Is an Islamic Reformation possible?

Christianity went through a Reformation in the 16th century. Can Islam do the same in the 21st?

Rafael Castro

OpEds Koran Islam
Koran Islam

Whether Islam will be reformed is one of the most uncertain issues of our times. The stakes of this reformation are tremendous. An Islamic World whose intellectual energies are released from dogma and censorship could contribute greatly to global prosperity during the 21st century.

The issue is clouded by misconceptions and false historical analogies. Many Westerners think that Islam’s reform is inevitable, and that just like the reforms of Christianity were ushered by modernity, so will Muslims adapt their faith to modern science and technology.

Some of the world’s most avant-garde cities dot the landscapes of the Arabian Peninsula. That is, in deeply traditional societies which are ruled largely by Islamic sharia. Arab Peninsula societies have managed to accommodate material modernity with religious traditionalism, refuting claims that modern science and technology invariably usher secular thinking.

Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses critical of the Church in 1517 triggered religious reform in Europe. Martin Luther sought to purify Christendom from the accretions of the Papacy. Sola scriptura was the motto of reformists who sought to recover the church without simony, without indulgences, without corruption which characterized pristine Christianity. The Protestant Reformation helped catalyze the Enlightenment and the hegemony of secularism in the West.

The situation of Islamic reformers is quite different. Pristine Islam is also reclaimed by the puritan Salafist movement, which draws inspiration from the military feats of Mohammed and his Companions to restore the primacy of militancy in Islamic discourse. The biographical differences between Mohammed and Jesus gave Christian reformists role-models and ethical constraints different to those available to their Islamic peers.

The dynamics of Jewish Communities in 19th century Europe have also been adduced to argue that a powerful reformist movement in Islamic Diaspora communities is unavoidable. The Jewish Reform movement emerged in circumstances peculiar to Judaism and to 19th century Central Europe. Its premise was the opening of educational, professional and social opportunities which could only be taken advantage of by Jews who compromised the traditional demands of their faith. This meant that a religious reform movement was attractive to members of the Jewish community eager to flee from poverty.

The fact that Judaism is also an ethnicity and that in 19th century European societies it was extremely hard to avoid religious affiliation of some sort, made it doubly attractive for Jews to seek a reform of their traditional religion. Jews who during the 19th and early 20th centuries wished to fully assimilate could usually do so only by converting to Christianity. Today's Reform Jews have an 80% assimilation rate and most of their offspring are not Jewish.

Western societies in the 21st century behave vastly differently towards religious minorities. Contemporary Muslims do not need to shed religious practices to accede to most positions in the educational and professional fields. This is chiefly due to the fact that Western democracies champion religious freedom and are willing to accommodate the needs of practicing Muslims.

The fact that the Islam is a faith community, not an ethnicity, means adhesion to its tenets - not ancestry – primarily determines who is a Muslim. For this reason, Muslims who disagree with Islamic tenets tend to assimilate into mainstream society rather than engaging themselves in reforming the religion they were born into.

There are numerous Qur'anic verses and reliable hadiths that condemn religious innovation, that sanction the inequality of women and that praise violence in the name of God.
There have been valiant attempts both in Europe and North America to establish reformist Islamic organizations and liberal mosques. These attempts have earned much publicity in the Western media. Yet these initiatives have been largely ignored by Muslim communities.

Since many of the founders of these initiatives are not practicing Muslims, they are generally not viewed as credible authorities with regards to spiritual and religious matters. Furthermore any liberal interpretation of Islam which preaches equality for women, pacifism and separation of mosque and state is viewed by the traditionalist faithful as a secularist enterprise – not an authoritative interpretation of Islam.

A credible reform of Islam would need to deploy arguments that follow an inherently Islamic logic. Martin Luther succeeded because the Bible and the Gospels did not refute his 95 theses. In Islam, scriptural texts are the crux of the problem that reformers face: There are numerous Qur'anic verses and reliable hadiths that condemn religious innovation, that sanction the inequality of women and that praise violence in the name of God.

The challenge for Muslim societies is therefore to seal a social covenant that honors the rights of both religious and secularist citizens. It is unlikely that this covenant will be preceded by an Islamic reformation. This covenant will be ushered by a secularization of Muslim societies born out of a collective rejection of Islamic intolerance fostering respect for individual freedom of conscience.

The failures of Islamism in the 20th and 21st century will be the great catalyst for this secularization. In Iran, theocracy has reared a generation of young Iranians, which is perhaps the most secular in the Middle East. In Tunisia, disappointment with the democratically-elected Islamist an-Nahdaparty has led to a general disenchantment with Islamist utopias.

This secularization process will be fraught with conflicts and violence, and yet, memory of this bloodshed will hopefully sear in Muslim minds and consciences the need to secularize political discourse and to reject violence in the name of God. The current chaos in the Middle East could thus be the birth pangs of Islamic modernity, much like the Thirty Years' War that tore Europe apart in the 17th century, was the midwife of modernity in Europe.