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Monday, January 4, 2010

"They ARE the Reformation"

By Mark Durie

On December 1, 2009, Wafa Sultan and Daniel Pipes debated whether and to what extent a 'moderate' Islam is possible.  Although both are opponents of Islamic radicalism, on this question they did not agree.

Wafa Sultan argued that Islam is Islam, pure and simple, and there can never be such a thing as 'moderate Islam'. On the other hand, Daniel Pipes argued that the answer to radical Islam must be moderate Islam: Islam can be moderated, and the effort to support Muslim moderates is both necessary and worthwhile.

The two participants in the debate are as contrasting a pair as one could imagine.  The ex-Muslim Wafa Sultan is undoubtedly a powerful voice in her native Arabic, and even in English she is impassioned and speaks with a memorable turn of phrase.  In contrast, Daniel Pipes is measured and softly spoken, carefully and persistently making his case.  He challenged her to explain what practical solutions she could offer to the challenge of radical Islam.  She challenged him to show the results produced by his promotion of moderate Islam.

I commend the debate to readers, not because one party won the day, but because the speakers were addressing important questions, which will exercise many minds for years - perhaps generations - to come.

My concern here however is to focus on an important comparison between medieval Christianity and present-day Islam, which was raised by someone in the audience, who asked:
"I will suggest that this [radical Islam] is not that different from Christianity at the time of the crusades, which was a very belligerent religion compared to what it is today.  So look at that in terms of the evolution of a religious doctrine, and how long does that take?"
The questioner went on to speculate whether the acceleration of change, which we see in the world around us, could allow a reformation of Islam to happen more rapidly than happened with Christianity.

On countless occasions over the years I have heard this comparison: Christianity has undergone its reformation, so why not Islam? The European reformation took centuries: why wouldn't an Islamic reformation also take time?  Isn't it all a matter of time.

This line of thinking arises from a world view which looks at ideologies through the lens of 'progress' or 'evolution', shaped by a kind of Darwinism.  The underlying presupposition is that human societies evolve as time passes, progressing and becoming more humane and more advanced. 

Clearly not everyone in the West works from this assumption, but many do.  As recently as the 1960's, it was even fashionable among Western secularists to believe that religion had had its day altogether. Many announced that God was, at last, 'dead'.  The death of God was widely  regarded as one of the positive benefits of progress.

The idea of progress is not simply a concept - it has become part of the warp and woof of our everyday language.  We speak of ideas, policies and practices as 'backward' or 'regressive', 'progressive' or 'advanced'.  Time has become a yardstick to measure the ever-improving character of human social order.  It is the embedding of the idea of progress into our everyday language which gives credibility to the question "Can Islam not undergo its own reformation too?"

But do societies really tend to evolve, becoming more and more advanced?  Do social institutions inevitably improve with time?  Is progress more than just an idea - is it a law which governs the history of religions?

I find it very difficult, looking back over the ethical wreckage of the 20th century, to subscribe to the presupposition of progress. The worst atrocities of the past 100 years were perpetrated by regimes which held up an ideal of social evolution, and which were motivated by a vision of human progress.  One recalls, for example of the careers of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.  Such shameful monuments to 'progress' as National Socialism and Communism do not inspire confidence that human societies and ideologies can and must improve with time.

There is another problem with comparing today's Islam with pre-Reformation Christianity, and this has to do with the meaning of 'reformation' itself.  It has become accepted by many thinking people today that 'reformation' means some kind of softening, a 'moderating' process.  Indeed a manifestation of 'progress'.  This far from the truth.

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.  Wealthy St Francis read Jesus' words about giving away one's possessions to feed the poor, so he followed this teaching, and many flocked to join him.  Thus the Franciscans were founded as a reform movement. 

St Francis was a radical reformer. He was not inspired by a vision of making Christianity more moderate and progressive.  What moved him was a desire to follow the Jesus of Gospels. 

Likewise Luther recalled the words of St Paul about freedom in the letter to the Galatians - 'for freedom Christ has set us free' - to exort the German Nobles to claim their own freedom from ecclesiastical authority.

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.  LIke St Francis, Luther was a Christian radical.

It is true that some changes brought in by the European Reformation had a moderating effect on Western intellectual life. There developed a greater emphasis on freedom and individual responsibility, for example. The Protestant work ethic was one bi-product of this emphasis. Yet these developments did not take place out of a desire to develop a more moderate form of Christianity, but because they they were regarded as conforming more to the  Bible.

Therefore, according to the core meaning of 'reformation' - a return to one's roots - reforming Islam  would mean making it more Muhammadan.  An Islamic reformation would produce a religion which is closer to the Koran, and above all, closer to the example and teaching of its founder. 

The hankering of some Westerners after an Islamic reformation begs the question of what would it mean to be follow Muhammad's example more closely?

As it happens, such a movement has been underway for more than 100 years, and is in full swing today.  It is what we know today as Islamic radicalism. The ideal of an Islamic reformation has produced, among many other results, the global jihad movement, the push for sharia revival and reimplementation of the Caliphate. This is what a desire to revive the example and teaching of Muhammad has led to.

There are two two main reasons why renewing the example of Muhammad leads to Islamic radicalism.

One is that Muhammad combined within himself the offices of king, judge, general and religious leader, thus unifying politics, law, the military and religion.  To follow his example means creating a theocratic political order, where the laws of the land are controlled by Islamic theology.  In contrast Christian tradition has always distinguished the secular from the ecclesiastical, based on the older Hebrew religious distinction between priests and kings.  This feature of medieval Christianity - the distinction between religion and politics - was severely criticised by famous Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun.  Muslim thinkers had always regarded it as one of the key weaknesses of Christianity.

The second reason why renewing Islam leads to radicalism is that many of the harsher elements of Islamic law - such death for apostates, stoning adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, enslaving one's enemies, and killing non-believers - are firmly grounded in Muhammad's example.

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.

A version of this article was published by World Magazine.


  1. Following this logical assessment, it follows that Islam needs to either transform by mean of litterature re-engineering (falsified) thru the right channels or be left to rot via economic and demographic extinction.

  2. Radical Islam?
    First, we need to define radicalism? We, cannot use general words to write about such a sensitive issue without qulifying the world we use. Second, We cannot excerpt some points from the Islamic law such as the death for apostates, stoning adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, enslaving one's enemies, and killing non-believers to generlize that reforming islam would mean making it radical because such punishments in Islamic law are governed by a systematic and thorough process of a detailed procedure; there are certain philosophies, conditions, verdicts, witnessess, ... etc, to carry out any final judgement bearing such punishments. Thirdly, it is not logical nor is it objective to generalize a judgement about Islam when one takes examples of Al-Qaeda or the Jihad movement (which are themselves created in reacation to injust acts made against muslims all over the world), here the odd of the rule is used as a rule, which is not logical. Islam is simple, plain, and innate.
    Finally, to discuss any religous issue, one first needs to study that particular religion in deliberate and due manner.

    Thank you very much,

    E. A. Y

    1. It certainly has been studied...

  3. The Major Religions share this basic idea: We got it right and everyone else got it wrong. Christianity and Islam share another idea: Others who have the wrong idea must be converted to the right idea. This is the driver that made Christianity and Islam spread far and wide, far from their homes of origin, while Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism remained largely local and only spread as their adherents themselves spread.

    Today Christianity is the prevailing religion on most continents and can now afford to be magnanimous. Many Christians today are quite tolerant of others - certainly moreso than in times past. Islam has no such tolerant vein. Islam sees itself as the supreme belief, the best possible way of life and the only legitimate system. In the Islamic view, all else must be converted to Islam or else destroyed.

    It is this fundamental intolerance in Islam that prevents it from establishing friendly relations with any other people. Until Islam becomes tolerant of others, Islam will remain at war with everyone else. If there is only (only!!) a 100,000,000 minority in Islam that fervently believes that Islam will ultimately win, then there are enough patient Muslims to keep the fires of conflict burning for a very, very long time.

  4. Great article, a perfect complement to this one I read a few weeks ago:
    I guess your's has the advantage of a better knowing of the modern western mind.
    God bless you.
    Best wishes,

  5. Thanks Mark for a wonderful post. Waleed Ali is quite correct the Islamic ideology represented by the Taliban and al Qa'ida - loosely described as Salafy - IS the reformation! The frightening thing is the scope of its appeal as what they say about the fayrd ayn of jihad, particularly with 'infidel armies' in the Dar al-Islam resonates amongst even moderate (in practice) Muslims and even those educated and well-to-do in secular Muslim countries like Indonesia.

    The root of the problem is the Qu'ran itself which, as the word of God, cannot be altered or 'reformed' including the numerous references extolling violence towards non-Muslims and the virulent antisemitism that permeates it.

    Note also that unlike Christianity and Catholicism in particular, Islam has not had its great schism and either fought out or peacefully reconciled the fundamental differences between Shiites and the majority Sunni.

    Unfortunately the Western mind has enough difficulty grasping the first concept let alone the latter one. But your insightful and learned analysis will go a long way to help.


  6. My friend Igor, a brilliant linguist, has clarified something:

    "Mark, I agree with every word in it 137%. But there is another, less precise sense of the word "reform" —'change in a better direction,' as opposed to 'return to the roots.'
    I think we should press the Muslims to become more human, more modern; without this internal process I don't see how we can win over one billion people... "

    Mark Durie comments: I agree! Reform in this sense is a good thing. But not an 'Islamic Reformation'.

  7. First let me say it is profoundly refreshing to see deliberate analysis brought to bear on fundamental issues underpinning the resonant fears of our contemporary society here in Australia.
    I congratulate you on presenting a discourse on this subject as fear is never a good motivator for change. Thorough understanding of a subject invariably leads to rational decisions. In this matter clear understanding of the subject has been brought to our attention through the use of contrasting historical detail surrounding the evolution of Western society within the Judeo-Christian dialectic surrounding the seperation of church and state versus the Islamic ideal of religion being the State.
    Your insight is clear however it might be worthy to give a clear example of how this might be fundamentally at odds with how contemporary Western democracy operates, compared to how Sharia law handed down by Caliphates or an Islamic State - both historically and contempore - dispenses justice.
    I have just finished watching your appearance - for a second time on SBS- and was impressed with your responses and insight to the question of whether Islam can be content with a shared space in Western democratic world.
    It is a pity the attendant Islamic spokespeople at the soiree insisted in obfuscating the issues that the presenter tried to focus upon by trying to turn the debate upon it's head and lead a stampede into a emotionally driven environment of claiming disenfranchisement, xenophobia and religious intolerance c`oupled with the tried and tested method of claiming "moderate values", when no such defined movement exists within Islam.
    Islam is Islam and there is no other interpretation other than what is in the Koran.
    What troubles me in this debate, and what is often never spoken of relates to the school where a large majority of the sponsored imams that enter Western democracies emanate from.
    It would be of immense value to the general Australian community to have a clear written investigative expose on how radical islam is being brought into the Australian islamic community and what school of islam sponsors this brand of islam.
    Once again thankyou for your insight into this pressing issue.

  8. Lawrence Auster argues the point there is no such thing as moderate Islam. In a 2 part essay. Excellent essay's.


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