To trample underfoot all sense, reason and understanding.

The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities – Salman Rushdie.

Faith must trample underfoot all sense, reason and understanding – Martin Luther.

There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence – John Calvin.

Before anyone asks, the juxtaposition of the three quotations given above is entirely deliberate and illustrative of what I consider to be an important point – that the underlying concept of an ‘Islamic Reformation’ may well be something of a misnomer and not, as Salman Rushdie, Sir Iqbal Sacranie and others seem to think, the key to bringing Islam ‘into the 21st Century’.

I may well be overstating matters somewhat, but at the very least I think the use of the term ‘reformation’ is rather ill-advised, as is the use of Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century as a reference point or analogy for what some progressive Muslims are seeking.

I must stress, before moving on, that the issue here is not with the concept of developing a modern, progressive, liberal interpretation of Islam – far from it, I think most people would see that as very positive move. The difficult I have is one of simple historical fact – if that really is your objective, then the Protestant Reformation is, with few notable exceptions like the Quakers, an pretty lousy role-model to choose.

Yes, at the heart of the Reformation lay a clear and unequivocal challenge the old, calcified order of the Roman Catholic Church, which is where I expect this analogy comes from, but this should not distract attention from the fact that the Reformation was primarily an exercise in religious fundamentalism, one which stressed a highly literal interpretation of the Bible and rigid adherence to its precepts as written. A reformation it may have been, but certainly not a liberal or rational one, as the quotes from both Luther and Calvin ably demonstrate.

In historical terms, the reformation did little to directly advance the cause of liberal, progressive and rational values in European society – these developed primarily out of the Renaissance, the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and through the development of science, humanistic and political philosophy, the nation state and the spread of values and ideas that were very much the antithesis of most of those espoused by Protestant reformers.

It’s most significant innovation arose out of a loose melding of Renaissance humanism with Augustinian theology and devotionalism, which challenged the traditional rigid hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church and the alliance of reason and faith laid down by Thomas Aquinas and, to some extent, promulgated a limited concept of equality, in the sense of individuals being equal before god regardless of their station in life, with redemption possible only through the grace of god and not by the performance of good works, as was the view of the Catholic Church. However equality was far from being a major concern in this doctrinal dispute; of more importance to both factions was a schism over the very concept of god, which the Catholic Church, after the manner of Aquinas, saw as a rational, guiding principle but the Protestants saw instead as an arbitrary, unknowable and limitless will. Protestantism meant more than simply equality before god, it also meant anti-rationalism, Biblical literalism and a rejection of Aristoelian logic, giving it a tenuous but useful alignment with Renaissance humanism, which emphasised personal growth and reform through eloquence rather than reason.

In philosophical terms, the overriding character of the Protestant reformation was more in tune with the later counter-enlightenment from which developed first, romanticism and irrationalism and eventually nationalism,  nihilism and fascism, which means its not the kind of distant relative you ‘d generally be too keen on inviting round for tea.

What the reformation did do successfully was open up cracks in the traditional authority of the church, challenge the belief that rigid hierarchical structures in society wre derived from a natural order sanctioned by god and deflect the attention of religious authorities away from the growth and development of ideas which would later come to provide a far more serious challenge to the authority of both religious factions than anything either could throw at the other… oh, and I mustn’t forget that Protestant demands for Bibles that could be read by all, and not just by the local priest, drove the development of printing in Europe during its earliest stages and, of course, printing would later play a pivotal role in the spread of ideas from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.

And all for the price of a couple of hundred years of religious wars, persecution and conflict, the savagery of which we’d struggle to repeat until the 20th Century.

If one thing did emerge from the reformation that did, ultimately, come to support the development of progressive liberal values then that advance was primarily political rather than religious or philosophical.

In the middle of all this ruckus over the true nature of god, Henry VIII pulled what eventually turned out to be rather a masterstroke, not by embracing protestantism but by making himself head of the Church of England.  Henry may only have wanted a divorce but what he actually did was clearly establish the authority of the State over the the church, which over the next couple of hundred years, give or take Mary Tudor, the English Civil War and the Jacobite Rebellion, established foundations of secular State authority under which liberal/progressive ideas could flourish.

The point of  all this is simply that religious reform movements tend to be anything but liberal/progressive. The Protestant reformation may have, largely inadvertently, helped to create the social and political conditions in Europe that led to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, but if one looks for the direct descendants of those early reformers one find not bastions of liberal enlightenment and progressive rationalism but the hard core evangelical, fundamentalist, religious right – including the modern Lutheran and Calvinist churches.

Living in the UK, its all to easily to lapse into a false sense of security about this – after all by most standards the Church of England are a fairly liberal bunch, however the modern liberalism of the Anglican Church is, by and large, a product of its position in British society and, in particular, the subsidiary position it occupies in relation to the State. To a considerable extent one can argue that the most lasting legacy handed down to the UK by Henry VIII is not just an established Protestant church, but a tame church which recognises and accepts the secular authority of the State such that Britain has become more of a liberal society over the last couple of centuries, so its Church has followed fairly meekly in its wake.

All this brings me to a couple of observations which I’m putting forward very much the role of Devil’s Advocate.

First, if its an Islamic Reformation you’re looking for then, if history in any guide, you may a be a bit late – if anything a European-style reformation has been underway from quite some time, even if no one seems to have really noticed that its there despite is staring people squarely in the face. Europe’s protestant reformers weren’t liberals or progressives, they were religious fundamentalists and if Islam is to draw on the European experience in such matters then who is to say that history isn’t already repeating itself. Let’s be honest, by the standards of modern Islamic fundamentalism the Ottomans weren’t just liberal in outlook, they were positively louche.

Second, and this observation leads on from that above, if Islam is looking to the European model for ideas as to how it might develop a modern, liberal/progressive culture then its not really a reformation they should be looking for so much as an Islamic Enlightenment.

Quite how realistic and attainable such an idea might be is not one I feel qualified to comment on, but what I can be sure of is that if that’s what you’re looking for then the best advice I can give you is steer well clear of the Reformation and guys like Luther and Calvin because they really don’t have that much to offer…

One thought on “To trample underfoot all sense, reason and understanding.

  1. Perhaps the reforms of Kemal Ataturk would be a better model for the way forward in the Islamic world since they have already had their Martin Luther in the form of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab.

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