With the Protestant Reformation in mind, many Western thinkers continue to insist that Islam is in need of a similar “reformation.”
Comparing apples and oranges, they overlook reality: In many respects, what is today called “radical Islam” is representative of 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,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, 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 only when infused with Western connotations, which are not always applicable.
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 and blasphemers.
Banning many forms of freedoms taken for granted in the West—including religious freedom 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 attribute Western ideas to the word.
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—specifically by prioritizing scripture over centuries of tradition and legal debate—but with antithetical results that reflect the antithetical teachings 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—the ulema, literally, “they who know”—were literate and/or had possession of Islam’s scriptures. The average Muslim knew only the basics of Islam, or its “Five Pillars.”
Times have radically changed: 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 of these scriptures are now available in dozens of languages and to anyone with a laptop or smartphone.
As a result, many of today’s Muslims, much better acquainted than their ancestors with the often black and white words of their scriptures, are protesting against earlier traditions in favor of scriptural literalism—just like their Christian Protestant counterparts once did.
Thus, if Martin Luther (d. 1546) rejected what he characterized as 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—and a “radical” in Western parlance—“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,” to quote Bernard Lewis (The Middle East, p. 333).
The unadulterated words of God—or Allah—are all that matter for the reformists.
How Christianity and Islam can follow similar patterns of reform but with antithetical results rests in the fact that their scriptures are antithetical to one another. This is the key point, and one admittedly unintelligible to postmodern, secular sensibilities, which tend to lump all religious scripture together in a melting pot of relativism without bothering to evaluate the significance of their respective words.
A point by point comparison of the scriptures of Islam and Christianity is beyond the purview of this article (see my “Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam” for a more comprehensive treatment).
Suffice it to note a few contradictions:
- The New Testament preaches peace, brotherly love, tolerance, and forgiveness—for all humans, believers and non-believers alike. Conversely, the Koran and Hadith call for war, or jihad, against all non-believers, until they either convert, accept subjugation and discrimination, or die (e.g., Koran 9:5, 9;29, etc.).
- The New Testament prescribes no punishment for the apostate from Christianity. Conversely, Islam’s prophet himself decreed that “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.”
- The New Testament teaches monogamy, one husband and one wife, thereby dignifying the woman. The Koran allows polygamy—up to four wives—and the possession of concubines, or sex-slaves. More literalist readings treat women as possessions.
- The New Testament discourages lying (e.g., Col. 3:9). The Koran permits it. The prophet himself often deceived others, and allowed his followers to lie, including to their wives.
It is precisely because Christian scriptural literalism lends itself to religious freedom, tolerance, and the dignity of women, that Western civilization developed the way it did.
And it is precisely because Islamic scriptural literalism is at odds with religious freedom, tolerance, and the dignity of women, that Islamic civilization developed the way it did.
Those in the West waiting for an Islamic “reformation” along the same lines of the Protestant Reformation, on the assumption that it will lead to similar results, must embrace two facts:
- Islam’s reformation is well on its way, and yes, along the same lines of the Protestant Reformation—with a focus on scripture and a disregard for tradition—and for similar historic reasons (literacy, scriptural dissemination, etc.);
- But because the core teachings of the scriptures of Christianity and Islam markedly differ from one another, Islam’s reformation has naturally produced a civilization markedly different from the West.
The “Islamic reformation” some in the West are hoping for is really nothing less than an Islam without Islam—secularization not reformation; Muslims prioritizing secular, civic, and humanitarian laws over Allah’s law; a “reformation”—or rather enlightenment—that would slowly see the religion of Muhammad go into the dustbin of history.
Such a scenario is certainly more plausible than believing that Islam can be true to its scriptures in any meaningful way and still peacefully coexist with, much less complement, the modern world the way Christianity does.