The Islamic World Doesn’t Need a Reformation

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The Islamic World Doesn't Need a Reformation


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 wrote in 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.

Because there is no central religious authority, consider the only definitive authority available, which is the state.

That is why those who hope to see a more tolerant, free, and open Muslim world should seek the equivalent not of the Protestant Reformation but of the next great paradigm in Western history: the Enlightenment. The contemporary Muslim world needs not a Martin Luther but a John Locke, whose arguments for freedom of conscience and religious toleration planted the seeds of liberalism. In particular, the more religion-friendly British Enlightenment, rather than the French one, can serve as a constructive model. (And, as I argued elsewhere, special attention should also be given to the Jewish Enlightenment, also called Haskalah, and its pioneers such as Moses Mendelssohn. Islam, as a legalist religion, has more commonalities with Judaism than with Christianity.)

Luckily, efforts toward a Muslim Enlightenment have been present since the 19th century, in the form of the above-mentioned “Islamic modernism.” British historian Christopher de Bellaigue deftly demonstrated the achievements of this trend in his recent book, The Islamic Enlightenment. He also rightly noted that this promising era—also called “the liberal age” of Arabic thought by the late historian Albert Hourani—experienced a major step back in the 20th century with Western colonialism and the reactions it provoked. Then came a wave of “counter-Enlightenment,” which is the fundamentalist revival that created Islamism and jihadism.

As a result, the Muslim world of today is a very complex place, where secularists, liberal reformists, illiberal conservatives, passionate fundamentalists, and violent jihadists all enjoy varying degrees of influence from region to region, nation to nation. The pressing question is how to move this world in a positive direction.

Because there is no central religious authority to lead the way, one should consider the only definitive authority available, which is the state. Whether we like it or not, the state has been quite influential on religion throughout the history of Islam. It has become even more so in the past century, when Muslims overwhelmingly adopted the modern nation-state and its powerful tools, such as public education.

It really matters, therefore, whether the state promotes a tolerant or a bigoted interpretation of Islam. It really matters, for example, when the Saudi monarchy, which for decades has promoted Wahhabism, vows to promote “moderate Islam,” as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently did, giving some hope for the future. It is especially significant that this call for moderation implies not just fighting terrorism, but also liberalizing society by curbing the “religion police,” empowering women, and being “open to the world and all religions.”

This argument may sound counterintuitive to some Western liberals, who are prone to think that the best thing for a state is to just stay out of religion. But in a reality where the state is already deeply involved in religion, its steps toward moderation and liberalization should be welcome. It’s also worth remembering that the success of the Enlightenment in Europe was partly thanks to the era of “Enlightened despots,” the monarchs who preserved their power even as they realized crucial legal, social, and educational reforms.

When we look at the Middle East we see that countries with enlightened monarchies, such as Morocco or Jordan, promote and exemplify religious moderation, unlike the many “revolutionary” republics that end up as authoritarian one-party states or tyrannies of the illiberal majority. (Only Tunisia stands out as an exceptionally bright spot.) And in Malaysia, where I recently had the unexpected chance to become acquainted with the “religion enforcement police,” it is the sultans that try to keep such zealots, and their popular support, in check.

A full-fledged Islamic Enlightenment would require other features, such as the rise of the Muslim middle class (which would itself require market-based economies rather than rentier states) and an atmosphere of free speech in which novel ideas can be discussed without persecution. Yet even those very much depend on political decisions that states will make or not make.

If the Protestant Reformation teaches us anything, it is that the road from religious fracturing to religious tolerance is long and winding. The Muslim world is somewhere on that road at the moment, and more twists and turns probably await us in the decades to come. In the meantime, it would be a mistake to look at the darkest forces within the current crisis of Islam and to arrive at pessimistic conclusions about its supposedly immutable essence.



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