Thursday, May 13, 2010

It is not a Reformation that Islam needs

This extends a comment I made here.

The process of local cultures invading Christianity has also occurred in Islam. The Sufi traditions were full of that. But the effect is far more limited in Islam than in Chrisitianity, as Islamic reformers come through periodically and "purify" Islam by returning to the texts. When people say "Islam needs a Reformation" it shows they understand neither Islam nor the Reformation. Getting rid of "pagan" accretions and going back to the original texts WAS precisely what the Reformation was about and occurs in Islam regularly.

As Mark Durie points out about the Protestant Reformation:
Throughout the whole medieval period the idea of reformation (reformatio) was prestigious, and many reform movements chased after this ideal. Reformation meant going back to one's roots, and just about everyone agreed that this was a Good Thing. For medieval Christians, a reformed Christianity meant being more Christ-like, more apostolic, and more Pauline. …
The European Reformation - so often invoked in comparisons with Islam today - was driven by a desire to re-form Christianity a second time, taking it back to its roots. It sought to move ahead by going backwards. Its inner logic had nothing to do with the modern idea of progress or the Darwinian concept of 'evolution'. The Reformation was not a 'progressive' movement in the modern sense, but one which sought to 'regress', renewing the example of Christ and his apostles.
This is why Luther and other reformers encouraged believers to read their Bibles for themselves, in their own native tongue. Luther regarded it as the duty of every Christian to be constantly renewing their own faith from the original sources.
What Islam lacks is not Protestant belief in the primacy of scripture—on the contrary, Islam holds to that more strongly than the most fervid Protestant—but the Orthodox/Catholic notion of scripture as a product of the Church (the body of believers) and the world, as the direction creation of God, trumping Scriptures, as the indirect creation of God.

Conversely, Islam entirely lacks the Protestant notion of final interpreting authority residing in the believers and their consciences. Instead, it has a more "Catholic/Orthodox" view of final interpreting authority residing in the scholars, the ulema.

To put it another way, Islam combines the worst features of the Christian traditions (textual literalism and trumping clerical authority) and lacks the best features (this-world-based reasoning and individual conscience: the modern Western synthesis).

It is precisely because modern Western civilisation has largely dropped the authority of scripture and of priests while marrying Protestant notions of governance to Catholic/Orthodox notions of reasoning-grounded-in-this-world being not merely a but the source of truth, that the gap between Western civilisation and Islam is, in crucial respects, wider than it was between Christendom and Islam. At the same time, the capacity of Western examples and ideas has—due to communication and transport technology—to intrude into Islam greatly magnified.

Clash of civilisations (and other frictions) anyone?

This gap also makes it harder for Muslims to integrate into Western society: particularly if multiculturalist welfarism operates to systematically undermine any incentive to do so. As the work of Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels (long interview here, another here and another here) brings out rather starkly:
A French survey in Le Figaro showed that only 14 percent of the country's estimated five million Muslims see themselves as "more French than Muslim." Research (pdf) made by the German Ministry of Interior shows that only 12 percent of Muslims living in Germany see themselves as more German than Muslim. A Danish survey published by the pro-Muslim pro-democratic organization Democratic Muslims led by the Danish PM and Muslim Naser Khader showed that only 14 percent of Muslims living in Denmark could identify themselves as "Democratic and Danish."
A major sign of the failure of such integration in Europe is that younger generations of Muslims are generally more committed to their Muslim identity—one typically manifested against the surrounding Western societies—than their parents.

A poll published in February 2006 of British Muslims found that 40% supported the introduction of Shar’ia in parts of the UK while 41% opposed that: a December 2006 poll found support for Shar’ia was much stronger among British Muslims aged 16-24 [37%] than those over 55 [15%].) The latter poll also found that British Muslims over 55 were more likely to agree (56%) than to disagree (28%) that people in their area were more religious than 10 years ago. While those aged 16-24 were significantly more likely to rate religion as the most important thing in their life (90%) than those over 55 (76%); much more likely to support Muslim women wearing veils (74% to 28%), more likely to support making homosexuality illegal (71% to 50%), to think apostasy should be punished by death (36% to 19%), to support polygamy for Muslim men (52% to 18%), to think a Muslim woman should not marry without consent of her guardian (57% to 33%) and to admire organizations such as al-Qaeda that fight against the West (13% to 3%). (It is worth noting that 80% of 16-24 year old and 92% of over 55 British Muslims in the poll disagreed that al-Qaeda was to be admired.)

What generates these differences is not the lack of a Reformation, the lack of going back to Scriptures, but precisely the process of doing exactly that, of seeing the Qur’an, the hadith and the life of Muhammad as the source of moral knowledge and guidance. Of going back to the “roots” of Islam, precisely as the Reformation sought to do with Christianity.

Consider the comments of a prominent American Muslim, quoted here:
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the woman who was invited by Hussein Obama to represent Muslims in the interfaith prayer of the Democrats Presidential convention, and who is the president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), when asked whether Wahhabism is an extreme right wing sect of Islam, responded:
No it’s not true to characterize ‘Wahhabism’ that way. This is not a sect. It is the name of a reform movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islamic societies of cultural practices and rigid interpretation that had acquired over the centuries. It really was analogous to the European protestant reformation.
Mark Durie again:
Australian Muslim Waleed Aly was entirely correct when he said Islam has already had its Reformation, and the outcome has been Islamic radicalism:
"Still, Western calls for an Islamic Reformation grow predictably and irrepressibly stronger, while those familiar with the Islamic tradition easily observe that radical and terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, cannot be cured by Reformation for the very simple fact that they are the Reformation." [People like us: how arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, p.xv].
For those today whose world view is shaped by the ideal of progress, and look out upon Islam peering through the frame of Western assumptions about 'backwardness', 'progress' and 'evolution', Waleed Aly's insight can be difficult to grasp. Yet it is essential that it be understood and appreciated.
In today's world, if what is needed is more moderate manifestation of Islam, then the very last thing that could ever accomplish this would be an Islamic Reformation.
When Westerners say “Islam needs a Reformation”, what they typically mean is that they want Islam to go through an Enlightenment, to turn into something like post-Enlightenment Western religion. But they typically forget what Europe went through that “tamed” religion and religious claims. Worse, they fail to understand that the strands in Christianity that the modern Western synthesis is based on are absent from Islam. Worse still, they often lack any serious commitment to the virtues of the (sceptical) Enlightenment, and to (sceptical) Enlightenment values, while opposing the creation of serious incentives to encourage Muslim integration and Islamic adjustment.

They typically suffer under the cognitive flaws that George Santayana found in Bertrand Russell, of whom Santayana wrote:
His outlook was universal, but his presuppositions were insular.
It is a great foolishness, to burble on about the values of different cultures and then not take cultural (indeed, civilisational) differences seriously, as if somehow your particular presuppositions are some incipient human universal, just waiting to burst forth in all folk. As if you are not a product of specific history, while others are products of very different histories: differences that cannot be simply assumed to be inherently reconcilable. It is one thing to think a variety of cognitive perspectives aid decision-making (which, up to a point at least, the evidence is they do): it is another to presume they all embody some deep, ultimately conforming, unity.

It is not a Reformation that Islam lacks: Islam is experiencing an imported modernity while lacking much of what modernity grew out of in the West, making modernity an even more alien experience. Islam is the other universalist civilization, and operates on very different premises. Those different premises need to be taken seriously: to be not either wished away or treated as immutable features of human reality. For they matter to the extent that people act on them, so it is how people think about them that drives their significance.

As Muslim apostate Ali Sina points out, the difference between the Reformation in Christianity and Reformation in Islam is that there are some very real differences in the messages of the Gospels, New Testament and life of Jesus compared to the Qur’an, the hadith and the life of Muhammad:
What is the essence of the reformation in Islam? The essence of the Wahhabi belief is that man is not free but a slave of Allah. People are Ibad. (slaves)
This is diametrically a different discourse from the discourse of Protestantism and here is the essential difference between Christianity and Islam.
On the surface, there are many similarities between Christianity and Islam. Both believe in a God, both rely on an intermediary between man and God, both faiths are eschatological - have a hell, a heaven and an afterlife, etc. However, in their core, they are very different, in fact opposite to one another. The reformatio of both these faiths took the same road, but seaking [sic] the origin of their faith, they went opposite directions. Islam is not a continuation of Christianity, as Muhammad and Muhammadns claim, but it is an anti Christian belief in its core. Christianity advocates freedom of man, Islam, his slavery. One brings the message of liberation, the other, of submission.
(Ali Sina also argues there is not such thing as moderate Islam, only Muslims who do not wish to buy the whole package.)

I understand the temptation to try and “re-imagine” Islam, but such “re-imagining” is potentially disastrous if it is based on wishful thinking rather than accurate understanding.

ADDENDA Mark Durie has a post on the problems of reformation in Islam, particularly for women.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Well I may be biased, as this post quotes me, but I agree with Lorenzo 150% percent.
    There are some additional theologically-driven factors which de-privilege reason in Islam.
    One is the dogma of the superiority of the Umma, which has made it hard for Muslim societies to learn from non-Islam (Bernard Lewis has written extensively about this in What Went Wrong).
    Another is the lack of a coherent epistemology in Islamic thought (the contrast with Christian theology is marked).
    Another problem is that Allah of the Qur'an is essentially non-relational, and not open to reason. The scenario, often manifested in the Bible, of people reasoning with God, seeking to make him change his mind by invoking his promises or his character, is totally absent from the Qur'an. Allah of the Qur'an is a-rational, as his supremacy makes him unaccountable in every respect to human beings. If you can't argue with God, reason has no foundation and must bow to divine command. This handicaps both science and philosophy.

  3. Other articles with Nicolai Sennels:

    # EuropeNews “Integration of Muslims in Western societies is not possible”:

    # The German Review of Books: The one thing Muslim immigrants fear is being deported:

    # Interview til Hommaforum: An interview with Nicolai Sennels:,19459.msg271993.html#msg271993

    # Artikel i New English Review: Muslims and Westerners: The psychological differences:

    # Interview i FrontPageMagazine: Among Criminal Muslims:

  4. Mark

    I have long harboured a little theory about the incoherence of Islamic theology - particularly Sunni. And that is, I am not persuaded that Islam started out as a separate religion. My theory is that Muhammad himself was a convert to one of the eastern monophysite Christian sects, and quite likely he and his early followers were evolving into a hybrid Arab Nestorian type, with quite a bit Judaism thrown in for good measure from their co-habitation in Mecca and Medina.

    I thus also posit that The Koran started out as mish-mash of The Torah and eastern Christian books and rituals all translated into Arabic. So whereas some people speak pig-Latin, the Arabs started speaking pig-Judeo-Christianity.

    I have two possible theories of why they eventually split, firstly into another Christian sect, and then Muslims. The first point would be at the same time that Muhammad had a huge falling out with the Christians, picked up his prayer mat, and started praying towards Mecca, whereas hitherto they had prayed towards Jerusalem.

    The second possibility is that the splitting off into a separate religion occurred long after Muhammad's death. Given that The Koranic tradition doesn't really get going until the middle of the 8th century at the earliest, they had two centuries to get the Greeks, Jews, and Persians translate bibs and bobs from the various Judeo-Christian texts into Arabic, and volia- Islam in all its glorious theological incoherence!

  5. Mark: thanks for the endorsement! Do you discuss the epistemological issue in Revelation?

    Nicolai: Thanks for the links (though all but one are already in the post).

    Peter: That sort of theory has been around for a while. I am a touch sceptical, since it looks a bit much like attempts to "explain away" Christ and we do have the Quranic verses on the mosque of Umar in Jerusalem. That there may have been some changes in those first few centuries I would accept, however.

  6. I admit the theory is a bit of a whimsy! :) But I don't understand what you mean by "attempts to 'explain away' Christ."

  7. Lorenzo can correct me if I'm wrong, but 'explaining away' Christ sometimes refers to attempts by a certain sort of skeptic to prove that Jesus didn't exist. If one applied the degree of skepticism these people apply to Jesus to other noted figures from the same period, the population of the Roman Empire in the First Century AD would be reduced to about 100,000 and would depend almost entirely on inscriptional evidence. If you are skeptical of religious claims but accept the existence of major religious figures like Jesus and Muhammad, then the extreme skeptical position is very irritating.

  8. SL: That is precisely what I am referring to. I find it no more plausible to do with Muhammad (or Islam as a new religion) than with Jesus.

  9. I'm clearly missing something here. I still have no idea why Jesus has been introduced into a discussion of Islam, its theology, origins, and the world of the Near East in the 7th to 9th centuries.

    And I haven't read even a hint of anybody questioning that Muhammad really did exist, and really was an Arab leader.

    If folks thinks Jesus did not. That's cool. But surely irrelevant to this thread?

  10. PP: Just as there are theories that Christ did not really exist, so there are theories Muhammad was made up after the fact. Then there are theories that what Christ preached was radically different from what has come down to us. Your whimsy about Islam is in that direction. The notion of some significant change over time I can see, it is the sort of radical change you were suggesting which begins to move into a territory of radical difference between reality and received image that gets implausible to me.

  11. I still don't follow. The analogy is irrelevant. Why this pulling Christ out thin air in a discussion about Islam's theology, and the historiography of Late Antiquity? It is a complete non sequitur.

    I am not aware of ANY theories that Muhammad was made up after the fact. And to the extent they do exist, they are not championed by me. My posts above are clearly premised on a real live Muhammad.

    If people theorize about whether or not Christ ever lived, it matters not a hill of beans to what I have posted here. Hell, everybody who takes undergrad courses in Late Republic and Early Empire Roman history will inevitably have a tutorial on whether or not Christ really existed, and if he did how well does The Bible and other religious texts stack up against extant evidence.

    It is irrelevant if my whimsy is in that direction. Again, it is a complete non sequitur to say my theories about early Islam THEREFORE oblige me to subscribe to what you believe are similar theories about Jesus.

  12. PP: I was merely suggesting there is a pattern of historical revisionism one sees with both Islam and Christianity that I find implausible in both cases.

  13. I'm not sure what you mean by "revisionism." It suggests a cut-off point, where all this history was settled, beyond which no innovation or purported new finds, theories, or explanations could be seen as legitimate. I am a little familiar with the history of Christianity, and it is impossible for such a notion to revisionism to apply, because the diversity within space is just mindblowing.

    All GREAT history-writing must, by definition, be "revisionism." Take the greatest historian of Christianity during Late Antiquity on earth - Peter Brown. We were all basically still swinging in the trees until his work began in 1970. We'd still be believing in such hocus-pocus nonsense as "Rome fell" and "the Dark Ages."

    I can't help but detect an ideological inertia to some kind of equivalence. "Islam, Christianity, there all the same."

    There are two overarching reasons why the standards and techniques relevant for scholarship of early Christianity vs early Islam.

    1) The extant evidence from the Mediterranean World during the time of Christ and onto Late Antiquity is of so many magnitudes greater than that available for the early days of Islam.

    2) As I said on an earlier post, the revolution in Christian and Biblical scholarship during the 19th century, is barely even muttered as possible of beginning. Quite simply because of the nuttier Islamists discover an infidel is undertaking such scholarship and research, they will kill you.

    That is why those few brave SOULS who are trying to subject Islam to the tsunami of critical scholarship on Christianity, Christ, and Late Antiquite from the 19th century, ALL have to publish under pseudonyms.

    The scholarly history of early Islam barely exists. It is only non-muslims who can do it properly. Why?

    Because the history of early Islam is contained within 1) above, which has been dominated by the Germans, French, English - and now Americans for centuries.

    The methods needed to be brought The Koran are contained in 2) above, dominated by the same players.

  14. PP: That scholarship of early Christianity is much more advanced than that of early Islam is obviously true. That research can develop, and change, our understanding of the past is also true. By 'revisionism' what I was getting at was putting a picture of the past radically different from what one might reasonably expect. That Christ did not exist, that Muhammad did not exist, that Muhammad taught something radically different from Islam as more commonly understood are "revisionist" in that sense.

    BTW, Peter Brown is wrong. The Western Roman Empire definitely fell and there was a Dark Age--a large-scale collapse of literacy--in Western Europe. The more recent scholarship, particularly building on the vast increase in archaeological knowledge of the era, is quite clear on that: so the Pirenne thesis is wrong. There are a few attempts to keep the "it was just a transition" line alive, but they are getting increasingly sad.

    The Dark Ages are, in fact, a good example of a common pattern in historical revisionism. A thesis is advanced which dramatically reverses traditional historical understanding, it is all the rage for a while, then gets wound back as new evidence accumulates and/or previous evidence is re-examined.

  15. I'm not sure how much and how closely you've read Peter Brown, but he was responsible for exposing the unscholarly hocus pocus of the 17/18th scribes, such as Gibbon's "it was the Christian wot done it."

    Your arguments seem to be rely on the bigotries and chauvinsims of the 17th century, but without a hint of irony. The appellation "Dark Ages" has little to do with the 1st Millenium, and everything to do with Renaissance Europe.

    Brown's focus has never been on the tedium of Italy and Gaul, and Gibbon's shoddy "decline and fall" thesis formulated with not a jot of original research. H

    Brown's focus has always been on the main game in the Eastern Empire and Byzantium, but most of all Christianity.

    Brown has always about the dialectical substitution of Christianity for the tired and tedious Imperial cult, as the empire's glue.

    Your focus on the horror of the west is odd. From the 4th century, the West as defined by Gaul, Britain, and so on was full of Roman savages. The grandeur had shifted east to Constantinople, and the empire's glory was focused on Byzantium, Syria, and Egypt.

    It is this cultural transition that is Brown's work, and particularly how Christianity emerged as Rome's shadow imperial bureaucracy before subsuming and squashing it.

    If you are reading Peter Brown as a mere Edward Gibbon,you are wasting your time. And by the way, I found Brown's scholarship on Arabia and Persia chimed with my own whimsy very much.

    The man is among humanity's top 10 historians without doubt.

  16. PP: I haven't read Brown, so I was taking your potted summary as him fitting in with the "it is only a transition" thesis about Western Europe: that there was no Fall.

    I rather thought that Gibbon's notion that the Eastern Empire was not "real Romans" was long since dead. (Particularly his thesis about Christianity causing the fall, given the most Christian half of the Empire was the half that survived.) Indeed, I object to the term 'Byzantine' since it is C17th antiquarianism with little to recommend it and use the term 'Eastern Roman Empire' instead, since they called themselves Romans (if in Greek) and those around them call them Romans.

    So, I was not commenting on the Eastern Mediterranean region at all: the survival of the Roman Empire there is a given. But, about Western Europe, the latest scholarship is pretty clear. It suffered a Dark Age (i.e. a large scale systemic collapse leading to a dramatic drop in literacy) after the fall of the Western Empire. One comparable to (but not nearly as catastrophic as) the Eastern Mediterranean Dark Age after the Bronze Age collapse.

  17. Lorenzo

    I thought you might enjoy this. Though maybe Mark Durie might not, so much.

    A man honored by President Obama as a “civil rights pioneer” has told a Christian ministry leader the God of the Bible is a “sinful, homophobic bigot” who needs to repent and “seek forgiveness for the pain and suffering which his sinful homophobia has needlessly inflicted upon gay people for the past 4,000 years.

  18. Thanks, it did give me a chuckle. One of the principles of bigotry is they are allowed to slander the despised as much as they like, but the despised are absolutely not allowed to criticise back.