The Spectre of History: Thoughts on an Islamic Reformation

by Ali Minai

KoranThe call for an “Islamic reformation” is ringing out across the world in response to the rise of jihadi militant groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, asking “Where is the Muslim Luther“? In the many opinion pieces and outright prescriptions gracing the pages of magazines, newspapers and blogs, one hears a clear message of “reform or die!” Given the menace posed by Muslim militant groups, this is neither surprising nor unreasonable. But is it really useful to think in terms of reforming the religion of Islam?

This article argues that seeking a religious reformation in Islam is neither feasible nor especially useful as a strategy for countering the current rise of Islamic militancy. While this militancy undoubtedly draws upon Islamic beliefs, groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are emergent products of an underlying societal attitude, and until that attitude changes, such groups will continue to arise. Of course, it is critical to fight today's particular militants with every available tactic, but it is even more important to understand why such groups emerge and persist in Muslim societies today, and how this dynamic can be changed.

Proponents of “Islamic reformation” have often invoked the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe as an example of the radical change that's needed in Islam today. But as perceptive commentators have pointed out, this argument is fatally flawed: An illiberal and puritanical movement directed at a specific institution – the Roman Catholic Church – is a poor model for reforming an illiberal and puritanical system with no institutionalized clergy. Ultimately, the possibilities for change in Islam are constrained by its historical nature. More than an organized religion, it is a normative ideology defined implicitly by the attitudes of believers towards sacred texts and personages. Unlike Christianity, which is mainly about doctrine, Islam is mostly about history – past and future, personal and universal.

Through its first three centuries, Christianity was a faith without temporal power. This is reflected in the New Testament, which focuses almost entirely on spiritual, ethical and doctrinal matters. When Christianity finally achieved power under Constantine, it necessarily institutionalized a distinction, though not yet a separation, between Church and State – a recognition that God had His domain and Caesar had his, albeit with God's sanction. Notwithstanding the active participation of the Church in politics for centuries thereafter, the formal aim of Christianity has always been to shape souls, with personal Redemption and Salvation as core ideas. In contrast, Islam acquired temporal power during its earliest period, and developed a strong vision of itself, not only as the basis of individual piety, but also as the shaper of history and an organizer of societies.

Read more »