Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Reformation and Islam

Jun 23, 2006 2:25 pm


The Reformation and Islam



Historical analogy is a favourite mode of argument for many politicians and commentators. Nothing wrong with that but if it is to be helpful and illuminating the analogy needs to be correct and based upon an accurate understanding of the past events that are being compared to current happenings. If so it will help us to understand what is going on and to have some idea of what may happen in the future. If not it will actually hinder real understanding. A classic example of the way that this can happen is given by much of the commentary on the state of contemporary Islam and the nature of Islamism (or fundamentalist Islam as it is misleadingly called).

A recurring element of much analysis is the claim that "Islam needs a Reformation" or that "Islam is waiting for a Luther". What we have here is an analogy, between the state of Islam today and that of Latin Christianity in the later fifteenth or early sixteenth century, which leads to a diagnosis, that what is needed is a movement within Islam similar in nature to the Protestant upheaval of the sixteenth century. This analogy is deeply misleading in a number of ways. In particular it misunderstands the nature of the actual events of the sixteenth century and of mainstream Protestantism. It leads to a fundamental misreading of the nature of Islamist movements and ideas, and of their likely consequences. However, a corrected version of this analogy, which draws upon more recent developments in our understanding of the history of Latin Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and later, not only gives an insight into the nature of the ideological conflict that has been going on since at least the 1920s, but also provides hints as to what strategy should be adopted to deal with Islamist movements and ideas.

The notion of contemporary Islam standing in need of a Reformation reflects a particular view of both Protestantism and pre-Reformation Catholicism that has become part of the folk memory of the educated in most of the historically Protestant nations, particularly the US and UK.

In this perspective the late medieval Church was backward, obscurantist and dogmatic. The Reformers burst open this closed system of thought and opened up dogma to individual judgment and criticism. The Reformation is thus connected with freethought, individualism, and the decline of religious authority in the secular sphere. To this way of thinking there is a direct connection between Protestantism and the later emergence of modern liberalism.

In fact this radically misunderstands the nature of mainstream Protestantism and the motives and ideas of the majority of Reformers. It also caricatures the actual condition and quality of late medieval Catholicism. It makes more sense to see the Reformation, not as a 'progressive' movement but as a conservative reaction to the humanism, rationalism and scepticism of the Renaissance, and also as a response to the increased contact between Europe and other parts of the world. The Reformers saw the Church as too worldly, contaminated by pagan survivals and philosophy, and too interested in abstract reason rather than faith. They wanted literally a Re-Formation, a restoration of the church to its original pristine and apostolic condition. They also wanted to purify society and to use the secular power to enforce Christian practices and ethics upon the general population. Where they had power, as in Geneva, the result was a theocracy. They did argue against the need for a distinct clergy, but this did not mean support for unrestrained individual judgement. Rather it meant submission to the consensus of the learned and the rule of the 'Elect'.

In fact, far from contemporary Islam being like the late medieval Church and in need of a Reformation, it makes more sense to apply the analogy in a different way. Islam, we may say, is having a reformation right now. Islamists like Sayyid Qutb are in the same position as Luther or Calvin (or perhaps Jan Hus, given Qutb's fate) and if there is an analogy to be made it is between contemporary Islamism and sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestantism. The Islamists' view of contemporary Islam and the historical mainstream of Islamic civilisation is very similar to the view of Catholic Christianity taken by reformers such as Calvin. Like the Reformers, they wish to restore an imagined pristine and uncorrupted original version of their faith. There are other similarities as well, such as the fervent iconoclasm, the stringent personal morality and the demand that it be imposed by the civil power, and the declaration that many nominal believers are in fact infidels. If we apply this kind of analogy, what conclusions might it lead us to?

One is that the most likely consequence of this movement is dissension and civil war within the Islamic world as much as conflict between the Islamic world and the rest of humanity.. The desire to create a purified version of the religion, free from what are seen as accretions, leads to a rejection of many actually existing practices and forms of worship which then have to be suppressed. It also means that there will be increasingly bitter divisions within the Islamist movement itself as well as between it and both the mainstream of Islam. Moreover the example of the impact of the Reformation on European thought suggests that one consequence will be a subsequent reaction within the Islamic world against literalist and strict versions of the faith, with an emphasis instead upon personal piety, in the way the reaction against the religious enthusiasm of Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to the appearance of pietism and natural theology among groups such as the 'Moderates' who came to dominate the 18th century Church of Scotland.

However the most important conclusion that we might draw from a revised analogy of this kind is that what the Islamic world actually needs is an Enlightenment rather than a Reformation. One of Bertrand Russell's favourite remarks, which he made in several of his works, was that Christianity was a religion that had 'lost its nerve'. By this he meant that it had made critical concessions to the universalist and rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment and above all that it no longer took seriously some of its central claims, in particular the claim that the Christian faith was the only way to salvation with the only alternative eternal damnation. This should lead to the conclusion that the thing to do is to argue for secularism and rationalism and most importantly, to encourage the critical analysis of the text of the Quran. The Islamist movement in politics and ideas is best thought of as a reaction within the Islamic world against the main elements of modernity, which responds to the challenge posed by modernity and the Enlightenment in the same kind of way that Reformers responded to the impact of the Renaissance.




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Sudha Shenoy - 9/9/2005

From around the late 9th to the mid-12th centuries or so, Islamic thinkers made outstanding contributions in (inter alia)medicine, pharmacology, chemistry, mathematics (inventing algebra, as the term indicates), optics, astronomy, geography, philosophy & agronomy. They built on the Greeks & extended well beyond. Their commercial techniques were copied by the Italians. Islamic efforts were critical to the further development of these disciplines in later centuries. There exists therefore an Islamic foundation for any future Islamic analogue to the European Enlightenment. Islamic intellectuals will have to work out how & why intellectual inquiry was blocked in Islam; how to re-build on their heritage, & link it with the world civilisation which has now developed.


Aeon J. Skoble - 9/7/2005

I confess I have made this analogy many times! But I'm entirely persuaded by this post, Stephen, so I promise not to do it again!


Kevin Vallier - 9/6/2005

I just want to make clear that I do not think you can understand *All* of the Reformers' actions in terms of their desire to purify the gospel. But I think it's a useful rubric.


Kevin Vallier - 9/6/2005

The pity of all this is the continual need to think in terms of major social movements as having primarily one cause and one effect. One consequence of the Reformation was to help create mass literacy - particularly because people now felt entitled to engage in theological discussion and reading. One cause of the Reformation had been rearing its head for centuries - a reaction to centralized authority in Rome by which Wycliffe, Hus, and many others had been warring against (mostly unsuccessfully) for some time.

You can say that the Reformation was a reaction against reason and the Enlightenment, but this is something of a difficulty when you consider that many of the early Reformers continued in the Scholastic tradition, particularly Calvinists. Furthermore, even Luther and Melancthon, despite what is generally taught about them, took Aristotle seriously enough to write commentaries on his work (Luther never finished his commentaries, but Melancthon finished his).

If you read the Reformers, their overarching concern is not with a social agenda or even a philosophical agenda. They are focused on one message: Christianity is about grace, not about law. It is distinct from every other religion in this sense. The late Scholastics had been gradually moving away from a Pauline position and were collapsing justification and sanctification into one concept (being right before God and becoming a better person). This made salvation into a job or a task, and this was something the Reformers thought was the opposite message of true Christianity and something that utterly destroyed people when they tried to take it seriously.

I think the best way to understand all of the other consequences of the Reformation is to see Reformers' attitudes towards certain institutions in terms of whether it clarified or obscured the gospel (as they understood it). The Latin mass? Obscures the gospel - gotta go. The free will Pelagianism of Gabriel Biel and Erasmus? Obscures the gospel - gotta go. Scholasticism? Leads to more Aristotle and less Augustine, more Greeks and less Hebrew - obscures the gospel - gotta go. The decadence and corruption of the medieval church and its centralized authority? Obscures the gospel - gotta go.

Now, of course they were hasty. And in particular the Reformers did not carefully think through the consequences of their alliances with Kings to protect themselves against a church that attempted to exterminate them. These alliances led to state churches, which in my view led to socialized church and thus the decline of Christianity in Europe. But of course I can't blame them too much for this - they were merely trying to not be burned alive for preaching what they believed to be God's word.

Also remember that the Reformers were huge critics of many of the pious practices of medieval devotees of Christianity - in this they were with the Renaissance. Furthermore, they believed in rigorous education and argumentation, much like the Enlightenment; what they denied was what Luther called the "majesterial" use of reason - or basically a Cartesian (yes, the analogy is anachronistic) mode of having to have all knowledge rest on reason alone.

So, I'll stop here even though I could say much more. The main thing I want to say is that, yes, it would be odd to think that Islam needs a "Reformation" in a strict sense. Would it be good to open up discussion about Islamic theology to experts that are not at the tops of hierarchies? Well, sure. But then again, Islam isn't as hierarchical as Medieval Christianity. Would it be good if all Islamic people are encouraged to read and study the Koran? Wait, many of them are - maybe that's not good in the case of the Koran. Should someone come in and keep salvation from being collapsed into works-righteousness in Islam? Well, that's not even an option. So I'll agree with the conclusion, but I think many of the things you said about the Reformation were confused and merely contrarian treatments of the traditional caricature of the Reformation.


Jason Kuznicki - 9/6/2005

I covered quite nearly this topic in a couple of posts a while ago. It's uncanny how we came to similar conclusions, but you might want to give them a read anyway.

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