Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Islamic Reformation? No and Yes . . .

Martin Luther Burning Papal Bull with 41 Theses Against Him
Artwork by Friedrich Martersteig
Photograph: Rischgitz/Getty Images

A friend of mine sent me a link to this article, "Why Islam doesn't need a reformation," by Mehdi Hasan and published in the Guardian very recently (May 17, 2015). Hasan points to Aayan Hirsi Ali's call for a Islamic Reformation and asks if we really want the same kind of religious violence that resulted afterwards as Christianity tore itself apart. I agree with Hasan. We don't want that. Moreover, Islam has already had its Protestant-type 'Reformation' - in the movement led by Ibn Abdul Wahhab:
The truth is that Islam has already had its own reformation of sorts, in the sense of a stripping of cultural accretions and a process of supposed "purification". And it didn't produce a tolerant, pluralistic, multifaith utopia, a Scandinavia-on-the-Euphrates. Instead, it produced . . . the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Wasn't reform exactly what was offered to the masses of the Hijaz 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.
Hasan is exactly right - that Islamic reform contributed to the Islamist mess we're in today. That's why I usually say I'm for Muslim reform, not an Islamic Reformation. I'm not sure about all of these following remarks by Hasan, however:
Don't get me wrong. Reforms are of course needed across the crisis-ridden Muslim-majority world: political, socio-economic and, yes, religious too. Muslims need to rediscover their own heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect - embodied in, say, the Prophet's letter to the monks of St Catherine's monastery, or the "convivencia" (or co-existence) of medieval Muslim Spain.
The letter might be useful, though of limited use, and I've read that the "convivencia" in Spain was not quite so ideal as often believed. That Spanish era has been subject to selective memory. Moreover, all those centuries of mainstream commentary were not so good for non-Muslims living under the yoke of Islam.

I think what we need - in addition to fighting Islamism on the literal battlefield - is an intellectual fight, one drawing on Western principles and critical scholarship of the sort that Christianity and Judaism have had to deal with.

Islam needs Qur'anic criticism - and criticism of the Hadith and Sira. We might not be able to reform Islam - outsiders that we are - but we can put up an intellectual shield to protect our Western way of thinking, speaking, and living.

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