Analysis of Poem "Fundamentalism" by Naomi Shihab Nye

Updated on May 30, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye | Source

Naomi Shihab Nye and Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a poem that asks serious questions about the nature of fundamental extremism related to Islam. It is a thought provoking piece of work and is being studied closely in many a college and school classroom, helping to bring to the surface this controversial topic.

Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry often involves exploration of sensitive cultural issues. She uses everyday events and situations to focus on areas of potential tension and conflict. Fundamentalism is slightly different in form and content - rhetorical questions are posed and these gradually build up to a final scene with a young boy at home or in school. There is no definitive answer to the questions, no easy solution.

The poet's bravery in covering such topics has to be admired. She has entered a lion's den but never loses the conviction 'that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity.' With a Palestinian father and American mother, Naomi Shihab Nye is in a perfect position to explore those issues that might lead to misunderstanding between peoples.

Fundamentalism is a poem sensitively managed by the poet in which the speaker is non-judgemental, allowing the reader to shape their own conclusions and ideas about the future of the young boy.


Fundamentalism | Source

Analysis of Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a free verse poem with no end rhymes and no set regular meter (metre in UK), so the rhythm tends to alter within each line and couplet. The structure changes after 11 lines, an inset quatrain introducing the reader to the boy for the first time; a final iambic couplet leaves the reader with the image of the boy and the pencil and a future that is uncertain.

  • Note the complete lack of punctuation except for question marks. This gives the poem a loose feel, open ended.
  • And the narrative changes to one of close observation after the eleventh line and final question.

So there are six rhetorical questions; four seem to be targeted at an actual person, whilst two are more general. Then follows the quatrain - no rhymes, no set meter - in which the boy's actions with a pencil are emphasised, before the last couplet puts doubt on his acceptance as war as a solution.

The overall picture is one of a conversation or interview - someone is being questioned OR the speaker is asking themselves questions because they have doubts about the future of someone close - could be a family member, is definitely the boy.

Further Analysis - Stanza by Stanza

  1. Note the unusual opening word, Because, and the phrase which contains 'short shadow' relating to someone's eye and suggesting that this shadow is limiting vision. There is an obvious obstacle which prevents this person from seeing the bigger picture; they cannot see what is in front of them because of the crowd, which represents mass opinion, the collective viewpoint. They haven't yet grown tall enough to see over the heads of the crowd.
  2. Is the speaker hinting that someone has a lack of education, or perhaps an inferiority complex, someone who cannot understand their role in life? This person might feel a little foolish, or inadequate intellectually, so they invent a secret, or join an exclusive club or gang and keep this fact secret. They make a pact and tell not a soul. Having a secret is to have a little bit of power and control over others, or so it may seem.
  3. Mystery - something that is impossible to grasp or take in with reasoning and rationality. Mystery, enjoying the suspense and wonder of the unknown. Being open to new things, to new discoveries. This person has never experienced the beauty of wonder, or the inexplicable bonds of true friendship.
  4. If spiritual satisfaction was attainable in a single act, or one way, one method of approach, was enough to fill this unimaginably vast heaven. Surely satisfaction comes through many different acts, along multiple paths, endless ways.
  5. Allah sits on his throne, with his angels on chairs before him. The speaker asks if the person (the boy?) likes Allah more than ordinary people, the simple folk who harvest and sell lemons for example? So carrying out the will of Allah is top priority, even if it means undermining the villagers, the workers, everyday people?
  6. The party would be the afterlife guaranteed to those martyrs who commit to the will of Allah. The guards are the angels? His guards points to an all male, patriarchal kind of hierarchy.

More Analysis

Quatrain and Final Couplet

Note the shift from couplets and questioning to the quatrain (4 line stanza) which now focuses on the boy sharpening his broken pencil to reveal a fresh new point.

The broken pencil could be a symbol of a failed education, the boy unable to continue his studies because of the ongoing situation around him. Perhaps a war has caused a dislocation, perhaps the boy's village has been destroyed? The previous six questions were all aiming at him - would he make the right choice? Does he have a choice?

The pen is mightier than the sword so the saying goes, and The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr, according to Muhammad, the Islamic prophet.

Even with a broken pencil, the boy can still retrieve the situation, he can use his sharp blade to work out a new point and revive his education. The point being, it is better to use one's brains than follow mindlessly into a war started by others, despite the father's involvement.

Interestingly, the final ambiguous couplet mentions If he would believe his life is like that - like what? Like the sharpening of a pencil? Yes, the pencil is education, communication, future writing, a renewal of the old. And note the believe, often associated with religion and faith but here linked to a peaceful existence without any potentially negative religious input.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey


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