The Islamic World Doesn’t Need a Reformation

SHAFAQNA – Various Western intellectuals, ranging from Thomas Friedman to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have argued over the past decades that Muslims need their own Martin Luther to save themselves from intolerance and dogmatism. The Protestant Reformation that Luther triggered exactly 500 years ago, these intellectuals suggest, can serve as a model for a potential Muslim Reformation. But is there such a connection between the Reformation in Christendom and the “reform” that is arguably needed in Islam?

To start with, it’s worth recalling that Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire, helped Protestantism succeed and survive. In the 16th century, much of Europe was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, which had ample means to crush the Protestant heretics. But the same Catholic empire was also constantly threatened and kept busy by “the Turks” whose own empire-building inadvertently helped the Protestants. “The Turk was the lightning rod that drew off the tempest,” noted J. A. Wylie in his classic, History of Protestantism. “Thus did Christ cover His little flock with the shield of the Moslem.”

More importantly, some early Protestants, desperately seeking religious freedom for themselves, found inspiration for that in the Ottoman Empire, which was then more tolerant to religious plurality than were most Catholic kingdoms. Jean Bodin, himself a Catholic but a critical one, openly admired this fact. “The great empereour of the Turks,” the political philosopher wrotein the 1580s, “detesteth not the straunge religion of others; but to the contrarie permitteth every man to live according to his conscience.” That is why Luther himself had written about Protestants who “want the Turk to come and rule because they think our German people are wild and uncivilized.”

Surely those days are long gone. The great upheavals that began in the West with the Protestant Reformation ultimately led to the Enlightenment, liberalism, and the modern-day liberal democracy—along with the darker fruits of modernity such as fascism and communism. Meanwhile, the pre-modern tolerance of the Muslim world did not evolve into a system of equal rights and liberties. Quite the contrary, it got diminished by currents of militant nationalism and religious fundamentalism that began to see non-Muslims as enemies within. That is why it is the freedom-seeking Muslims today who look at the other civilization, the West, admiring that it does “permitteth every man to live according to his conscience.”

And that is also why there are people today, especially in the West, who think that “a Muslim Martin Luther” is desperately needed. Yet as good-willed as they may be, they are wrong. Because while Luther’s main legacy was the breakup of the Catholic Church’s monopoly over Western Christianity, Islam has no such monopoly that needs to be challenged. There is simply is no “Muslim Pope,” or a central organization like the Catholic hierarchy, whose suffocating authority needs to be broken. Quite the contrary, the Muslim world—at least the Sunni Muslim world, which constitutes its overwhelming majority—has no central authority at all, especially since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 by Republican Turkey. The ensuing chaos in itself seems be a part of “the problem.”In fact, if the Muslim world of today resembles any period in Christian history, it is not the pre-Reformation but rather the post-Reformation era. The latter was a time when not just Catholics and Protestants but also different varieties of the latter were at each other’s throats, self-righteously claiming to be the true believers while condemning others as heretics. It was a time of religious wars and the suppression of theological minorities. It would be a big exaggeration to say that the whole Muslim world is now going through such bloody sectarian strife, but some parts of it—such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—undoubtedly are.

Besides, various “reform” movements have already emerged in the Muslim world in the past two centuries. Just like Luther’s Reformation, these movements claimed to go back to the scriptural roots of the religion to question the existing tradition. While some of the reformists took this step with the intention of rationalization and liberalization, giving us the promising current called “Islamic modernism,” others did it with the exact opposite goal of dogmatism and puritanism. The latter trend gave us Salafism, including its Saudi version Wahhabism, which is more rigid and intolerant than the traditional mainstream. And while most Salafis have been non-violent, violent ones formed the toxic blend called “Salafi Jihadism,” which gave us the savagery of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
By MUSTAFA AKYOL – the views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent that of Shafaqna
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