Often pundits will exclaim that what Islam needs is a Reformation. Diana Muir reminds us in today’s Washington Post about what the Christian Reformation produced in the short run — and convincingly argues that we may already be in the middle of an Islamic counterpart. In fact, that’s the problem:
The Protestant Reformation did precede the things these men admire about modernity in the West, including women’s emancipation, political liberty, scientific breakthroughs, the wealth and opportunity created by the Industrial Revolution, and permission to think freely regarding God. But all this came later, and the Reformation was only part of what brought them about.
The Reformation was a time of intense focus on God and what He requires of people. As a movement, it was enthusiastic, narrow and far from tolerant. It and the Counter-Reformation brought two centuries of repression, war and massacre to the West. It’s unlikely that anyone who lived through it would consider wishing a Reformation on Muslims.
And yet, even as some hope for such a turn of events — presuming, it seems, a certain conclusion — a Reformation is sweeping through the Muslim world. Westerners are generally aware that the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam are struggling for dominance in Iraq. But more broadly, the words and doctrine promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis or Wahhabists are eerily similar to those of our 16th-century forebears.
Like the followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin, Islamic reformers reject the interpretations of generations of scholars in favor of seeking the word of God directly in scripture. Normative Islam follows one or another school of interpretation of scripture, known as a Madhab. Careful study leads students to understand that God’s word is often nuanced. Nuance is not the stuff of reform. Salafi reformers argue that Muslims should ignore generations of sages, read the Koran and Hadith for themselves, and act on the truth they find. A popular Salafi quote from the early Islamic jurist Abu Hanifa reads: When a passage (Hadith) is found to be authentic (saheeh) then that is my path (Madhab).
As Luther put it: Sola scriptura (Scripture alone).
Winston Churchill actually provides a good reference for this in his exhaustive History of the English Speaking People. He goes into detail about the unrest that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation created in England alone, and modern readers can see parallels in the philosophical dynamics of jihadism, if not in scale. Absolutism reigned during these periods, with violence and sectarian hatreds being the norm and not the exception.
The major revolution in that period was the rejection of the Church’s absolute authority on religious interpretation of Christianity. Luther’s challenge led to the inevitable conclusion that each Christian could determine for himself the meaning of Christianity. If each man could interpret the Scriptures as validly as a Church, then each man could become his own Church. So thousands of sects sprang into being, each with its own interpretation, and the extremes being as violent as Muslim jihadists today.
Muslims stopped having a central authority analog to Rome with the fall of the Caliphate, formally in 1920. As a result, Muslims increasingly relied on personal interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadiths. Imams had no central authority or oversight and could teach their own personal brand of Islam. It’s no accident that the Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of jihadi groups, sprang into being at this point and produced thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, who argues for the Muslim version of sola scriptura. As Muir notes, Qutb could be seen as a Calvinist in temperament, but one that argues for the reinstatement of the Caliphate, based on his own interpretation of the holy books of Islam.
Churchill can get some of the blame for this. He argued for an end to the tottering Ottoman Empire in the early days of the First World War, and his Dardanelles campaign was designed to bring it to a speedy collapse. The elimination of the Caliphate in the final settlement of the war had far-reaching consequences that the short-sighted Western powers could hardly calculate.
We’re in the middle of the Islamic Reformation. What we need is an Islamic Enlightenment, where Islam gets relegated to the personal and not the political. Few Muslims outside of the West appear interested in arguing for that, unfortunately.