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An Islamic Reformation?

This first appeared in The Hill Times on 8 January, 2015

France has just endured its worst terrorist attack in fifty years. Gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs killed twelve people at Charlie Hebdo, an irreverent, Left-wing, and anti-relgious Parisian weekly newspaper. It had been the target of threats and an attack before, ostensibly because of its satirical portrayal of Islam, its founder Muhammad, and Muslims in general.

Not long after the attack ended, the Internet was full of opinions on both sides of the matter. ‘Je suis Charlie’ was the slogan of solidarity with the victims, and ‘c’est bien fait pour Charlie’ was the smug response of those who thought that Charlie Hebdo had brought the attack upon itself. The usual campaign of trying to separate ‘moderates’ from ‘extremists’ has got underway again, and pundits have begun talking again of how ‘true Islam’ has once again been hijacked or perverted by fanatics who have misinterpreted the teachings of the religion. There are some, no doubt, who will find a way to show that what happened wasn’t really terrorism as well. And people are once again repeating the idea that what Islam needs is some sort of reformation.

I do not know what effect this sort of talk is meant to have. Will the terrorists who killed the staff at Charlie Hebdo and their associates discover that they are not really Muslims and change their ways? If Islam is not the problem, what is? People will reach blindly for all manner of catchwords and sociological excuses, as a Canadian politician did in response to the bombing at the Boston Marathon in summer of 2013. It’s not uncommon to hear about the sense of exclusion felt by immigrant communities, or the supposed struggle of new nations emerging from the post-colonial shadow of Great Britain and France. Such false reasoning must be comforting to all those who prefer to see Muslim terrorism as the bastard child of European imperialism. But it does nothing to explain the problem.

When people talk about a reformation within Islam, they have in mind the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Many of us think of Luther and Calvin and, as if by instinct, we think of a vigorous struggle for free-thought in the face of corruption and tyranny. Further leaps of thought will take one to secularism and the separation of church and state, which many people assume to be products of the Reformation also. But this is not so.

The continental (and English) Reformation brought about one of the most destructive movements in the history of civilisation and there was nothing secular about it. Some of the reformers, such as Luther, were learned men, but the result of their teaching was far from the free-thought movement that protestant schoolmasters have usually expounded. The most ardent and vigorous protestants hated art and music and destroyed large amounts of both, burnt their own share of heretics, and cultivated an attitude to women which would have passed without comment amongst the Taliban.

It must be said, though, that Luther respected music. Apparently he also had a pleasant singing voice. This still failed to produce any sort of distinctly protestant music. And many of the great reformation composers such as Orlando Gibbons began their careers of composing vernacular church music by destroying what they had written in Latin. Gibbons is said to have remakred: 'it hath repented me much to have written such popish ditties'. On the subject of art, far too much damage was done to European and English churches to deny that many protestants, even those who were not extremists, were destructively hostile to anything that simple people could not immediately understand. And the arid austerity of protestant churches and liturgies still proves this. John Knox’s insane ravings against the rule of women monarchs, published in 1558, backfired when he offended Elizabeth I, a staunchly protestant queen.  So I would argue that Protestants threw down the tyranny of priestcraft and popery in favour of another tyranny that was arguably just as bad, if not much worse. Why would we ever encourage, or wish for, this sort of thing to befall another religion?

As for secularism and the separation of church and state, they have nothing to do with the Reformation. Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli knew no such thing, and Luther himself would have been done in rather quickly had it not been for his protection by German princes. And in the case of the Church of England (supposedly a church both catholic and reformed), it disavows the separation of church and state very emphatically: the British monarch is the supreme governor of that church both at home and throughout the world.

But if the protestant reformation is construed as a great simplification of catholic doctrine and its purification from later accretions, as many do construe it, then it must be said that Islam has already undergone such a reformation: it's commonly called wahhabism. Its founder was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who lived from 1703 to 1792. He preached a system of puritanical Islam and rejected popular veneration of saints and pilgrimages to tombs and shrines, ostensbily to prevent idolatry. He tried to have the main shrines at Mecca and Medina bulldozed for the same reason. It is because of him that many Muslim shrines and mosques all over the world have been whitewashed. Abd al-Wahhab’s cooperation with Muhammad ibn Saud helped establish the first Saudi state founded upon wahhabist principles. All this sounds eerily like the Protestant Reformation, and Abd al-Wahhab could well be seen as a Muslim John Calvin.

It was not the Reformation that gave Western civilisation secularism and separation of church and state. It was the Enlightenment — that quintessentially French movement which exploded a great deal of pious hypocrisy and bigotry. Christendom is all the better for it. Islam will be too if it can learn to take its lumps the same way.