The "Islamic Reformation" Revisited
by Stephen Schwartz
Questions about a need for an "Islamic Reformation" remain pertinent in the West. Recently, I was challenged by an American public official who took great umbrage at analogies I drew, in previous articles for TCS (here and here), between Martin Luther and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism, the ultraextremist state religion in Saudi Arabia.
The aggrieved person accused me of equating Luther with Nazis and Communists by this comparison; I assured him that I do not believe in crude historical telescoping, although I do affirm that Luther and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab both approved of aggression in the name of religious reform, and that the Wahhabis may be considered, in their totalitarian worldview, as unperceived predecessors of Nazism and Stalinism. In the same encounter, I was confronted by a Wahhabi fanatic who demanded a return to the "pure Islam" of Muhammad.
Non-Muslim "Islam experts" now abound in the West, many of recent mintage and superficial knowledge, and it is usually they who are loudest, most aggressive, and least respectful in demanding that Islam undergo a "Reformation" they would hope to compare with the rise of Protestantism. Some among them demand a revision of the Muslim holy book, Qur'an, even though no Protestant ever sought to revise the Christian scripture.
Lately, however, some authentic Islamic intellectuals have also adopted this trope. In a number of cases, there seems to be a clear desire on the part of Muslim "reformers" to gain favor with Westerners by reassuring the latter of a purported correctness in Christian criticisms of the situation in Islam, and to convince them that the "reformers" represent a positive way forward for the faith of Muhammad. This adoption of the term "Islamic Reformation" by Muslims is often superficial and based on little knowledge of the bloodshed attendant on the real Reformation, which resulted in extensive and destructive religious wars.
In other instances, Muslim thinkers appear to have thought out a "Reformation" that would, according to them, separate the essential truth of Islam as embodied in Qur'an from the hadith or oral sayings of the Prophet. This latter trend argues that Islam has been corrupted by the imposition of hadith upon the religion, and alleges that extremism is based exclusively on sources found therein and on the persistence of a "medieval" attitude. However, the interpretation of both Qur'an and the hadith, until the arrival of Wahhabism, was typically pluralistic, as was Islamic law, and I have therefore argued that Islam contains within itself the seeds of its own correction, through a restoration of pluralism and a renaissance, rather than a Reformation.
It nonetheless remains worthwhile to examine what most Christians mean when they praise the Reformation as the basis of modern intellectual liberty -- a key element of the civic myth on which the Anglo-Saxon democracies appear to be founded. Nobody can deny that these nations have been the most successful in establishing popular sovereignty; but does the success of democracy reflect Protestant influence, or does the influence of Protestantism grow out of the success of societies favored by historical, geographical, and other factors? It is of interest that Jews seldom associate themselves with the call for a Muslim Reformation. In the global Jewish community, Reform Judaism cannot claim the political advantages enjoyed by Protestantism, and Jews seem to remember acutely the occasional disastrous effects of the Reformation and its conflicts on their safety. When the state of Israel was founded, it was established on the basis of Orthodox Jewish tradition, not Reform Judaism, which remains a subordinate element in Israeli society.
We English-speakers are heirs to a society in which Protestantism triumphed by force, and to colonies in most of which Protestant churches represented a state faith. The same sweeping Protestantization occurred in Scandinavia, but that region was marginal to the development of European civilization as we now know it. The Dutch and German lands, which were the great continental centers of Protestantism, never succumbed completely to it; in both, the Catholic church retained enormous cultural power. In France, Catholic domination prevailed until the end of the 18th century, and even the rise of the antireligious, "lay" regime of the French Republic did not succeed in extinguishing the sense that the French were, in their greater part, Catholic.
Leaving aside the role of Luther as a herald of conflict, many among us have been conditioned to think of the Protestants as architects of intellectual freedom, and to view the Catholic establishment as a bastion of mental oppression. It is therefore understandable that those concerned to "free the Muslims" would identify the independent inquiry they associate with the Protestant Reformation as the key to the intellectual renovation of the Islamic world.
But I believe such an approach is founded on an essential misconception. John Wyclif and other English translators of the Bible, and Luther, with his German version, are praised for making the sacred text accessible to the ordinary believer, while Catholics are habitually condemned for maintaining the religious use of the Latin text, which, by the middle of the second Christian millennium, the majority of Christian worshippers could not read. But how does this apply to Islam?
This gap between the language of the priests and the text read by the masses was ephemeral in Islam, and, for that matter, in Judaism. Believing Jews are taught Hebrew, the language of Torah; but also, the earliest known translation of the Torah out of Hebrew, the Septuagint, was rendered into Greek centuries before the birth of Jesus, facilitating greater religious knowledge in the wider community. Major Jewish religious writings were composed in the vernacular languages, including Aramaic (for example, the Kaddish prayer) and Arabic (into which the Torah was translated by Saadiyah Gaon in the 9th century C.E.) Such notable Jewish works as the Duties of the Heart, an extraordinarily-influential ethical and spiritual treatise by Bahya ibn Paquda of Zaragoza, Spain (11th century), and the commentaries of Maimonides (12th century), were also originally written in Arabic.
Muslims believe Qur'an exists as a holy text only in Arabic, and as long as Arabs were the core Muslim population there was obviously no obstacle to wide reading of the scripture; indeed, the dissemination of the sacred book promoted literacy. Yet permission to translate and read from approximations of it emerged early in the history of Islam, although the use of languages other than Arabic in prayer was and remains a subject of controversy. Versions of the Islamic scripture were compiled in Persian, the languages of India, the tongues of the ancient Middle East, and Turkish. Qur'an today is rendered in nearly every major language.
Among the Christians, Saint Jerome, the 4th century collator of the Bible in Latin, worked from existing Latin translations, the Septuagint, and other Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts, in translating the Christian holy book into the main vernacular of the world he knew. But when, as noted, after the passage of centuries, Latin was indeed no longer spoken by the masses, translations created by the English translator John Wyclif, and by Luther in German, came to be seen as advancing popular literacy and therefore liberating believers from the dictates of the Catholic priesthood.
I believe the history of the Reformation involves two distinct issues, which have become unfortunately confused in the minds of Westerners. One is that of mass reading of the holy book; that of intellectual inquiry is separate. While it may be true that the retention of Latin as the language of the Christian service prevented communicants who did not know it from understanding the service or the text itself, should we then accept the Protestant reproach that the Catholic mind was in chains?
Hardly. The use of Latin as the language of the Roman church was no obstacle to the many great Catholic literary and religious figures who produced outstandingly creative works in the vernacular languages. The Latin of the priests and popes did not prevent the Provencal and Catalan troubadours from writing some of the greatest love poetry of all time; nor did it stop Petrarch and Dante from composing their monumental works. Masters of Christian spirituality like Saint Francis of Assisi at the end of the 12th century, the blessed Raimon Llull in Mallorca soon afterward, Saint Teresa of Avila in Spain three hundred years later, Saint John of the Cross, Fray Luis de Leon, and other classic authors of the Spanish Golden Age, were hardly enslaved intellectually, although they often had to combat religious authority, and the latter two were even imprisoned.
In discussing an Islamic "Reformation" it must also be acknowledged that the achievements of the troubadours, Llull, and others owed a great deal to the influence of Arab and Persian models. Llull, who campaigned to convert Muslims to Christianity, nonetheless acknowledged his debt to the Sufis, adherents of Islamic spirituality, in his writings. (In England, Geoffrey Chaucer adapted his poem "The Parliament of Fowls" from the work of the same title by the Persian Sufi Farid ud-Din Attar.) As a Sufi myself, I would argue that this phenomenon within Islam resolves both the issues at odds in the Protestant Reformation; the Sufi orders educate the broader masses in religion, while the Sufi preachers and authors reinforce the excellence of the Islamic intellect.
And so, in which direction should Muslims turn? Toward the severe preachers of the Protestant Reformation, who spread their understanding of God's word to those previously denied it by a linguistic barrier, but who in doing so fostered hatred and bloodshed? Or to the Catholics who, notwithstanding their elitism, supported a civilization of great nobility, of sublime love and aesthetic accomplishment?
Wahhabi bigots say they would reclaim "pure Islam;" I say that means wiping out hundreds of years of poetry, architecture, art, music, and creative effort, as well as fecund theological study and interpretation, of the hadith as well as the Qur'an.
Beauty remains to be recaptured, as it is among the scholars of the Jewish Kabbalah, as it was for the troubadours, and as it shall always be for the Sufis. The Catalan neotroubadour Ausias March called his inspiration "a woman full of sense;" scholars of Jewish spirituality recognize the divine presence in the Shekinah, a female principle; the greatest of the Sufis, the Spanish-born Ibn ul-Arabi, said of wisdom,
" When she kills with her glances, her speech restores to life, as if she, as a giver of life, were Jesus.
"The smoothness of her legs is like the brightness of the Torah, and I follow it and walk in its steps as if I were Moses.
"She is a female bishop, a daughter of Rome, unadorned, with a radiant goodness.
"Wild is she, none can make her his friend; in her solitary chamber she has a tomb for remembrance;
"She has baffled every learned scholar in our religion, every student of the Psalms of David, every Jewish doctor, and every Christian priest."
"She" is the key. Petrodollars cannot replace the beauty that quickens the heart's desire, and for a sufficient majority of Muslims, Islam resides in the heart. Grim piety and reforming zeal cannot heal the wounds inflicted on Islam by terrorists and tyrants. The Islam of beauty has no use for an Islam of anger.
I say therefore that Islam needs no Reformation, merely to return to its long-established tradition: pluralistic, spiritual, and committed to the protection and refinement of its civilizational heritage. Nothing need be abandoned; nothing will be lost in God's message. The outcome should be obvious: Islam will survive and be revived as a civilization of beauty, or there will be no Islam.