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Is Islam in need of a Reformation?

[ by Charles Cameron — perhaps it’s not Wittenberg but Westphalia we should be praying for ]

Reformation Qn


Ayaan Hirsi Ali clearly believes we need an Islamic Reformation, and she’s not alone. That much Mehdi Hasan concedes in a Guardian piece titled Why Islam doesn’t need a reformation:

In recent months, cliched calls for reform of Islam, a 1,400-year-old faith, have intensified. “We need a Muslim reformation,” announced Newsweek. “Islam needs reformation from within,” said the Huffington Post. Following January’s massacre in Paris, the Financial Times nodded to those in the west who believe the secular Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, “could emerge as the Martin Luther of the Muslim world”.

Hasan’s piece was evidently written in answer to the Guardian’s take on Hirsi Ali’s latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – review, and is subtitled, Those who are calling for a ‘Muslim Martin Luther’ should be careful what they wish for. His reason?

Martin Luther..

Luther did not merely nail 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, denouncing clerical abuses within the Catholic church. He also demanded that German peasants revolting against their feudal overlords be “struck dead”, comparing them to “mad dogs”, and authored On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543, in which he referred to Jews as “the devil’s people” and called for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues.


On the other hand..

William Polk proposes what seems a powerful analogy in his December 2013 piece, Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism:

I have described elsewhere the movements of “purification” inspired by such men as the Arabian Ahmad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the Algerian/Libyan Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi, the Sudanese Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, the Iranian activist Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and the Egyptian theologian Muhammad Abduh. In a fundamental aspect, their teachings and movements resembled those set off in northern Europe by Luther and Calvin. These Christians and Muslims shared a belief in the absolute authority of the unalterable word of God as set out in the original texts. Their task was to go back to discover the “pure” message and lead their followers to implement it. However much they differed, both the Muslims and the Protestants were in this sense salafis.

To my mind, that’s a far more persuasive analysis.

Perhaps what we’re seeing today is an Islamic version of the European Wars of Religion, following a Salafist “Reformation”?

In which case it might be time to work and pray for an Islamic Peace of Westphalia.

19 Responses to “Is Islam in need of a Reformation?”

  1. zen Says:

    You are on the right track Charles. Perhaps the formula ought to be that Islam is fine but Muslims need a secularization like the one that occurred in Europe after the Reformation.
    Imagine if 5-10% of Jews and Christians worldwide acted on the bloodiest passages of the Old Testament and that 25% more sympathized with that position. If we had hundreds of thousands of radical Rushdoony type Donminionists who had organized themselves into militias and executed sinners and non-believers in the streets and blew up mosques, Hindu temples, schools and supermarkets with car bombs and imposed religious laws by threat of extreme violence.
    Actually we had that once. It was called the Middle-Ages.
    In a nutshell, the problem with Islam is that way too many Muslims take it seriously in a literal and magical sense the way very, very few Christians or Jews regard the Bible or Torah. They act upon their beliefs in a way that causes the great majority of terrorist acts in the world every year and numerous insurgencies. If these Muslims were Sufis and not violent Salafis we would not be having this discussion.
    It took the immense bloodshed of the Thirty Years War and a series of national revolutions to cure Western Christians of the violent religious fanaticism bug and have the Westphalian state system. It will probably take an epochal war to similarly cure the Muslims of their addiction to religiously violent politics because right now, it is “working” for them as the Islamists radicals reckon it. Maybe a genocidal Sunni-Shia civil war, maybe provoking a nuclear war with Israel or India, but the revolutionary Sunnis won’t stop or at least think twice until a large number of them are dead and their movement totally discredited and demonized among their co-religionists..

  2. Dave Schuler Says:

    As I’ve said whenever the subject has been raised, what we’re seeing today is the Muslim Reformation. Unfortunately, what the world needs is a Muslim Enlightenment.

  3. Dave Schuler Says:

    BTW, if you’ve never read Ernest Gellner’s book, The Sword, the Plough and the Book I’d like to recommend it to you. There’s a passage in it very relevant to this post that I quoted at length in an old post of mine here: http://theglitteringeye.com/westphalia-and-culture/

  4. Dave Schuler Says:

    Also, the Polk quote above reminds me of things that an old acquaintance of mine, John Dominic Crossan, has written about. IMO the key concept is fundamentalism.
    Since it was born sola scriptura and sola fide and lacks a magisterium, Islam is inherently fundamentalist.

  5. zen Says:

    “As I’ve said whenever the subject has been raised, what we’re seeing today is the Muslim Reformation. ”
    A possibility that ought to worry us all, Dave

  6. T. Greer Says:

    I once wrote:


    That an ideology is new or rebels against established world views does not make it less dangerous. Novelty also says little about a movement’s future success–once upon a time Protestantism was a novel ideology. I encourage people to use this analogy. Think of these Salafi reformers as you do the first wave of Protestant reformers back in the 16th century. The comparison is apt not only because the goal of the Salafi-Jihadists is, like the original Protestants, to bring religious practice back to a pure and original form, or because the savagery displayed by many of the Protestant reformers was quite comparable to ISIS at its worst, but because this comparison gives you a sense of the stakes that are at play. This is a game where the shape of entire civilizations are on the table. The Salafi-Jihadists want to change the way billions of people worship, think, and live out their daily lives. ISIS’s success in the Near East gives us a clear picture of exactly what kind of society the Salafi-Jihadists envision for the Ummah.

    I will not mince words: humankind faces few catastrophes more terrible than allowing Salafi-Jihadist reformers to hijack Islamic civilization. Theirs is an ideology utterly hostile to human progress and prosperity, and their victory, if attained, will come at great human cost. The Protestants secured their Reformation with one of the most destructive wars of European history; there is little reason to think Salafi-Jihadist victories will be any less disastrous. Not every ‘great game’ of international power politics is played for civilization-level stakes. But that is exactly what is at stake here. We must plan accordingly.

  7. Cristina C Giancchini Says:

    Hi Cameron,

    It could be said that Islam has already behaved like Martin Luther: it has already demanded the “peasants revolting against their feudal overlords be struck dead” (in Egypt, as a way to overthrow the Monarchy in early 20th century), it speaks of Jews as “apes” and “evil”, and G-d knows it served as a basis for the majority of Arab countries to destroy Jewish homes and synagogues after the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948.
    While we pray for Islamic Peace in Westphalia, we must work to protect our nations.

    Superb piece.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Dave:
    As I read you, we’re in agreement in viewing Islamism as corresponding to the Reformation – but I fear the western Enlightenment lost in spirituality what it gained in scientific and technological facility, so the renewed Islam that would most interest me would be one which maintained much of Sufi tradition, spiritual practice and metaphorical reading.
    One possible key can be found in Bassam Tinbi’s The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, where he writes:

    To me religious belief in Islam is, as Sufi Muslims put it, “love of God,” not a political ideology of hatred. … In my heart, therefore, I am a Sufi, but in my mind I subscribe to ‘aql/”reason”, and in this I follow the Islamic rationalism of Ibn Rushd/Averroes. Moreover, I read Islamic scripture, as any other, in the light of history, a practice I learned from the work of the great Islamic philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun. The Islamic source most pertinent to the intellectual framework of this book is the ideal of al-madina al-fadila/”the perfect state”, as outlined in the great thought of the Islamic political philosopher al-Farabi.

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Dave, part two:
    Thanks, too, for the pointer to Gellner’s book, the quote from it in your own post, and the TM Lutas post that you reference there.
    You write, “Since it was born sola scriptura and sola fide and lacks a magisterium, Islam is inherently fundamentalist.” But one can have richly metaphorical readings within a tradition that is nonetheless sola scriptura, no?
    On the availability of levels of reading within Islam, I have a quote in this comment, finding close similarities in several other traditions including thew Christian:

    The Qur’an, as attested by many of the sayings of Muhammad (Hadith), has many levels of meaning. The existence of outward and inward levels of meaning is indicated in the text itself, which speaks of God as being both the Outward (al-Zahir) and the Inward (al-Batin). As the word of God, therefore, the Qur’an also possesses a zahir and several levels of batin. Commentaries dealing with the zahir of the text are called tafsir (“commentary”), and hermeneutic and esoteric commentaries dealing with the batin are called ta’wil (“interpretation” or “explanation”), which involves taking the text back to its beginning. [ .. ]
    The verses of the Qur’an are also divided into the explicit (muhkamat) and the implicit, or ambiguous (mutashabihat). The latter category includes verses whose meanings are known only to God and to those who are “firm in knowledge” (al-rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm).

    On another tack altogether, you knew Crossan? I’ve always wondered why someone whose first book, or at least the first one I encountered, was on Jesus and Borges – a truly unexpected contrapuntal work crossing confidently between theology and literature – would then make his life’s work monophonic by comparison – dealing with Christ’s birth, death, biography, etc, in a manner comparable to that of many other works of theological scholarship.

  10. Charles Cameron Says:

    T Greer:
    Indeed — I would be interested to see the context in which you made those comments — do you have a URL?

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Cristina:
    Thanks. When I said we should “work and pray” for an Islamic Peace of Westphalia, I certainly intended “work to protect our nations” in my use of the word “work” — the question, of course, then arises — work how?
    I don’t feel in any way equal to that question myself. I suspect that “the battle of ideas” is the ultimate battlefield, rather than the “battlefield of militaries” — but I haven’t seen CVE that looks remotely deep and resonant enough to win on the battlefield of ideas. I believe that a renewed spirituality, with tangible social consequences, must inevitably be part of a successful response, rather than a mere spattering of tweets.

  12. Dave Schuler Says:

    Re: Crossan
    Yes, our paths crossed shortly after he left CTU. He was a dinner guest on a couple of occasions. He’s a charming guy, brilliant conversationalist, and his ideas about the development of the New Testament are interesting to say the least.

  13. Grurray Says:

    The ‘Near East’ had a modernistic enlightenment of sorts at the turn of the last century

    in which secular Arab Nationalism emerged.

  14. david ronfeldt Says:

    Though late getting here, I’d still like to inquire: Every now and then I see these interesting remarks, like above regarding Luther, indicating that the thoughts and actions of ISIS etc. are not so much more terrible than thoughts and actions of violent extremist Christian, Jewish, and other religionists ages ago. But what I’ve seen are just anecdotes and selected fragments offering such comparisons. Are there sources — books? articles? — that provide a sustained, point-for-point, systematic, thorough comparison to such effects?
    I am appalled by the monstrosity of ISIS et al. It’s tantmount to a Deformation. But if there were systematic evidence of point-for-point similarities ages ago, I might find it a sign of hope that matters today will eventually evolve in acceptable directions, even a Reformation.

  15. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi David:
    I don’t know of a book that does a point-by-point comparison, and because there are so many aspects and scales (in both time and space) involved, I think such a comparison would be difficult to achieve in anything like quantitative form: populations differ, monetary values, geographical borders, forms of capital punishment, available weaponry, etc.
    And then there are fallibilities of reporting. It’s worth remembering that what many western accounts attribute to IS under the heading of “crucifixion” is in fact post-mortem display — done either for simple convenience like putting a head on a pole at the Tower of London, or a scalp outside a tipi =– or with specific reference to the intense symbolism of crucifixion for Christians — it’s hard to say which would have come first.

    Two books do a good job of interviewing key participants in contemporary religious terrorism, comparatively — Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God and Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God.
    Fir what they are worth, then, given that you have seen this sort of thing but not the book-length comparatiuve study you seek — one key quote for me is this, from I Samuel 15. 3:

    Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

    That was a very, very long time ago.
    And St Bernard of Clairvaux would be a useful source on the Crusades:

    Fly then to arms; let a holy rage animate you in the fight, and let the Christian world resound with these words of the prophet, “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood!” If the Lord calls you to the defense of His heritage think not that His hand has lost its power. Could He not send twelve legions of angels or breathe one word and all His enemies would crumble away into dust? But God has considered the sons of men, to open for them the road to His mercy. His goodness has caused to dawn for you a day of safety by calling on you to avenge His glory and His name.

  16. david ronfeldt Says:

    Belated thanks, Charles for those helpful clarifications. They add to my understanding. They also indicate that the research and analysis I’d like to see would be very difficult to pull together.
    Years ago, I tried chatting with a Christian evangelical neighbor about whether the Middle East conflicts were more about tribalism or religion. She informed me, citing the Bible, that God had told the Israelites to annihilate a tribe whose name I forget (but it may have been the Amaleks). Yet the Jews failed to do so — and that’s the origin of all the conflicts there today, she said. I was surprised to hear that from her back then, partly because I had regarded her as mild-mannered, unlikely to believe in annihilation of anybody.
    Anyway, I shall remain on the lookout for evidence of similarities between then and now, as posed above. I continue to appreciate your illuminatory postings.

  17. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi David:
    Yes, it was Saul who failed to kill all the Amalekites when ordered to do so by the LORD speaking through Samuel. The whole story is in I Samuel 15. As a schoolboy I must have heard this read in chapel, but I don’t think it occurred to me to ponder it.

  18. zen Says:

    Terror in the Name of God was quite good

  19. Charles Cameron Says:

    You mean Jessica Stern’s book?

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