Think the Muslim world needs to “reform?” Think again

Connor Wood

Muslim prayer

It’s 2016. In the coming year, we’re pretty much guaranteed to see religious violence in the news again. Over recent months, high-profile terrorism attacks have hit Paris, San Bernardino, and Istanbul, rattling residents of rich democracies and even threatening the post-World War II tradition of open European borders. As fears and anger over terror attacks have grown, one increasingly loud international chorus of commentators and critics has called for a Muslim “reform” movement. If we’re supposed to accept Islam as a religion of peace, the logic goes, then members of the 1.5-billion-strong Islamic faith need to revamp their teachings to match the modern world! On the surface, this call seems understandable. But psychology, anthropology, and history all warn that a genuine reform movement may be exactly what we don’t want.

Big-scale religious reformations are actually pretty common. Protestant Christianity was a reforming reaction against Catholicism, while early Buddhism was a similar reaction against Vedic Hinduism. In fact, Islam itself has already undergone several reforming movements – including Wahhabi Sunnism, the hardline movement that’s currently sweeping across the Muslim world. Wahhabism, of course, is famously fundamentalist. And that’s no coincidence. Fundamentalism – the inflexible adherence to literal, text-based religious teachings, whether Biblical creationism or Shariah law – often results from reform movements, rather than being banished by them. One reason for this is that religious reformations, by stripping away supposedly outdated or extraneous traditions and rituals in favor of a “return to basics,” can end up pushing their host religions towards a rigid, text-based literalism. Sounds like just what the world needs, right?

What is a religious reform movement, exactly, and how do I identify one in the wild?

Here’s a handy reference guide to religious reform movements. Sociologist Adam Seligman and anthropologist Rob Weller at Boston University argue that religious reformations – such as Protestantism or Wahhabism – tend to do the following things, in no particular order:

Reject ritual (and other bells and whistles)

Imagine an ornate Catholic cathedral, chock-full of stained glass, incense, candles, wood carvings, and tucked-away altars – then compare it with a white clapboard New England chapel, with its bare pews and clear windows. Voilà: you’ve conjured up a tidy example of how Reformed Protestantism turned up its nose at spooky, old-fashioned Catholic ritual and icons, preferring instead simplicity and Spartan decoration. On a similar note, most Reformed churches offer communion only once a month or less, while Catholic churches offer it with every mass – often daily. Like religious reforming movements everywhere, Protestantism tried to de-ritualize religious faith, returning it to simple “basics” that weren’t dependent on external or physical things (like candles or rituals). Similarly, Wahhabi Islam is famously antagonistic to many forms of “impure” Muslim ritual, from the veneration of Sufi saints to the construction of too-richly decorated mosques. For Wahhabis, outward forms are distractions from the pure, inner faith that Allah demands.

Make faith more propositional, individualistic, and literal

As Protestantism became less ritualized, it also started to focus more on faith. In fact, one foundational Protestant doctrine is sola fide, or “by faith alone” – that is, reliance on individual belief in religious claims rather than on actions or deeds, or on cultural tradition. Simultaneously, most reform movements heavily emphasize their written texts – even as they lift those very scriptures out of their established contexts. An example: the Bible is important for Catholics, but it’s super duper important for fundamentalist Protestants. The reason is that words aren’t physical. They’re abstract statements, which affect us internally and cognitively. When stripped from historical traditions of interpretation and commentary, they also seem to speak directly to the reader – you can pick up the Bible anywhere and just read it. Period. No need for strange mumbling or incense smoke, or for an exegetical tradition to tell us what the words mean. For religious reformers, what matters in faith is often simple, direct propositions, to which individual believers should have direct and unmediated access.

Similarly, Wahhabi schools emphasize the literal, direct meaning of the Koran, and forbid the traditional use of Greek philosophy for interpreting its passages. In medieval times, Muslims believed the Koran had multiple layers of meaning, including metaphorical and non-literal messages. Greek philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle, was used to draw out and interpret those meanings. This intricate, scholarly tradition of interpretation gave Muslim theologians robust flexibility in determining the message of the text. With the reforming impulse, though, came the drive to purify Islam of foreign influences – particularly Greek ones. Poof! There went the rich tradition of philosophical exegesis. Now the Koran is supposed to be read literally, directly – as if all that one needed to know from it could be recited to a third-grader.

Focus on motivations rather than outcomes

Since religious reformers care about internal beliefs rather than outward deeds, they’re just as concerned with people’s moral intentions as with what they actually end up doing. For instance, Protestants report that even thinking about adultery is nearly as sinful as actually committing it, but Jews opine that doing the dirty deed is much worse than merely contemplating it. Judaism (especially in its orthodox varieties) has always been a highly ritualistic faith, with less emphasis on internal beliefs and more focus on what you do. Protestantism de-emphasizes outward forms and actions, and focuses instead on inward belief. As a result, it’s very concerned with your motivations, your “inner” self. Do you really want to be faithful to your wife – or are you truly a cheater, way deep down? This way of seeing things, called “sincerity” by Seligman and Weller, assumes that there really is a single, static, essential core to the self, buried somewhere deep down beneath the layers of cultural conditioning and Cheetohs-sourced body fat.* Reforming religions try to discover and expose this “true” self. More ritualistic religions, by contrast, assume that what you are depends on what you do – which can make for a less-rigid sense of identity.

What reforming movements mean for Islam

Islam has already been reformed, and I don’t hear much cheering in the West. The reforming movements of Wahhabism have made great swathes of Islam much more brittle, rigid, and – worst of all – insecure than beforehand. The fundamental problem is that the religion that once saved Greek philosophy from the European Dark Ages now feels under assault by a secular modern world, but many of its leaders have forsaken the interpretive tools and traditions that could otherwise have helped it cope.

In fact, you could say that modernity and Muslim reformers are caught in a kind of mutually destructive vicious cycle. Regular Muslims feel that modernity is taking their traditions away from them (which it is, since that’s what modernity by definition does), but influential Muslim theologians have responded by circling the wagons and expelling any impure or foreign influences. They have thereby taken many of Muslims’ own traditions away from them. In essence, Muslim reformers have responded to the threat of modernity by making Islam more modern – a shadow, inverse image of the secular West, without any good standup comedy, and stripped of stabilizing traditions that once helped forge a robust sense of Muslim identity.

What traditions am I talking about? Well, for one thing, visible signs of the past like shrines and sacred sites. Over the past few years, Saudi Wahhabis have bulldozed most of historical Mecca, including nearly all its many shrines, to make way for – of all things – shopping malls and apartment towers. According to Wahhabi theology, praying at shrines is idolatry, or shirk – worshiping something other than God. So sacred historical markers have to go. Even the house where Muhammad was supposedly born is due to be torn down and replaced by an expensive hotel. In the space of only a few years, nearly every tangible historical reminder of the time of Muhammad and his first followers will have been reduced to dust. The Ottoman Turks certainly weren’t perfect, but at least when they ruled Mecca they didn’t turn it into Las Vegas.

Upshot: we don’t need Muslim reform. We need a classical revival.

Religious reformations can be good things. There’s a decent case to be made that Protestantism helped encourage the individualism and anti-authoritarianism that made modern science possible. Buddhism, in reacting against established Vedic rituals, gave the world powerful psychological and metaphysical insights. But reform movements have a dark side. Since followers of the faith don’t have established, identity-defining rituals to fall back on anymore, they have to lean that much more heavily on what they do still have, which often amounts to texts and verbal decrees. The result can be more cognitive rigidity – the tendency to grasp tightly at explicit religious propositions and dogmas, and to resist change and ambiguity.

In other words, people who enjoy a rich bevy of ancestral traditions have many pegs to hang their sense of identity and belonging. Reform movements, which generally try to get rid of “unnecessary” rituals and traditions, leave people with only one or two pegs to hang all of their religious garments on. That peg tends to get pretty weak.

What this means is that if we want a future with less Islamist terrorism, we very well might want the opposite of a reforming movement. Ritualistic, tradition-rich religions rarely produce terrorists (you don’t read about Eastern Orthodox or Latin Rite Catholic terrorists very often). In fact, one well-known Iranian theologian has claimed that “The best way to counter extremism in modern Islam is a revival of classical Islam.” He might well be right – a billion and a half believers who have intact traditions and sophisticated tools of textual interpretation might be more resilient in the face of cultural challenges than people who have had those traditions and tools taken from them. We may want to see Muslim discourse and theology pivot away from the purifying, simplifying, tradition-denying modus operandi of religious reformation, and instead do something that will make the Western world cringe: embrace its own Islamic history and the baroque, intricate traditions that come with it.


* This is the reason why most big-name atheists are ex-Protestants or products of Protestant cultures. For Protestants, you actually have a core, inner self – one who either believes or doesn’t believe. So a few days (or years) of doubt can convince you that your identity is “atheist.” A Catholic or Orthodox upbringing, on the other hand, tends to give you the impression that things are messier. You might doubt one day and believe the next, but if you keep going to Mass, then at least part of your identity is religious – because your identity isn’t some inaccessible, unchanging inner “self.” Instead, it’s is shaped and fundamentally defined by your context and social relationships. This way of doing things, while it has its own problems, is less likely to lead to disillusioned atheism than Protestantism is. (In fact, one of the best exemplars of Protestantism anywhere in the world is a British atheist.)


I know this wasn’t a very sciencey topic for the first post in like two months. But I think it’s important. Speaking of not blogging for months, I’m done with my dissertation. I defended early in January. It feels great. I’ll be back to the weekly schedule soon. Thanks for your patience, assuming you were actually patient.