20 October 2006

Is an Islamic ‘Reformation’ really possible?

Some people have made a claim like, “What Islam needs is a ‘reformation’ like the one Christianity had.” Perhaps this is true. But if Islam undergoes a ‘reformation’, it won’t be like the Christian reformation. Some of those who speak of this needed ‘reformation’ that Islam needs, speak as if the Christian reformation was brought on by Christianity’s conflict with modernity, or Enlightenment though. That ‘reformation’ then was a reformation of Christian doctrine designed to bring Christianity into the modern world. This is what Islam needs.

Just one problem. That’s not what the Christian Reformation did. The Reformation began in 1571 (31 October) when the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Enlightenment did not begin until the 18th century. That’s the historical problem with the claim that Christianity’s reformation brought it into modernity. The other, probably more important problem, is that the issue at bar in the Reformation was not Holy War, but soteriology. And it was not resolved—as the ‘problem’ with Islam must putatively be—by revising Scripture, or by redefining terms in the Bible.

The Christian reformation was a ‘back to the Bible’ movement. Against the Roman Catholic Church the reformers insisted that Scripture and tradition were not on equal terms. The reformers insisted that the Church and her traditions had to be judged by Scripture and not serve as the judges of Scripture. (In other words, the Reformers were ‘originalists’ and the RCC were liberals.) What the Church taught had to be compared by what the Bible taught, and where the Church was at variance with Scripture the Church had to yield to the Bible. None of the reformers would have put up with the sort of ‘reformation’ that some have in mind for Islam. They would not have tolerated a redefinition, or a reconception, of the teachings of the Bible. It was not the teaching of the Bible that needed to be altered in order to conform to changing mores, but the teaching of the Church in a few areas needed to change in order to conform to Scripture. Sola scriptura was what the reformers called for. And the Roman Catholic Church disagreed.

The soteriological issue I mentioned above was the doctrine of justification. Without going into the theological crux of the matter (not the precise purpose of this blog) the reformers insisted that the Church was teaching a doctrine of justification (among other things) that was at variance with Scripture. That is what made the Christian reformation necessary.

What makes an Islamic ‘reformation’ necessary is not that some Muslim scholars have gotten it wrong about ‘jihad.’ That, at least, is not what I’m hearing on the matter. What I’m hearing is that some just think it needs to be revisioned—extra-Quranically, for that matter. This will make the reform movement more like the old RCC than like the Protestant reformers. No one will be able to deny that in this case the reformers are moving away from, not closer to, their sacred texts. This, I believe, is why a reform movement in Islam will ultimately fail. The Protestant Reformers argued on the basis of the Christian scriptures; that was their authority. And the RCC could resist the Reformers only by (a) claiming disputed texts as part of the canon, and (b) by making the authority of councils equal to that of Scripture.

Muslim reformers, for all their good intentions, will find themselves having the very great theological problem of authority. And the very fact that they believe there is a need for this ‘reform’ is prima facie evidence that the jihadis are not the extremists, the ones who have hijacked Islam. Very clearly (res ipsa loquitur, even!) it is the ‘reformers’ who will have hijacked Islam.

Not that those of us who don’t want our heads sliced off will object. This may be the first time I find myself in favor of a hijacking, but let’s call it for what it is.

Note: when I write about the Roman Catholic Church it should be understood that I write as a reluctant Protestant, or, alternatively, as a 'Reformed Catholic.' For whatever that's worth.


About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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