who are strangers. Whoever fails to respect this edict and does not follow the working orders I give, against the will of Allah, deserves to be accursed, whoever he may be, whether Sultan or average Muslim. When a (Christian) priest or a hermit withdraws to a mountain or a cave, or establishes himself on the plain, in the desert, the city, or the church, I am with him in person, together with my army and my subjects, and I will defend him against any enemy. I will abstain from doing him any harm. It is forbidden to throw a bishop out of his bishopric, a priest from his church, a hermit from his hermitage. No object must be removed from a church to use in the construction of a mosque or of a Muslim’s house. If a Christian woman is in a relationship with a Muslim, the latter must treat her well and allow him to pray in her church, without placing any obstacles between her and her religion. Whoever acts to the contrary will be considered an enemy of Allah and his Prophet. The Muslims must behave according to these orders until the end of the world.”

Referring to the specific case of Algeria, Shahib Zougari follows up his quote by expressing his “deep pain for those saints who have died for the love of God, of the God who is the same for Christians and Muslims”.

A few days later, on the 6th of June, in the same newspaper, an article by Carlos Colón was published that made the position of Muslims towards terrorism absolutely clear. Colón says, after printing Zougari’s letter, that “it moved me deeply to read this brave text which deplores the deaths of Catholics in Algeria, while at the same time he marks out these acts, clearly and cleanly, from the Islamic community in general”.

With all this, we do not pretend to say that there are no fanatical attitudes among Muslims, or that Islam is a way of life that makes fanaticism impossible.

No: fanaticism, exaggerated zeal and irrationality are human attitudes that can surface in any place or time. Evidently, there are different visions of the world in existence, different ideologies and cosmogonies, and some can be more given to encouraging them that others. In the case we are presently examining, there are innumerable examples that could lead us to conclude that Islam condemns fanaticism. And yet, Islam and fanaticism continue to be associated with each other in the communal imagination of our time.


During the Gulf War we were told about the fanaticism of the Iraqi soldiers, incapable of seeing the despotism of their leader Saddam Hussein, who appeared on television news programmes prostrating and praying, brandishing the Qur’an. Yet it was precisely Saddam, as leader of the Ba’ath party, who proposed a Western-style division of power. It was not Islam, then, which in this case was promoting fanaticism, but the political instrumentalisation of beliefs and the tendentious use of terminology – a war of words. It is not, in this case, the Qur’an that propounds a blind adherence to a leader; rather, it is the leader’s hand that seems to be clothed in the legitimacy of a text which, for believers, is the Principle of Truth.

In the course of Muslim history, there have been moments when fanaticism has raised its ugly head among our communities. Sometimes, it has been through the use made of religion to political ends that have had nothing to do with Islam; at other times, it has been due to the living conditions that certain groups of people have found themselves in.

Heroes, Martyrs and Terrorists

In this sense, it is surprising that, the word ‘fanaticism’ has not been mentioned at all in analyses of the zealous political attitudes that emerged during the revolutionary processes underway in Latin America up until a decade ago. This gives us the impression that ideology was, for these revolutions, a legitimising force in certain cases of extremism.

The same does not happen now, when what commentators are attempting to judge are the consequences of other processes, which the religion incidentally enters into. Here, the terms ‘fundamentalism’, ‘fanaticism’, ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’, or ‘intolerance’ are frequently bandied about.

Sometimes Western discourse speaks of revolutionaries – martyrs to ideology – yet at other times they are presented to us and terrorists and fanatics. In certain times and places they are heroes of the revolution, while in others, they are nothing more than delinquents.

However, intellectual indoctrination operates today using the subtlest of tools, even more difficult to recognise for people who think and analyse.

The repeated use of a certain term or stereotype will eventually imbue it with the air of a solid, dependable truth. The Zetgeist fuses within its imprecise reality a whole world of received notions – the ‘idées reçues’ of Edward Said – which are consensually accepted and approved of simply because of their commonly used, not because they are legitimised by reasoned argument or by a scientific desire for knowledge. This is the world of common sense that has been misunderstood.

What does the man in the street know about contemporary Muslims? What are his sources of information?

If we really want a world shaped by respect, peaceful coexistence and freedom of conscience, we must behave as equals. We must leave behind the traditional binary scheme of ‘the knowers and the known’, ‘the definers and the defined’; we must perhaps learn from the Other, whether that be an individual or a group. Despite our difference, they are as much a part of Humanity as we are.

This might be the basic principle that helps us to exorcise the demon Fanaticism. It is, in one shape or another, the goal that most people on our planet are longing for.

Translated by Medina Whiteman
Verde Islam 7  15/09/1997


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