Islam's reformation

Posted: May 14, 2007 12:00 AM
Islam's reformation

Faced with the specter of Islamic radicalism and the terrorism it has spawned, many in the West have come to the conclusion that Islam needs a Reformation. This notion is based on the assumption that the Muslim world was left behind by modernity. As historian Bernard Lewis notes, the great events of Western civilization—the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution—went largely unnoticed in the Islamic world. Isn’t it about time, Lewis and others say, for Islam to reform itself?

The only problem with this recommendation is that Islam is in the middle of a reformation. What is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism if not a sign of the Islamic Reformation of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? The term “fundamentalism” is, of course, misleading. In Christianity it refers to those who read the Bible literally, those who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. By this definition every Muslim is a “fundamentalist,” because every Muslim believes that the Koran is the unadulterated word of God delivered in the Arabic language to the Prophet Muhammad.

The erroneous “fundamentalist” label frequently results in Westerners positing false divisions in the Muslim world. For instance, our pundits and commentators frequently speak of Islamic community as divided between “fundamentalists” and “liberals,” or between “fundamentalists” and “secularists.” But this is nonsense. Liberals and secularists are rare in the Muslim world. The few that do exist are politically irrelevant.

Nor is the important distinction in Islam between the Shia and the Sunni factions. Despite their power-struggle in Iraq, the theological differences between these groups are virtually nonexistent. Islamic radicalism and terrorism have sprung out of both major strains. The Khomeini revolution arose out of Shia Islam, and Hizbollah is predominantly Shia. Al Qaeda, Hamas and the Iraqi insurgents are Sunni.

The big story in the Muslim world is that for the past several decades a religious revival has been sweeping across the 22 or so countries of Islam, affecting the lives of nearly a billion Muslims. This revival is by no means confined to the Arab world. Its impact can be seen in Turkey, in India, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, and in North Africa. Even Muslims in Western countries have become more religious, praying more regularly, celebrating Muslim feasts, adopting Islamic dress and diet, and defining themselves in private and public in terms of their religious identity.

Islamic “fundamentalism,” or more accurately the Islamic radical movement, is a product of this religious revival. It arose out of, and to some degree in resistance to, traditional Islam. It has been gaining traction and strength for the past few decades. And the central argument of the Islamic radicals is strikingly similar to that of the early Protestants. The Islamic radicals argue that Islam has over the years become diluted and corrupted. True Islam stagnates, they argue, while Muslim leaders and Muslim clergy sell their souls to maintain their position and power. The radicals’ solution is to call for a return to the original, seventh-century Islam that the Prophet Muhammad established.

Why then, some Western readers might wonder, do Islamists not follow the lead of the Protestants and proclaim “the priesthood of the individual believer”? Why is separation of church and state such an alien concept, resisted so fiercely by the Islamist leaders?

The answer to this question is very simple: in returning to their origins, the Muslims are going back to a very different starting point than Christians did.

Christianity was formed out of a different mold than Islam. Christianity from the beginning separated the realms of religion and government. This was not an American invention. Christ himself instructed his disciples to render unto Caesar and to God their separate dues. And throughout Western history the church and the state generally performed distinct functions.

By contrast, Islam from the outset united church and state. The prophet Muhammad was during his lifetime both a prophet and a Caesar. He established an Islamic society in which the sharia or holy law governed not only religious duties but also divorce, inheritance, interest rates, and the rules of warfare. The sharia is a comprehensive Islamic law that covers constitutional, civil and commercial matters in additional to spiritual or religious ones.

Many Islamic countries have adopted Western or secular codes over the years, leaving sharia to operate only in confined domains, such as family law, or they have abolished sharia altogether, as in Turkey. Obviously Muslim immigrants in Western countries live under secular laws. The goal of the Islamic radicals is to reverse this trend, at least within predominantly Muslim countries. Consistent with history, Islam’s return to roots does not involve the priesthood of the individual believer but involves an attempt to unify the worldwide Muslim community and place it under the ordinances of Allah.

Westerners calling for an Islamic Reformation have got what they wished for, even if the shape of this reformation is not at all what they expected. There is no point deploring the Islamic awakening. It’s here, and it’s not going away. In general there is nothing wrong with Muslims seeking to rule their own countries according to their own religious and moral values. As I argue in my book The Enemy at Home, the challenge for America is to resist Islamic radicalism and terrorism without making Islam itself into the enemy. We already have enough problems in Iraq. We don’t want to be in the undesirable situation of having to do battle with one out of every five persons on the planet.