Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Islamic reformation has begun!

Most Westerners look at the escalating violence across the Middle East, and in Africa, with horror. We compare the brutalities of Islamic State and Boko Haram with the largely peaceful and tolerant societies we live in. We note that whilst Islamic State has re-invented state-sanctioned sexual slavery and kills homosexuals the Irish people have conducted an energetic but civilised debate and will legalise gay marriage.

Why, we ask, can't they be like us?  Why can't they agree to differ about sex, religion and politics?

Now this question ignores our own brutalities, such as Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, and our roles in creating Muslim extremism and frustrating democracy in the region. These deserve our condemnation. But for now I want to recognise that the extremism and brutality we see have distinctively Islamic roots.

Some people have reflected on European history and decided that our tolerance is the result of the Protestant Reformation. They've called on Muslim leaders to create their own reformation - I've done so myself.

That, I now see, is wrong. That's not because Islam does not need reform but because the Islamic Reformation has been underway for the last century. For the Protestant Reformation is not what you may think.

Mehdi Hassan made this point in the Guardian recently:
Luther did not merely nail 95 theses to the door of [his church] ... He also demanded that German peasants revolting against their feudal overlords be “struck dead” ...  and authored On the Jews and Their Lies ..., in which he referred to Jews as “the devil’s people” and called for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues. ...  Luther helped establish antisemitism as “a key element of German culture and national identity”.

The Protestant Reformation also opened the door to blood-letting on an unprecedented, continent-wide scale. .... Tens of millions of innocents died in Europe; up to 40% of Germany’s population is believed to have been killed in the thirty years’ war.
All true. The Reformation and the nationalism that grew alongside it did release great violence and did divide Europe, roughly, into a Catholic South and Protestant North. One mark of its success is that the Peace of Westphalia,1648, ended the Pope's claim to rule Europe and guaranteed Christians the right to follow forms of Christianity not favoured by their kings.

The Reformation took 130 years to get to that point but many scholars put its end at 1750 - a full 230 years after Luther's decisive act.

But let's go back to Hasaan: 
The truth is that Islam has already had its own reformation ... Wasn’t reform exactly what was offered ...  by Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the mid-18th century itinerant preacher who allied with the House of Saud? He offered an austere Islam cleansed of what he believed to be innovations, which eschewed centuries of mainstream scholarship and commentary, and rejected the authority of the traditional ulema, or religious authorities.
Some might argue that if anyone deserves the title of a Muslim Luther, it is Ibn Abdul Wahhab who, in the eyes of his critics, combined Luther’s puritanism with the German monk’s antipathy towards the Jews. 
Just so. Lets also note that both men allied themselves with local rulers. Both reformations were puritanical and nationalistic. Ibn Abdul Wahab is the Muslim Luther for all those reasons. So we may date the Muslim Reformation from 1844, the date of his pact with Muhammad bin Saud.

But the reform process is not over. A 'reformist' current has been active in Muslim lands since the time of Ibn Abdul Wahab, most obviously in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was politically ineffective for many years; I'll leave the historical explanations for others but I suspect that the Ottoman Empire, colonialism, military strongmen and secular politicians all played their parts.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 marked a key point in the evolution of the Reformation - a Shia response to Saudi Arabia's Sunni fundamentalism and the creation of the second Muslim Reformation state. Or, some may think, a Counter-Reformation state.

The appearance of Islamic State and Boko Haram should therefore come as no surprise. They, too, are puritanical and harsh and though Islamic State claims universal jurisdiction Sunni nationalism clearly plays a key part.

Another parallel concerns religious 'ethnic cleansing'. Reformations and Counter Reformations are inherently intolerant. They seek conversion, forced if necessary, to their peculiar truths and the banishment or death of those who will not convert. The Protestant Reformation (and the wars that followed) created hostility to Jews, the division of Europe into Catholic South and Protestant North and the emigration of the Huguenots (Protestants) from France. The latest phase of the Muslim Reformation in the Middle East has led to the expulsion of Arab Christians, the persecution of Yazidis and the segregation of Sunii, Shias and Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

I think three things are obvious:
  • The political processes of the Muslim Reformation are far from from complete. They may take much longer than the Protestant Reformation!
  • Those processes are only incidentally concerned with the West.
  • The Reformation will affect every mainly Muslim country to some degree; and many others. To a large degree it already has.
This implies the existence of fanatical states and would-be states across the Muslim world for at least decades. The wars that they wage will do great damage, with most victims being Muslims. They will provoke repeated waves of refugees both in the region and more widely.

This is a very unpleasant prospect but there is hope. For the Protestant Reformation led to the Enlightenment, to religious tolerance and ultimately to the less dogmatic and enthusiastic forms of Christianity that are now the Western norm. I believe that Islam will find these changes harder but, with luck, they will prove possible.

We must all hope so.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to see that historian Tom Holland, speaking at the Hay Festival, also thinks that the Islamic Reformation is underway. He makes an explicit connection between the Thirty Years War and the current Suni-Shia conflicts.

    You can see him at