On the “Muslim Luther” fallacy that won’t die

TV still of Graeme Wood facing from the side, with the words "Many have called for a 'reformation in Islam'" at the bottom, and the BBC Newsnight logo in the top leftLast night on BBC’s Newsnight, there was a two-minute slot by a Canadian journalist called Graeme Wood, who claimed that the rise of the “Islamic State” was equivalent to the Christian Reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther. There is meant to be a counter-argument from Tariq Ramadan on tonight’s programme (BBC2, 10:30pm). He says:

It’s part of a convulsion within Islam no smaller than the Reformation was in Christianity. When historians write about what happened, they won’t see it as a narrow local movement but as a global intellectual movement that remade the Muslim world. In the 16th Century, Martin Luther’s Reformation harnessed the power of the printing press and rising literacy. He told Christians to read and interpret scriptures for themselves, without the mediation of a priestly class that was obedient to Rome. Today’s radical Islamic movements are telling their followers to read the Qur’an for themselves and to ignore the voices of mainstream clergy. The result is a movement of power to the people.

For these Islamic Protestants, the power of liberation is not the printing press but the Internet. They follow their new authorities on YouTube. These new authorities are less, not more, inclined to live harmoniously in the modern world. This isn’t new. Remember, Martin Luther was radical too and the Reformation he started was a bloodbath. Many have called for a “Reformation in Islam”, hoping to make it more compatible with Western norms. But these calls are at least a decade too late. The reformation is already here and it’s called the rise of the Islamic State.

His own theory comes at least a year too late, as the “Islamic State” has been losing territory for the past year or so and has been chased out of several of its former strongholds, especially in Iraq. But the Islamic State movement has no real parallel with Luther’s theologically-based reforms. Luther was not, at least initially, interested in statecraft; he already lived in a state (the Holy Roman Empire) which was Catholic in affiliation and which enforced Church doctrines, including trying and executing heretics. His protest (not initially intended as a schism) was against what he saw as corruption in the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences to fund construction projects, such as the Basilica in Rome. He never served in, much less led, an army in his life. Lutheran kingdoms emerged as German dukes adopted the new faith in order to challenge the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, leading to its loss of power in northern Germany.

ISIL does not lead a theological protest; its priority is establishing an Islamic state which cuts across the colonial boundaries. This aspect of it alone makes it appealing to many Muslims who had become disenchanted with al-Qa’ida whose tactics of terrorism had achieved nothing in 20 years; the idea of a Caliphate, of one political leader for the Muslims, can be found in any classical Islamic textbook even if there was rarely unity in reality, and has been a goal of Muslim activists of all stripes for decades. ISIL’s theological heritage is “salafi-jihadi”, the same as al-Qa’ida, yet it is well-known that the business of running a modern state was left to former Ba’athists; its leaders are known not to be scholars, even within the “salafi”, i.e. Wahhabi, movement they emerged from. There have been comparisons of this movement with Protestantism going back years, but even there the parallels are limited.

It is well-known that in the Mediaeval Catholic church, the Bible was not available in vernacular languages such as English or German. It was only available in Latin and ancient Greek, neither of which were spoken languages by Luther’s time. The average Catholic was not literate; religious learning was restricted to ‘religious’, who were celibate. This had never been the case in the Muslim world; Muslims were encouraged to read and memorise the Qur’an for themselves and to learn and memorise the sayings of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), called Hadith, and this was the case before and after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and it is the case in Baghdad and the case in Raqqa. No Muslims regard it as acceptable for ordinary Muslims to simply read the Qur’an or whatever Hadith are available to them and derive a ruling about the Sacred Law from them, especially in regard to acts of worship where the rulings are already settled. The challenges to some such rulings that have come from Wahhabis are the work of scholars, not ordinary people. And neither movement moved “power to the people”; both led to the formation of absolute monarchies which in the case of Saudi Arabia still exist.

It’s true that for years, people have been insisting that Islam “needs a reformation”, when in fact the Christian reformation did not lead to modern secularism but to years of conflict (much of the bloodshed committed by the Catholics trying to maintain their power, and later expand it in Africa and South America), although it did make room for the expansion of literacy, including in the Catholic world where the church did come round to the idea of vernacular Bibles. And as for the suggestion that a reformation of Islam would make it more acceptable to Western norms — Luther was not looking to make Christianity more acceptable to anyone else; he was looking to reform Christian practice for the sake of truth to please God, much as any sincere Muslim who advocated any kind of reform would be.

All in all, I found his slot to be a rather uninformed and dated argument. The “Islamic State” has its roots in a puritanical reform movement, yes, but it is not that movement itself, and it is not similar to the early Lutheran reformation either in its aims or its behaviour.

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