It’s a common cry from “educated” folks that know bupkis about Islam — “What Islam really needs is their version of the Reformation…” I’ve heard it from Muslim friends who are actually Progressives (and trust me, the latter is a religion, as much as a political ideology…and it is antithetical to the teachings of Islam.) It also shows a distinct lack of understand of Islam, and of Christianity and its history.
Mehdi Hasan has an great piece on the subject over at The Guardian that you should read, if this is your mantra. Go do it now, before you read the rest of this…
Welcome back. A few points to address here — Hasan is right that the Reformation spurred a series of religious wars from 1518 to about 1715. His numbers are a bit inflated — over the course of this period, perhaps 10 million might have been killed, and the majority of that in the Thirty Years War of the early 1600s. Even with that correction, it’s a pretty impressive bit of blood-letting, and it had a big enough impact that the American Founding Fathers specifically attacked the cynosure of religion and politics with the First Amendment.
But there is a more important element at play here that Hasan doesn’t address. He’s got part of it:
Islam isn’t Christianity. The two faiths aren’t analogous, and it is deeply ignorant, not to mention patronising, to pretend otherwise – or to try and impose a neatly linear, Eurocentric view of history on diverse Muslim-majority countries in Asia or Africa.
Islam has diverse traditions, sure enough, but underlying all of that is a religious text that is completely different in character from that of Christians. Even Christians rarely realize that their text is actually a series of text stapled together, and badly so. The Old Testament is much different in character than the New; the Old Testament — the “Jewish” part of the Scriptures — has a few references to war and bloodletting, but they tend to be focused on God getting the Jews to their rightful lands and keeping it. God is an angry, somewhat petulant father figure that expects undying devotion, even when he’s screwing with you. In the New Testament, Jesus has a much more benign take on God — he is a loving creature that would prefer you do the right thing. Try finding calls to violence in the New Testament…I’ll wait.
The Quran, on the other hand — and I’ve read it in English and Arabic — is completely different animal. Unlike the bible, which is a collection of authors translated, often at a temporal remove, by a host of other authors, all with differing politics and intents, is more messy in its canon that Star Trek. The Quran is the work of a single mind and is focused around submitting to the will of a single God that has some definite ideas — conveniently similar to Muhammed’s — on how you should act. Those who do not believe are to be coerced to it, preferable through violent struggle. The world is split into Dar el’Harb (the House of War), and Dar al’Islam (the House of Submission). It is a Manichean world; you are one of us, or you are the enemy. Worse…you are barely human, until you have received and submitted to God’s word. You can lie to, cheat, rape, kill, enslave a non-Muslim — it’s all cool with the man upstairs.
Politics, society, and religion are all folded into each other in Islam. You cannot separate them and be a good Muslim. The different people and cultures that Islam has encountered are irrevocably changed by their submission. Some mores and folkways might survive, but they are subsumed and modified to fit Islam.
Christianity, on the other hand, began as a solely Jewish sect, but quickly distanced itself from its parent religion as it spread quickly among the poor of the Roman Empire. When Islam changed the cultures it encountered, Christianity molded itself to the audience, borrowing from the Greek philosophers, Roman social mores, German and Celtic holidays, etc. Where Christianity was sold to the indigenous populations, it was tailored to fit those people’s beliefs. A single religious leadership did not exist until the religion became the official state belief of Rome, and in that moment, Christianity became tied to political forces which would use it to their benefit.
Whereas the benign message of Jesus is often discarded for the more authoritarian themes of the Old Testament, and chameleon-like quality of Catholic Christianity prior to the Reformation, allowed the religion to be used for political purposed of the various rulers. I would suggest that Islam is — in some ways — much more pure. The requirement that Muslims turn their aggression toward infidels over their fellow believers was never well received by political leaders who were in conflict, and there is plenty of internecine violence in places where Islam was quickly established…but by and large, the faithful were able to focus its aggression on Christian Europe because they were Other, and thanks to the teachings of the Quran, this was a holy mission.
The Reformation began as a simple plea by a well-placed monk for the Church to get out of the business of religion, out of politics, and focus on the spiritual mission of the Church. As should have been expected, it was not well-received by the Papacy. However, the political leaders of the small German states that were in constant competition to be the Holy Roman Emperor saw this as a political not a religion event; one which would allow them to slip the bonds of the Church. Religion was a superb motivator for people to engage in carnage, but the goal of the leadership was political. Kings and dukes, princes and pontiff sought to best each other and secure their own rules. The bloodshed of the Reformation would have been as likely, had Christianity been simply removed from the picture and replaced with Celtic, Nordic, and other ancient belief systems.
A Muslim reformation is unlikely precisely because cultural differences are less extreme, the religion has a rich litigious history through the hadith that can be tossed or kept as needed, and Islam does not have a central political entity. If anything, the growth of violent, fundamentalist Islam represents exactly what critics of the religion have been asking for, and what Luther was asking Rome for — a return to a more pure version of their religion.