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A "Muslim Reformation"???

Thursday, May 08, 2008 


Westerners often talk about wanting a “Muslim Reformation.” In fact it has already happened, and the people who want it the most would probably agree – if they knew Christian history, let alone Muslim history, that it is not necessarily such a good thing.

In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the Catholic authorities with his “95 Theses,” calling for a more strictly Biblical approach to religion. His approach was more austere and literal than the current teachings of the Vatican. This started a new sect named at first after its founder, and the advent of Lutheranism (later broadened into various sects under the general rubric of “Protestantism”) started hundreds of years of religious wars and violence. Animosity between Protestants and Catholics still lingers in some quarters.

In the 1740’s Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab promoted a more strictly Qur'anic view of Islam. His approach was more austere and literal than the prevailing views of the time. This started a new sect named for him, “Wahhabism” and started a wave of violence among Muslims which persists to this day.

In Luther’s favor we can say that he cracked open a monopoly of theological influence and the temporal power that went with it. Abd-al-Wahhab, on the other hand brought his reformation to a religious culture that did not have an ecclesiastical hierarchy, and while Luther’s fortunes became linked with a variety of German princes seeking greater freedom from Rome, Abd-al-Wahhab linked his to the house of Saud. In both cases the financial backing of princes and merchants seeing the opportunities to expand their own power dovetailed with the new religious perspective. Luther’s works were immediately printed up and disseminated with unprecedented efficiency using the then new technology of Gutenberg’s printing press. Wahhabists, after a much slower start, have made efficient use of the internet.

A case could be made that The Islamic world is very much in need of a Renaissance – a flowering of intellectual and artistic freedom and exploration, or an Enlightenment – an affirmation of science and individual human dignity. In truth we’ve had those, too. The Abassid dynasty and the Andalusian caliphate represent periods of intellectual brilliance, little known to Eurocentric historians, except as stepping stones from the Classical Era to the Renaissance. Muslim intellectualism during Europe’s Dark Ages brought great philosophical and scientific advancements. Alas, every society has its downswings as well as its progress. Even in France the Enlightenment was followed by the Terror and Napoleon’s military empire, and while Germany was a center of learning and philosophy in the 19th century it went to a horrible nadir in the 20th. And now, Muslim countries are way behind, but after a couple of centuries of colonialism, intellectual and material resources being sucked out of Muslim nations to support Western development. Let’s look at the history, the economical and political issues at least as much as the religious culture!

So, please, no more “Reformations.” The Islamic world has enough problems already now. Cross-fertilization of ideas has generally helped progress on both sides, and as a Western Muslim with a foot in both worlds, I think both sides have a lot yet to learn from each other. But Western colonialism and continuing neo-colonialism have been a crippling problem in Muslim countries for the last couple of centuries, so if well-meaning Westerners really wants to offer historical lessons to the East I would urge them to look more closely at the history of the West and its colonialism before preaching to the colonized.

Labels: Islam muslims reformation islamic politics colonialism enlightenment wahhabi progressive

posted by Starjack @ 11:13 AM 

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