No Reformation for Islam, Please

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Wed, May 6 - 9:00 am EDT | 1 year ago by
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    The Good Life - Islam Reformation

    Many smart people – including Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, Naser Khader in Newsweek, John Lloyd in The Jerusalem Post, Ayaan Hirsi Ali in The Wall Street Journal – are hoping that the Reformation will come to Islam. Some are calling for an Islamic Martin Luther.

    Sorry, but no. Islam needs reforming but definitely not a Reformation.

    The history matters here, so consider first what the Reformation activists were fighting against. During the Renaissance, the dominant Catholic religion had become worldly. Its thinkers read the naturalistic Greeks and Romans and began to emulate them. The quest for sex, money, and power replaced the ascetic Christian mandates of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Consequently, abuses occurred up and down the Church hierarchy – from orgies in the Vatican to base politicking and bloody war-making and the crass selling of indulgences to pay for all of the high living.

    So the major Protestants – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others – were calling for Christian Europe to abandon its wicked ways, to purify itself, and to return to fundamental Christianity.

    But what is fundamental Christianity? Martin Luther is the most famous Reformer, so let’s sample a few Lutheran themes. Luther condemned reason as “the Devil’s Whore.” He blasted Aristotle – that rational and worldly Greek – as a “devil,” a “liar,” and a “beast” whose followers are “locusts, caterpillars, frogs, and lice.”

    Luther urged that we return to Scripture to learn the true meaning of faith – especially by learning the lesson of God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice his own son Isaac. Luther praised Abraham’s willingness to obey blindly, noting that true faith “wrings the neck of reason.” He agreed with the critics that Christianity requires one to believe many absurdities: “He who wants to be a Christian must tear the eyes out of his reason.”

    Luther also called for the death penalty for those who lend money at interest, urged that Jewish synagogues be burned down, and complained that “we let the Jews get rich on our sweat and blood, while we remain poor and they suck the marrow from our bones.”

    The Reformer John Calvin acquired power enough in Geneva to implement strict dress codes, especially for women. He censored writings he deemed not properly Christian and banned singing, dancing, and the theater. He made church attendance compulsory and required all parents to name their children only after figures in the Old Testament. Calvin also frequently had tortured and killed those – like Michael Servetus – whom he deemed heretics.

    Even the more temperate Huldrych Zwingli argued that one should live by Scripture alone and that anyone who does not “is a murderer of souls and a thief.” Zwingli’s council in Zurich expelled those who did not practice infant baptism, and Zwingli urged that “bodily death a man should suffer before he offend or scandalize a Christian” – leaving open what should happen after someone offends or scandalizes a Christian.

    The historical point is that the Reformation was a turning away from reason, away from worldliness, and away from tolerance. Give me the corrupt Catholics any day.

    So I expect that those calling for a Reformation for Islam have something else in mind.

    A better way to put the point is that what Islam needs is the unintended consequences of the Reformation. What the Reformers had in mind was the opposite of the naturalistic and tolerant modern world, but that world was in part a result of the Reformers’ actions.

    The Reformers did help to break the monopoly of Catholicism on European culture in the 1500s. Much of northern Europe broke away from Catholicism. The nations that did went in diverse directions, and many of those new directions were imported into the nations that remained dominantly Catholic. The Protestant Reformers themselves wanted to impose a single version of Christianity upon everyone, but they unleashed forces that created a social space for alternatives to develop.

    Also: while the Reformers were uniformly intolerant, one of their theological tenets did unintentionally lead to the widespread adoption of tolerance.

    The Reformers argued that every individual should have a direct, personal relationship with God – in contrast to the Catholic view that an individual’s relation to God is indirect and mediated through the Church hierarchy. But for an individual to have a direct relationship with God, the Reformers argued, he or she needs to know God’s word. That means that everyone needs to be able to read the Bible, and that means that everyone needs to be literate.

    Consequently, the Reformers embarked upon vigorous education campaigns and exerted great efforts to translate the Bible from Latin into each of the European languages.

    That let the intellectual cat out of the bag, so to speak. Once individuals began to read the Bible for themselves, they formed different judgments about its meanings. They then argued with each other about their different interpretations. Consequently, their reasoning and debate skills improved. Europe became more rational.

    Of course there was also plenty of nastiness – from bruised feelings to violent schisms – as true believers tried to make their interpretations prevail, sometimes by resorting to force.

    But enough people eventually realized that if each individual must form his or her own relationship with God, then they had to respect each individual’s need to follow his or her own judgment. That meant that they just had to put up with differences of opinion. Also, after a generation or two of brutal religious conflict, enough reasonable people realized that violent methods of resolving disputes were unsustainable.

    A culture of live-and-let-live tolerance thus emerged in Europe.

    So where do things stand with Islam? Islam has already had its “Reformation.” Islam has had many powerful individuals willing to integrate moderate Islam with secular alternatives from the West. And for a century it has certainly had plenty of fundamentalists urging a return to a purified Islam.

    Islamic nations have already achieved literacy rates significantly higher than those in Reformation-era Europe of the 1500s and 1600s, enabling most to read the Koran for themselves as well as to access a very wide range of literature from Eastern and Western sources.

    And even in the most officially Islamic nations there are lively and often brave intellectuals fighting for liberal and humanistic values, though they are typically in the minority and often outside the corridors of power.

    The point is that Islam is already in a post-Reformation state, not a pre-Reformation one. So we need to look for other historical analogs.

    A better suggestion is this:

    In Europe, all of the cultural ingredients from the Renaissance and the Reformation were put into play from the 1400s to the 1600s, and Western Europe then went on to develop its Enlightenment in the 1700s. The Islamic world is where Europe was before 1700 – in transition and needing to make a decisive choice. It has available to it everything from the Renaissance and the Reformation but, as philosopher David Kelley argues, it has not yet achieved its Enlightenment.

    The Islamic world already has plenty of Luthers, Calvins, and Zwinglis. But it has not produced its Galileos, Lockes, and Voltaires. That is to say, it needs an Enlightenment, not more Reformation.

    Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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