I have noticed in the course of our conversations and correspondence a frequent use of the
word fundamentalism. You were a little too young when this word began to be used in our
country. That was in the wake of Sant Bhindranwale turning militant, around 1983.
Indira Gandhi and, in fact, all her supporters had to find a special word to condemn
him and his fellowmen. They could not use the word communal because, in their idiom, the
expression was earmarked for the devotees of Hindutva. They promptly imported the word
fundamentalist from the USA.
The Americans had exhumed it in order to abuse Ayatollah Khomeini who had thrown out
Washington's favourite Reza Shah Pahlavi from the throne of Iran. There is a reason why I
have used the word exhumed. Fundamentalism had for decades been forgotten in the United
States. It had come into prominence after World War I and, after a few years, had fallen
The theory of evolution by Charles Darwin had crossed the Atlantic and gained currency
in the USA. Many people, including the liberal among the priests, began to appreciate
Darwin's contention. His great work, On the origin of species by means of natural
selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life had been
published in England in 1859. A storm of protest soon arose over the book, reaching its
height at Oxford in 1860 when a scientist called T.H. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce fought
a gun duel. The acceptance of the new theory threatened to pull the carpet from under the
biblical doctrine of creation.
It was a challenge against religion by science. The Christian belief was that God
created the world in six days. On the first day the heavens and the earth. Then light
which led to the split between day and night. Then the earth's surface was divided between
land and sea.Then came herbs and fruits, followed by sea monsters, reptiles and animals.
Then came man and woman. And so on until the seventh day when God rested.
In 1923, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA reasserted the five
points which were the pillars of the Christian faith: the virgin birth of Christ, his
physical resurrection, he inerrancy of the Scripture or Bible, the substitutionary
Atonement and belief in the miracles. The Assembly reprimanded the New York presbyter for
licensing a student who refused to affirm the virgin birth.
In 1925, a teacher of science in Dayton, Tennessee named John T. Scopes was tried and
fined a hundred dollars for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. The origin of the word
fundamentalism therefore related to a dispute between Christian conservatives and the
liberals. The former were called fundamentalists by the latter. The liberals had the proof
of scientific discovery on their side. The only way the conservatives could defend or
conserve their viewpoint was an appeal to the fundamentals which were ordained by the Holy
A Muslim can be a fundamentalist. Anyone who denounces change but cannot argue against
it on the basis of reason or merit is vulnerable to the charge of being a fundamentalist
because he takes shelter under what is written in the Holy Quran or the Hadith. This does
not denote anything derogatory but is a fact because he or she abides by the fundamental.
The controversy over the validity of talaaq pronounced thrice on one occasion or
spaced over three months is an example of controversy between conservatives and liberals.
The latter may call the former fundamentalists. So could be the case with those who oppose
the grant of maintenance or alimony to a divorced wife, a la Shah Bano, on the plea of
what was fundamentally or originally ordained.
On the other hand, a Hindu can be a bigot but he cannot appeal to or insist on-a
fundamental. Hinduism or the sanatan dharma is anadi anantor one without a
beginning and without an end. It has no comprehensive code or final message or scripture.
No single book Nor was there a founder or a last prophet.