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Islam’s ‘Protestant Reformation’

Can Islam be reformed? Part 1 of 2.

by
Raymond Ibrahim

Bio

June 20, 2014 - 12:12 am

In order to prevent a clash of civilizations, or worse, Islam must reform.  This is the contention of many Western peoples. And, pointing to Christianity’s Protestant Reformation as proof that Islam can also reform, many are optimistic.

Overlooked by most, however, is that Islam has been reforming. What is today called “radical Islam” is the reformation of Islam. And it follows the same pattern of Christianity’s Protestant Reformation.

The problem is our understanding of the word “reform.”  Despite its positive connotations, “reform” simply means to “make changes (in something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it.”

Synonyms of “reform” include “make better,” “ameliorate,” and “improve” — splendid words all, yet words all subjective and loaded with Western references.

Muslim notions of “improving” society may include purging it of “infidels” and their corrupt ways; or segregating men and women, keeping the latter under wraps or quarantined at home; or executing apostates, who are seen as traitorous agitators.

Banning many forms of freedoms taken for granted in the West — from alcohol consumption to religious and gender equality — can be deemed an “improvement” and a “betterment” of society.

In short, an Islamic reformation need not lead to what we think of as an “improvement” and “betterment” of society — simply because “we” are not Muslims and do not share their reference points and first premises.  “Reform” only sounds good to most Western peoples because they, secular and religious alike, are to a great extent products of Christianity’s Protestant Reformation; and so, a priori, they naturally attribute positive connotations to the word.

Islam’s Reformation Has Produced Results Opposite to Protestant Antecedent.

At its core, the Protestant Reformation was a revolt against tradition in the name of scripture — in this case, the Bible.  With the coming of the printing press, increasing numbers of Christians became better acquainted with the Bible’s contents, parts of which they felt contradicted what the Church was teaching.  So they broke away, protesting that the only Christian authority was “scripture alone,” sola scriptura.

Islam’s reformation follows the same logic of the Protestant Reformation — specifically by prioritizing scripture over centuries of tradition and legal debate — but with antithetical results that reflect the contradictory teachings of the core texts of Christianity and Islam.

As with Christianity, throughout most of its history, Islam’s scriptures, specifically its “twin pillars,” the Koran (literal words of Allah) and the Hadith (words and deeds of Allah’s prophet, Muhammad), were inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of Muslims.  Only a few scholars, or ulema — literally, “they who know” — were literate in Arabic and/or had possession of Islam’s scriptures. The average Muslim knew only the basics of Islam, or its “Five Pillars.”

In this context, a “medieval synthesis” flourished throughout the Islamic world.  Guided by an evolving general consensus (or ijma‘), Muslims sought to accommodate reality by, in medieval historian Daniel Pipes’ words:

[Translating] Islam from a body of abstract, infeasible demands [as stipulated in the Koran and Hadith] into a workable system. In practical terms, it toned down Sharia and made the code of law operational. Sharia could now be sufficiently applied without Muslims being subjected to its more stringent demands.…  [However,] While the medieval synthesis worked over the centuries, it never overcame a fundamental weakness: It is not comprehensively rooted in or derived from the foundational, constitutional texts of Islam. Based on compromises and half measures, it always remained vulnerable to challenge by purists (emphasis added).

This vulnerability has now reached breaking point: millions of more Korans published in Arabic and other languages are in circulation today compared to just a century ago; millions of more Muslims are now literate enough to read and understand the Koran compared to their medieval forbears.  The Hadith, which contains some of the most intolerant teachings and violent deeds attributed to Islam’s prophet, is now collated and accessible, in part thanks to the efforts of Western scholars, the Orientalists.  Most recently, there is the Internet — where all these scriptures are now available in dozens of languages and to anyone with a laptop or iPhone.

In this backdrop, what has been called at different times, places, and contexts “Islamic fundamentalism,” “radical Islam,” “Islamism,” and “Salafism” flourished.  Many of today’s Muslim believers, much better acquainted with the often black and white words of their scriptures than their ancestors, are “protesting” against earlier traditions, are “protesting” against the “medieval synthesis,” in favor of scriptural literalism — just like their Christian Protestant counterparts once did.

Thus, if Martin Luther (d. 1546) rejected the extra-scriptural accretions of the Church and “reformed” Christianity by aligning it more closely with scripture, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (d. 1787), one of Islam’s first modern reformers, “called for a return to the pure, authentic Islam of the Prophet, and the rejection of the accretions that had corrupted it and distorted it,” in the words of Bernard Lewis in his 1997 book, The Middle East.

The unadulterated words of God — or Allah — are all that matter for the reformists.

Note: Because they are better acquainted with Islam’s scriptures, other Muslims, of course, are apostatizing — whether by converting to other religions, most notably Christianity, or whether by abandoning religion altogether, even if only in their hearts (for fear of the apostasy penalty).  This is an important point to be revisited later.  Muslims who do not become disaffected after better acquainting themselves with the literal teachings of Islam’s scriptures, and who instead become more faithful to and observant of them are the topic of this essay.

Raymond Ibrahim, a Middle East and Islam specialist, is author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians (2013) and The Al Qaeda Reader (2007). His writings have appeared in a variety of media, including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Middle East Quarterly, World Almanac of Islamism, and Chronicle of Higher Education; he has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, C-SPAN, PBS, Reuters, Al-Jazeera, NPR, Blaze TV, and CBN. Ibrahim regularly speaks publicly, briefs governmental agencies, provides expert testimony for Islam-related lawsuits, and testifies before Congress. He is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center; Judith Friedman Rosen Writing Fellow, Middle East Forum; and a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution, 2013. Ibrahim’s dual-background -- born and raised in the U.S. by Coptic Egyptian parents born and raised in the Middle East -- has provided him with unique advantages, from equal fluency in English and Arabic, to an equal understanding of the Western and Middle Eastern mindsets, positioning him to explain the latter to the former.

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Top Rated Comments   
Mohammed's creation of Islam was itself a species of what drove and continues to drive Protestantism.

There was in his day a pre-existing and stable doctrine of Christianity, but he was unable to grasp it, either because the traders passing through who exposed him to Christian thought did not fully understand themselves or because Mohammed simply wasn't all that bright. He was arrogant and ambitious though.

Mohammed was, like Martin Luther, a presumptuous fairly ignorant know-it-all. And so, lo and behold, he proclaims an improved version of Judeo-Christianity, a more "true" version that conformed to his ever-changing illogic, that he justified by angelic visitations. In short, it was half heresy and half half-baked make-it-up-yourself theology to justify his militaristic ambition and personal lustful desire.

There is no reforming of patent error. There is only rejecting the error in favor of truth.

In the meantime, for the sake of the rest of us, there is making the error toothless so that it doesn't bite us all.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Have you read the Koran? The only way Islam can be reformed is if it is wiped out. It is inimical to the Constitution and western civilization. What has Islamic civilization given to the world? Scores of millions of murdered and mutilated bodies, millions of slaves, a few interesting buildings. Any Shakespeares? Any Newtons, Wright Brothers, Einsteins ? Any philharmonics? Operas?
Islam should be outlawed for the same reason that that Mormon extremist who married the 14 year old girls was jailed. It doesn't belong here.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
A lot of what's being discussed here, while rooted in Christianity, is also deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which also drew on the works of the ancient Greeks and on scientific discoveries. I don't see Islam reaching out to those sources of wisdom.

I don't know that Islam can "reform", so much as perhaps find its way back to its previous "compromise". I don't know that this can happen, either.

What Islam perhaps needs more is a thorough defeat, such as what happened to German and Japanese militarism. We came very close indeed to delivering exactly that, but now the current administration seems to be backing off.

I'm not all that hopeful.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (162)
All Comments   (162)
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You can't reform something that is inherently evil. There isn't going to be any Islamic reformation.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
A few years ago Jonah Goldberg at NRO addressed this issue with a terrific article "Islamic Rites - Why Muslims need a pope".
http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/205173/islamic-rites/jonah-goldberg
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
Interesting. If Islam is reforming comparably to the Reformation, it is right on schedule, isn't it? Luther put up the 95 Theses in 1517, 597 years ago. If we count the founding of Islam at the hijira, that was in 622AD. Off by 25 years. Which, of course, is meaningless but cool.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
You talk about Islam as if there is one that can reform. If Shia reforms that affects no Sunni. If Al-Ahzar University in Cairo reforms that does not affect Wahhabism or the Qutibist Muslim Brotherhood, nor Al-Queda. What is affected if the Taliban reformed, Malaysian and Indonesian Islam, Turkish Islam, Alawites?

Al-Ahzar is probably the most globally influential and least anti-Western. After all they and Al-Ahzar adherent new Egyptian President El-Sisi threw out Morsi, and he still sits in jail.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
The puritans are not the majority. They are a very large and very vocal minority supported by Saudi and Gulf State money. But Islam is brittle and hollowed out because there is another equal large minority who adhere in their outward words and actions, but have no faith. The puritans know they exist and are determined to force adherence of the faithless by violence. But as the puritans rack up repeated losses and make themselves repulsive to the larger uma'a by their intolerance and oppression, Islam will start to collapse from within. The real enemy of Islam is secularism, not the West.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
The problem is of course that these Cultural Muslims see themselves as superior to Non-Muslims and entitled to Supremacy, which the Violent Jihadists provide the gateway to implementing. Which is why they are widely supported by the Ummah.

Sorry EM
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Islam is an evil and destructive political movement, akin to Nazism, it should be treated accordingly.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Part1of "should Islam be reformed?" NO. No need for Part 2
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mohammed was the L. Ron Hubbard of his time...and like his namesake, he just made it up as he went along!
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
Speaking of Islam...
When Qatar says jump, Obama says, how high?
http://nyyrc.com/blog/2014/06/if-qatar-says-so/

What’s the difference between Iraq today and Libya in 2011? Qatar, the tiny Gulf state sponsor of terror, was for intervention in Libya, but is against intervention in Iraq. In Libya, Obama preemptively ordered NATO airstrikes on the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, allegedly to prevent genocide. Obama explained this reasoning in a speech on March 28, 2011, saying that he acted to stop a massacre that would have “stained the conscience of the world.” Obama continued, “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” In Iraq today, we have photos and videos of mass slaughter by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Obama’s response to an actual genocide, complete with broadcast evidence, is to rule out airstrikes.

26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
The barbaric supremacist ideology of Islam must be eliminated.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
At the very least can we all agree that mass importation of the Agents of Islam into the West is not in th ebest interests of the host population. As if fighting the Islamic Reformation on our streets, in our institutions, schools, and neighborhoods is somehow beneficial for European Christians.
26 weeks ago
26 weeks ago Link To Comment
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