Islamic Counter-Reformation

By Marshall, Paul | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Islamic Counter-Reformation


Marshall, Paul, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Here in the West, one response to the growth of militant extremist Islam has been to suggest that Islam needs a "reformation"--that is, some kind of reform and renewal. I do not want to read too much into this rather loose application of the term, but I think it can be misleading if it suggests that the need is for an Islamic renewal broadly analogous to the sixteenth-century Protestant efforts to renew the Catholic Church. My own view is that many of the problems of contemporary Islam are more like Protestant problems than like Catholic problems, and therefore that something more akin to a dilution of Protestantism is required. Perhaps instead we should be urging an Islamic "Counter-Reformation."

Let's begin with Scripture. One Protestant emphasis is sola scriptura, which stresses reliance on the Bible alone, rather than on tradition, reason, and natural law thinking. Might there be a parallel in Islam, where one of the problems in contemporary thought, especially amongst more reactionary thinkers, is precisely scripturalism and literalism? Wahhabis, for example, seem to believe that they can start the process of interpretation of the Koran and the hadith anew, without reliance on traditional Islamic schools of law, theology, and philosophy. Hence they move in a mechanical way from the ancient text to its present application in sheer disregard of the myriad hermeneutical problems over which they glide.

This has few, if any, parallels in the contemporary Christian world (the widespread use of the pop sociological term "fundamentalist" notwithstanding). Since the Bible is acknowledged by even the most conservative to have been composed by many authors, in many genres and styles, over many centuries, in several languages, Christianity and Judaism have developed modes of exegesis in which very different styles of literature need to be reconciled into a more or less coherent whole. Even the most conservative Baptist does not take literally the prophecies in Daniel or the images in the Book of Revelation. Across the board they are seen as highly figurative texts, certainly not to be taken as realist descriptions. Indeed, the current American spate of interest in apocalyptic prophecy stems precisely from attempts to draw meaning from complex and difficult imagery.

By contrast, the Koran is understood by Muslims to have been revealed directly to Mohammed over a few short years--while the hadith cover only what Mohammed said and did--and the language and style is relatively consistent. All of this makes the development of any literary interpretive tradition in Islam very unlikely; to encourage even greater reliance on a sola scriptura approach would only compound the problem of literalistic scripturalism.

The other side of this stress on Scripture is a comparative neglect of reason and natural law. This point can be overstressed, since no significant Protestant rejected either (though Luther in his bad moods came close), but it is fair to say that these have been less than central in Protestantism. There seems to have been a similar pattern in recent Islam, wherein scripturalism and literalism have displaced philosophical and theological reflection.

It was not always this way. The Mu'tazilites, who sought to enrich their religious reflection through the study of Greek philosophy, were a dominant force in the ninth-century Abbasid Caliphate. Sufis do similar things with mystic and spiritual thought. These movements have always existed in Islam. But the current wave of radical Islam, which is what prompts our calls for reformation, has downplayed or rejected these currents, and often persecuted their proponents.

The weakness of such reflection in contemporary Islam makes it harder for Muslims to debate, agree, or disagree either with one another or with non-Muslims, and vice versa. As John Courtney Murray observed, even disagreement is a genuine achievement: it requires that we first engage with and understand each other.

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