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Islam: Reforming a Recalcitrant Religion (Part I)

Why is the process of Christian Reformation not applicable for modern Islam?

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Takeaways


  • The march of the West after the Christian Reformation is still presented as incontrovertible evidence for Islam to undergo a similar rite of passage as Western Christianity.
  • In many ways, the history of modern Islamic thought can be read as one continuous series of remedies to what was perceived as decline and impending doom.
  • The victory of science and natural philosophy over theology and dogma was another immensely significant outcome of the Reformation, as linear narrative would have us believe.

In every age since the eruption of the West into the Islamic heartlands, an act which is best symbolized by the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt, Islam has had its share of philosophical “fixes” for the Muslims' dilemma.

In many ways, the history of modern Islamic thought can be read as one continuous series of remedies to what was perceived as decline and impending doom.

The parallels with the Christian Reformation are fallacious. Reasoning by historical analogy may have been the vogue in the post-9/11 environment, but the inferences drawn were hopelessly inappropriate for Islam.

The Reformation affected the Catholic Church in Central and Western Europe only. The unity of Christendom had been sundered with the division of the Roman Empire, and the Eastern Church had already had a physically separate and independent existence from the Western church for nearly a millennium before the Reformation.

The narrative of the Reformation in Western Christianity to which Islam was compared, had as its starting point the revolt of the individual against the authority of a hierarchical institution whose presence and intercession with God was essential as a matter of dogma.

The ground was prepared by humanist scholars such as Erasmus and by the opening of a reinterpretation of the scriptures based on accurate translations.

The victory of science and natural philosophy over theology and dogma was another immensely significant outcome of the Reformation, as linear narrative would have us believe. The Catholic Church, at the height of the Thirty Years War, saw fit to subject Galileo to the Roman Inquisition for his heretical beliefs on the laws of motion, but religious faith was no match for empirical evidence in the understanding of the natural world.

The story of the benefits of the Reformation continues into the political arena, where the religious dissenters of England, Germany and the Low Countries, moving across the Atlantic, plant in the New World the seeds for the separation of the state from an established church.

In economics and business, the Calvinist doctrines relating to the interconnection between thrift, work and the salvation of the elect are held to be the causal factors in the advance of capitalism — and hence of modern business organizations.

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The industrial revolution is thus only one step away from the Reformation. Who can doubt that the industrial revolution started in the Protestant strongholds of England and Northwestern Europe?

The Reformation becomes a pre-history of the Enlightenment, which finally succeeds in banishing religion from the public arena.

A monolithic Latin Christianity is fragmented into a multifaceted faith with many churches. Religious wars are replaced by religious toleration, which is only a transit station to secularism, and then to pluralism.

Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment are necessary phases in the “taming” of religious faith and in opening mankind to the possibilities of a post-religion order. Now, if only Islam could follow the same path — without, of course, the 200 years of violence and devastation which the Reformation actually unleashed — then Islam would be shorn of its dogmatic certainties, which are antithetical to human advancement.

It could then fit into the structures of the modern world.

This bare outline of the march of the West has been questioned, and in many cases, discredited by historians, but is still presented as incontrovertible evidence for Islam to undergo a similar rite of passage as Western Christianity. On closer inspection, however, the utility of the analogy falls apart, and the parallels are absurd.

Editors Note: This feature is an excerpt from "The Crisis of Islamic Civilization" by Ali A. Allawi. © Ali A. Allawi 2009. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.

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