Other Reformations

Other Reformations October 23, 2015

We usually refer to “the Reformation” as if the European movement of the sixteenth century was a unique phenomenon. As I have suggested, though, events fitting this model quite well have occurred repeatedly through history, both within Judaism and Christianity.

What other examples might we cite? Looking globally, a Western reader might be surprised how often, and how plausibly, scholars draw Reformation analogies and refer to particular reformers as “the (X) Martin Luther.” Now, the fact that people offer these interpretations might chiefly reflect the habit of Western scholars to fit things into their own familiar pattern, no matter how slim the evidence. In many cases, though, the resemblances are provocative.

India certainly has its potential examples. Indeed, a recurrent theme in Indian religious history is the rise of new movements that scorn traditional religious institutions and clerical structures, with caste usually a prime target. The leader of one of these reform waves was Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, who was a slightly older contemporary of Luther himself.

In Japan, the turbulent thirteenth century reformer Nichiren is often called the Buddhist Martin Luther.

Seeking to describe the concept of “reformation,” I wrote that “cultural and religious transformations occur after a long-closed society has for some decades been thrown into turmoil by a flood of foreign cultural and intellectual influences. All the old foundations and assumptions are challenged. Eventually, some thinkers begin to look for an absolute standard by which to live, which they commonly find in some idealized glorious past, which is illuminated by some newly exalted text or form of media. They give absolute value both to the mythic past, and the sacred text.”

Does that not perfectly describe the mind-set of contemporary Islamism? Certainly we see resemblances in the furious rejection of traditional lived, vernacular religion, not to mention the brutal iconoclasm.

The idea of constantly striving to return to the authentic source of faith is the core of the Salafist movement. Salaf itself means ancestors or predecessors, whose pristine purity must always be the guiding principle. Believers must always be returning to the text alone, scorning external symbols of devotion as sinful distractions. The Wahhabi movement that exerts such a baneful influence over Saudi Arabia began in an eighteenth century upsurge that precisely fits Halpern’s criteria for a reformation event.

Westerners sometimes call for Islam to experience a “Reformation.” But, as Mehdi Hasan points out, we should be careful what we wish for: perhaps Islam is already undergoing one, which has been in progress for some decades, and that is the problem.



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