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Is Islam's Counter-Reformation at Hand?


Westerners have been saying for a while now that what the Islamic world needs is its equivalent of the Reformation. “Where is Islam’s Martin Luther?” they ask anxiously as they watch radicals rise from the wreckage of the Arab Spring and make good showings in Pakistan’s recent elections.

In fact we have been witnessing the fruits of just such a Reformation over the past few decades, with the Wahhabis in some ways playing the role of a few of the more radical sects in the Protestant Reformation, advocating a very strict and literal interpretation of the holy texts, attacking traditional brotherhoods and practices as heretical, and smashing buildings and ornamentations they denounce as idolatrous. And the bitter fruits of this Reformation haven’t been making people happy.

Maybe a Counter-Reformation is more what the Islamic world needs. And it could be coming from Turkey.

A group of Turkish scholars from Ankara’s Religious Affairs Directorate has published a bold new digest of Muhammad’s sayings (hadiths) and accompanying commentary. Looking at how Christians analyse the Bible critically, the scholars have rejected literal interpretations of the sayings and have instead produced a set of texts for the contemporary world that stay true to what Turkish scholars see as the core of Islam.

Reuters has the story:

Mehmet Pacaci, Diyanet’s general director for foreign affairs, said Muslims shouldn’t simply “open the Koran or a hadith compilation, find a verse or saying of the Prophet and say, ‘Aha! This is the judgment of this action’.

“If we do that, it’s literalism and ignorance,” he told Reuters. “Unfortunately, we have such ignorance in the Muslim world.” […]

For example, the question of schooling for girls comes up in the section about education, which starts with the hadith “Seeking knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim” in Arabic and a few supporting hadiths and Turkish translations underneath. Several pages of commentary in Turkish follow and explain that since the hadiths say education is obligatory for all Muslims, it is a right for girls and women as well. Another essay on women stresses that they attended mosques and ran businesses when Mohammad governed the city of Medina. “They were active in every part of social life,” Pacaci said.

Hadiths calling for harsh punishments such as severing thieves’ hands were put into historical perspective so they are not taken as models for modern times, Ozafsar said. “You can find these punishments in the Prophet’s time because society needed these rules for social peace,” he said. “Today, we have different social systems. We can say these rules and punishments are historical.”

It will take time for the impact of the new collection to be felt and assessed, but it’s expected that Turkish religious leaders will use the work as a reference in their teaching and training programs. We’ll see how widely adopted and influential these ideas are when and if they are translated into Arabic, but they point to the next stage in Middle Eastern politics.

When and if the Shiite challenge from Iran and its allies is beaten back, the world of Sunni Islam is likely to face a struggle between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Each of those countries thinks of itself as the natural captain of Team Sunni and seeks to have that self-perception accepted in the wider Islamic world. Turkey was the seat of the Ottoman caliphate, and on both historical and economic grounds it aspires to the leadership of global Islam. For the Saudi monarchy, its partnership with the Wahhabi clerical establishment is seen as the foundation of its domestic political strength and legitimacy; its role internationally as the custodian of the Islamic Holy Places is both a way to legitimize the oil-rich state and to project the influence of Wahhabism throughout the umma. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood thinks of itself as the leading force in the 20th-century revival of Islam, and Egypt, seat of the oldest and most respected center of Sunni thought, considers itself the natural leader of the Arab world—and sees the Arabs as the custodians of the revelation couched in their language.

This seven-volume work is a kind of ideological guide to the direction in which Turkey will try to steer the Sunni world. It’s unlikely to find many fans among the Wahhabis in Mecca and Riyadh, where the religious authorities consider the Ottoman period an era of heresy and decline. It will be interesting to see how the Egyptians respond.

[Muslim pilgrims in Mecca, photo courtesy Shutterstock]

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  • demonkoryu

    If this would happen, if the muslim world would realize that middle ages justice (since sharia is that) was as good in the time as it got (the West was about equally barbarian), but that it is time to move on and arrive in the present, where human rights are upheld, I would celebrate because then, the muslim and the western world can be friends.

    But I am highly skeptical.

  • bpuharic

    Perhaps, being an atheist, I’m skeptical of the ability of religions to truly reform in ways that drive moderation. Islam is far more fanatical and fundamentalist than Christianity ever was. Patricia Crone and others have been looking at the Quran for a long time with textual criticism and other methods, yet these ideas haven’t penetrated Islam at all. Islam seems remarkably immune from reformation.

    • Jim Luebke

      I’d recommend reading a bit of history (18th, 19th, 20th century Europe and America) before writing off Christianity as somehow incapable of being moderate. Of course, it depends on how extreme your view of moderation is, and whether the sorts of biases you’re betraying here taint the histories you read.

      • bpuharic

        Christianity didn’t so much reform as it was rendered irrelevant by its murderous history. And before you arrogant Christians lecture us atheists, perhaps you’d be rendered more humble by the fact most atheists used to be Christian.

        • Tom

          Actually, the only place that has a hope of being true is in the West, as Christianity was the dominant cultural paradigm here. In other corners of the globe, most atheists either were born to atheist parents, or were Hindus/Buddhists/Muslims/Daoists/Shinto etc.

          • bpuharic

            Atheism is a western phenomenon which is why the west is free. There are no atheists in other areas of the world

          • Tom

            That’s quite a broad claim you make there, sir. Care to back it up?

          • bpuharic

            Atheism is a western phenomenon, as Karen Armstrong pointed out in her book “A History of God”. It’s a fairly recent development. As to atheists in the other areas of the world, in the Muslim world, being an atheist is a capital crime.

          • Tom

            Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any atheists there, it just means that they keep very quiet about it.
            Also, you have the wrong phrasing in this sentence: “Atheism is a western phenomenon which is why the west is free.”
            “which is why” should be “because.”

          • bpuharic

            Christians have never been big fans of freedom. As the late historian…and rabbi…Arthur Hertzberg pointed out, there never was a “Christian” country that protected the rights of Jews”. Only by disestablishing Christianity was freedom able to be achieved in the west. Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” described the futility of trying to base freedom on religion

          • Tom

            How peculiar it is, though, it has mainly been countries full of Christians that have been democratic and remain so.
            Also, John Locke was in favor of religion, not as a base of freedom, but as a guarantor of moral virtue, in order that freedom might be kept.
            And, even if you think he’s wrong on that (which you almost certainly do), what does that comment about Hobbes have to with anything we’ve been talking about? Leviathan doesn’t favor any philosophical system beyond “Everyone dies, and all men fear death.”

          • bpuharic

            Many of our FF were deists, not Christians. And only by abandoning Christianity as the foundation for govt, having seen the murderous influence of the Christians religion, was constitutional govt possible. Leviathan doesn’t favor any system…exactly my point. It DISFAVORS religion as a basis for govt since political theology always results in oppression.

          • Tom

            I’m not sure where to begin calling you out, but I’ll try.
            First, the problem wasn’t “the murderous influence of the Christians religion,” the problem was intertwining power temporal and power spiritual.
            Second, sure a lot of the FF were deists. Many of them were theists, many were Christians. Also, let’s not forget the rank and file who carried the Revolution on their backs and their religious faith.
            Furthermore, in case you didn’t notice, the FF did not favor Leviathan, seeing as the government they created was…limited.

          • bpuharic

            Calling me out for your lack of historical knowledge? Risible.

            Ever hear of Penn? Roger Williams? The VA declaration of Religious freedom? What do those all have in common?

            They were all expression of, or leaders against, religious tyranny. Tyranny from whom?


            The fact is, when Christians have governed, qua Christians, there has ALWAYS been oppression. Without fail.

            And Leviathan was written to show the futility of political theology.

            That is, Christians governing as Christians. Which, as I just proved, leads to oppression.

          • Tom

            And yet, oddly enough, what were William Penn and Roger Williams? Christians.
            Leviathan was written to show the need for a powerful state due to the awful anarchy of the state of nature.
            Whenever men have governed without check to their power, there is oppression.

  • Luke Lea

    Looking at how Christians analyze the Bible critically, the scholars have rejected literal interpretations of the sayings . . .

    Somehow I don’t think this is going to play in the Muslim world anytime soon.

  • jeburke

    I think the problem with Islam is not how its clerics interpret this or that hadith. I for one am happy to wash my hands of how Muslim women are treated by Muslim men. The problem is that Islam is not only a prosyletizing religion but inherently militaristic. Muhammed and his immediate successor and first caliph conquered the Arabian peninsula by force, forging a unified Islamic polity. In the next decade, they raised Arab armies that swept out of Arabia, conquered the Levant and Mesopotamia, and forced much of the population to convert to Islam. Comparisons to Christianity must pause there and consider this: while a couple of decades after Muhammed’s death, the caliph led an army that ruled over a vast empire, a couple of decades after Jesus’ death, Paul and his brothers had barely begun their arduous, town by town travels preaching the good news to small congregations and founding churches, often being persecuted or run out of town. It took three centuries of toil and martyrdom for Christian conversions to get a boost from the
    Roman state. Even then, in the West, the division of authority between church and state, pope and emperor, bishop and prince was sustained for more than a millenium, providing the foundation for the Reformation. After all, Luther might have been just another troublesome priest except for the German princes who resented having to share authority and wealth with the Church.

    Meanwhile, for a thousand years, Islamic armies, under Arab and Turkish caliphs, continued their march of conquest and forced conversion as far east as India, throughout the Caucasus, east and south into Egypt, across Africa and into the Iberian peninsula. Moving north, Anatolia fell to the sword, then Bysantium, and eventually, Muslim armies were at the gates of Vienna. But for courageous stands by gallant Croatians and Polish knights, Islam might well have ruled much of central Europe before Luther’s teachings had managed to get very far.

    What should not be missed today is that the caliphate has been missing only for the century since Turkey’s defeat in the First World War. When bin Laden and other salafists talk about restoring the caliphate, they are not kidding. Imposing a harsh version of shariah is simply one aspect of forging a revived militarized politico-religious state like the one bequeathed by Muhammed and his Companions. This, not merely a quest for a “purer” Islam, is what drives radical Muslim groups in a score of countrues and motivates thousands of men to go to war under the black flag.

    • Philopoemen

      … and? Why is that an obstacle to modernisation? Christianity has always been a highly sectarian religion full of power struggles and infighting, but it has nevertheless managed to find its place in the modern world, or at least not be too much of a hindrance to progress.

      • jeburke

        My point is that it does not — and should not — matter to us (as a matter of foreign policy) whether people in Afghan villages, rural backwaters of Anatolia, Yemeni mountains or West African deserts live in strict observance of shariah. Many are doing just that with no help from al Qaeda. The problem (for us) is not some sort of “traditionalism” in Islam vs. modernization, reformation, or secularism. Wahhabis have been peddling their strict Islam for three centuries. The challenge arises from a political movement intent on restoring the militarized politico-religious empire created by Muhammed and his successors. It should not be surprising that they plan to do this by force, killing as many infidels and uncooperative Muslims as necessary, since that’s how the caliphate was created in the first place. It is Islam’s inherent militarism that’s the problem, not whether “true” Islam is consistent with girls’ education.

  • ojfl

    As one of those who has been asking the question about the Reformation of Islam I read this with encouragement and skepticism.

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