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.