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Here in the West, one response to the growth of militant extremist Islam has been to suggest that Islam needs a “reformation”—that is, some kind of reform and renewal. I do not want to read too much into this rather loose application of the term, but I think it can be misleading if it suggests that the need is for an Islamic renewal broadly analogous to the sixteenth-century Protestant efforts to renew the Catholic Church. My own view is that many of the problems of contemporary Islam are more like Protestant problems than like Catholic problems, and therefore that something more akin to a dilution of Protestantism is required. Perhaps instead we should be urging an Islamic “Counter-Reformation.”

Let’s begin with Scripture. One Protestant emphasis is sola scriptura, which stresses reliance on the Bible alone, rather than on tradition, reason, and natural law thinking. Might there be a parallel in Islam, where one of the problems in contemporary thought, especially amongst more reactionary thinkers, is precisely scripturalism and literalism? Wahhabis, for example, seem to believe that they can start the process of interpretation of the Koran and the hadith anew, without reliance on traditional Islamic schools of law, theology, and philosophy. Hence they move in a mechanical way from the ancient text to its present application in sheer disregard of the myriad hermeneutical problems over which they glide.

This has few, if any, parallels in the contemporary Christian world (the widespread use of the pop sociological term “fundamentalist” notwithstanding). Since the Bible is acknowledged by even the most conservative to have been composed by many authors, in many genres and styles, over many centuries, in several languages, Christianity and Judaism have developed modes of exegesis in which very different styles of literature need to be reconciled into a more or less coherent whole. Even the most conservative Baptist does not take literally the prophecies in Daniel or the images in the Book of Revelation. Across the board they are seen as highly figurative texts, certainly not to be taken as realist descriptions. Indeed, the current American spate of interest in apocalyptic prophecy stems precisely from attempts to draw meaning from complex and difficult imagery.

By contrast, the Koran is understood by Muslims to have been revealed directly to Mohammed over a few short years—while the hadith cover only what Mohammed said and did—and the language and style is relatively consistent. All of this makes the development of any literary interpretive tradition in Islam very unlikely; to encourage even greater reliance on a sola scriptura approach would only compound the problem of literalistic scripturalism.

The other side of this stress on Scripture is a comparative neglect of reason and natural law. This point can be overstressed, since no significant Protestant rejected either (though Luther in his bad moods came close), but it is fair to say that these have been less than central in Protestantism. There seems to have been a similar pattern in recent Islam, wherein scripturalism and literalism have displaced philosophical and theological reflection.

It was not always this way. The Mu’tazilites, who sought to enrich their religious reflection through the study of Greek philosophy, were a dominant force in the ninth-century Abbasid Caliphate. Sufis do similar things with mystic and spiritual thought. These movements have always existed in Islam. But the current wave of radical Islam, which is what prompts our calls for reformation, has downplayed or rejected these currents, and often persecuted their proponents.

The weakness of such reflection in contemporary Islam makes it harder for Muslims to debate, agree, or disagree either with one another or with non-Muslims, and vice versa. As John Courtney Murray observed, even disagreement is a genuine achievement: it requires that we first engage with and understand each other. In the modern age, we often never get as far as disagreeing: instead we assume that our opponents are irrational or wicked and so simply talk past them or denounce them.

This absence of general agreement or disagreement reveals how weak is much of our current intellectual engagement with Islam. A thousand years ago the greatest minds of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—such as Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Al-Farabi, and Averroes—were engaged in fundamental debate about the nature of revelation, faith, reason, law, and political authority. In their disagreements they created a common discourse across their religious boundaries. In the modern age we are left instead with vacuous, and therefore futile, calls for toleration and diversity.

A similar problem occurs with discussions of natural law. If one believes that there is a natural law and that this law springs from God (as an expression of God’s reason), Scripture can be understood also as teaching that law, and the law can be seen, at least in some cases, as lying within the text. This allows us to study Scripture in such a way as to discern an underlying body of systematic thought. Hence, for example, the requirement of Islamic law (sharia) to have four witnesses in order to secure a conviction for certain types of crime can be understood as a demand to make very sure that there is adequate evidence for such a conviction. In a desert society, of course, witnesses may be the only form of proof, and so their testimony is required. In a modern society, however, such evidence as fingerprinting, DNA testing, or other forensic means, could be understood as fulfilling the same goal and thus meeting the standard required by the text. The text, then, is understood not as primarily about numbers of witnesses but as a call for legal reliability and consistency in the rules of evidence.

A contrary view, a type of nominalism associated at its inception with William of Occam, would be that law, and thus good and evil, are rooted simply in God’s will, with no necessary rational structure. Their reality is to be accepted rather than understood. This approach seems to be common in certain Islamic circles, which maintain that the text simply says what it says, with nothing beneath the surface, and so we must simply repeat it to the letter.

Connected to this stress on Scripture and relative downplaying of tradition, philosophy, and natural law is decentralization and fragmentation. Following the Protestant Reformation there began a proliferation of denominations and churches, a process that has continued into the twenty-first century and has now produced many independent congregations and clergy. In the United States, independent pastors and preachers can start churches or run newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, colleges, seminaries, radio stations, and TV stations. Since in practice their authority stems from their charisma (in the Weberian, if not necessarily the Pentecostal, sense), these pastors often have more power than their nominal governing boards and are subject to little structured accountability so long as they are successful. In the absence of a magisterium, the question of authority lies open, and such independent operators can maintain authority within their organizations so long as they continue to attract a following.

In Sunni Islam a similar fragmentation has occurred. Despite the authority of institutions such as Al-Azhar University in Egypt, and despite the high regard given to learning, a teacher or jurist can gain authority if he can draw followers. In practice such leaders can establish their own mosques and madrassas, as well as radio and TV shows. Osama bin Laden, it should be remembered, is an engineer, not a jurist, but in practice he can issue fatwas that have tremendous influence.

I am not suggesting that extremist Islam and terrorism find a counterpart in some conservative branches of Protestantism. Despite the fevered imaginings of some secularists who try to include them both as subspecies of a dubious general category of religious extremism, they are very different. Nevertheless some parallels between Protestant Christianity and contemporary Islam are worth considering. Both can tend to scripturalism, a relative downgrading of reason and natural law, fragmentation, and a proliferation of authority centers. In this situation, it might be good to put aside calls that suggest analogies to the Reformation, and instead think about whether Islam might be helped by something akin to a “Catholicization.” I have no idea whether this is possible, but I do suggest that it might be a more useful metaphor for renewal in Islam.

It also suggests that we must think more deeply than most of us have about the actual intellectual content of Islamic terrorism. Much of our discourse implies that such extremists are people without ideas or rationale. We often simply call them “terrorists,” but of course that tells us almost nothing. As Daniel Pipes has pointed out, terrorism is merely a means to an end: it is neither an end nor a rationale for an end. There are many different types of terrorists in the world. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example, have long engaged in terrorist suicide bombings, but while we may oppose them, they are not those with whom we are currently engaged in war.

At other times, extremist Muslims are simply described as hate-filled and evil. Such pejoratives also tell us very little about who they are, what they think, and what they want. After all, the world is replete with hate-filled and evil people, but most of them are not terrorists.

Alternatively, they are referred to by that old standby, “fundamentalist,” a word dredged from the American past and of dubious provenance and meaning even there. Despite the efforts of sociologists and psychologists to give it some determinate content, it has never really transcended the common connotation of “religious nutcase”—or, perhaps more accurately, “religious nutcase with whom I disagree.” Use of this word generally indicates a disposition to treat an ideological movement as if it were a personality type; it usually signifies a refusal to take seriously what people say they actually believe. “Fundamentalists” are people to be diagnosed rather than heard.

In any case, the term has little relation to terrorism or to the type of extremism with which we are concerned. Perhaps the most “fundamentalist” Christian groups in the United States are the Amish, the Hutterites, and the old order Mennonites—but few people lie awake at night for fear of Amish terrorism.

Psychologising can be a way of evading any real effort to understand religious beliefs. Another evasive tactic is to treat such professed beliefs merely as the sublimation of drives that can be explained by poverty, economic change, or the stresses of modernity. Of course, these factors may play a role: no part of human life is sealed off from any other. But instead of an effort at understanding, too often what we see is a methodological commitment to treat religion as secondary, as an evanescent and derivative phenomenon that may be explained away but can never be used to explain. In the face of extremist Islam, this kind of mindlessness is intellectual suicide.

Genuine mindfulness about the beliefs and aspirations of Islam is demonstrated for us by such thinkers as Bernard Lewis, who traces the precipitous decline of the Islamic world in the last five centuries and shows how much of the Muslim community asks itself continually the question “What went wrong?” Islamism and terrorism provide the latest of a series of answers to that galling question. Their answer is that Muslims have forsaken the purity of early Islam and have gone whoring after foreign, especially Western, ways. Their solution is an Islamic revival that will institute reactionary Islamic law throughout the world and restore the lost Caliphate; moreover, violence can and must be used to expel the West (understood as Christendom) and coerce fellow Muslims into the right path.

Bin Laden in his 1998 interview on Al-Jazeera television declared, “There are two parties to the conflict: world Christianity, which is allied with Jews and Zionism, led by the United States, Britain and Israel. The second party is the Islamic world.” His 1998 merger with Egypt’s Islamic Jihad formed the World Islamic Front for Holy War Against Jews and Crusaders, and he has described President Bush as fighting under the “sign of the cross.” Al-Qaeda’s manual begins by recalling “the fall of our orthodox Caliphates on March 3, 1924.” Bin Laden’s November 3, 2001, videotape proclaims, “Following World War I, which ended more than eighty-three years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the Crusader banner.” The grievance, continually expressed, is the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate and the Islamic world generally in the face of Christendom.

Islamist terrorism is not simply rooted in ignorance or poverty or in reactions to American policy in the Middle East. It is rooted in a religiously informed view of the world. To fight extremist Islam without engaging these religious ideas would be akin to fighting communism without bothering to learn anything of Marxism or Leninism.

An Islamic Counter-Reformation would require many things. One is a reconsideration of the work of the Mu’tazilites. This would mean reopening the gate of ijtihad (interpretation), which has been closed in Sunni Islam for many centuries. Along with such a revival of ijtihad would have to come theological reflection on the relation between revelation and history, along with the hermeneutical questions and opportunities that such reflection would bring with it. Many Muslims view the effects of biblical criticism in the West with skepticism and believe that it has been a major factor in undermining the strength of Christianity. There is truth in this, but it is not the only possible outcome: there are modes of biblical and historical criticism now accepted by nearly all Christians, including the most orthodox.

When it comes to sources of authority, it is doubtful that Islam ever will, or ever should, have a formal magisterium. Al-Azhar has never been able to fill that role. But it may be possible and good to have a quasi-magisterium. This would require developing networks of moderate Islamic scholars and lawyers who could formulate joint fatwas in opposition to those issued by radicals, who are currently much better funded and organized. Such projects are currently underway, but they are still in their infancy.

Whether there will be a Counter-Reformation in Islam is, of course, something that Muslims will have to decide for themselves. But non-Muslims can help to encourage it, not least by engaging with Islam in a way that does not flinch from criticizing the religion, even while recognizing its considerable dignity and worth. Taking Islam seriously demands nothing less.

Paul Marshall is Senior Fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author of Islam at the Crossroads (2002) , God and the Constitution (2002) , Religious Freedom in the World (2000), and many other books on religion and politics. A version of this article will appear in An Islamic Reformation? (forthcoming from Global Policy Exchange).

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Image by Dane Hillard licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.