A Mirror for Muslim Reformers
by Stephen Schwartz
The Muslim sacred month of Ramadan has begun, celebrating the revelation of Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad. At such a time, I am especially grateful to TCS for allowing me space to develop my thoughts on the trope of the "Islamic Reformation." This concept is typically put forward as a brusque demand by ignorant Islamophobes, who claim a moral flaw exists within the faith itself, rather than an intellectual weakness afflicting the minds of some of its adherents. I also fear it has lately been adopted as a palliative by Muslim intellectuals too willing to answer non-Muslim criticisms in a non-Muslim idiom.
I have therefore, in prior TCS columns, offered a critical examination of Luther, the exemplar of the Protestant Reformation most typically held out as a model for emulation by modern Muslims, as well as the Reformation paradigm in general (see here, here and here). In the most recent of these commentaries, I noted that I was confronted by an American incensed that I would compare Luther to Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi cult, the state religion in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism, the most rigid, exclusionary, violent and repressive Islamic sect known in modern times, inspires the atrocities of Osama bin Laden as well as the beheadings ordered by the "shaykh of slaughter" in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The same American who reproached me over Luther was also irritated to find John Calvin compared with Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab in my work, which was no surprise considering how frequently we Americans are taught and retold that Calvin, the 16th century theocrat of Geneva, was somehow the father of our liberties. (It was perhaps appropriate, in a way, that my interlocutor was an attorney, and that this unpleasant experience came about during a legal proceeding having to do with Wahhabi depredations in America.) But a list of Calvin's prohibitions and punishments immediately calls to mind life under the religious authority of the Wahhabis in the Saudi kingdom. Calvin forbade music, oversaw the beheading of children for trivial abuse of their parents, and, in multiple instances, decreed death by stoning for adultery. Those who refer to Saudi Islam as medieval are wrong; they would better refer to Saudis as living under Reformation conditions.
The biography of Calvin also reminds us of another personality of the Protestant Reformation, who, although he died as a heretic, offers a stirring example for Muslims today. That individual was a theologian and medical researcher named Miquel Servet (1509/11-1553).
I first encountered the name of Miquel Servet 25 years ago. I was young, and was then still a man of the radical left. I spent a great deal of time in those years in Barcelona, the sentimental capital of the European revolutionary labor movement. From my first visit, I noticed a plenitude of "squares, streets, and delightful parks" (in the phrase of the Valencian neo-troubador Ausias March), named for Miquel Servet. Soon I learned that Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the official capital, considers him among its great civic heroes. I found Servet depicted as "a martyr for freedom" on an Art Nouveau poster produced by Catalan libertarians -- that is, members of the anarchist labor movement for which the city and region are justifiably famous.
Miquel Servet is a Reformation figure that should appeal to Muslims who want their religion freed from obscurantism, dogmatism, and oppression. His views reflect both intellectual independence and a curious commonality with some essential elements of Islam, and especially of Sufism, or Islamic spirituality. Born in a small village near Zaragoza, in Aragon, Servet was impelled as a youth to doubt the Christian doctrine of the trinity, which he saw as an impediment to the intellectual conversion of Jews and Muslims to the faith of Jesus (see biography at www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/michaelservetus.html). He seems to have excluded from his consideration the Spanish practice of effectively compelling the children of Isaac and Ismail to accept Christianity by force, and to have perceived that the complicated trinitarian system, which both Jews and Muslims reject, erected a mental barrier between the Christians and the others that could not easily be overcome. Above all, however, he was disturbed to find the idea of a three-in-one godhead absent from the Bible. But it is also of interest that both Servet and his great Catalan predecessor, Raimon Llull, on whom I previously wrote in TCS, were influenced by Islamic thought even as they sought to convert Muslims.
Servet went on to study law, to rebel against the wealth of the Roman church, to join in the tumult of theological controversy then common in Europe, and to publish a work titled On the Errors of the Trinity. He journeyed from Spain to Provence; then from Spain to Bologna, where he broke away and traveled to Basel, a Protestant redoubt. However, it soon became clear that the antitrinitarian views of Miquel Servet were as discomfiting to the new orthodoxy of Protestant reform as to the Catholic order. Simultaneously, he was made unwelcome in communities ruled by the former, and was actively sought for "questioning," i.e. torture, by the Spanish Inquisition. The latter institution sent Servet's own brother, a priest, to try to convince him to return to Spain, to certain death. The now-hunted dissenter adopted a false name, that of "Michel de Villeneuve," and studied mathematics and medicine in Paris, where he met the young Calvin in the early 1530s. Calvin came secretly to Paris to argue religion with Servet, but the latter, fearing exposure, failed to appear. Servet wrote that, like Jonah, he dreamed of escape as a sailor, or by coming to the New World.
He was nothing if not versatile in his capacity for personal reinvention, at least when it came to supporting himself. He labored as an editor in a French printing house, and in the work of publishing Ptolemy, the classic of geography, he became an expert and lecturer on that subject. Employment as an editor of the Bible helped him refine his theological views. After assisting in the production of medical volumes, he returned to surgical study. It was thus that he was credited with the first publication describing the role of the lungs in delivering oxygen to the bloodstream.
Some 15 years passed after Servet's acquaintance with Calvin, and, from Geneva, the latter became the foremost representative of the Protestant Reformation. Servet, living in France, initiated a clandestine correspondence with Calvin. Their relationship soon turned to aggravation and insult, and Servet printed some letters to Calvin in his key work, The Restoration of Christianity. Calvin denounced Servet to the Inquisition, and Servet apparently fled toward northern Italy, where he counted on finding friends and supporters. But he stopped in Geneva, and was recognized at a church service, and arrested. He was tried for heresy, based on his criticism of trinitarianism and his opposition to the baptism of children, which he considered a pagan ritual reminiscent of infant sacrifice in ancient society.
He was ordered burned at the stake by the Genevan authorities. Calvin recommended his beheading, as an act of mercy, but was rebuffed. All copies of The Restoration of Christianity were ordered destroyed; only three survived. Perishing in the flames, Servet was heard to cry out, "O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!" That is, he did not call upon Jesus as "the Eternal Son;" to him Jesus was a son of God as all humans are children of the creator.
Some Muslims will read this story and be tempted to imagine that Servet had secretly adopted Islam: the echoes of the faith of Muhammad are strong in Servet's arguments. Muslims respect, and Sufis love Jesus as a prophet, yet Muslims reject the claim that he had a divine nature. Repudiation of the trinity became the foundation of Unitarian Christianity, but denial of Jesus's status as God's son is also the most important distinction between Christianity and Islam. Servet's theology encompassed another viewpoint shared with Muslims -- refusal of belief in original sin.
The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography points out that Servet's view on original sin influenced the founders of Unitarianism in Poland and Transylvania. Accusations in Poland that these Christians, known there as Socinians, had "fallen back into Judaism," led to burning at the stake. Transylvania, an independent principality, was accused of having entirely abandoned Christianity. The local predecessors of Unitarianism declared "God is One," as Jews affirm in the Shema Yisrael ('Hear O Israel, Our God is One God') and Muslims in the Shehadeh ('I affirm there is One God, I affirm Muhammad is his Prophet').
But both territories stood on the frontier of the Ottoman empire for 150 years, beginning at the time of Servet's martyrdom. Islamic conceptions of religion had a way of penetrating these borderlands, and in fulfillment of Servet's yearning for a Christianity that could encompass Jews and Muslims by abandoning trinitarianism, some inhabitants of Transylvania advocated a universal religion uniting all faiths (see www.theuufellowship.org/_sermons/001203.htm). Even later Unitarians, including Deists (the creed embraced by Thomas Jefferson), were accused of having converted to Islam.
Ibn ul-Arabi, the greatest shaykh of Sufism, also envisioned a single religion reconciling all believers in one God. Could Servet have been a secret Sufi? There is a moment during his trial in Geneva that, for a Sufi like me, produces the classic "shock of recognition" -- but as if in a mirror. Servet believed that all of Creation is of the Creator; as the Catalan dissident put it, "[it] is my fundamental principle that all things are a part or portion of God and the nature of things is the substantial spirit of God." This doctrine is similar, but not identical, to that known in Islam as "unity of being," or wahdat ul-wujud, which is especially dear to the followers of Ibn ul-Arabi. In classical Islam, all things are one as divine creation, although they do not share divine essence.
But Calvin despised any expression of this concept, and at the trial of Servet he shouted, "What, wretch! If one stamps the floor would one say that one stamped on your God?" I was further affected in reading these words, by the recollection of a Sufi parable. It is said that a narrow-minded Muslim cleric confronted a Sufi, and demanded to know if the mystic truly believed in God. The Sufi replied, "the God you worship is beneath my feet."
There are differing versions and interpretations of this parable; some say it teaches that God is the same as his creation. And some say the Sufi stood on a golden coin, and meant that religion was no more than a means for the cleric to gain power. It is said the Sufi was seized and executed for blasphemy.
Miquel Servet may be relevant to Muslims as a Christian who was also a model of true religious reform, of unfettered inquiry, of achievement in science, and of the harmony of the monotheistic faiths, as well as of belief in the unity of all things. He died a martyr and is remembered, if at all, only by Unitarians; meanwhile, the cruel, bloodthirsty Wahhabis who call themselves Reformers of Islam also like to claim the title of Unitarians, which to Western ears sounds especially absurd.
As I reread the life of Servet, I was also reminded of Sufis who have touched me personally. In the recent confrontation I have mentioned, with an enraged defender of Luther and Calvin, I had to listen to repeated denunciations of Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, shaykh of the Naqshbandi Sufis in America, and one of the great Islamic teachers of our time, as a cultist; of Sufis as believers in the summoning of demons, and similar inanities. But that colloquy took place here in America, where neither Kabbani, nor I, nor any other Sufi or Muslim reformer should face the punishments meted out in Saudi Arabia, or in Geneva a half millennium ago. Yet believers in God's love and its transmission through religion must still face the inquisitions and libels of "official" reformers and bigots, and will doubtless have to face them forever. In such moments, inspiration may be found in the lives of many men and women of faith, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian.