Islam and the Reformation

Islam and the Reformation September 25, 2014

There is a meme that floats about that the “problem” with Islam is that it has never had the experience of a Reformation such as Christianity went through in the 16th century.  I confess to having indulged in this myself.  I just ran into a very nice analysis of this idea by Josh Marshall, the editor at Talking Points Memo, a liberal news site.  Marshall was trained as a historian and this shows in his essay.  He begins with:

The subtext was that the Reformation was that period in European history when people decided to start focusing on the individual and disentangling religion from the powers of the state. Put more forcefully, this was when people decided that they shouldn’t kill each other over religion or govern states according to ideas about what God had in mind for the End Times.

The irony of course is that if anything the Reformation was almost precisely the opposite of what I’ve just described. If we insist that the Muslim world has to follow this model, what’s happening right now actually looks fairly similar.

Check out the rest of his essay here.  With Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic State violence bearing down on us again, such thoughtful pieces, whether you agree or not, are a useful anodyne to much of what passes for commentary on Islam.

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  • LM

    I disagree. The problem with Islam is not that it never had a Reformation but that it never had an Enlightenment. The Reformation put an end to the inquisitiveness and open-mindedness of the Renaissance and ushered in a bunker mentality that the Church has yet to recover from. Modern Islam already has an emphasize on textual literalism. One could argue that the belief that the Koran externally co-exists with Allah to be the logical end of Sola scriptura. One could also argue that Wahabbist Islam did act as a Reformation, since the goal was/is to destroy anything that suggests shirk and kufir. What ails modern Islam is a lack of free inquiry, women’s rights, and secularism.

    • LM is right about the Koran co-existing with Allah. It’s worth pointing out that, since Muslims believe that the Bible co-existed with Allah, historical criticism or literary criticism of the Korean is truly impossible.

      I’ve heard some people argue that Islam really needed a Counter-Reformation movement. I think, what Islam REALLY needs, is a literary and historical criticism movement to examine the Koran, just as the one that arose in 19th century Berlin.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        One thing which I took away from the original essay by Josh Marshall is that we should stop trying to make facile historical comparisons between western Europe/Christianity and the Middle East/Islam. I will agree that Islam needs to confront the challenges presented by modernity—after all, the Church itself has spent the past 200 years doing the same thing. However, the historical and religious history of the regions are so different—for instance, no discussion of Islam and modernity can make sense without talking about Western economic and political imperialism and colonialism in the region—that a simple prescription that “Islam should do X because we did it” will not work.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Thanks David for an interesting and thoughtful post.

    In some ways Islam is more enlightened that Catholicism. There are some Muslim women clerics; there are non in Catholicism.

    Contact with other ideas about human rights, the dignity of the human person, nonViolence, a critical view of scripture, etc is developing all our views, Islam included.

    God Bless

  • Roger

    When you have a huge majority of muslims in Pakistan and other ME countries believing that leaving the religion should be punishable by death and when the same % also believe in female genital mutilation and sharia law you see how crazy it is to compare islam with ANY religion.

    Its just another form of flimsy moral relativism.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Do you have any evidence for these assertions about Islam? And since the Church used to regularly burn heretics and apostates (I have been reading about the Spanish Inquisition recently) we should be a bit more circumspect when throwing stones.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I would agree with LM that a Reformation is most definitely not the answer. If anything, a Reformation would create (as it already has) a free-for-all interpretation of the Quran without guidance. Indeed, the lack of an institutional priesthood or governing structure (at least in Sunni Islam) makes it all the more dangerous. It’s things like that which cause some Islamic countries to be relatively moderate towards women and others to be absolutely despotic in terms of dress – something which the Quran (I’ve heard) does not itself address.

    However, I am skeptical of an Enlightenment largely because (and this is what is so frustrating about Islam) they already had the base on which to do it without the Enlightenment. Some of their philosophers taught ours, but, alas, those philosophers did not have as strong institutional backing. Just like how Pope Benedict XVI said Christianity must not forsake its philosopical background for the sake of the Bible, so too must Islam as a whole return to its own rational tradition.

    Secondly, and I am going on a limb here so please provide me an ample bag of salt, it seems like much of Islam today has been more about Muhammed-and-God rather than God alone to preserve its own distinctiveness vis a vis Christians and Jews. Certainly for Islam Muhammed is important, the prophet par excellence. Yet the great pearl of Islam is submission to the One God, Al-Iah (“the God”) – relativizing all idols against the ineffable Creator. Granted, Christians and Jews are also guilty of this when they make the cornerstone of the Faith about “My Personal Interpretation of Jesus-and-me,” “Bible-and-God,” even “Church-and-God” or even “Israel-the-Modern-Nation-State-and-God.”

    What I mean by that last one is defending everything a modern, secular nation-state does is paramount to the will of God. I certainly do believe that Israel has a fundamental right to exist and support their efforts to defend themselves. My point is that, potentially, the religion’s structure itself can become an idol.

    In the past, it was the “Roman-Empire-and-God” (here’s looking at you, Eusebius) or “American-Government/Manifest Destiny-and-God.”

    Too often we get caught in institutional structures and lose sight of God the Creator and Father. That, to me, is the primary problem – namely, that monotheism has not gone far enough. Yes, polytheism can be forgiven if they divinize the human realities, but we children of Abraham should know better (despite the fact it never worked out that way in practice).

    • Dante your second point (the out on the limb remark) is very interesting. The Muhammed-and-God reference is not something that I can speak to readily. But the Jesus and God the Father relationship allows for a spiritual movement in the individual that grows throughout life. We can speak of Jesus not doing his own will, but that of the Father. His coming to serve and not be served. Or the great hymn: “Though he (Jesus) was in the form of God he did not seek equality with God something to be grasped.”

      All of the monotheistic faiths have as their goal a ‘totality’ about them. The Christian message is that Jesus is the Way into this total response (of love and surrender) and Mary is the model in her ‘fiat’ lived completely. However, I suspect that each of these monotheistic faiths can also suffer a distortion in that the sought after freely given submission or surrender turns into a demanding totalitarian domination of life. The tragic irony in all of this ‘forced faith’ is that nothing is truly given and everything is taken.

  • LM


    I agree that we should keep the conversation about things that have occurred within the last couple of hundred years. If we do that, then we’d see that “actually existing Catholicism” doesn’t have a great record either. To say that the Papal States, the domains that were under the direct control of the papacy, were badly run would be an understatement. Not only were basic modern amenities like railroads and gaslights rejected as “modernistic,” but the Jews of Rome were kept in the ghetto long after the other Western European Jewish communities were emancipated, the secular sciences were rejected in the schools, and an ASPCA-type society for the protection of animals was banned, lest the line between animals and humans become blurred. To me, it seems that by the 19th century, the Papal States were being run badly on purpose, because the popes were afraid of the emergence of a strong middle class that would challenge their authority. By the time the Pius IX was driven out of the Papal States, most of the population of Rome was already in revolt, because of his deliberate mismanagement.

    Until recently, much of Catholic Europe, countries where the Church acted as a virtual shadow government (e.g., Spain, Portugal, Ireland) were economic, social, cultural, and technological backwaters. Furthermore, the Church ran an international baby selling ring throughout the Hispanic speaking world as well as in Ireland:

    The Church may not have been beheading people, but it had no problem with getting into bed with tyrants like Pinochet, Franco, the Argentinian military juntas, and others when it suited its purposes. Pinochet may not have been ordering beheadings and posting them to Facebook, but his enemies are just as dead as those killed under ISIS or al Qaeda:

    The only reason that Christianity seems more enlightened vis a vis Islam right now is because a lot of people sacrificed to forcibly wrest temporal power away from the churches and placed limits on how they could operate. If many people in Catholic Europe seem disenchanted with religion, it’s probably because the time in which the Church micromanaged society is still within living memory and they have no desire to return to those days.


    I don’t think it would be possible to have the liberal democratic governance system we have today and the various freedoms associated with that without the Enlightenment, especially since most of the foundational theory for the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence come from Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Descartes, and Montesquieu. The chaos in Egypt illustrates what happens when an Islamic society tries to jump straight into liberal democracy without a liberal society or an Enlightenment (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood gets elected and then another military junta).

    It may interest you to know that there was a Jewish Enlightenment called the Haskalah that occurred once the Jews of Western Europe were emancipated from the ghettos and began questioning the authority of their rabbis:

    The consensus among ultra-Orthodox rabbis is that the Haskalah was a more cataclysmic event for the Jewish people than the Holocaust, with some even saying that the latter was a divine punishment for the former.

    • Mark VA


      I see the above reply to Roger as a skewed vision of the Catholic Church, reminiscent of Alinsky’s Rule #4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”. Thus, while it is historically true that Catholics commit sins, it is also at best a half of the whole truth.

      For example: The Catholic Church stood up to the dictatorial and officially atheist regimes that lorded over so many, and caused so much death and misery, in the twentieth century. The Catholic Church spoke up for human dignity and its transcendent value, against the ideology that defined human beings as, at best, clever animals.

      Since this doesn’t fit in with the simplistic and ahistorical secularist narrative (progress defined as freedom from religion and all notions of transcendence), this part of history is often ignored.

      Perhaps we can agree on this: Secularists and Catholics should attend to their own sinners, in the spirit of Matthew 7:3.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Mark, I tend to agree, but before this takes a major turn away from the original post let me just add that I started this because I was responding to what I thought was an inaccurate statement by Roger, insisting that Islam was unlike any other religion. I cited the Inquisition to make the point that this is an ahistorical view not supported by our own complex history.

        • Mark VA

          Got it, Sir. No more major (or minor) food fights in the school cafeteria ; )

          BTW, the subject of The Spanish Inquisition pops up so tiresomely often, it’s starting to remind of the old Monty Python skit:

          May I propose a new hobby horse for history buffs: Nobody expects the Teutonic Knights!

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            Well, I think this is the first time I have mentioned the Spanish Inquisition—and actually, I don’t recall it showing up that often in our commboxes. But thanks for the link—this is a classic.

            As for food fights: you can only throw the food provided by the cafeteria—don’t throw around food brought from outside….. 🙂

        • Mark VA

          Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

          Mea culpa, I wasn’t thinking of your mention of the Spanish Inquisition when I wrote my “tiresomely” remark, but unfortunately and carelessly, it came out that way.

          I was thinking of all the times I’ve ran across it in other venues, and how much it resembles the frequent use of the “Nazi” or “Fascist” labels.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            In that case, yes, you have a point. The black legend dies hard: long after scholars have given up on it, a one-sided version of the Inquisition still survives. Of course, even a nuanced, historically accurate version is still pretty uncomfortable.

      • LM

        @Mark VA

        The Catholic Church stood up to dictatorial regimes that threatened its power, but was more than willing to work with those that gave it respect and privileges. Although Mussolini was a die-hard anti-clerical and atheist, he realized early on that his political aims could be obtained much easy and much faster if he solved the “Roman Question” and gave public support to the Church, and the Church was more than willing to oblige. The Italian Church was an enthusiastic support of the Fascist regime, including (and perhaps especially) the invasion and gassing of the “infidel” Abyssinians. Similarly, the Church had no interest in the human rights of the dispossessed and/or disappeared in Latin American dictatorships that it supported or even with the American Civil Rights Movement, because they were perceived to be “communist” or at the very least threatening to the status quo.

        To get back to the original point of the post, I think that the only thing that will turn off Muslims from political Islam will be several centuries of living under religious regimes. At some point, I think that information about forbidden ideas, whether it be about rival religions or textual critcism of the Koran, will have to filter into these societies, leading to some form of skepticism. There do seem to be a few signs that this is already happening, even if it’s not at the speed I would like:

        • Mark VA


          I could answer your post with the greatest of ease,
          ‘Cause much of it is like the Swiss cheese,
          But since C-U put me on probation for rhetorical excess,
          I’ll hold my tongue, and sit …

          Sorry, sorry, there me goes again. No more food fights, no more food fights, just polite scholarly discussions, seasoned with well contained passions.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            No one is on probation! I would just like to keep the discussion a bit more focused on the OP and less on the failings of the Catholic Church—real and in some ways important, but just a bit tangential.

  • LM

    Another problem with the current state of Islam is that it has become what Soviet communism used to be, in that it attracts disaffected would-be anti-imperialists to its cause. However, unlike communism, Islam does not promise a better material life, but moral superiority. So while Western capitalism may have been better at providing blue jeans, cars, and stereos to the masses than communism, adherents to political Islam aren’t interest in material possessions in the first place, so there is nothing that we have that is of interest to them or that could tempt them away from a less radical way of life.

  • Roger

    Canadian writer/journalist Michael Coren states its best in this recent column. All of you progressives/left leaning “Catholics” should do yourself a favor and give it a read:—-not-some—-islamist-violence

  • brian martin

    A true study of Islam would show that the religion has experience rather the opposite of a Reformation over the years, at least if a Reformation is to mean a move toward a more enlightened view. It has become more “fundamentalist”, in part fueled in the 20th century by the funding of Muslim schools by the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. This is the ultra orthadox Sunni branch. This is balanced by a similar rush toward ultraothodoxy in the form of the Shia clerics in Iran.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      There has definitely been a movement in this direction, though how widespread it is is unclear to me. I am always cautious about Western media reports: given how often their reporting on Catholicism is off-base, I think we definitely need to be skeptical of their reporting on Islam. But, given the increase in the Wahhabism/Salafism parallels the rise of Western imperialism in the region, I have to at least wonder if there is a connection. I don’t know if there is, but I think it is a question worth asking.

      • brian martin

        It is interesting, because when I first started as a therapist, I was afraid of working with people from the middle east etc. I thought that it would be a pain in the butt having to use an interpreter. God has gifted me with the opportunity to meet some absolutely amazing people…Kurdish and Arabic Muslims from Iraq. It is amazing the differences between their lived faith, and the “religion” portrayed by the media, as well as the perversions of religious beliefs used by particular leaders and groups for political purposes. For the majority of the last 4 years, about a third of my clients have been individuals from that region, and the interpreters I use regularly are also wonderful.
        I was also unaware of the high esteem many of them hold for Mary and Joseph. One client talked about how his grandmother had a special affinity toward Mary, and would weekly go and pray with the priest at the Chaldean Catholic Church to Mary…he then described using beads. She was praying the rosary. He showed me a video of his wedding, pointing out “this person is Catholic, this person is Sunni, This person is Shia…we are all happy here.”
        Most of them are dead now. Many killed in the sectarian violence stirred up. He said Saddam was bad, but when he was removed, a thousand little Saddams came out of the woodwork

  • Jordan

    LM [September 26, 2014 10:27 pm] “Until recently, much of Catholic Europe, countries where the Church acted as a virtual shadow government (e.g., Spain, Portugal, Ireland) were economic, social, cultural, and technological backwaters

    […] “The Church may not have been beheading people, but it had no problem with getting into bed with tyrants like Pinochet, Franco, the Argentinian military juntas, and others when it suited its purposes.

    MarkVA [September 27, 2014 5:08 pm] “Thus, while it is historically true that Catholics commit sins, it is also at best a half of the whole truth. For example: The Catholic Church stood up to the dictatorial and officially atheist regimes that lorded over so many, and caused so much death and misery, in the twentieth century.

    I have quoted two participants since their statements make interesting bookends. The fascism-communism tension LM and MarkVA respectively mention highlights a peculiar antagonism which rarely occupies a moderate position. Yes, the Church has almost always favored fascism in recent history. Still, I believe that the Church’s fallback on fascism in modern times is in response not to “Communism!” as a existential monolith but because command economies and the subordinating castration of Christianity in socialist regimes did not merely exceed Catholic social-economic teaching. Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism sought to destroy the Christian living experience and formation of history.

    With regard to IS/ISIL/ISIS, the jihadis’ desire to establish a violent, fetishized ueber-fundamentalist caliphate (at least by appearances) is perverse from a historical standpoint. The Ottoman caliphs drank raki without compunction and tax farmed their Christian subjects rather than murder them. That the Shia and Sunni split occured early in Islam suggests that the battle for what many desire as a “Muslim Reformation” along European lines must reform even the fundamental tribalism of the faith, not relatively recent European doctrinal allegiances. Shall Islam exist without Shia and Sunni? Perhaps not, but the Ottomans have demonstrated that multiple faiths can exist within an Islamic rule without wholesale slaughter.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      ” Perhaps not, but the Ottomans have demonstrated that multiple faiths can exist within an Islamic rule without wholesale slaughter.”

      A good point, though it should be noted that religious tolerance waxed and waned during the 500 year history of the Ottomans.

      • Jordan

        Good point, David. In fact, the Ottomans notably attempted to annihilate the Yazidis in the 19th century. There is also the Armenian genocide at the close of the Ottoman empire.

        In all, the Ottoman rap sheet was little different than contemporary European empires such as the Austrian Hapsburgs. Both engaged in bloody wars of land/resources conquest, both used force to maintain religious power (e,g, for the Hapsburgs, persecution of Protestants), and both used “protector of the faith” facades for self-promotion (e.g. the Ottoman caliphate, the Hapsburg’s intense Catholicism).

    • LM


      The confessional nature of many, if not most, European states was threatened by the rise of left-wing movements, which tended to be anti-clerical and secularist. Until recently, the countries of Latin America were also confessional states (I think the only one left is Costa Rica). As a traditional elite, the Church and its clergy have had a vested interest in maintaining the rights and priviledges accorded to them under such systems or to support those regime willing to provide the proper genuflections. Mussolini thought religion was a farce, but correctly deduced that the Church was so eager to kept its exalted place in Italian society and regain some kind of temporal power that it would ignore his abuses as long as he gave it Vatican City as well as social and political favors. To be fair, Pius XI eventually realized that he had made a fatal mistake by allying with Mussolini, but by then the die was cast, so to speak, and he died before he could do anything about it.

      As I’ve mentioned before, the various communist regimes were/are willing to work with certain religious groups if doing so furthers their political goals, not unlike Mussolini did with his pact with the Church. Stalin, for example, recognized that the Russian Orthodox Church could be a useful institution with which to instill patriotism and conservative values during World War II and revived it, albeit on his own terms. Even today, Stalin remains quite popular with conservative religious Russians because he is perceived to be the great man who saved Russia from Hitler and made the country into a superpower. In any case, the impression I get that Europeans suffering under the yoke of communism is a tragedy that must be fought off with every resource possible, whereas black and brown people suffering under Church backed military dictatorships just need to accept their plight with resignation and hope for a better afterlife.

      To connect all this back to the original post, I think that Islam and Catholicism are similar, in that both posit that the best possible society is one where there is no separation of religion and state, where society posits a single vision of the Good that is enshrined in law, practice, and the heart. During the 19th century, the Church was viewed in the same way as Islam is today, as a retrograde system whose adherents were invading America with their illiberal ideology and profligate breeding practices. The hysteria over “creeping Sharia law” reminds me of the widespread panic that a vote for JFK would essentially be an invitation for the pope to move into the White House. It’s worth remembering that it took 100 years from the revolutions of 1848 for the countries of Western Europe to achieve liberal democracy. Perhaps it will take another tumultuous century for the Islamic world to achieve the same thing.

  • The “Islam needs a Reformation” meme is a sort of tiresome cliche which reveals a hint of anti-Catholic bias within it. The Sunni-Shia divide already mirrors the Protestant-Catholic divide in many ways, and it happened very early on. Perhaps it was too early on to serve as a cautionary lesson for them today. It’s not so much the lack of an Enlightenment either. What led the West to a certain form tolerance wasn’t really the Enlightenment, but sheer exhaustion after the Thirty Years War and the Wars of Religion in France. Both sides realized the other side was there to stay, and the idea of using religiously-sanctioned violence to overcome the other side was largely discredited (outside of certain pockets like Northern Ireland). Having tried and failed with various Western ideologies in the 20th Century, some within the Arab world and diaspora are still clinging to the latest homegrown hope that “Islam is the answer.” Maybe what we are seeing right now is their own version of the Thirty Years War, which will eventually discredit jihadism. Those who say they are lacking an Enlightenment are correct in the sense that even within moderate Islamic circles, it’s not acceptable for historical criticism to be applied to the Koran like it has been to the Bible. The fact that Islam’s most holy places are controlled by one of its most extreme, wealthy, and mission-driven sects (Wahhabism), certainly doesn’t help matters either, but that’s a whole discussion in and of itself.

    • Jordan

      [October 11, 2014 11:09 am]: What led the West to a certain form tolerance wasn’t really the Enlightenment, but sheer exhaustion after the Thirty Years War and the Wars of Religion in France.

      The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which ended the Thirty Year’s War was not a nonsectarian peace. Westphalia still clung to the idea of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose kingdom, his religion”), which was the cornerstone of Luther’s division of the former noble-ecclesiastics land between secular nobles in northern and central Germany about a hundred years ago. Lands were still divided along ecclesial lines based not on the confession of the inhabitants but that of the ruler. This is not unlike Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, where his Alawite Shiite sect rules over a great number of Sunnis, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where a Sunni (albeit secular Ba’athist) dictator ruled over a majority of Shias.

      Where Westphalia turned the page was the tolerance of other Christian confessions within opposite-Christian confession states. The Republic of the Netherlands (a Reformed state) permitted Catholics to build churches, so long as they did not look like churches from the outside. Also, Catholics could not be seen with hand missals or rosaries in public. From today’s standpoint, this is a far cry from true freedom of conscience and religion. Still, it was a milestone so far as setting the stage for concientious freedom. I wouldn’t call Westphalia a brokered peace from exhaustion, but rather the planting of a seedling of religious tolerance.