When news came of today's appalling terrorist attack in Paris, I was in the middle of drafting an Erasmus post with some thoughts on the question: can we expect Islam to undergo its own version of the Reformation, or to produce its own Martin Luther? 

The subject is addressed, in quite an intelligent way, in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, an American journal, and it is a topical one because various modern figures, from the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen to Egypt's military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have been described, however improbably, as Muslim answers to Martin Luther.

Today's ghastly events in France make the question even more pressing, because some people will undoubtedly say: this is proof, if proof were needed, that Islam is incorrigibly and by its very nature violent, intolerant and incapable of accepting the liberal ideal of free speech. And if that view gains traction, many Muslims will in turn conclude that in the face of such unremitting hostility, there is no point in even trying to explain their faith to others or seeking accommodation with their neighbours.  So the stakes are very high.  

Nick Danforth, the Foreign Policy writer, does a decent job of deconstructing the “Luther” question and showing how posing it reflects a linear, Anglo-Protestant view of history. According to this view there is a single-file march towards secular modernity, with reforming Protestants out in front, Catholics being dragged along a bit reluctantly, and Muslims far behind. “For most of American history, it would have been self-evident to the majority of American Protestants that the celebrated separation of church and state in the United States became possible because the Protestant Reformation tamed the Vatican in the 16th century.” You don't have to be a Protestant to argue for this sort of view; you could say, as many do, that the Reformation's real merit was that it reduced the importance of religion in general, and ushered in a more rational world. In fact, the article counter-argues, every religion has it own trajectory and its own way of negotiating the boundary between revealed truth and changing reality; it's not helpful to imagine a single track along which people travel at different speeds.

Here are some of my own thoughts on the subject. They have to do not with the merits, attractiveness or truth-claims of any religion, but with the way that religions in general work.

Martin Luther raised his voice against the abuse of clerical power by the Catholic authorities of his time: the ways in which sacraments (in other words, rituals which require a priest) were manipulated for cynical or venal purposes, doctrines were distorted, and ordinary people denied the opportunity to seek religious truth for themselves. He spoke with the authority of a well trained Catholic monk, versed in the Bible and in early church history. He wasn't rejecting all religious authority, or the idea of a sacrament as a ritual in which God was present; if he had taken that uncompromising view, he probably wouldn't have found many followers.  

In my experience, Muslims' first response to Luther's protests is usually something like: the abuses that he addressed are never likely to arise in Islam, because Islam has no equivalent of sacraments or priests who come between man and God and monopolise certain rituals. Islam has imams or prayer leaders, but no bishops or father-confessors.  (Shia Islam does have a tradition of powerful clerics, but the power they now enjoy in Iran is, arguably, a historical aberration.)

At the same time, many Muslims would stress that the "reform" or "renewal" of their religion, in the sense of cutting away unwanted accretions and getting back to Islam's original inspiration, has been a recurring theme in their history; and they would probably agree that some reform is badly needed now. But it's worth stressing that in neither Christianity, Islam, Judaism nor any other major religion can "reform" be equated with moderation or emollience. A stripped-down, minimalist religion can be more violent and intolerant than an elaborate one; just ask Oliver Cromwell or the Pakistani Taliban.

At this point, many non-Muslims might say, "we don't really care whether Islam is elaborate or stripped-down, we only care whether its followers can be persuaded to renounce terrorism, beheadings, and the pursuit of political power." Well, passionate arguments against all these things are being heard within the world of Islam, although they get less publicity than the violent voices. 

Look, for example, at the personally courageous stance of Hamza Yusuf, an American-born scholar with a wide following in the Islamic heart-land, in denunciation of Islamic State, its aims and methods. In recent weeks some 300,000 people have used the internet to hear him condemn, in rigorously Islamic terms, the claim of IS to be authentic representatives of the Sunni creed. His voice comes from deep inside scholarly, traditional Islam, just as Luther's came from deep inside sacramental, episcopal Christianity—and many people are listening.

Islam will not be scolded, scorned or aerially bombed into reforming by outsiders; it is deeply immune to external pressure. But it can and will change from within, as the founding texts and traditions are reread and refracted by successive generations. Nobody can predict which way that change will go—and there is not just one, single historical path along which it will or won't progress.

from the Economist , Jan 7 2015 - Erasmus Blog.


This is a well written and erudite piece and well worth the read.  And no, it is not my work, but a valuable and easily accessible piece that needs reading.